‘Tis the Season for Internal Public Relations

The economic news is ugly and workers are being laid off at record rates. The mood at holiday parties, if they haven’t been canceled yet, is grim. Now more than ever, public relations professionals must develop an internal public relations strategy, in concert with management, designed to raise the morale of employees.

Many employees become less productive during times of economic uncertainty because they become preoccupied with the thought of being laid off, depressed, or simply disinterested, believing that they no longer have any influence over their future on the job. Through osmosis, these attitudes cascade through offices and can cripple entire workforces, making layoffs and other drastic measures a fait accompli.

Internal public relations is an important part of the job for any public relations professional, the product of close consultation between the public relations department, upper management, and the human resources department. More than anything, a public relations department needs to establish a line of communication between management and the rest of the workforce during times of economic uncertainty. By saying nothing, employees will believe that it’s business as usual, and there is nothing usual about the current economic climate.

The news should not be sugarcoated. If your company’s workforce has a false impression of current business conditions, it will have a difficult time adjusting if and when cost-saving measures are taken. Employees need to be told as much of the truth as possible so that they understand the urgency of the situation and what is expected of them.

Communications, whether delivered in written form or orally, should be in a conversational tone. Patronizing talks and memos filled with business-speak or disingenuous cheerleading will only lower morale and cause confusion. Town-hall meetings and Q&As with management can help allay fears and drive a message home, but an internal public relations strategy should prepare managers to be honest and answer tough questions.

An internal public relations strategy should foster an environment of open communication. During times of economic uncertainty, employees should pull together, work as a team, and find ways to ensure the health of their company–and in the process help to ensure that they remain employed.

For example, a 50-person graphic design firm in New York recently gathered employees and asked for suggestions about how to cut costs. The office manager detailed the firm’s monthly expenses and said that a 20 percent reduction in spending would alleviate some financial pressure. Workers debated ways to cut costs and decided, among other things, to eliminate the outside cleaning service and share cleaning duties, cancel a holiday party booked at a restaurant and replace it with a party in the office, and move to a four-day, 10-hour work-week for the next two months, with half-workdays at home on Fridays to cut down on electricity consumption.

The top executives at the firm then agreed to forgo a large percentage of their annual bonuses and instead have the company bank the money. Planned salary increases were suspended, but the company agreed to cover an additional 5 percent of healthcare costs, resulting in expected savings of nearly $30,000 for the first quarter of 2008.

The public relations rep at the company was responsible for setting up the meeting, including deciding to host it on a Friday so that workers could go into the weekend feeling confident. She worked with management to set the tone of the written communication ahead of time and then met with management, the office manager, and the human resources rep to create talking points and literature detailing the company’s costs.

“There was a dramatic and positive shift in morale following the meeting,” the PR person said. “What people really appreciated was that they were involved in the process and that when the meeting ended, we had concrete plans in place.”

Following the meeting, the PR person communicated with the firm’s clients, informing them that the firm was on solid financial ground, that service would continue as normal, and that employees were excited about helping clients work through these difficult times.

As the new year approaches, public relations professionals should be developing an internal public relations strategy to communicate the right message to employees. Open and honest communication combined with innovative thinking can improve morale, keep workers focused, and strengthen the health of a business. These goals will also serve to remind management of the important skills that public relations professionals bring to the table. That’s not a bad thing when companies are looking for ways to save money.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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