Finally, after nearly 25 years in the employee communication business, I have a decent answer when people ask me what I do.
I started my career as a newspaper reporter. I took one public relations class in college. When I joined AT&T as editor of an employee newsletter in 1988, I knew something about writing and editing but nothing about employee communication.
What was the purpose of my job? To keep employees informed about what was going on in the business. Then I learned why—to help the business achieve its goals. That was the short answer that I stuck with for many years. There was nothing wrong with that answer except that I now understand there's more to it.
For a long time, there was little research to back up the claim that effective employee communication had a measurable impact on business performance. Then, in 1990 and 1991, IABC released preliminary results of a four-year study called "Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management."
It was a thick, highly unreadable tome that was grounded in great research but ultimately not much use to anyone other than academics. Its greatest value was to define "communication excellence" and to prove that CEOs of high-performing organizations value public relations.
In the last several years, however, a lot of research into employee engagement has emerged. This is largely due to the high level of interest in social media, which is all about engaging people—whether that is consumers with brands, businesses with customers, or any person with any other person. Smart communicators are realizing there is power in engaging employees with the organizations where they work, too, and now the research is bearing it out.
A few years ago, Towers Perrin found a correlation between engagement and business performance. Companies with engaged employees had return on assets six times higher than low-engagement companies. They also averaged a 19 percent increase in operating income and 28 percent growth in earnings per share year over year.
More recently APCO and Gagen MacDonald connected the effective use of internal social media (ISM) with employee engagement. They found that in "good ISM" companies, 89 percent of employees would recommend their company's products and services, compared with 51 percent in "poor ISM" companies. In addition, 88 percent would give their company the benefit of the doubt in a crisis (vs. 55 percent) and 64 percent would support their company's public policy positions (vs. 36 percent). Clearly, internal social media has a positive effect on the degree to which employees feel engaged.
As important as internal social media are to engagement, however, the same survey found that 75 percent of employees view executive leadership as the most important aspect of internal communication as it relates to engagement.
All of this research—plus more that I uncovered while developing a class I taught in employee communication at Virginia Commonwealth University—has caused me to provide a different answer when asked what I do. I help my company engage its employees in the business. And that engagement yields a host of benefits including:
- Greater trust in management
- Better customer service
- Better understanding of the company's products and services
- More innovative ideas
- More knowledge sharing across the enterprise
- More openness and transparency throughout the organization
- Better understanding of the company's policies and procedures
- Greater sense of community among employees
- Greater effort to achieve common goals
To paraphrase employee communication guru Roger D'Aprix, I help unleash the energy and talent of people in my company. And that's a pretty high calling.
Robert Holland is employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company in Richmond, Va. He blogs at Communication at Work.