HR Leaders talk

HR’s role in marketing and communications
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/06/2012

As the driving force behind the employer brand, many HR professionals are playing a greater role in marketing and communications. We talked with 5 senior HR professionals to get their take on this new portfolio.

Janice Harper
Vice-president of human resources at New Flyer in Winnipeg
The manufacturer of transit buses has 2,300 employees and facilities in Crookston and St. Cloud, Minn.

A couple of years ago, an internal communication framework was set up at New Flyer in Winnipeg. The transit bus manufacturer was keen to improve engagement, says Janice Harper, vice-president of human resources at the 2,300-employee company (with about 1,300 in Canada).

Being a multi-site, international company, New Flyer wanted to be consistent across all its functions, departments and sites, she says, to ensure people were getting the right information at the right time.

“There are so many different formats and ways to communicate to employees so we wanted to really think about that more formally and standardize some of our messaging.”

The company set up an internal portal called iBus that communicates company business, organizational announcements and social committee events. There is also a “people TV” that broadcasts snippets of information and PowerPoint presentations.

“We’re doing a much better job in terms of the way we communicate and we’re being consistent, we’re (being) timely and employees are hearing things directly from the company,” says Harper. “It’s really a hear-it-from-us-first approach, which was very, very important to our CEO as well.”

Having the backing of the C-suite is critical, says Harper, and the CEO and executive team at New Flyer are very supportive. Being a public company, there is also a lot of discussion around transparency and how much information should be given out.

“It is very important to have those dialogues and have that discussion and have the support of the CEO and from the executive team as well. It’s really critical because you can still face some hesitancy and some resistance, and it’s the trust thing on how much should you share.”

New Flyer has also focused on having more two-way communications with employees, through regular meetings that allow them to interact more with leaders, says Harper.

“We really set up a pattern of regular kinds of communications — monthly, quarterly, annual kinds of communications — in different mediums and different leadership levels throughout the organization.”

It makes sense for HR to be involved in communications because it’s the department that’s guiding the organization in terms of people issues, she says. It also aligns very well with employee survey work.

“The results of those surveys and the feedback from employees (show) one of the key things often is improved communications and really wanting to understand what’s happening within the organization. So HR, just by virtue of some of the systems and processes that we run and have responsibility for, naturally, it aligns quite well.

And this can lead to improvements in areas such as job satisfaction, retention, turnover and engagement, “areas that sort of seem nebulous at times and hard to tackle,” she says.

Overall, it appears HR is a lot more involved in these areas than it has been in the past, says Harper.

“Communications is at the heart of so many things that can be problematic in organizations and our areas that we need to work on, whether it’s generational issues, whether it’s relationship issues between leaders and employees and just information in general about the company you work for and what’s important from a strategy standpoint.”

While marketing is not a big part of her role, Harper is involved from an employer branding perspective, in terms of recruitment and retention.

“Marketing from that standpoint is critical, that whole branding piece. The big key, though, is you can’t just say it and you can’t just put it out in copy and brochures and materials and job fairs and in your communications, certainly to employees — you’ve got to be able to walk the talk, it has to ring true.”

If the communication is structured and there’s a plan and framework, HR will have more control over the situation, says Harper.

“By not communicating, ultimately, you’ll create more work for yourself anyway because you’ll have a host of all kinds of other issues which are often reactive, negative,” she says. “You’ll actually be more productive and more efficient as an HR team and as an organization by (communicating), but it takes a little bit to believe that and get there.”

Harper has been in HR for more than 20 years. She started in a generalist capacity and gradually moved into management and director roles before she took her current role in 2009, now heading up 25 employees. And while most of her role is devoted to human resources, she also trained in communications, which has helped her efforts.

“I know a lot of HR people that quite naturally lean towards it.”

Sophie Fortin
Senior vice-president of people and communications at Standard Life in Montreal
The long-term savings and investment company, headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland, has about 2,000 employees in Canada

With an MBA in marketing, an undergraduate degree in psychology and several senior HR roles behind her, Sophie Fortin has a unique perspective on how to successfully blend the roles of HR and communications — and tie them to Standard Life’s marketing goals as well.

Fortin oversees all aspects of human resources, as well as internal and external communications. The public relations function was recently added to reflect the necessity of sharing a common message. It’s a natural fit, she says.

“Whenever we’re about to launch a new product or service, we want to announce it to employees first and we want to make sure it’s delivered properly internally,” she says. “We get mileage there first, and then we take it externally.”

The evolution of both the HR and communication professions has made it almost a necessity to have the two fall under one title, says Fortin.

“The HR function has evolved into being less about benefits, compensation, et cetera, and more about culture and engaging employees,” she says. “You can’t do this without good communication. You can have the best programs in the world but people won’t listen if you don’t communicate it well.”

Likewise, communications has evolved from what she calls a “doer” role, where someone is simply assigned to write a press release or internal memo, to a facilitator role where that person acts more as a consultant and professional.

“We rely on them to say, ‘We shouldn’t say this because it could be interpreted a certain way’ or ‘Wow, what you’re doing is interesting and should be taken to the employees or externally,’” says Fortin.

“We don’t just do a press release anymore, either. We think about how we can get the most impact — internally and externally.”

HR and communications actually require similar skill sets and often it’s difficult to say where one role ends and the other begins, she says.

“These are two functions in an organization that need to know every part of the organization,” she says. “They both need that business acumen and ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes.”

The net effect is an HR team that’s better at listening. Having responsibility for the communications function forces Fortin to slow down and take more time to analyze a situation before making decisions.

“I’m results-oriented. I forget that sometimes you get it, but do other people? Often, communications will ask me a question that forces me to step back and think in a way I wouldn’t in HR,” she explains. “HR learns from communications because it thinks of the impact of the message and often plays the role of devil’s advocate.”

There are few, if any, downsides to her dual role — even with the addition of PR, she says. While internal communications falls under HR in many organizations, PR often stands alone. Fortin sees a benefit to having both report to her.

“The audience for both is really different. Internally, you know your audience but externally you don’t have a clue.

“There’s maybe not the same education around certain subjects as there would be internally, so the communication needs to be different,” she says. “However, we have to make sure the messages are the same.”

Marketing is a separate entity at Standard Life but an area of the business Fortin works hand-in-hand with on a regular basis, especially around the “fuzzy” issue of social media.

While social media is “just another tool” in HR and communications, she says, it overlaps with marketing.

For example, the company is considering adding a blog to its website. Since the subject matter could cover anything from products and services to business strategy, and because it would be accessible to employees, it’s important all three functions are involved.

Likewise, Twitter could be used to promote the company’s corporate image but there needs to be agreement on what the message is, how it will be interpreted outside the organization and how it will be received by employees, says Fortin.

“Social media will change how we think about communication channels but it probably won’t change our processes.”

Kathleen McNair
Executive vice-president of human resources and corporate communications at Corus Entertainment in Toronto
The 1,600-employee media and entertainment company delivers TV and radio services

Kathleen McNair has had a number of varied portfolios in her 12 years at Corus Entertainment in Toronto. She started in regulatory and legal, moved into operations and then did corporate development and strategic planning.

But when the company’s head of HR was set to retire in 2010, Corus thought it would be a great time for McNair to take on that role. At the same time, the media and entertainment company decided to roll corporate communications into HR, so she became vice-president of human resources and corporate communications.

“Our corporate communications team, obviously, in addition to doing public relations — so sort of our external voice and reputation management externally — it was also very involved with internal messaging and we just thought that aligning HR with communications made so much sense from an internal point of view and, as well, would get us thinking about the branding and marketing strategies of some internal programs.”

Being a media company, Corus was very good at branding but was probably not spending enough time or putting enough focus on branding internal programs, she says, so it was a timely change.

The HR department at the 1,600-employee company, which includes learning and development, employee relations and compensation and payroll, has 25 people while communications has eight. The team roles are pretty divided, says McNair, though Corus is looking at a new position that will straddle both HR and communications and is more on the social media front.

Marketing teams handle various services and are not part of communications. But HR does do public relations for the brand, for properties such as W or YTV, so it works “hand in glove” with marketing, says McNair.

“My time is probably equally divided, maybe skewed a little heavier to HR — it’s just the bigger team than the communications team. But, depending on the time of year, I could be very, very concentrated on the communications side.”

For example, in supporting investor relations, McNair’s team is involved in quarterly analyst calls, investor days and all the releases around quarterly results. But it’s easy to switch between the roles, says McNair.

“It makes sense for HR and communications to be under one person or, at least, I think it’s very important that they be very aligned.”

For example, Corus’ training and development programs have been very successful thanks to branding under the Corus U. moniker. Otherwise, a lot of employees wouldn’t necessarily appreciate all the opportunities presented to them, she says.

The performance management system at Corus was designed around the company’s core values (knowledge, innovation, initiative, teamwork and accountability), she says.

“So having that sort of communications hat on and always thinking about message and ‘What’s the point of this communication and why are you sending it and what you want to get out of it?’ The fact that we’re branding and tying everything back to our values reinforces their relevance to our employee base.”

And there is a lot of overlap between HR and communications, says McNair.

“Effective communication is huge, whether you’re heading communications or HR. So being able to write well, being an effective communicator, thinking about messaging and how you want the message delivered is a very important skill.”

And HR is more involved in these areas than it has been in the past, says McNair.

“HR, to be really effective, has to understand the business realities,” she says. “To make sure that when HR is sending things out, that they’re being read, they’re being understood and they’re being followed by the employee base. That’s why marketing and branding are so important. The more we can link what we’re doing to business needs or requirements, the more it’s going to be accepted within the organization.”

Catherine MacEwen
Director of human resources, marketing and communications at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA)
The TRCA owns about 40,000 acres of land and employs more than 400 full-time employees and co-ordinates more than 3,000 volunteers each year

Catherine MacEwen doesn’t have to go far to find an example of how HR, marketing and communications converge at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). Just take accessibility.

Recent changes to Ontario’s accessibility legislation — the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) — require HR to offer ongoing staff training. While this could be a simple compliance procedure, MacEwen sees it as an opportunity.

“We have many families with someone who has a disability and maybe can’t go to our parks. So it becomes, ‘How can we make something that is not only compliant but something we can do and can be proud of as well?’” she says.

While the TRCA — which works with governments, businesses, and individuals to build a greener, cleaner, healthier place to live — is a large organization in terms of employees, like many environmental organizations, it’s small on the administration side, says Mac-
Ewen. So many employees wear multiple hats, especially HR.

“There was some restructuring and then it became, ‘Well, you’re doing HR, safety, compliance, et cetera, why not do this too?’” she says.

With an MBA in marketing, MacEwen has spent a large portion of her career in that field. While her role at TRCA is in theory shared 50-50 between HR and the marketing-communications side, she typically spends more time in HR.

There’s more urgency to human resource matters, she says, and there’s a strong marketing team in place. As a result, MacEwen is more involved in HR’s day-to-day matters and more of a project manager in marketing and communications.

“I’m more involved around how we interpret the strategic plan, how we get the message out,” she says. “I look at ‘What are the overall messages? What is the emphasis this year?’”

There are overlaps between the roles, which actually enhance delivery on all fronts, says MacEwen. Both require an understanding of human behaviour and how to motivate a person, whether that’s inspiring the public to recycle or getting an employee to comply with an HR policy.

“Marketing is there to influence people, make money, change behaviours and introduce ideas, which is all relevant to what we’re trying to accomplish in HR,” says Mac-
Ewen. “Sometimes, HR has a compliance model, which is all well and good, but it should be about empowering people in ways too.”

Marketing is also about urgency, getting the message out and being first with it. But that’s where it stops, she says. This is where HR picks up and moves from the launch to the implement stage.

If HR can get too involved in perfection — and actually delay the message — marketing drives it to get it out, says MacEwen. Conversely, on the HR side, it’s important for the message to be well-understood, often providing sober second thoughts for the marketing side.

“It’s a very circular thing. I find it’s more of an advantage because you can see the points of intersection between marketing and HR,” she says. “Diversity strengthens an organization just as many different types of flora and fauna strengthen the eco system. We should be looking at an organization as its own eco-system and shift away from linear thinking to systems and teams.”

At times, the dual roles come into conflict with each other, especially around time management. This requires taking a big picture look at the organization’s overall strategy and how to best accomplish it, rather than the needs of one department over another, she says.

The growth of social media will only heighten the need to blend these roles in the future, says MacEwen, because while communication used to be the purview of the executive team, that’s no longer the case.

“You now have biologists being asked questions online,” she says. “We’re being approached in public and in private. In a way, we’ve all become spokespeople.”

While the workload is overwhelming at times, MacEwen says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I sometimes feel stretched thin but not ineffective,” she says. “What disillusions me is when I do something and it has no impact. I would never go back. It’s too much fun because it’s always exciting and never the same.”

Albert Elliott
Vice-president of HR, communications and administration at Total E&P Canada in Calgary
The oil and energy company has 250 employees in Canada, 93,000 worldwide

Albert Elliott has had a long background in human resources but also has experience in communications and labour relations. So when the opportunity to become vice-president of HR, communications and administration at Total E&P Canada came up about six years ago, it was a good fit.

The oil and energy company, based in Calgary, has about 250 permanent staff and 75 contractors, with plans to grow to about 1,800 by 2016, according to Elliott. The steep hiring curve is explained by the development of five major projects, including an oil sands mining project with Suncor Energy.

All in all, the company is looking at a $20-billion investment up to 2020, so human capital plays heavily into that, says Elliott. Headquartered in Paris, Total operates in 120 countries with 93,000 employees.

The structure at Total links HR and internal communications within the same métier or discipline, so it is part of the company’s culture to integrate the two, he says.

In Canada, the communications manager is also basically the public affairs person, so external communications is involved as well.

The HR and communications department has about 22 employees along with some interns. And probably about one-quarter of Elliott’s time is devoted to communications.

“The majority is human resources because there are a lot of significant issues happening on the HR front, not just with our organization but with all companies in our particular industry right now. We’re spending a lot of time working on various committees, both internal and external, to address those issues.”

Communications comes into play more around certain business transactions, such as the partnership with Suncor, says Elliott.

There is also collaboration around a campus outreach program that involves not just tours to campuses but research and development opportunities, sponsorships and scholarships, so HR works very closely with communications.

A big part of the company’s mission is brand, he says. When Total first established itself in Canada in 2006, it did a survey to find out who knew about the company.

“The results told us clearly we needed to do some work in the area of branding, so we’ve been basically developing and rolling out a strategy (ever) since,” says Elliott.

Total will enter the operations phase in 2015 and once the major projects start rolling out, a significant number of stakeholders will be impacted. That’s where the communications team will spend a lot of time, in community investment and engagement, he says.

“I’m very much overseeing all of those activities as well.”

And there are similar skills between the departments, such as understanding the marketplace, says Elliott.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years really understanding our demographic and what our marketplace is like, what our specific focus for our brand should be, and how we maximize our dollar, if you will, to address that.”

That’s the obvious transferable skill, with similar challenges for HR and communications.

“If you capture under that banner of stakeholder, you can see how there’s lots of commonality between strategy and the execution.”

Internal communications is critical, particularly for a company such as Total, which is going through major changes, says Elliott.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about engagement and the extent to which people are satisfied with their work, have a positive attitude towards their employer, are committed to the organization’s success and feel valued — communication is absolutely critical to achieve those goals.”

Elliott doesn’t see potential downsides to having HR and communications together — they’re so closely integrated that it’s a good approach, he says. Total has strong managers who work in both disciplines and it’s Elliott’s role to co-ordinate and synthesize the messaging, to make sure it is consistent and is addressing all stakeholders, including employees and communities.

Having previously worked at another oil and gas company in Calgary that didn’t have the same emphasis, Elliott says it could have had more traction if HR and communications had been more closely integrated.

“I’m really seeing the value of having those two functions thinking together, talking together, working together.”

And with more employees involved in social media, HR will become more involved in marketing and communications in the future, says Elliott.

“We recognize that to differentiate ourselves and certainly to keep up with the current technology, we have to participate in some of those. Communications clearly has been a leader in this area.”

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