Corporate communications from the other side (Editorial)

Communicating with employees is no easy task. Senior leaders are sensitive to how messages are crafted while employees are wary of spin doctoring. HR professionals responsible for communications can find themselves treading a fine line between corporate considerations and the truth.

During two decades as a journalist I’ve had a ringside seat to witness the good and bad of communications. What some executives consider a “good” communications policy is often the opposite. Cleverly shrouding facts and avoiding the issue at hand rarely achieves desired results.

Employees reading a memo that uses “restructuring” and “staffing adjustments” will soon clue into the fact that “layoffs” are underway. And when they see corporate communicators using the same tactics in external communications, they are aware the organization is avoiding telling it like it is. Whether the spin is for an internal or external audience, the hit on executive credibility is the same.

HR’s role in communications varies. Internally, it can be shared with others, which unfortunately leaves some executives sending out dubious messages without HR’s review. Sometimes public relations also reports to HR, making the face an organization presents to the public an HR responsibility. Regardless of whom PR reports to, internal and external communications should be in sync. Fearlessly telling the truth is a good plank to build the entire communications strategy on.

The truth usually gets out, and when it does the fallout is always worse than if you’d come clean from the beginning. Nothing feeds a media frenzy, or the employee rumour mill, more than a coverup.

Delaying the truth isn’t helpful either. This usually takes the form of admitting things over a period of time as the media ferrets it out. It gives a story added legs, keeps the media digging and establishes a record of dishonesty. Nortel, Enron and Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister Mohammed Saeed as-Sahaf, are all examples of reality deniers. “No, our revenue and profits are on target. No problems here, invest away. U.S. troops, what U.S troops?”

In the early ’90s, I experienced an example of how to do it right. I was working the health-care beat when word came that a nurse at a Toronto hospital was accused of killing a patient to end his suffering. It was an explosive story. I’d seen other institutions handle similar situations with the “circle-the-wagons approach,” and it inevitably backfires.

In this case, although the communications department had a difficult task that day, the hospital’s spokesperson used the event to build a relationship with the media, rather than put the institution at odds with the news-gathering process. Every question was answered, using all information available. Instead of an indictment of hospital processes the story played as one person’s ill-advised decision. The institution and its spokesperson ended up with media sympathy. It could easily have gone the other way.

While HR professionals require the skills needed to deploy communication tools and other “technical” aspects of the communications portfolio, these abilities are wasted if the purpose is to obfuscate, soft sell or spin doctor news. Effective communications isn’t as much a question of skills as it is ethics.

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