The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished. George Bernard Shaw
Delivering effective internal communications during uncertain times can be challenging enough. Now and again, the media report on the disaster stories that leak, picking over the details of how companies have failed to put effective communication plans in place. In this article, we will share 4 shocking real-life stories that show how companies have made major misjudgments with their internal communications decisions, as well as the measures that could have prevented these dreadful blunders.
1. A lack of transparency
This is a well-known scandal that is still making the headlines today. The energy company Enron, one of largest companies in the U.S, went bankrupt due to fake holdings, off-the-books accounting and fraud. These irresponsible and dishonest tactics were not the only disasters that Enron faced. Not only were the leaders of Enron dishonest with their workforce, they also failed with their "lack of overall communication, coordination and monitoring of controls" as stated by the New York Times. Various reports such as this 'Explaining Enron' journal reveal that senior leaders failed to address a major issue - a lack of transparent communication between the management team and workforce. By not listening to their employees, ignoring problems and hiding the truth, Enron’s communication department were raising some major red flags. Read more about the story here.
The Fix: This situation is pretty bad, with multiple threads that ultimately ended up with things going south for everyone. Firstly, transparent, two-way communication is essential in any workplace for employees and management to be effective. This doesn’t need to be hard in a hybrid workplace as there is tech available such as communication platforms that offer anonymity to allow employees to speak up about their issues without fear of retribution. Vevox is a trusted tool that is used by enteprise businesses such as GSK, NHS and BBC to enable two-way conversations to happen in internal comms meetings.
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2. The 'Top Down' Memo
In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that the company would be banning employees from working remotely to increase collaboration and culture in the office environment. However, as working from home has become more popular for many reasons this announcement did cause some controversy, both internally and externally. The top down memo from senior management was greeted with a negative reaction as many employees disagreed with the decision and felt pressured to 'relocate or quit'. As suggested by many media sources, employees were not pleased with how the communication had been handled. The negative PR launched a discussion around the globe about the policies and moral debate about employees working from home. Read more about the story here.
The Fix: Number 1 on the fix list here is to make sure that any management level communication should be secure. Either choose a secure platform other than email or book an offsite meeting in a private place where you won’t be disturbed or overheard. Secondly, communicating major changes via email such as this will have huge implications and cause a myriad of reactions. This type of communication should not (ideally) be transmitted in email form and a interactive meeting would be preferable to facilitate two-way communication and allow employees a chance to ask questions or voice concerns.
3. A Townhall Meeting Disaster
In August 2013, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced that AOL would be reducing the visibility of ‘Patch’ websites from their local news and information platforms. The news was given over a conference call with over 1,000 employees to encourage staff to be onboard with the future plans but instead it had the reverse affect. The brash and insolent nature of the call took a further nose-dive when he fired the Creative Director during the meeting. He also stated that anyone that "is not onboard with the future plans and finds his talk funny should quit straight away". His insensitive tone and lack of respect for his colleagues and employees causes this meeting to have the opposite effect than what was intended. Read the story here and listen to the recording.
The fix: Armstrong’s approach to this meeting was viewed as being wholly unprofessional. Communicating this kind of decision would have been more effective if it had taken place via regional team meetings led by a supervisor or area manager. This approach would have enabled the decision to have been relevant to each area affected and would have allowed an opportunity for questions and a chance for management to clarify that employees understood why this decision had to be made. Employees tend to ‘get onboard’ with a decision if they feel part of the process, so if you’re planning a major change, conduct a digital staff survey or allow for feedback ahead of time to see how the management view lines up with your employees to better manage change communication. This could have greatly reduced the odds of "career-ending blowups" and made it easy to raise any company issues more easily, in a pragmatic and rational way.
4. Using the right communication channel
In 2006, Radio Shack (an electronic retailer) made over 400 employees redundant by email communication without any prior notice. This was a poor decision to use this channel to notify employees as it is not an appropriate way to communicate such important and life-changing news. The email itself was hard to follow and did not explain the reasons why effectively. Read more about the story here.
The fix: At some point an organization whether big or small will need to deliver difficult or bad news. When this situation arises a more personal approach that allows a sensitive dialogue between employees and the management team is more effective. Face to face (virtual or in-person) meetings are beneficial as they create a human connection and show respect for the gravity of the situation. In this instance, a face to face meeting also allows employees a chance to ask questions and reduces the amount of gossip and hearsay that can get out of control, potentially causing more problems.
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A major reason why these stories ended up being PR disasters is due to the lack of coordination, proofing, planning, consideration and significance of the human connection. All of these stories seem to have a common thread which highlights that they do not recognise employee feedback or interaction as being important or valuable. Internal communication professionals would most likely agree that all of these issues could have been prevented by implementing the right communication methods, approach and procedures. Inadequate preparation or consideration for possible eventualities can lead to potential mistakes in the future. As they say, fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. Looking to review your internal comms strategy for 2022 or prepare for any internal comms projects, then download our essential 2022 checklist for internal communications.