How Not to Communicate a Major Change
by Sean Williams

If you want people - employees, community, the general public - to be critical of your decision, the best way to do it is to not tell them the reason. Now, what business-focused person would want that result in the first place? But we see this common sense rule of communication violated time and again.

The most recent case is that of the recently announced Conoco-Phillips merger. Buried half-way in the news release was the fact that Phillips was also moving their corporate headquarters from Bartlesville, Okla. to Houston. No reason was given in the initial release. The company was founded in Bartlesville 84 years ago. Naturally, the media moved this up to the lead. The community and many Phillips employees went into shock, for it came out of nowhere.

Later Phillips said that "the issue of headquarters is part of a total package of a negotiated transaction."

What does that mean? Most would interpret it as being that Conoco dictated the headquarters site. But it is clearly not in language people can easily understand.

When the reasons are left out of important milestone events, a company will pay a price, and that price is lack of understanding by its audiences and lack of understanding leads to lack of commitment. And a lack of commitment leads to distrust and an absence of loyalty. Conversely, companies complain about being able to attract and retain the best people. Wonder why?

All Phillips had to do was simply outline the reasons for the move at the outset. Whether it would be better able to recruit employees in Houston, be among the other major energy companies, have access to better international air connections, or whatever their reason, they missed an opportunity to get those reasons out front at the start. By not doing so, a company runs the very real risk of creating rumors, causing its audiences to make up the reason themselves, and generating even more negative feelings.

One thing Phillips and other companies need to learn about communication is that you can't afford to ignore the reasons. Employees are smart. Management must give people the facts and let them decide for themselves if they agree or disagree with those facts. In today's business climate, it is impossible for every constituent to like every decision a company makes. It's not about wanting everyone to like every decision. The purpose of communicating the reason is to help people understand why the company decided as it did.

Not communicating the reasons sends constituents a message of disrespect and arrogance. It tells them "we do not think you need to know why we decided the way we did. Your job is to accept it and, oh, by the way, we expect you to be loyal and enthusiastic and trust us and be a happy employee at the same time."

Companies can't have it both ways. If companies want loyalty and enthusiasm and trust from others, they simply have to be up-front and communicate the reasons with them.

Doing so says we respect your right to evaluate the decision for yourselves. You may not agree with it, but we want you to understand our business reasons for doing so. We respect and value your intelligence. We want to be open and honest with you.

Employees and community audiences may not like the fact that a company is moving its headquarters to another state. But they like it even less when the reasons for the move are not given.


Sean Williams is Senior Consultant for Face2Face Communication Learning for Joe Williams Communications, Inc., an Oklahoma-based strategic planning, research and training firm. His office is in Cleveland. Visit www.JWCom.com; Telephone: 918-336-2267; e-mail: SeanW@JWCom.com .

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Copyright 2002 by Sean Williams. All rights reserved.

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