Calm recession fears with CEO letter

The CEO’s column should ease employee anxiety about the troubled economy—not ignore the fact.

The CEO’s column should ease employee anxiety about the troubled economy—not ignore the fact

Face-to-face isn’t always the best way to go.

“In our culture, team members might find an emergency, companywide ‘recession meeting’ alarming,” says Lori Kaylor, vice president of communications at the Kansas City, Mo.-based employee benefits and financial services firm The Lewer Agency.

That’s why Lewer CEO Mike Lewer addressed the current economic situation in a candid, all-employee e-mail a few weeks ago; communicators emphasized the letter’s importance by publishing it in the weekly in-house Friday newsletter.

“The message was ‘opportunity,’” Kaylor says. “We also emphasized the importance of focusing on performing our individual roles within the company at this time and how, after 52 years of being in business, we’re not ‘newbies’ to economic downturns.”

Here’s an excerpt from Lewer’s letter to his 60-plus employees (click here to read it in its entirety):

My intent in sharing these thoughts with you is to respond to any anxiety some of you may be feeling as a result of the recent headlines. These concerns can be a distraction. Though I also have concerns, there is no other place I’d rather be than in this industry and in this company. As a result of our solid financials, our committed and enthusiastic team, as well as our small-by-design size, we are capable of stopping on a dime, safely cornering and accelerating more quickly than our larger competitors. Rest assured, this is not an easy time for any company, or for any American for that matter. However, The Lewer Agency has the navigation tools to help us clear the foreseeable “sharp turns” in the months ahead and, as we have experienced during a number of downturns that have occurred in the 52 years we have been in business, our company will, once again, continue to move forward.

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Employees thanked the CEO for the update—many of them saying that they had been worried about the financial markets and how they would affect the company, but that the letter eased their anxiety.

A customer service manager summed up his co-workers’ response to the letter:

“It was reassuring. There is a general state of panic going on, fueled by the media, and there is no sense in ignoring the questions that may be on the minds of the employees.”

To further emphasize the importance of Lewer’s letter, Kaylor polled a group of employees to see who read it via e-mail and via the newsletter. (See the poll here.) The large majority of respondents said they had read both—and that they got the message.

Noted one respondent: “What Mike was telling us was that though the markets are bad and the economy continues to weaken, if you position yourself correctly, you can weather the storm and come out of it stronger. Don’t give-up … Don’t get discouraged … Battle through it and we will survive!”

Focus on the positive

“We don’t believe a good employee publication categorizes this economy as a crisis,” says Ruth Drizen-Dohs, who as CEO of Drizen-Dohs Corporate Communications helps companies create top-notch employee publications. “Instead, it focuses on ways employees can make a difference in helping a company’s bottom and top lines. It also focuses on a company’s values, strategy and opportunities in this economy.”

The No. 1 place to do that, she says, is in the CEO letter.

“We find that top management’s column is often the first feature that’s read in an employee publication,” Drizen-Dohs says. “Top management’s communications can further enforce the value of employees working smarter, faster and better during these times. They can also give perspective to the future, name opportunities and discuss specific company strategy. This way, employees know they are in the good hands of a thoughtful leader, and that the company is taking smart action to address these economic times.”

Opportunity was a central theme of Lewer’s letter, Kaylor says.

“Economic downturns present opportunities, but you have to find those opportunities and be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities,” she says. “As an example, our company is a financial services firm. Last week in Chicago, two members of our sales team attended a job fair hosted by a company that had just laid off 600 employees. This was the first time our marketing team worked a job fair in the 52 years we have been in business. We received a number of 401(k) rollover leads.”

Meanwhile, the focus on individual roles in the CEO’s letter was intended to re-emphasize the importance of each team member “firing on all cylinders” not just all of the time, but particularly during this recession.

“A sense of urgency keeps employees focused and on-task and spawns innovations that ‘reinforce the fort,’” she says.

Having a weekly publication helps communicate urgency.

“We tried a quarterly publication and found we were publishing dated news,” Kaylor says, adding that they experienced similar results with a monthly publication. “Once we moved from print to an electronic publication, we found we could communicate weekly with no increase in effort and that the information was truly ‘hot off the press.’”

Of course, not everyone has the resources or manpower to pull off a weekly.

You can still make it work, Kaylor insists:

“If the corporation has an urgent message to convey and the newsletter isn’t due out for three weeks, an e-mailed letter from the president or CEO on corporate letterhead may be appropriate,” she says. “This may be particularly fitting if the message is urgent enough and the president does not typically communicate in this fashion.”

Don’t have a weekly pub? Try these story ideas

For the past month or so, Drizen-Dohs Corporate Communications has been helping dozens of companies—with anywhere from 100 to 10,000 employees across all industries—communicate about the global economic situation in their internal publications.

“An employee publication is a great place to take a positive approach to working smarter, faster and better,” says CEO and president Ruth Drizen-Dohs. “Stories that feature ‘best practices’ from employees who have cut costs in their departments, made processes more efficient, or come up with a new idea to better service customers, all help the bottom line. And that’s good in any economy.”

However, print communications that are monthly or quarterly are less ideal for communicating news or urgency, and should focus on the “training” aspect of best practices, she says. In fact, communicators should consider an entire special issue dedicate to internal best practices during a downturn.

“A special publication that focuses on employee interviews sharing great ideas to cut costs, better service customers, improve processes or capture more market share sends an excellent message in this tough economy,” Drizen-Dohs says. “It says, ‘Our company is here for the long term, and we know our employees make a difference in our success.’ Employees can’t control the economy, but they can control their devotion to excellence. They can feel like their actions can make a difference in the overall company’s success in these tough times. A great print publication can be very effective in sending that message.”

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