Through the Lens Sharply

Keith Burton

Time interest belief.

Sounds almost like the title of a new book from the rock star humorist, David Sedaris. Three simple words, presented just as they’re written, in response to a survey question posed recently to the employee communicators who work in one of the world’s leading telecommunications companies.

And the question?  “What operational issues do you believe will be most pressing for your employee communication team over the next 18 months?”

Translated: The time of those we seek to communicate with is fleeting and perishable. Capturing their interest is a huge challenge. And once we have it, can we instill new beliefs and build trust?

In a period of unprecedented change, where people are overwhelmed by the speed and flow of information 24-7-365, how do the world’s leading companies distinguish their work in employee communication? How do they manage the accelerating digital revolution and the rise of social media? How do they cut through the clutter to find meaning and purpose in their communication?

As I led a Webinar for one of our clients recently, these were the questions that galvanized the more than 100 practitioners we brought together for a three-hour training session. It was a powerful, inspiring afternoon. I teamed up with Lisa Hartenberger and Ruth WeberKelley, who lead global employee communication for Navistar and Cargill, respectively, to review the findings of the Institute for Public Relations‘ (IPR) seminal 2013 research profiled in the white paper, “Best-in-Class Practices in Employee Communication: Through the Lens of 10 Global Leaders.”

I won’t use this precious space and time to review the IPR research that I led for our Commission on Organizational Communication. Instead, I’ll encourage you to visit the IPR site, where you can read the white paper and spend time inside our Organizational Communication Research Center, which houses the world’s most comprehensive body of research, white papers and best practices in the field of employee communication.

I’ll focus instead on you, the students and educators who are regulars to Culpwrit. I want to spotlight a few critical questions that you must address, whether you’re preparing for your career in public relations, or preparing your curriculum for the fall semester.

Do you know that three out of every five CEOs tell us their greatest concern is for how they and their teams will manage change? Without an effective employee communication program, they and their teams will surely fail. When you join their company, they’ll want to know that you will engage them as business people first, communicators second; and that you will be equipped to help them capture the interests of their employees and to build a new belief system for whatever change they may be driving.

Do you know that one of the fastest-growing needs in public relations today is for men and women who can train and work as employee communication strategists? Rarely a week goes by that a client, an executive search specialist or an agency recruiter doesn’t call to ask me where they can find qualified candidates for great opportunities that pay really well in this area. That means educators must do more to equip themselves to teach their students about the role of employee communication as a critical strategic discipline. Beyond the work of the IPR, if you look at the Gap VII findings from the USC Annenberg study you’ll see that it, too, highlights the continuing growth and prominence of internal communication.

And finally – do you know that employee communication is at the heart of virtually every major initiative or need that organizations globally are – or will – be addressing: Recruiting and retaining employees, new employee orientation programs, quality programs, supporting major change and restructuring efforts, addressing diversity and inclusion needs, support labor relations communication, assuring the integration of cultures and operations in the post-merger environment, helping our leaders project their vision and their agendas, and ensuring that the internal brand is projected through customer-facing teams, to name just a few key needs.

Time interest belief. Remember these three words. Associate these with one of the most important areas of focus in public relations today – that of mobilizing the workforce in every corner of the world. And whether student or educator, find your voice on this topic: Draw upon the IPR’s resources. Educate yourself. And step forward to help lead us into the future.

Keith Burton is a partner with Brunswick Group who leads the firm’s global engagement and internal communication practice. He’s one of the world’s most recognized leaders in the field of employee communication. As a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations, he chairs the Commission on Organizational Communication. He also serves as a trustee and vice chairman of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama.

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