06/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Integrating Communication to Maximize Influence and Minimize Business Risk

In these turbulent economic times, companies are hunting for opportunities to differentiate themselves from competitors and strengthen their organizations. Leaders need to manage for today -- satisfying customers, reassuring shareholders, streamlining processes and retaining their best people. But they also have an opportunity to rethink communications in order to redefine the organization's path forward. Opportunities abound to communicate to employees and external stakeholders a company's new direction and the rationale behind recent decisions. Robust and integrated communications can make all the difference in the world.

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth
Strengthening the Best While Dismantling the Rest

Times have certainly changed. Confidence in business leaders has plummeted. Whistleblowers, critics and disbelievers flourish as increasingly incredible accusations of corporate malfeasance and greed too often turn out to be fundamentally true. As a result, everyone both inside and outside the corporation is more skeptical of anything put out by corporate communications than they have been in a generation, parsing every line to ascertain what is really being revealed and speculate about what is being covered up.

In such a hyper-critical environment, there is an opportunity for differentiation through honest, interactive dialogue with stakeholders. Although overcoming skepticism won't be easy, those that persevere will find that their audiences are increasingly able to accept even adverse news if they believe they are being told the truth. Leaders must be engaged and transparent, communicating to both internal and external stakeholders. This means communicating to employees the company strategy, trying to calm the emotional, anxiety-ridden waters and keeping employees focused on their day jobs. It also means re-energizing the organization to take steps to become more competitive and differentiated. Integrating communications is essential to enable a company to maximize its influence, minimize its risk and strengthen its position with key stakeholders in the marketplace.

Internal and External Stakeholders Matter Equally
When it is said and to whom it is said is just as important as what is said.

With share prices across the board down in the range of 40%, shareholders would appear to be the obvious primary audience. But the company that communicates equally well with all stakeholders stands to gain the most; the way information is now gathered and shared reflects an interactive collective process from multiple sources. And since the once-solid wall separating internal and external company communications no longer exists, honest, consistent, credible and harmonized dialogue is essential.

Using messages that have the same essence, yet reflect a different perspective of high relevance to a particular audience, are perfectly acceptable and often justified. Substantive dissonance, however, should be avoided at all costs. Likewise for staggered release of information. By taking advantage of the broad channels available, companies have an opportunity to bolster credibility by informing all stakeholders -- employees, investors, policymakers, media, customers and suppliers -- simultaneously.

Within minutes in today's lightening-fast and interwoven communications network, messages released to external stakeholders can -- and generally will -- find their way to employees' desks or blackberries via a blog, YouTube or broadcast news. And the flow of information goes the other way, too: employee-only memos find their way onto blogs now often quoted by mainstream media.

Companies can circumvent many problems by stepping up internal communications. In fact, Burson-Marsteller's proprietary research with global companies has shown that when there is no or limited communication from company leaders, only fourteen percent of managers have further discussions with their teams. When leaders do communicate, sixty-five percent have further discussion with their teams.

Leaders must be visible in person, word and deed, deepening employee understanding and commitment to the business, energizing them and involving them in dialogue about the steps to strengthen the organization for greater competitiveness. Sincere and regular communication, such as walking the halls, checking in and putting a human face to the words on an internal memo, are critical to maintaining employee confidence.

Motivating employees during these times can help a company surge ahead as it tries to turn itself around or simply outshine the competition. Failure to do so could result in alienated, disengaged employees who drag the company down.

Who Communicates What and When
A Communications House United not Divided

Integrated communication works best when it is developed and delivered by an interdependent team of professionals with complementary skills. During these times of fast turnaround and limited resources -- both financial and human -- management can establish a disciplined message-delivery system by consolidating external and internal operations under one corporate communications department.

With one agenda and a single point of responsibility for developing and delivering information inside and out across all channels, companies will optimize information flow and minimize confusion, critical delays and diminished credibility -- all risks related to communicating during a down cycle.

Managing these potential communications risks, as well as keeping employees engaged despite the turmoil, clarifying messages for all stakeholders in the midst of uncertainty, retaining and re-engineering high-performing teams to deliver tomorrow's growth, can only be achieved through integrated communications.

In these trying times when minutes often count as hours and opportunities generally only knock once, those companies that can integrate their internal and external communication messages quickly and effectively are destined to fare better than those who can't. And that may make all the difference in the world.

By Stacie Nevadomski Berdan and Lorenca Rosal, Managing Director, Organizational Change, Burson-Marsteller