Listening to survival

Results of a survey on how Italian companies spoke to their employees during 2009

A well managed employee communication strategy has a key role in crisis management and corporate communication demonstrates its strategic role in a crisis context.

This is one of the main findings of a research project carried out on Italian companies during the 2009 economic global crisis by the Internal Communication Laboratory at IULM University.

A crisis can seriously damage a company’s financial and trust resources, and crisis communication holds a central role in minimising negative impact and protecting the tangible and intangible company resources for post-crisis recovery. Communication with employees during a crisis is critical because otherwise the lack of information could lead to rumours, uncertainty, mistrust, defensive attitudes and lowered morale.

Effective internal crisis communication requires the involvement of many company roles. Top managers are expected to clarify the company position, assuring the credibility of messages with their authority; line managers are expected to spread and collect information in their daily contact with employees; communication managers are expected to elaborate on effective strategies, to support top and line managers, and to implement ad hoc communication. In the context of a crisis, communication can demonstrate the value of its contribution to a company’s success and legitimate its strategic role.

The research project presented here aimed at exploring how companies communicated to employees the facts of the crisis, and what roles top managers, line managers and internal communication managers held in the internal crisis communication process. Questions investigated the companies’ crisis communication strategies, their internal communication objectives, contents and instruments, the organisational roles involved in employee communication, the kind of language used to describe the crisis, and the difficulties and evolution of internal communication.

Data collection took place between January and July 2009, with results were based on interviews with 14 communication managers and 13 employees of other departments, a web survey on a sample of Italian companies and two focus groups involving communication managers. The survey included a sample of 135 companies drawn from a directory listing the most important Italian companies, with a valid response rate of 45 per cent.

Survey respondents were corporate communication directors (26 per cent), internal communication managers (36 per cent), human resource and internal communication managers (13 per cent), and marketing or training managers with an internal communication responsibility (26 per cent).

Purposes and contents of internal communication in Italian companies during 2009

All companies in the sample implemented specific internal communication devoted to the crisis, in many cases using already existing tools. They communicated in order to meet a broad spectrum of purposes: to create and sustain employee trust (49 per cent), to support employee commitment (48 per cent) and identification with the company (43 per cent), to create realistic expectations (41 per cent), to promote proactive employee behaviours to overcome the crisis (41 per cent), and to reduce uncertainty (30 per cent). Data shows that the most important communication purpose is sustaining employee trust and commitment, confirming that employee contributions play a crucial role in a crisis.

The contents of internal crisis communication in Italian companies dealt with strategies and perspectives of the company (69 per cent), actions to protect the company’s performance (48 per cent), information on both the general situation and that of the company’s (41 per cent), actions to maintain employee trust and company reputation (36 per cent), values, history, and distinctive characteristics of the company (31 per cent), and information on protection for employees (15 per cent).

Data shows that the contents of internal communication focused more on companies’ performance protection than on employees’ salary protection. This could lead to employee’ disappointment, while a responsive strategy based on innovative reactions to crisis would be more effective in reinforcing trust and commitment.

Organisational roles during the crisis

The research has investigated which activities, and in particular which communications activities, were carried out by top managers, line managers and internal communication managers during the 2009 global crisis. Respondents were also asked to give their opinion on the most important activities that top, line and communication managers should perform.

Top managers (see Table 1) made efforts to explain the scenario and the effects of the crisis (75 per cent of companies), got to know and explained business decisions (61 per cent), focused on business strategies (34 per cent), reinforced messages about values and identity of the company (33 per cent), and were in contact with employees (25 per cent). They communicated to all employees by meetings, letters by email and messages on the company intranet. Data shows that the commitment of top managers to communication was very high.

According to respondents, top managers gave sufficient attention towards spreading messages about the scenario and the decisions of the companies, which are both the most performed and the most important activities. The poor level of contact with employees indicates that top managers were less involved in listening.

As seen in Table 2, results show that line managers’ most performed activities were providing information to employees (61 per cent of companies), focusing on the business reorientation (46 per cent), adapting messages from top management to the specific context (36 per cent), reassuring and supporting staff (30 per cent) and collecting employee feedback and reporting it back to top management (20 per cent).

According to the survey, 64 per cent of respondents found that the most important activities of line managers was the dissemination of information to employees, 52 per cent the collection of employee feedback to be reported back to the top management, 48 per cent the reassurance and support to employees, 46 per cent the adaptation of messages to the specific context, and 26 per cent the focusing on business reorientation. In the opinion of communicators, as top managers, line managers dedicated a lot of attention to communication: it is the most performed and the most important activity among the ones performed by line managers. Again, listening is poorly implemented.

Crisis management

Among the activities of communication managers in the context of the global crisis see Table 3), the most performed were supporting managers in their communications with employees (48 per cent of companies), developing strategies for internal communications (46 per cent), collecting feedback and reporting it back to the top (46 per cent), implementing effective internal communication tools (43 per cent), planning and coordinating the internal crisis communication plan (21 per cent) and maintaining links with other business functions involved in crisis management (15 per cent).

According to respondents, the most important activities that communication managers should perform in the context of global crisis are: to support managers in their communications with employees (62 per cent of companies), to collect feedback and report it to top and line managers (52 per cent), to create internal communication strategies (51 per cent), to implement effective internal communication tools (38 per cent), to plan and coordinate the internal crisis communication plan (30 per cent), and to maintain relationships with other business functions involved in crisis management (16 per cent).

Communication managers underline that during the crisis their most performed and their most important activities were to support top and line managers and develop communication strategies. Compared to top managers and line managers, internal communication managers are more focused on listening to employees’ needs, although they could do better.

All studied roles - top managers, line managers and communication managers - were very involved with crisis management in general, and by employee communication in particular, as is shown by data on their focus on employee communication. The critical point is that they spread messages more than they listened.

Communication managers played a relevant role in listening to employees, in staying in contact with them and in returning feedback to top and line managers. Furthermore, they supported top and line managers in their employee communication, confirming that communication is very relevant in order to protect employee trust and other intangible resources necessary for the recovery phase.

The effort of top, line and communication managers in communicating with employees is a key to the strategic role played by internal communication during the global crisis. Internal communication will also have a strategic role after the global crisis. In fact, according to respondents, after the global crisis internal communication will become more relevant for the business strategy (51 per cent of companies), more transparent (49 per cent) and the crucial prerequisite for effective external communication (39 per cent).

Concluding remarks

Interviews with communication managers also underline that internal communication will play a strategic role after the global crisis (“It will become a key driver, even for business”). Communication managers give a leading role to internal communication in stimulating innovation (“Internal communication will facilitate the sharing and understanding of the actions that companies will implement in the recovery phase. It will support the process of mutual adaptation between the company and its employees, creating a network among different people and stakeholders of the company”).

Internal communication will serve to restore trust after the crisis (“It will be one of the most important tools in rebuilding the trust of employees”). And it will have a growing role in listening and engaging in dialogue (“Effective internal communication comes from listening. This function of knowledge scouting serves all kind of corporate communications: marketing, financial, corporate identity and employee communications”). The findings presented highlight that top, line and communication managers in Italian companies dedicated a relevant effort to employee communication during the global 2009 crisis.

This evidence underlines that all managers (not only the communication ones) believe that communication contributes to a company’s survival. The crisis has been a proof of the strategic role of communication and, according to the estimates of communication managers, it will grow in the development phase.

A final recommendation emerges from this study: in order to implement strategic employee communication, it should be accompanied by actions that take care of the employees’ interests and by open listening.  

Alessandra Mazzei

Alessandra Mazzei is associate professor of corporate communication and public relations at IULM University of Milan. She is director at the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication, coordinator of the Bachelor in Public Relations and Communication, vice director at the Department of Business LECB "Carlo A. Ricciardi", chair of the Consortium Hofstede. Her primary research interest are employee communication and relations, voice and silence in organisation, relationship management and corporate reputation management