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Archive for June, 2010

Good morning, and welcome to job hell.

Or is it? A compelling case study for employee communication is British Petroleum, or BP. Since the accident on BP’s oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, as much oil spews out every few days as the total of the Exxon Valdez spill. BP’s external communication efforts, derisively called its “PR” by the media, have been discussed at length, but what about internal communication? What if you were in charge of employee communication at BP?

BP is one of the world’s largest energy companies. It provides fuel for transportation and energy for heat and light, plus retail services and petrochemical products. Sales were $239 billion in 2009. BP has 80,300 employees and 22,400 service stations. BP has active exploration and production  in 30 countries. In 2009, BP had production throughput of 2.9 million barrels per day with 16 wholly or partially owned refineries.

Oh, and BTW, BP is now one of the most reviled companies in history.

Internal or employee communication professionals are hired to help employers achieve their missions. It is not easy on a good day, but faced with extreme situations like the BP oil spill, the work of the employee communicator is extraordinarily difficult yet crucial.

Right now, BP is in full crisis communication mode. But what about long-term employee communication?

BP employees are probably pretty much like employees anywhere. They want to do meaningful work for an employer who values it. They have financial obligations and need their jobs to meet them. I imagine you could plot BP employees all over Maslow’s Hierarchy. Each has his or her own needs. And, to be fair, many if not most, are probably sickened by the sight of what their company’s accident is doing to the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal residents’ lives.

Understanding employee needs is a requisite for building communication strategy. While we might sit here and speculate on what BP employees are thinking and feeling, if we are to be truly professional and strategic, then we would need to conduct research to know for sure. Interviews, focus groups, and surveys/questionnaires must be used to conduct our own primary research. Then we would know what we are facing. Then, and only then, could we formulate strategy — goals, objectives,and tactics —  to address the situation.

Organizations succeed and fail. Organizations do good things, and they do bad things. But through it all, the need for the skills of the communicator remains constant. Considering this one important aspect of BP’s current situation, its employee communication, provides an instructive, if radical, look into what the role of employee communicator just might bring. Can we ever be prepared enough to face what may come?

Yes, we can. And as the BP incident illustrates, we had better be.

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I attended the IABC World Conference in Toronto, June 4 through 9, in order to answer the pressing question: are we communicators still relevant?

To address that question, I attended a variety of presentations, held endless hallway conversations, chatted over coffee/tea/beer/wine/meals, and in general, poked around looking for answers.

Did I find any answers? Yes and no. Some specific things came very clear. Others are left to be answered another time, if at all.

I pose the question of relevance because conferences like this seem to devote extraordinary amounts of time and energy in justifying what we do as a profession. It seems a bit paranoid to me. If we feel compelled to question our own relevance, then something is wrong. We should know.

I know that communication is more relevant now than ever. As an example, consider the exchange I had with John from Ottawa, who works for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. We were sitting together in an afternoon general session called, “Why should anyone trust you? Lessons from leading change in international organizations.” John leaned over and asked, “Is it just me, or are we talking about the same things we talked about five, ten, even fifteen years ago?”

Yes, we are still talking about many of the same things. Why? For several reasons:

  1. We have not sufficiently solved the problem, like improving employee engagement or gaining the ability to write clear and compelling copy or successfully integrating social media into our overall strategic communication plans or communicating organizational change effectively or making employees brand ambassadors.
  2. New people enter the communication field and seek answers to important questions they encounter on the job. For the neophytes, these questions, however fundamental, are new and exotic and demand answers. That’s a competitive advantage for professional development providers like IABC. It constitutes a source of recurring revenue.
  3. New answers arise to old questions. For example, three phenomena that have risen in importance over the past few decades:  strategic planning in communication; the need for high quality research on which to base strategy; and the impact of social media on society in general and communication management specifically. These phenomena all help to keep communication relevant and serve to make it even more competent.

Several presentations targeted the fundamental questions we must answer in order to practice communication management effectively. Then there were unfulfilling presentations that promised to explain what communicators must know, then didn’t.

Thankfully, I attended presentations that were insightful, practical, and immediately useful. One notable presentation was “Integrating multimedia into your social media campaign,” by Toronto-based consultant and ace podcaster Donna Papacosta. In a world consumed by what Neil Postman termed, “technological adoration”, Donna’s down-to-earth treatment of technology used to support and enhance overall communication strategy was refreshing.

Speaking of technological adoration, I blogged last year about the obsessive use of Twitter at IABC’s World Conference in San Francisco. Everything was Twitter; everywhere you looked, people weren’t talking face to face, they were tweeting — in sessions, in the hallways, at meals, and who knows where else. The obsession with technology, especially Twitter, was all-consuming. It was not so much so this year. There seemed to be a more mature approach to the use of technology, especially Twitter.

Perhaps we are evolving. Perhaps we are transforming our technological adoration into practical managerial applications. I hope so, for evolving and transforming is the only way the profession of organizational communication will truly stay relevant.

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