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Problem Solving

Face-to-face Works, Make it your Foundation Strategy

Jack Pyle asked:

With the rapid pace of change and the frantic growth of new technologies, it is time, once again, to realize the importance of slowing down to think about what works. To think strategically.

It is time for organizations to get back to basics. It is time for developing simple strategies and sticking to them. It is time to remember what is known about human behavior and how to change it. It is time to stop doing what everyone else does and do what gets results.

Nearly 18 years ago I opened my own business to specialize in face-to-face communication. I decided to stop doing many of the commonly used print forms of communication. Why? My work in public relations with three global corporations and a state government agency had convinced me that it was my relationship building techniques and face-to-face communication activities that were getting the desired results – and quickly.

There is ample evidence of the frequent failure of print communication:

– Research shows that only seven percent of people get information about what is going on at school by reading school newsletters.

– A TARP study (Technical Assistance Research Programs) found fewer than 15 percent of employees read employee magazines and newsletters.

– An internal communication study by a large West Coast employer discovered only four percent of top managers in the company read a three-page corporate memo.

Print communication fails because it is not communication. It is sending messages. It is one way. It does have a role in public relations and that role is to support what works: face-to-face communication and word-of-mouth using opinion leaders.

There is abundant evidence demonstrating the significance of word-of- mouth and the success of face-to-face communication:

– Dialogue is typically credited as a key element in successful corporate turnarounds. Navistar CEO John Horne said openness and face-to-face meetings played key roles in the company’s success.

– My own research and that of many others show that employees want information one-on-one from their supervisors or in small group meetings. Large organizations often find two-way meetings broadcast by satellite get results, too.

– Research says 70 percent of people get information about their schools word-of mouth. (Unfortunately, the number one information source is students.)

– At Hewlett-Packard, managers are expected to walk around and find out what is going on by talking to people. The open door policy is not just symbolic, there are no doors on offices. At monthly all-hands meetings, general managers tell their staffs details about business results.

– When Dow Corning announced it was considering Chapter 11 protection during the breast implant crisis, it used face-to-face meetings with employees to build trust. Key executives and middle managers were trained to provide information in small groups and answer questions. One result: turnover was below industry averages.

Here’s another example. I recently helped a natural gas pipeline company in Michigan build trust with a fearful public and quickly resolve a problem of vocal opposition to startup of a new pipeline. Natural gas produced from wells in the area includes hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas. Some residents feared a pipeline leak would endanger them.

The public was unaware that pipeline safety design features far exceeded legal requirements for protection. Nor were they aware of extensive emergency response plans in case of a leak. Neither the company nor the public were listening to each other.

A face-to-face program was begun to build trust with leaders of the most vocal opposition group. Within two weeks of talking and listening to each other, the group reversed its opposition tactics and talked about the company with respect, demonstrating the power of personalized PR.

Randy Nickerson, general manager of the parent company MarkWest Michigan, said, “This program showed me we must do more than build pipelines. We also have to build relationships.”

Use behavioral science research for guidance

Few people are aware of the thousands of diffusion studies that describe how people behave in adopting new ideas. The majority of people change not because of something they read, but because someone they know and trust says it’s a good idea. Mass media is impersonal and creates only awareness and knowledge. It takes personal interaction and dialogue to cause people to go beyond awareness and actually change their ideas and behaviors.

Regrettably, while these studies have been around for more than six decades, they are known to relatively few public relations professionals. Those who are knowledgeable use what has been learned from behavioral research studies to develop public relations strategies that get results.

What we know from diffusion studies around the world is compelling. Whether we seek to get farmers to use hybrid agricultural products, or school superintendents to use educational innovations, or doctors to use new wonder drugs or third world villagers to use birth control devices, publicity doesn’t get the job done. What works is word-of-mouth.

More specifically, it is word-of-mouth that begins with influentials in the group. A little more than 10 percent of any group are opinion leaders who influence two-thirds of the rest of the group to believe and act as they do. When you identify and build relationships with opinion leaders, your messages get delivered by leaders who are trusted and believed.

A school superintendent in Oklahoma talks to two opinion leaders on his staff when he wants information and opinions from employees. He says what he is thinking to a specific custodian and a teacher. The word gets out quickly. Soon his phone begins to ring with staff people telling him what they think about what they heard.

Using opinion leaders can cause remarkable change in an organization. One company wanted to reduce its healthcare costs, the fastest increasing cost of doing business. Employees paid nothing for their healthcare benefits. The company was turned down flat when it asked its union to agree to have employees pay a small percent of the cost.

A strategy using opinion leaders was created. About 25 union and non-union employees were invited to participate in meetings to talk about corporate issues. A year later, the union volunteered to have its members pay a portion of healthcare costs. That’s an example of the power opinion leaders have to create change within a group.

Behavioral scientists and consultants also have a rich history, not widely known, of successful interventions to change organizations relatively quickly. The process involves face-to-face communication working with large groups. In today’s high-speed world, leaders in organizations need results now, not six months from now.

Meaningful change comes from getting people throughout the organization involved in identifying problems, then creating action plans that will get the desired results. Involvement creates commitment. Organizations who have used this approach include Ford, Boeing, Corning, Chrysler, Marriott, EDS, plus schools and government. But that’s a story for another day.

Tactics for the face-to-face strategy

There are a number of tactics you can begin to use to develop more successful public relations results using face-to-face communication.

1. Use more two-way communication tactics

When creating tactics for public relations programs, ask about each one: “Is this two-way?” If it is not, you may want to rethink the program idea. Or plan so that one-way information tactics support and reinforce a two-way tactic. For instance, get the word out to employees or specific external audiences face-to-face in small groups or one-o
n-one, then support the messages and answers to questions with print media.

2. Teach leaders to liste
n

Leaders need help to learn the most important interpersonal communication skill – active listening. Even passive listening would be a good start. Listening is a very effective problem-solving skill. When I talk to people in organizations, they typically have excellent ideas to solve problems. When I recommend they tell their bosses their ideas, they often reply: “They never listen.” Or: “Nothing ever happens when I make suggestions.” No wonder people keep their good ideas to themselves!

3. No more speeches

Encourage executives to stop reading boring speeches and simply talk to people with brief key messages and stories that bring their ideas to life in a meaningful and memorable way.

4. Help supervisors to take a more active role in spreading the word

Supervisors cannot be the message bearers when they don’t know the message. Make sure they are kept up-to-date on the important stuff employees want to know, as well as the information they should know. You also need to work with supervisors to help them learn specifically how to deliver key corporate messages effectively when talking with their employees.

5. Identify opinion leaders and build relationships with them

Who are the top three audiences your organization needs to be supportive? Identify them and then find out who the most influential members are. Those are the people you need to get to know, feed information to and listen to.

6. Create a speakers bureau

I have taught thousands of people how to stand up and talk to others in an interesting and credible way. While at the Michigan Department of Transportation, we had employee volunteers delivering about 500 speeches annually to groups throughout the state. It is a fine way to reach many influential opinion leaders at once.

In our high-speed world, it is essential that we become more effective. For most of us, that means doing something different. Once you start using face-to-face techniques and seeing the results you get, it will encourage more use of two-way communication tactics. Face-to-face works. Make it your foundation strategy. Use dialogue and relationship building first, print communication later.

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