Culture Shock: The Role of Communications in the Workplace Environment

September 2019
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Culture is one of the biggest buzzwords in business today. It defines the workplace environment and incorporates things like the company’s mission, goals and values.

Too frequently, though, companies try to build and promote what they call culture without considering a communication strategy and foundation. In our experience, communication is the ultimate enabler of culture, and PR practitioners are the ideal group to educate and enlist colleagues to ensure its successful adoption.

What follows are three case studies. These are true stories, although the names of the companies have been redacted and some of the details generalized for privacy purposes. All three organizations were established and profitable. There were differences, however.

Encouraging feedback

Company A engaged outside consultants. They created PowerPoint decks, mission-vision-values statements, a beautifully produced video, a booklet that unfolded accordion style, lapel pins for the company’s badges and a portion of the website dedicated to explaining the company’s culture. The CEO announced the new culture components at an all-employee meeting watched by off-site employees via video conference.

Companies B and C took a different approach. At Company B, the PR staff consulted with HR (responsible for talent and leadership development) and other functions involved in operations. The PR staff pitched an approach based on a decade of creating messaging material for internal and external use.

As Company B expanded, it engaged in an aggressive effort to gain visibility by deploying its experts and leadership team to speak at conferences, participate in panels, sponsor events and give interviews. Mounting this kind of initiative required lots of buy-in, so the PR staff enlisted and equipped directors and managers to promote it internally. They coordinated with HR to prepare participants with organized training days. They recognized that the talking points generated by that training, dutifully cleared by the legal department, communicated their goals and the steps necessary to achieve them.

Company B found that they had unintentionally defined and propagated the true essence of culture by tapping its own people and encouraging and empowering them to describe what the company meant to them and to listen to their peers do the same thing. They were perfectly positioned to launch an enterprisewide effort with a more formal focus. 

Enlisting your employees

During the training, Company B looked at a communication model that identified the audiences it needed to influence and the channels the company was using to reach them. The key element in this exercise was the participant’s realization that corporate material — ads, websites, emails, banners, newsletters, branded clothing, etc. — is only convincing if employees are willing to energetically speak for the company, look for opportunities to reinforce the message, and add their own personal experiences.

This isn’t something that can be ordered from the top down. It has to grow organically from each session. The roots are in what we call the “good-word exercise,” which is a simple activity. It asks, who are all the audiences you want to enlist and influence and, in each scenario, what words or short phrases would you hope they would say?

The next question is: Do these words show up in those corporate materials you identified? They always do. The third question is, are these words true? And the last question is, if you want these internal and external audiences to hear those words, who has to take ownership of them and verbalize them? When in response participants say, “I do, we do,” they have made a commitment to represent the company’s true culture.

Over the course of a year, the PR-led teams facilitated two-hour sessions with scores of different groups of employees. Two hours was enough time to take each group, many of which were familiar with the approach, through the concept and model of identifying and influencing audiences, the “good-word” list and the concept of storytelling as a corporate strategy. It also put hundreds of stories into the facilitation teams’ hands. Finally, the participants joined an iterative process of organizing the material. They became the internal ambassadors for commenting on the material and explaining and distributing it to their peers.

The PR staff had organized the effort, building on a solid decade of PR activities and joining forces with other departments to embed its culture.

Influencing morale

In our three decades of experience, we’ve found that companies that trust their own people enough to launch or build an initiative like this generally find that when the question “Are these words true?” is asked, the response is positive, although with some discussion when words are aspirational.

This kind of investment helped Company B avoid the situation of oil and gas company Pioneer Natural Resources, which was criticized by outplacement expert Andrew Challenger, of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Pioneer eliminated 28 percent of its workforce in the first six months of 2019 at a time of record profits and the construction of a new $200 million-plus headquarters.

Challenger noted that Pioneer was simultaneously writing that maintaining its “strong corporate culture” was one of its strategic goals. “When cuts are this deep, you have to worry about how it’s going to affect other employees in the organization,” Challenger said.

Staff cuts are always challenging, even when the enterprise does need to make significant changes for legitimate reasons. Company B had to shut down a line of business due to increased regulations that would have required tens of millions of dollars of investment with no assurance of long-term success. Company B launched an effort to explain its actions to employees, partners and the affected community. Part of its message was that it was committed to treating employees fairly, and it would provide a wide variety of services and benefits. 

Company B’s leadership prepared, rehearsed and included a story that embodied the company’s culture. They located a former employee who had been affected by a previous reorganization. She had used her severance pay to upgrade her nursing credentials and found a job at a school district. On video, she explained to her former colleagues that she liked her new environment, and that the company had made it possible for her to move on to the next chapter in her life. The long-term result is that Company B continues to have high levels of employee and customer satisfaction.

And Company A? A few years later, the expensive, extravagantly produced culture project was history, and not in a historic way. Because it had been distributed from the top down, employees never embraced it. And that’s the secret as to what culture is all about. How do all the people who work within an enterprise think about, talk about and embrace what they’re doing? Smart companies enable their PR team to fulfill this broad mandate of communication.

Return to Current Issue The Culture Issue | September 2019
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