The Marriage of PR and Employee Engagement – Industry Experts Weigh In

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Public relations is defined as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” PR is telling the story of the organization and protecting its reputation on behalf of all stakeholders. Knowing that it’s an organization’s employees that give the company structure, substance, and culture – and not the other way around – it’s vital to engage your workforce in this process.

However, one must be engaged themselves as a PR professional first to be viewed as credible to his or her audience. When the PR employee is perceived as a genuine, ethical and trustworthy colleague, in both favorable and disastrous times the organization and its reputation both win.

In his book, WE, How to Increase Performance and Profits through Full Engagement, author Kevin Kruse defined employee engagement as, “the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute to organizational success and are willing to apply discretionary effort to accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals.” Based on a 4-domain model, employee engagement is governed by four primary key drivers: communication, growth, recognition and trust.

A simple exercise mentioned in Kruse’s book is the “We Test.” The test is performed by asking employees to describe the way they refer to their workplace. Is the word “they” used when describing the organization or do employees refer to the organization in “we” terms? “You can tell a lot about an organization’s culture and whether workers are fully engaged in their jobs by how often they use the word “we” as opposed to “they,” “our” or even “I,” states Kruse.

With this in mind, how does PR help to build and enhance employee engagement?

PR needs to be the link in getting employees educated and excited to perform and exceed. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. You really can’t have one without the other,” said Georgina Gonzalez-Robiou, APR, director, marketing & public relations at Baptist Outpatient Services & Baptist Health Enterprises in Miami, Fla. She continued, “employees with a higher level of engagement are more likely to be active on behalf of the organization and serve as brand ambassadors.” Brand ambassadors can be your biggest advocates in the community, be it for charity walks, serving on boards, or representing the organization in various outreach events.

At St. Peter’s Health Partners in Albany, N.Y., engaging the employees as brand ambassadors was the key to a successful merger between two large health systems. “We wanted people in each of the legacy organizations to visibly see people (in a television branding campaign) they recognized as both leaders and co-workers who they truly respected and say to themselves, ‘I know that person, that person has bought into this – I am part of it too’,” said Elmer Streeter, director, corporate communications. The branding built trust and the campaign was centered on collaboration and inclusion. “We wanted the unofficial and official leaders of the system who live the mission to be a part of the campaign,” said Streeter.

Matt Cabrey, executive director, Select Greater Philadelphia, said, “PR not only sets the company tone and shapes the image and reputation for how audiences view the company, it has a direct influence on internal communications and the level of pride employees feel in their role and in the organization.”

Bill Cowen, professor and PR program director, Villanova University and president, Metrospective Communications LLC, said, “Whether through tangible rewards or being given a respected voice at the table, collective and creative employee engagement is more crucial than ever to talent cultivation and retention in PR. This is especially the case with the newer generation of professionals that wants to believe fully in the organization.”

However, keeping employees engaged comes with its challenges. For example, the BP oil spill disaster carried with it negligence on behalf of the rig workers, lack of compensation payouts and continuous internal strife. Were the BP employees kept up to date regarding the changing events? Who was taking the blame? When companies are in survival mode it’s even more important for them to engage their employees.

“Relegating employees to some lesser level of importance during a crisis is a mistake,” said John J. Moscatelli, APR, Fellow PRSA, owner, JJM Communications LLC, who teaches PR at Rowan Universtiy. He continued, “uninformed or ill-informed employees, those relying on rumors and speculation, tend to be distrustful of management, express a lack of confidence in the organization to their friends and neighbors, and, in a worst case, make the crisis even worse.” However, out of chaos comes order. The very definition of PR suggests the relationship itself between the organization and its audiences.

Joe Anthony, president of financial services & partner at Gregory FCA, said, “…thoughtfully deploying key employees in telling the company story and weaving their roles into the company narrative can make them feel more a part of the company culture and direction. We do that here at Gregory FCA and encourage our clients to do the same. It’s not just about “staying in front” of employees, it’s about keeping them working alongside of you. That’s why it’s so important to keep them feeling as if they are in the loop.” BP would have fared better if they had strived to achieve this from the beginning.

Often seen as the face of the organization, and an employee themselves, the PR professional must remember it’s important to keep both sides of PR and employee engagement well represented and all parties informed. And remember that it’s an ongoing process. It must start at the recruiting stage, continue through employment, and flow from top to bottom and bottom to top of the hierarchy chain.

As noted by Kruse, trust is a key driver. “Research shows that employees who feel more pride and trust towards their employer are more satisfied and expend more discretionary energy on their work, enabling them to advance key business objectives and achieve results,” said Cathy Engel Menendez, director, communications, PECO. And that after all, are what companies are in business to do. If PR is telling the story of the organization in a favorable light, what better way than to communicate that by using your biggest assets…your employees.

Meg Boyd is a corporate communications professional who is passionate about PR and employee engagement. She earned a master’s in strategic communication from Villanova University and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Dayton. She is currently seeking opportunities. Contact Meg via email at marg.j.boyd@gmail.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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