5 Things Every Communication Plan Should Have

I’ve been reading about strategic communication lately as I’m helping a client develop an internal communications plan. It’s a topic with which I’m deeply familiar, but it’s a good idea to go back and get a refresher now and then, just in case we become so focused on the work before us that we fail to remember the broader principles that guide it.

There are many models of strategic communication planning out there. The one I like to use is the one outlined by my friend and mentor Les Potter in his book “The Communication Plan: The Heart of Strategic Communication” available from IABC.

I won’t get into details of that planning model here. But as I’ve read and thought about strategic communication plans, I’ve noticed that successful plans must include these things:

  • Clear, measurable objectives that align with organizational objectives. If you aren’t clear on the purpose of communication and if communication activities don’t support the business’s goals, there is no reason to waste resources. If the objectives aren’t measurable, there’s no way you’ll know if communication is providing any value.
  • Research. Unless you understand the current situation, there’s no way to measure the effectiveness of a communication plan. You also must understand the audiences’ information needs, senior management’s expectations and current best practices in communication. All of this comes through research. I believe a communication audit is the best value in research.
  • Executive support and involvement. You are developing a communication plan to support the achievement of business goals. Your organization’s senior management must believe in the value of communication for your planning to happen in the first place and they must play a role in the plan’s development. In addition, senior management must be willing to accept a significant communication role in the implementation phase.
  • All-way communication. A successful plan must include strategies and tactics that promote all-way communication — up, down, and laterally. Communication today is about relationships and conversations that promote information and ideas flowing freely in all directions. This is a significant change brought about by social media.
  • Trust as a foundation. No communication plan will succeed if trust does not exist in an organization. In the context of employee communications, senior management must trust employees enough to share business-related information with them. As employees demonstrate their trustworthiness (by using that information to improve productivity and business performance), business leaders must become more transparent and open. In return, employees will come to trust management enough to act on the information they are given. Trust takes time to build and only a minute to destroy. It is the most critical element of a healthy communication environment.

I believe these five things will enable a strategic communication plan to succeed. Do you have more to add? Please comment with your thoughts.



Five Ways to Rebuild Lost Trust

I recently decried the results of a survey that indicates U.S. workers’ trust in management continues to erode, even as the nation’s economy struggles to regain its footing. If ever there was a time when business leaders need the confidence and engagement of employees, it’s now.

According to the survey, only one in 10 employees trust management to make the right decisions in difficult times. In a telling bit of data, 7 percent believe their leaders’ actions match their words.

Such an alarming lack of trust has serious consequences for business. A workforce that doesn’t trust its management is one that is not very likely to invest itself in the difficult tasks ahead. Distrustful employees are more likely to spend their time griping about how their jobs suck, how the company is headed for disaster and how senior management is a bunch of buffoons. All of this chips away at productivity, morale and reputation. It drains the life right out of the organization.

I seriously doubt that’s what American business leaders want. Yet they are so consumed with digging out of the recession, trying to light a fire under the weak recovery, propping up the financials so that investors don’t lose their confidence, that they fail to recognize what’s happening inside their companies. And they fail to recognize that they have a powerful tool available to help regain the trust they’ve lost among employees: communication.

I don’t believe communication is the cure-all for any business problem, including the erosion of trust. But I do believe that, combined with other activities, communication can help greatly. However, communication is often the first thing business leaders sacrifice during tough times and the last thing they think about as a resource for recovery.

Here are five things business leaders can do to begin to rebuild employees’ trust:

  • Be visible. People don’t trust people that they never see and with whom they never interact. Roger D’Aprix, an internal communications icon, once said that trust isn’t built by sending a memo. Face-to-face interaction is necessary for trust to be established. That’s because people assess others by a host of non-verbal signals — body language, tone of voice, inflections, facial expressions.
  • Spend quality time with people. When I worked in employee communications at one of AT&T’s manufacturing facilities in the 1990s, the president of our business unit once told me that communication was his most important job as a leader. When he visited our plant, he always took an hour to walk out onto the factory floor and talk with people. He communicated business messages and he asked questions and he listened. That one hour went a long way toward establishing trust with employees. Business leaders must build time into their schedules, no matter how brief, to communicate.
  • Demonstrate trustworthiness. As the survey points out, workers today don’t believe management’s words match their actions. Business leaders who find themselves in this predicament must take concrete steps to demonstrate that their “say” matches their “do.” Honor commitments. Keep appointments. It will take time, but employees will begin to have faith that their leader’s word is trustworthy.
  • Trust others. Showing others that you trust them goes a long way toward building their trust in you. Business leaders can demonstrate they trust employees by sharing information, delegating responsibility and generally treating employees like adults. Workers who feel their management doesn’t even trust them with work-related information are not very likely to reciprocate.
  • Open up. Just as in personal relationships, business leaders must take some risks by opening up, being honest and showing some vulnerability in order to gain employees’ trust. This means sometimes sharing sensitive information, engaging in frank discussions and admitting mistakes.

Trust takes time to build, a moment to destroy and even more time to rebuild. People who feel their trust has been betrayed or at least not honored will try to protect themselves from a similar disappointment by not easily trusting again. Unfortunately, this is where many business leaders find themselves today. It’s not a hopeless place, but escaping it requires time, intention, and a sincere effort.

No Communication? No Trust

With an economy that’s taking its sweet time recovering from the worst recession since World War II and global competition fiercer than ever, it would be nice if American workers had confidence in their companies’ management to lead them through the tough times.

Don’t hold your breath. A new poll by Maritz Research delivers a scathing assessment of employees’ trust in their business leaders.

Only 14 percent believe their companies’ leaders are ethical and honest. Ten percent trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. Twenty-five percent say they have less trust in management than they did last year — and that’s in an economy that is supposedly on the upswing, slow as it may be.

“Employee trust is such a critical factor for success, especially given what the American workforce has faced the past several years,” says Rick Garlick, Ph.D., senior director of strategic consulting and implementation with Martiz Hospitality Research Group. “This data paints such a dire picture of employee trust levels, management must ask themselves how they can better engage with their people.”

Business leaders could start with communication. Only 12 percent of workers believe their employers really listen to and care about employees. As with most business problems, improving communication can only help organizations rebuild trust between employees and their leaders. There is no downside to better communication.

Yet many business leaders sabotage their companies’ futures by cutting communication activities to the bone and acting as if employees are a necessary evil in the pursuit of profits. No need to discuss the business strategy with employees; they don’t care and they wouldn’t understand it anyway. No need to give workers an opportunity to express their opinions, ask questions or share ideas for improvement; that would only cost time and money, and besides, we know more about what needs to be done than they do. No need to share the stories of people who are doing great things to help the company succeed; it’s a waste of time and does nothing to help us make our numbers.

The fact is that communication is among the most powerful tools business leaders have at their disposal. Employees who see and hear and understand their management’s plans for the business are more likely to invest themselves in implementing those plans. Workers who feel valued and respected are more willing to plug in and do whatever it takes to help the business succeed. Employees who are treated like adults will act like adults; they’ll take responsibility and do difficult things and be productive.

Trust is the foundation of any relationship. You can’t trust someone you don’t know. And you can’t know someone if you don’t communicate with them. Regularly.

There’s been a lot of head scratching going on this year about why the economy has no steam behind it, even though we’ve turned the corner from the Great Recession. Maybe a good place for business leaders to start turning things around would be to take some solid steps toward rebuilding the trust of employees they have so obviously lost.

Remembering a Communicator’s Dream Boss

Today I learned of the death — seven months ago — of a woman who had a profound impact on my career in employee communications.

Dory Yochum was an extraordinary woman and a communicator’s dream boss. An odd experience 19 years ago cemented that impression of her in my mind.

First, some background on Dory: She was a single mother in her early 40s who had climbed the executive ladder in a variety of assignments at AT&T when she came to Richmond to become chief operating officer of the company’s printed circuit board factory here. (The plant no longer exists; it became part of Lucent Technologies, then was sold to a group of investors who finally closed it. A shopping center stands in its place today.)

She came to Richmond, she didn’t move here. Rather than uproot her kids from New Jersey, she spent three or four days a week here. In a story I wrote for the employee newsletter, she said, “My difficult schedule and time away are, of course, hard for me and my family. I deal with the practical side of this problem, the care of my children, by having a live-in housekeeper who is there to be sure they are safe and have adult supervision.” The children’s father also stayed with them while she was away. “The emotional side of being there is harder to handle,” she added, “and I try to manage this by spending individual time with each child to talk and relate. All of my time out of work is devoted to them.”

Her ascension into the executive levels of AT&T — a traditional company with mostly men at the helm in the early ’90s — drew the attention of Life magazine, which ran a pictorial essay on her in its August 1990 issue.

Dory believed in communication, and as a result, she gave this young communicator a lot of room to be creative and to try new things. She valued my perspective and my role, which greatly boosted my self-confidence at a crucial time in my career, just a few years after leaving news journalism for the corporate world.

Dory Yochum, 1991

In the summer of 1992, the plant was preparing for a downsizing — not an unusual occurrence in the world of manufacturing, and especially in the printed circuit board industry. A group of employees at the plant took sport in speculating who might be let go and created a “hit list” of likely layoff victims. When Dory heard about this, she hit the roof. She had worked hard to establish an open and supportive culture at the plant and she viewed this activity as antithetical to the company’s values.

So she fired off a memo to employees and asked me to review it and give her some feedback. The language she used was uncharacteristically strong and I told her it would likely cause a ruckus when employees read it. That’s exactly what she wanted, she said. And she sent it out.

Two sentences about the “hit list” stirred people up: “I consider this act of speculation to be as repulsive as watching buzzards attack a weakened prey. When we feed on the misfortune of others, we are no different than buzzards.”

The newsletter I edited had a regular letters-to-the-editor feature that was remarkably candid, thanks to the freedom Dory gave me in running it. When the memo went out, I received numerous angry letters from employees — some of which couldn’t be published due to the language, but some of which were quite well written. “We do not appreciate being called a bunch of buzzards,” said one. “In the future, Ms. Yochum should choose a more business-like manner in which to convey her message,” said another.

I asked Dory what I should do with the letters. “Print them,” she said. So I did. She opened the door to a debate that lasted another month or two. Dory met with employees and talked openly about the list and about her reaction to it, about whether or not she had gone too far in her memo, about the values that guided the company and about the culture she wanted for the plant community. She never apologized or backed down from the language she used in her memo, but she got the desired effect. People were talking about things that never were seriously discussed before: how we treat one another, how we work together even when we don’t agree.

It taught me a lot of lessons that I have carried with me through my communications career. Mostly I learned that there are leaders out there who understand the vital role communication can play in an organization and who are willing to do the hard work of fostering that communication.

A year before the “buzzard memo,” Dory said in an interview in my newsletter: “If you tell people you want to hear what they think, you have to be willing to listen to things you don’t like to hear. Then you must try to act to correct things that need to be better, and decide if there are things that people want that you just can’t change.”

It’s never easy being a leader, and especially one who is brave enough to promote a culture of open communication. Dory Yochum was the bravest leader I’ve ever known.

She died in December of breast cancer at the age of 62. Sadly, I had lost touch with her in recent years, but a few years ago I tracked her down and wrote her a note to let her know that working for her was one of the highlights of my career.

Join Me for a Twitter Chat

I’ll be doing something on Thursday, July 14 at 10 a.m. EDT that I’ve never done before: guest hosting a Twitter chat.

In fact, I’ve never even participated in a Twitter chat. I’ve live-tweeted presentations, which is somewhat similar, but this will be a new experience for me. I’m looking forward to it and I’d love for you to join me.

The invitation came from Sean Williams, a fellow communication consultant and college professor I’ve never met, but have admired for many years. I’ve virtually run into Sean many times as we’ve commented on the same blogs and participated in the same webinars.

Sean runs a monthly Twitter chat called #icchat (the IC standing for internal communications, a topic near and dear to both of us). He arranges for a guest host to address some aspect of internal communications through a series of Twitter posts ending with the #icchat hashtag. Participants follow the guest host and filter posts using the hashtag, asking questions of the guest host. The end result is a lively, fast-moving virtual conversation.

If you’d like to see an example of the kinds of discussions taking place in the #icchat sessions, read Sean’s blog account of a recent one about how social media are being used internally.

And if you can spare some time next Thursday at 10 a.m. EDT, join the #icchat where I’ll be talking about writing — how to write simply and clearly and how to do it well no matter what medium you’re using. It should be fun! Hope to see you there.