Communicating to achieve results is anything but frivolous

In the business world, communication plays a big part in engaging employees. There is ample research that proves companies that communicate well are four times more likely to have engaged staff. This matters because engaged employees are more efficient and productive. Turnover is lower among engaged employee populations. Motivation levels are higher.

In the business world, that’s worth the cost because the payoff is so much greater. In government, apparently employees are just supposed to engage themselves.

That, at least, seems to be the thinking behind an attack by Rep. Darryl Issa (R-California) on the internal communications at the U.S. Department of Labor. On August 25, Issa sent a scathing letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez charging the department with “frivolously spend(ing) taxpayer dollars on unnecessary items.” (The letter appears at the end of this post.)

Those items include some fairly routine internal communication tactics. But Issa’s demand for documentation about these programs has fueled something of a feeding frenzy, a piling on of critics like Forbes contributor Kyle Smith, who wrote, “A Congressional investigation is making clear, a frivolous agency wasting taxpayer funds on the bizarre and the ridiculous.” The National Review labeled the programs “wasteful high jinks.”

I have been working in internal communications for more than 35 years, yet somehow that waste is not clear to me. I’m not incensed at Issa’s attack because I don’t belong to Issa’s political party. I’m incensed because I’m a communicator.

In his letter, Issa has demanded “documents and information” related specifically to each of four tactics. In doing so, he demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of employee communications. If he knew a jot about internal comms, he would have requested the strategic plan and the metrics used to assess the effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, the cost of the program doesn’t matter if it produces a benefit to taxpayers that is greater than the cost.

That’s exactly what Labor Department spokesman Stephen Barr says is happening. “We inform the public of our important mission and engage and educate our employees in creative, effective and appropriate ways,” according to Barr. “Our internal communications efforts make a difference in employee satisfaction, retention and most importantly, performance.  Better performance from our employees translates into better value for the public.”

There’s ROI in them thar communications

Turnover alone could more than pay for the cost of the programs. According to a number of studies by the likes of the American Management Association, employee turnover costs between 25% and 250% of the salary paid to the departing employee, with the cost rising the higher-level the position. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says non-farm turnover in the U.S. is, on average, 3.3%, so if the Labor Department is losing the average number of employees, and we take a wild-ass guess of $85,000 as the average salary and an equally wild-ass guess of a 75% cost, we come up with a cost to the taxpayers of about $3.3 million.

Of course, turnover in government isn’t 3.3% In a 1986 study, it was a whopping 11.5%, and I don’t suspect it has improved much since then. By shaving a couple percentage points off the total, an employee engagement strategy can save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

And that’s just turnover. Add to that the other advantages of an engaged workforce and you begin to see that the costs of engagement strategies can produce significant returns.

But Rep. Issa doesn’t get that. Or he doesn’t want to. Instead, he wants to criticize individual tactics as frivolous without even wondering if they might, perhaps, have been implemented by people who knew what they were doing, based on research, with measurable objectives designed to produce specific results.

So okay, let’s look at the four tactics Issa has targeted.

Elevator posters

Since 2009, the DOL has spent $600,000 on posters affixed to the walls of elevators. That’s $2,637 per week for the design, printing, and distribution of posters that “are evidently aimed at celebrating the agency’s work to its own employees,” sniffs Forbes contributor Smith.

Elevator posters and wall clings are among the kinds of visual displays that are hard to miss, unlike emails and other communications that are sent directly to each individual employee. If there’s a message you want to get in front of every employee—increasingly difficult through traitional channels in an increasingly personalized world—elevator posters aren’t a bad idea.

Noting the DOL’s achievements serves a number of purposes. It connects the dots, helping employees see how they have contributed to the department’s successes. Employees who feel their day-to-day efforts serve a higher purpose are more engaged. In fact, feeling like you’re part of something bigger and more important than yourself is one routine definition of engagement.

Another approach gaining greater acceptance in the private sector are flat-panel visual displays. I suspect the DOL would have had a hard time getting buy-in for the installation of digital displays throughout their offices, so they have stuck with old media: paper posters. Print’s not dead, after all, so why not make use of it, particularly if your research tells you that’s one of the best ways to reach people?

Frances Mag

The DOL produces (gasp!) an employee magazine named for Frances Perkins, the DOL’s secretary from 1933 to 1945. As one conservative site put it, “Frances Mag runs stories like, ‘Is there anything OSHA inspectors won’t eat?’”

Of course, it’s easy to pick the features out of a magazine and ignore the pieces that help employees do their jobs. But as any internal content producer will tell you, it’s the fun features that get employees to open up the publication in the first place. I remember seeing the great Steve Crescenzo tell audiences that they’re competing for their employees’ attention with all kinds of other media, so you’d better produce content that’s just as entertaining and compelling.

The article in question appeared in a 2012 issue of the magazine—and won an award from Ragan Communications. It was one of five stories featured on the cover of an issue of the issue devoted to food—but it was the most-read. According to Ragan, “The issue as a whole dealt with such food-related issues as ethical questions for employees at events where food is served and stories of courage on the part of employees investigating wage and safety conditions in stockyards, restaurants, and everything in between.”

Horrors! Why should employees know about these things? (And assuming you agree that they should, is an employee magazine a terrible way to deliver it?)

An employee magazine can contribute to the same sense of pride, belonging, and purpose that reduces turnover, raises productivity, and pays dividends to the publics the organization serves.

OSHA, by the way, is the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a part of the DOL, and exploring the edibles its employees have had to sample on the job not only would capture the interest of other employees, it helps them understand the work that some of their colleagues do. Every employee communicator has produced similar stories with clear objectives in mind.

Book club

Issa accuses the DOL of wasting $100,000 on an employee book club focused on “work, workers, and workplaces and . . . about (the) department’s mission and history.”

While most of the results of a search on the book club produce critiques supporting Issa’s attack, they also found a December 2013 post that offers an objective look at the club. According to Gaper’s Block writer Lara Levitan, the public site (not an employee communications effort) “To remind folks that we’re a nation of workers (with the words to prove it), the U.S. Department of Labor has selected…titles for an interactive, web-based project called Books That Shaped Work in America.

The book club was developed in cooperation with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, with Secretary Perez and eight former Labor secretaries (including Republicans), department staff, civil rights leaders, critics, authors, media personality, and Library of Congress staff selecting titles. What made it a book club? According to Perez, “People from all walks of life can share books that informed them about occupations and careers, molded their views about work and helped elevate the discourse about work, workers and workplaces.”

Providing an engaging means for the public to be better informed about labor issues doesn’t strike me as a bad investment for a department that deals with labor. Incidentally, I was unable to find a single criticism leveled at the online effort from around the time it launched very publicly.

Contests

In his letter, Issa points out:

Between fiscal years 2010-2014, DOL racked up nearly $25,000 in entry fees for public relations contests. Indeed, DOL appears to have submitted 168 entries—paying as much as $2,310 per application—winning awards 83 times. In addition, taxpayers allegedly pick up the tab for senior DOL employees to travel around the country and claim the awards. In one instance, taxpayers apparently covered the cost for (Office of Public Affairs) Senior Advisor Carl Fillichio to attend the 2013 PRSA Silver Anvil Awards Ceremony in New York. The cost to attend the ceremony was $375 per person.

While I might have an issue with the total number of entries, there’s more to communication competitions than polishing one’s own image, the allegation Issa and his followers are making. For many of us working in communications, competitions are one of the best ways to assess our work against that of our peers; operating in a vacuum can lead a communicator to grow complacent and not evaluate the quality of our efforts.

In IABC’s international Gold Quill competition, entrants get feedback from the judges telling them how to improve their work. In addition, the process of completing an entry—which includes articulating the plan—can be invaluable in rethinking the strategic approach to communications.

As for attending the award ceremonies, most of these are coupled with conferences; we don’t know whether those picking up the awards also attended sessions and soaked up knowledge that allowed them to do their jobs even better. Even if they didn’t, the opportunity to network with peers and learn what they’re doing can pay dividends to the organization. I remember chatting with a communicator at my table during an awards ceremony, getting an idea, implementing it back at work, and generating returns that were far more valuable than the cost of a short plane flight, a hotel room, and some banquet chicken.

And by the way, shouldn’t 83 wins tell Issa something about the quality of the work Fillichio and his team produce? If that many of his peers think it’s worth honoring, doesn’t that suggest anything?

Focus on the results, Mr. Issa

The assumption, without evidence to support it, that these efforts are frivolous is the true outrage, as anybody working in communication knows. It seems remarkably easy for people who are not communicators for a living to assume they know how best to communicate with employees and other audiences, even though they would bristle if a communicator dared tell them how to do their jobs.

Sadly, Issa is just the latest in a parade of politicians looking to score points by scoffing at the cost of communicating. It happens at local, state, and national levels at a pretty steady clip. There always seems to be a supervisor or councilman or senator somewhere ready to pounce on what appears to be an outrageous expense for PR.

Government expenses for communication should, of course, be subject to the same oversight as anything else. It doesn’t bother me that expenses might be called into question. But it bugs the crap out of me that so many politicians start out by assuming the expenses must be frivolous. Issa is not an employee communications specialist, nor is Forbes contributor Smith, nor are the authors of conservative blogs and publications that have jerked their collective knees and joined the attack.

I will admit (since I can do nothing but) that I have not seen the metrics proving that these tactics work, but I’ll take DOL spokesman Barr at his word when he says the efforts “make a difference in employee satisfaction, retention and most importantly, performance.”

It’s the outcomes that matter, Mr. Issa.

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