Effectively Communicating Change

By Jessica Thomas, Principal Consultant

Typically when organizations communicate about a change they approach it with a “one message fits all” approach and offer a “one-way experience” where the leaders do all the talking.  In other words, they communicate the way they do other general information.  Announcements are made by email or the information talked about in a meeting a few times.  Rarely are feedback mechanisms in place, messages crafted by audience or sent by the most influential people.  I call it vanilla messaging, very generic and not real impactful or comforting during times of change.  Communication is the cornerstone of a change management strategy and creating and implementing an effective change communication plan takes a lot of work.  To break out of vanilla planning and achieve desired behavior changes handle communications to employees like an internal marketing campaign.  After all you are ‘selling the change’ to your employees. Once you make this paradigm shift, pulling together a change communications plan is made easier by following proven principles of good marketing.  Too often organizations feel communicating change is just that…  telling people about the change.  Marketing firms know that successful selling is all about the emotional hook.  Think about the car salesman whose main objective is to get you into the car for a test drive rather than just reviewing a brochure.
Change Management research has shown over and over that you have to appeal to people’s intellect AND to their emotional hearts to see real lasting behavioral change.  Communication is a key factor when attempting to appeal to people’s emotions.  However, openly talking about people’s emotions is not common in the traditional workplace.  It’s uncomfortable, difficult, and emotions are a moving target. In my opinion, this is why organizations have not caught onto the secret of using marketing techniques to sell their change.

Communications about a major change initiative start long before a formal communications plan is complete and messages carefully crafted. In fact they may have been happening for months before the project kicks off.  Communication about change always begins when the rumors about the change start.  Nothing is more emotionally charged than a rumor.  That’s why they spread so fast.  People are invested in their travel.  They revel in helping them along and love being in the know.
So let’s take a page from the marketing book and look at how our marketing counterparts ‘launch’ a product.  They start the rumors themselves with ‘teaser campaigns’.   A teaser ad reveals only a little about the product. Its purpose is to arouse widespread attention, and build excitement and expectations through consumer curiosity. Let’s use an example of a current, common organizational change: rolling out Office 365.  You could use a slogan- ‘Coming in December, a better way to manage your time.’ on banners, posters, videos etc., and then change slogans periodically until you can start a communications plan in earnest.
Now that you have launched your teaser campaign, the next step is to gather the information you need to create effective messages:
  1. What’s changing?
  2. When is the change happening?
  3. What’s the Change Impact?
  4. Why should employees change?
What’s Changing - Describe the new ‘product’
It’s important to make the definition of the change easy to understand, short and easy to remember.  Remove all technical jargon.  A good general rule is to keep the reading level of all your communications at/or lower than a 7th grade level. Communications to executives can be at a 9th grade level. 
  • "Office 365 is a Microsoft email and social networking software."
When the Change is Happening- Timeline
Don’t give a specific date early in the project.  Dates change; and it can jeopardize the credibility of the project team. Once the date is solidified, be more specific.
  • "You will begin using Office 365 in Q4 of 2016."
What’s the Change Impact- Your Audience
Doing your homework is extremely important when determining the change impact.  Your efforts here will drive the quality and success of your communication efforts.  For example, let’s say I work for Nike.  When selling new basketball shoes; I use LeBron as my spokesperson for TV, print and social media advertising to male audiences ages from 12-25. I repeat these ads with the message ‘These shoes will improve your basketball performance’. 
In this case I knew who my audience was, the best way to send the messages and who would be most influential sending the messages.
Now, let’s look at this scenario from an organizational change perspective. The spokespeople for O365 have to be the company’s leaders.  Executive leadership sends a strategic message ‘Changing to Office 365 modernizes our administrative efforts, improving efficiencies ultimately keeping us competitive.  It offers enhanced features which help you manage your email more efficiently. For the first time we will have secure social media opportunities.’  Middle managers send tactical messages.  For instance, telling employees when to go to training and encouraging the use of O365. Messages from the project manager, change manager, HR etc. will not be as effective.
If the audience is global.  Providing messages in all the appropriate languages shows respect and special effort.  Websites, social media, video conferencing, printed speaking points are some of the best vehicles to reach global audiences.  Use different tactics for smaller audiences less geographically dispersed.  In either case make sure to repeat messages 7-12 times, which research has shown is best practice for message retention.  
Why Should Employees Change - Emotional Hook
Now it’s time to bring emotions back into the picture and encourage action. One-size fits all messaging won’t be effective in this situation.  For each audience, prepare a message that explains how the change will impact them and what benefits they will realize for embracing the change.  For marketing examples, emotional advertising is all around us.  Budweiser draft horses just make you smile. Speaking of smiling, share a Coca Cola.  Speaking of Coke, messages don’t get any more personal than having your own name on a can of pop.
Don’t think organizational change can be this emotional?  Try messing with someone’s email and you will see emotion.  Office 365 may sound pretty benign, but it also changes how calendars will be managed, how conference rooms will be reserved and how many people can be sent an email at once. 
Who will be the most impacted? Administrative Assistants will be impacted more and differently than a staff employee who only uses email functions.  Emotions will run higher with the former group and the benefits will be different for the latter. It’s important to be transparent with change impacts, both positive and negative.  This honesty builds trust in the messages. Either way it is important to talk to the benefits each group will realize. Describe how pain points will be alleviated and efficiencies gained.
Stay in contact with your audiences.  They may be on-board with the change today, but if they don’t hear something on a regular basis you will lose momentum.  People fill in the gaps with poor communications.  Unfortunately humans are a fearful bunch and the gaps are rarely filled in with optimism.  In the end it’s about encouragement and trust built through all your change management efforts including communications.
As a parting thought, don’t forget marketing’s best tactic: free stuff.  Messages can be placed on, in, around promotional items.  Giveaways are always well received.  They are an attention grabber and generally make people smile, which is always good during times of change.  It never ceases to amaze me the lengths people will go for a bottle of hand sanitizer with a silly cap.