“In bad times, good practices tend to emerge while in good times bad practices often form,”

Ron Kirkpatrick, National Manager, Executive/Internal Communications for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., told about 150 people at the Arthur W. Page Society’s Spring Seminar in New York City last week.

Kirkpatrick was part of a panel I facilitated titled, “The Global Financial Crisis: The Employee Perspective,” which focused on the implications of today’s economic crisis on the workforce. The panel also featured Juanita James, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Pitney Bowes (PB).

James spoke about the myriad communications techniques employed by PB including a weekly voice message called “Power Talk” by senior executives, an interactive intranet that facilitates interaction and feeback among employees. One of the more novel strategies is a brand ambassador effort that currently has approx.1600 employees who opt in to learn more about the company and receive frequent updates and information allowing for more discussion inside and outsdie the organization.

There is also an online forum where employees are encouraged to raise concerns and questions. One of the key challenges for PB has been cultural assimilation. “The comany has made 85 acquisitions over the past ten years,” James told the group. “Maintaining a PB culture that continues to evolve and accept the specialness from each new company but also reflects our core values is paramount.”

Toyota, which like every other automotive company in the world, is attempting to weather an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression. In fact, the company is on the verge of its first loss in close to 60 years. Kirkpatrick outlined core messages being used to maintain employee confidence:
1. Toyota is a very strong company with a rich history.
2. The company will weather the storm
3. The market will recover
4. This is an excellent opportunity to take stock in ourselves and become even more efficient and position for a rebound with strength and confidence.

Both executives reiterated that the critical aspect in effectively engaging employees is the credibility in leadership and the trust within the company. Honesty, openness, transparency are essential ingredients they said. Kirkpatrick also noted that employees must be given a chance to be part of the solution. “People not only need to be kept informed and leaders visible, but the real opportunity is to lay out the various options and have people be part of the solution by doing something.”

James indicated that face-to-face methods remain the number one approach. “People need to see leaders and colleagues in forums where questions and concerns can be raised and explored more deeply than traditional communications techniques allow,” she said.

Both James and Kirkpatrick reflected the current sentiment with regard to internal communications and employee engagement.

Today’s situation is serving as both an inflection point and watershed for leaders in terms of reassessing relationships with people at all levels of the organization. For some, such assessment has been nothing short of a revelation in terms of how motivated, engaged and informed people within their companies truly are. For others, it’s meant a continuation of solid practices that instill confidence and engender trust among employees. For all of us, it is forcing a new mindset based on evolving expectations of society as a whole.

Economic instability and the threat and reality of layoffs are distracting people from performing productively. Remaining emotionally engaged to a company or brand is increasingly difficult amid uncertainty and fear of failure. Organizational Trust is severely compromised in this environment making it almost impossible to communicate effectively internally.

Edelman’s 2009 Trust Barometer reports that Trust in business is at an all-time low in the 10 years of conducting the study:

• In the U.S., only 17 percent say the CEO is a credible source of information about the company
o When a CEO addresses employees in a town hall, 4 out of 5 won’t believe what he/she is saying!
• A regular employee has more than twice the credibility of the CEO
• Employees are the third-most credible source of information about company, ahead of:
o All traditional media (TV, newspaper, radio)
o All corporate communications (company website, ads, press releases, leadership interviews)
o All Internet sources (search engines, blogs, Wikipedia, social networking sites)
• The way a company treats employees is second-most important factor in overall reputation, behind only product quality
o 77 percent of respondents say they would refuse to buy from a company they distrust

As Toyota and Pitney Bowes reminded us last week, the most effective way to mitigate unrest and uncertainty internally during difficult times is through an open, transparent, interactive communications approach that is aligned with the company’s management model. While there is certainly no silver bullet to how this can be accomplished, one thing remains certain – today’s employees are the most important factor in restoring trust in business and within organizations.

Overall, this year’s Spring Seminar offered a plethora of ideas, content, contacts, and insight to attendees!