Employee Communications is the Chicken…

    February 21, 2006

Marketing is the egg.

In a preliminary post to the employee communications blog at the IABC Communication Commons, I reiterated my oft-stated view that employee communications is the most important communication effort a company undertakes. I have too often seen a dynamite marketing campaign undermined by employees who didn’t buy into the message or understand the vision. Conversely, I believe engaged employees can overcome the worst marketing.

Sadly, most internal communications departments look like orphaned stepchildren compared to marketing, advertising, and external corporate PR.

In a reply to my post (which should be the only one I contribute-we have an outstanding corps of internal communication efforts who will handle blogging from here on out), Merry Elrick was aghast. “Yikes, get a grip,” she began. (I should note that Merry is one of the IABC members who will be blogging on the Commons’ branding blog.) She then argued, “Without customers, we’ll have no need for employee communication because we won’t need any employees.”

True enough. But the flip side is also true. Without employees, there is no product or service to offer to customers. And without engaged employees, the organization will produce crappy products and inferior service no amount of outstanding marketing will be able to overcome.

Of course, my belief in the importance of internal communication does not diminish the need for marketing communication-or corporate PR, investor relations, government relations, or any of the other communication disciplines that make up our profession. It’s interesting, though, to see how the lines between them are starting to blur.

GlaxoSmithKline, for example, the $35.4 billion pharmaceutical behemoth, has announced that it is turning to its 8,000-strong U.S. sales force to assume PR duties. According to an article today in AdAge, GSK “has quietly anointed its 8,000 U.S. sales representatives as public relations ambassadors’ to lift its image and that of the beleaguered industry with grassroots PR.”

These employees will speak at local clubs and community groups, give interviews to local newspapers, and address students in local schools.

“The Value of Medicine,” as the program has been dubbed, is the brainchild of External Advocacy VP Michael Pucci. “Reputation matters,” Pucci said in the AdAge story. “In this industry, it’s so important. We have to tell that story of how we’re investing for the future.”

Got that? He’s in charge of external advocacy, and he’s relying on front-line employees to deliver the message. And if those employees are disgruntled? Unhappy? Afraid? If they don’t understand the program, the issues, or GSK’s vision? If they’re upset that they’re being asked to take on extra work in addition to meeting sales targets without additional compensation? “The Value of Medicine” would be a spectacular disaster.

Effective internal communication is critical to the success of getting that story out. It’s equally important in those companies that are encouraging their employees to blog publicly (something Pucci should consider as part of his program). From Sun Microsystems to Thomas Nelson Publishers, companies are putting their companies reputations more firmly in their employees’ hands, not only as the producer or products but as the touch points for customers.

This is an encouraging trend, one I hope like hell continues. It’s a natural extension of leaders asking employees to be brand ambassadors among their families and friends. Customers should love having real live employees doing real work as their touch points. But throwing employees into the public spotlight without the benefit of a strong internal communication effort is beyond risky. It’s stupid.

Hence my belief that internal communication needs renewed attention from management. It needs resources to achieve strategic objectives and it needs that seat at the table. Our external marketing efforts depend on it.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.