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PR exec gets failing grade in employee communications

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Report card with "F"I got a call from an old friend, someone who is a member of a large corporate communications team inside an even larger corporation.  Like most businesses during this period of economic recovery, her company is watching expenditures and stretching budget dollars as far as possible.

Mind you, Company X wasn’t doing so well before the recession hit, and over the past three years “X Corp.” employees have done without salary increases and bonuses, cut back on “extras” such as training and professional development, and have bid farewell to thousands of their coworkers due to wide-spread layoffs.  These employees have been through the wringer, yet they continue to bring their best to their job every day.

That’s why, for my friend and many of her Corp Comms teammates, the poorly worded (or to use a term coined by our President, “inartful”) memo announcing changes to the list of approved travel expenditures hit such a nerve. 

In essence, the memo stated that an audit of expense reports revealed that employees were requesting reimbursement for an afternoon coffee, soda  or bottle of water, fruit and/snacks, and food to take on the plane -- expenditures that were pushing the boundaries of the travel policy.

Included in the memo was the assertion that the department head "had never expensed such items himself" (perhaps because he had access to them in the executive offices or on the company plane?), and offered his opinion that while a coffee and muffin when consumed in the morning are considered breakfast, at other times of the day they are considered a “pick-me-up” and a part of a “lifestyle” rather than a meal.  The staff was reminded that the travel policy reimbursed only for meals, not lifestyle purchases.

To add insult to injury, the memo was drafted by a staff admin on behalf of the head of corporate communications.

Do I have an issue with a company restating its reimbursement policy?  Not at all.  Such reminders are just good business, and when worded correctly, can serve as a unifying message to the entire team.

My issue is that, instead of reaching out to a professional on his own team for assistance,  the PR executive tapped an admin assistant who has little or no understanding of the basic principles of communicating change in an environment of uncertainty.  Or any sensitivity to the challenges of business travel, where 12-hour days are the norm and in-flight meals are practically non-existent.

But I don’t blame the writer.  I blame the senior communications executive who felt it was appropriate to have his admin deliver this information – to his staff of communications professionals.

I’m mystified by the Communications team leader’s total disregard of employee communications as an executive responsibility, let alone the responsibility of the highest-ranking communicator in the company.  In light of this event, I have to wonder whether there is anyone at Company X who respects their hard-working employees and treats them as valued professionals.

In times of change and challenge, executives need to approach employee communications with the same level of care and professionalism as they do customer communications and media relations.  Instead of bleating about your employees as your “most valuable asset,” executives must start treating employees, and their communications to employees, as vital to their company’s success.

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