When I first joined Thomas Nelson, communications with most of our staff were not where they needed to be. There was a joke at the time that was all too accurate. If you worked at our publishing house and wanted to know what was coming next, you’d just have to find out about it in The Tennessean.
Our CEO did not get along with the reporter for the state’s biggest newspaper who was breaking all those stories before he broke the news to his own employees.
When I took over the company, I took a different approach. I invited that reporter out to lunch and established a working relationship with him. It was a good step, yet that was only one small part of what changed.
Beyond the Backlash
I realized that the reason the company was so prone to leaks was that instead of an information flow, what we had created was a vacuum, punctuated only by unexpected changes. We couldn’t fix the problem by plugging leaks or freezing out reporters. What we really needed was a whole new communication strategy.
This was especially true where large changes were involved. Any major change was met with leaks and shock and backlash. It seemed to me there was a way to avoid all of that.
There were 6 things that we needed to do well when pushing any new initiatives if we wanted to make real progress as a company. These 6 strategies are still applicable today for any leader pushing through a major organizational change.
- Figure out what you want to say. Get crystal clear on your message behind the change. Distill it down to what could be a headline. Then flesh it out in more detail.
One of those details should be not just what is changing but why. Employees are often very cooperative once they understand why you are taking a particular action. They’ll also want to know how and when you will implement it and how it will affect them personally. It’s a bad idea to leave them guessing.
Once you’ve decided on the message, write it down. I always start by writing a press release. Next up are written talking points to prepare you for speaking with your people about the change. Also start a Frequently Asked Questions document and add to it as more questions come in.
Get your leadership team on the same page. Give your key leaders time to process the change you’re calling for, provide input, and work toward alignment. This might take days, weeks, or, in some cases, months, depending on the size and significance of the decision.
You may not always be able to get agreement, but you can get alignment. Individuals may disagree with the direction you are taking. But if they feel they have been heard and considered, they will generally align with the decision and support it when you call for that.
Alignment means that no one publicly second-guesses the decision or the process as we roll it out. If a new concern develops, they bring it back to me or the group to consider.
Contact influential stakeholders—personally. On major decisions, develop a list of influential stakeholders, determine who will contact whom, and then begin quietly making visits or calls before the public announcement. If you have a broader group of leaders in your organization, start with them. This includes divisional or department leaders—anyone with supervisory responsibility. Cascade this communication down the organization.
Then roll it out selectively to VIPs outside the organization. This might include big investors if you are a private company, key customers, vendors, authors, agents, collaborators, etc. Once you have done that, you need to communicate the news to your entire organization. And then, go public.
Announce the change through the press and social media. Send out a press release, and use social media. If you’ve done your job, this will not be news to those who care about this the most. They will have already heard from you or your colleagues personally.
Make yourself available to answer questions. If the news is big enough, I make myself available for interviews. It’s a bad idea to hide from the media. My office responds to every media inquiry. We do our best to answer every question, even if we have to admit that we don’t have the answer—or can’t comment.
In my experience, the media are almost always respectful if they feel respected. That means being responsive and being honest and perhaps developing a relationship with key reporters. Remember, if you have a relationship with people, they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if the communication gets muddled – as it might in spite of your best efforts.
It’s also a good idea to actively monitor social media responses to major changes so that you know what people are saying. Don’t be afraid to jump into the middle of a conversation and respectfully correct the narrative.
It’s amazing how often these simple steps can shift the entire conversation and help turn would-be backlashers into backers. Plain speaking has its benefits.