Monday, March 21, 2011

Internal communications case study at school

Over the last couple of weeks, first-year students in Red River College's Creative Communications program have been looking at internal communications: principles, tactics and tools.

As it happens, they also got an insider's look at a case study on internal communications in the age of social media, when they learned (via Twitter, for many) that beloved Journalism instructor Steve Vogelsang will be leaving the College at the end of this academic year to pursue new opportunities.

They responded immediately, and with hashtags.

While the departure of a teacher isn't the same as a major management change in a career, it can bring about some of the same feelings: losing an advocate and/or mentor, less certain footing for the future. It also illustrates a point about how people would rather hear about changes in their own "management" from the person making the change.

In Steve Vogelsang's case, he didn't stand a chance of beating Twitter. I'm not sure what his order of notifications was, but I do know that, when I read about his departure on Twitter and emailed to ask him whether it was true, he said that it was -- and he'd just shared the news 11 minutes earlier.

I saw a class shortly after the news had hit. Many students professed shock -- one asking me whether I had a "crisis communications plan" to address his departure -- and some were disappointed that they'd "had to hear about it on Twitter."

The fact is that, short of interrupting the school day and bringing all seven classes together for an assembly (an unprecedented action, to my knowledge), there isn't any way Steve could have simultaneously shared the news with everyone in person. I explained that at the time, and of course they understood: they were just sorry to hear he was leaving.

Think you're going to beat Twitter? Good luck!

The stakes are higher, of course, when a major change takes place on the job. Change can be nerve-wracking, and study after study shows that employees are better able to manage change when they hear about it directly from management before the news gets "out there."

This gives them the chance to let the news sink in before they have to discuss ramifications with anyone external, as well as an opportunity to ask questions about what the news will mean to their jobs. It also shows that the organization will give them as early notice as is possible under the circumstances.

My tenure in a corporate communications department preceded Twitter: in those days, our main adversary in the internal information race was the grapevine (potentially just as effective, locally, but not at lightning speed!). But even so, we created long and complicated notification timelines to ensure (as best we could, anyway) that every employee personally affected by a change would hear about it as quickly, personally, and from as appropriate a source as possible.

Nowadays, organizations have to recognize that the first wave of information may become instant public disclosure.

What does that mean for internal communicators? A couple of things.

1. They have to be vigilant about timelines, setting up rolling series of meetings to enable the rapid sharing of major change information to as many "affected" people as possible. When it's a question of helping employees deal with major change, and people's jobs are involved, you should hold that assembly. You interrupt the work day, because you want to show those employees that their well-being is more important than keeping to a normal schedule, even if only for 15 minutes.

2. In between announcements like these, they need to ensure the corporate culture is such that employees understand why information is shared in the format and order it is. This helps to avoid inadvertent insult, and to ensure employees understand the organization respects them and cares about their feelings... and will do everything it can to get the information they need to them as soon as it can be shared.

That means open, two-way lines of communication, in normal times and in times of change.

And as for our students?

While they're disappointed to be losing a favourite instructor, they're happy for him -- and even happier that he'll be sticking around until the school year's out.

And even after he's gone, you have to know they'll be following him on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. The news of Steve leaving surprised me, too & I learned about it on Twitter as well.

    The way we receive messages has really changed and it's great to know that we can still be on top of everything if we just follow these basic reminders.

    Thanks for the post! It's really a great one!