Employers have relied on the expertise of their communications teams to help navigate the monumental events occurring around the world. Just as people were acclimatizing to the pandemic “new normal,” protests against racial injustice erupted in response to the senseless death of George Floyd. Because of this growing movement, corporate communicators had to quickly craft responses, acknowledging the continuing problem of racism and the global uprising it had spawned. Companies took action to show their commitment, making monetary contributions to worthy organizations and establishing new diversity initiatives.
Recognizing the pivotal role communicators continue to play throughout this period of uncertainty, the PRSA Silicon Valley Chapter invited four senior communicators specialized in internal and employee communications to #FridayForum on September 11, 2020. The panel was moderated by Board Member Caroline James, founder of PR consulting business Forever Speaks PR. Panelists included Carrie Goldstein, managing director at Cheers Partners; Larry Krutchik, executive vice president for Hill & Knowlton Strategies; Michelle Projekt, vice president and global head of internal communications at PepsiCo; and Nicole Kenyon, head of global corporate communications and employee communications for Logitech.
The event began with organizers recognizing the date’s significance, acknowledging the parallels between what happened in 2001 and what’s happening now. As the panel got underway, participants fielded a series of questions from the moderator and attendees, focusing on employee communications in a year defined by crisis. This post will summarize the panelists’ answers, highlighting relevant quotations or observations.
Michelle joined PepsiCo two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. She is now working from home, but noted that as a corporate “knowledge worker,” she is in the minority. The company has 280,000 global employees across several different brands, and about two-thirds of Michelle’s coworkers are on the frontline, moving and selling products.
Michelle said the company’s communications program was shaped through employees’ eyes. It was not “one-size fits all,” but tailored to address the needs of employees at any moment. Michelle said PepsiCo’s approach was to understand employees’ needs and find a way to get information and communications to them that would resonate anywhere.
Nicole noted her role is typically split 50/50 between employee communications and external corporate communications, but remarked, “these days it’s felt more like 80/20 – employee has certainly ramped up in the past year.” She added, “Historically, employee engagement was more of a means to promote culture and the dissemination of information, but today it’s absolutely strategic to business continuity, it’s so important to ensure that employees feel informed and they’re engaged and they feel valued with so much change that’s happening.”
Nicole overviewed some of the tactics Logitech has used during the lockdown such as weekly video messages with the CEO, which were received well by employees given the CEO’s authenticity and vulnerability. Logitech set up a CEO comment box on its intranet site to track the pulse of employees and address questions and concerns openly. She said Logitech does not generally use email for employee communications — “a big change in the last few years” — instead opting to host everything on the intranet which helps achieve the company’s goal to limit communication burnout while over-communicating at this time.
Carrie outlined the results of an informal survey with chief communications officers at a variety of companies that Cheers Partners conducted in January. The results found that only two to three percent of most businesses’ resources — regardless of company size — were used for internal communications and employee experience. Carrie said the events of this year have shown that companies need to increase the size of that investment. “They need to have as thoughtful planning of milestones, moments, pride points and potential contingency plans beyond 2020.”
All participants agreed that leading with empathy was crucial. Larry said the pandemic and racial injustice events were both deeply and fundamentally human events. “You could see, you could hear, you could feel even through screens and phone calls the impact it was having on colleagues and on clients. It was really quite palpable.” As part of the H&K Strategies U.S. leadership team, Larry made the conscious decision to “lean in and be my authentic self and really connect with colleagues and clients on that fundamentally human level.” He demonstrated this by dropping in on colleagues’ video meetings to inquire about their wellbeing and asked clients how they were and what they were going through to help be a better business partner.
Black Lives Matter movement
Nicole and Michelle overviewed in detail how their companies responded to the BLM movement. Michelle stated that BLM movement started a broad conversation within PepsiCo. She noted the Black and Brown communities are inextricably linked with the PepsiCo brands and their success. She said that many of these brands were already speaking out. PepsiCo has pledged a $500M commitment to address racial inequality. PepsiCo has also set aggressive goals around recruiting and retaining diverse talent. Michelle’s team started a series called “Black in America” which encouraged colleagues in the company to write or record a video about being Black in America. Michelle says the reception to the stories has been “amazing.”
An ongoing pandemic response and remote working scenario
Carrie said people’s holiday experiences and vacations are going to change as the pandemic drags on. Many employees will probably miss seeing family, for example. She suggested using employee surveys and focus groups to better understand and determine employee needs in light of these major changes. She cautioned employers to address the demotivation employees will likely feel as we move into 2021 and the situation carries on.
Larry pointed out that brands have had more challenges communicating internally than communicating externally. “It’s required more layers and more complexity.” In terms of what the future holds, Larry said remote working is “here to stay” and it’s going to change how organizations recruit and retain talent. He said If he had to reduce it to one watch word, it would be “flexibility” – to ensure that employees know and feel their company is doing all it can to support them through a very challenging time.
“How companies treat their employees today will absolutely impact the future of retention and hiring. We’re seeing those that are listening and caring really starting to front run and those that aren’t are going to be hamstrung in the years to come,” Nicole added.
As many employees enter their 6th month of remote work, the uncertainty of the pandemic, the lack of childcare, and the feelings of isolation can all take their toll. And since many people are skipping their summer vacation this year, they may be feeling extra frazzled.