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Reorganization. Rightsizing. Downsizing. No matter what you call it, it’s a challenging time for any organization. Both for employees who leave and those who stay. For these and many other reasons, communications planning for a reorganization is key.

In the short-term, most reorganizations are successful from a cost or value standpoint. But the long-term benefit is murky. According to research done by McKinsey, the clear majority of reorganizations fail to provide long-term value. And 10 percent cause real damage to the company. More important, reorganizations can cause considerable misery to employees regardless of whether they stay or go. Research suggests the uncertainty reorgs provoke about the future can cause greater stress and anxiety than layoffs alone. In about 60 percent of cases, this leads to noticeably reduced productivity.

One of the reasons for failure is spending too much time on the wrong things. And not enough time on processes and the people behind them. What we call the human side of change. This is where communications comes in. This first of a three-part blog series more fully discusses the role of communications in a reorganization, how to identify your key audiences and, finally, how to formulate key messaging.

Role of communications planning in a reorganization

First off, if you’re a communicator in your organization, you should be brought into the reorganization planning well before the change takes effect. While this should go without saying, we know many companies want to keep things close to the vest until the last minute. We’ve been on the receiving end of this, getting that call from a business we’ve not worked with before to request help in “announcing a reorganization in the coming weeks.” That’s lopsided.

Fact is, while organizations are planning for a reorg, the rumor mill is already cranking. Many executives think they’re keeping things a secret, but there’s really no such thing. The best thing to do is to get ahead of it by having your top communicators at the table from the beginning. As soon as a company knows it’s going to reorganize, leadership should share some basic information with employees. By sharing what you can, you’ll be able to better manage the process going forward.

Also, reorganizations are often rife with legal implications. As such, it’s important that the communications team have a firm understanding of the approval process for developing and finalizing communications materials. The common players often include the CEO or COO as well as leaders from Human Resources and Legal/Compliance. But depending on your organization, there could be many others.

Identifying your key audiences

So, the organization has determined a reorganization is on the horizon. Having a clear understanding of who the reorg will impact can prove invaluable in your communications planning for a reorganization. While employees are the most obvious—and we would argue the most important—you’ll have many others to consider. These include customers, suppliers, regulators, volunteers and board of directors/trustees. This is the time to roll up your sleeves and develop a stakeholder map that identifies all the audiences.

A common method to identify and prioritize your audiences is to assign them values. Called stakeholder mapping, this can be done a number of ways. One way is to categorize them by their level of influence and interest/commitment. This method also helps you identify where your resistance to the change may come from.

High Influence-High Interest

People or groups that fall into the High Influence-High Interest category should be your highest priority when it comes to communication. If not kept informed, High Influence-High Interest individuals and groups can wreak havoc during a reorganization.

High Influence-Low Interest

Even though High Influence-Low Interest people are highly influential, they don’t require as much communication because they have low engagement or interest. But you still need to communicate with them. Just not at the “hyper care” level that High Influence-High Interest people do. That said, they might have an affinity for a small aspect of the reorganization. If so, it’s best that you know what it is, because they can blindside you! For example, say you work for a hospital and you’ve identified the people who fall into this group. But, you also happen to know Dr. John, whose wife was a long-time pediatric nurse, now volunteers in the NICU. You can bet Dr. John is going to have a keen interest in the NICU staff and what happens to them. In summary, your goal is to provide enough information to keep these folks content.

Less Influence-High Interest

Like the above group, your goal with Less Influence-High Interest individuals is to provide enough information to satisfy their interest, so they do not ruffle feathers later.

Low Influence-Low Interest

Those who fall in the Low Influence-Low Interest group require the least amount of communication. These folks aren’t worried about the reorganization and don’t have influence or power to change its course.

Once you’ve mapped your audiences, we encourage you to take it one step further. Make sure you haven’t categorized your audiences too broadly and, in doing so, underestimated a sub-audience. For example, if you work for a hospital that’s trimming staff, you may have identified second-shift nurses as Less Influence-High Interest. Within the second shift, however, you might have identified that second shift nurses working in the Emergency Room are going to be hit hardest by the news because they’ve had a retention issue for a few years. In this case, the ER nurses will be a higher priority audience than other second-shift nurses.

Developing key messaging

After you’ve named your audiences, it’s time to develop key messaging.

We’ve covered the topic of key messaging in past blogposts. Key messages  are the primary points of information that staff, customers and the public need and want to hear and understand about the reorganization. Notice we said what employees need and want to hear, not what the company needs and wants them to hear. A first step is to look at your stakeholder map and parse out the concerns of each stakeholder. And then note what the organization’s concerns are about the same stakeholder. This helps you more clearly see what your key messaging needs to include.

Answer the “why”

During a reorganization, there’s a temptation to push out information you think employees really need to understand. While some of this needs to happen, we’d suggest that you flip the paradigm. Stakeholder mapping can help you do this by pushing you to consider what the needs and interests are of your people. That means your key messaging must answer the “why” or rationale behind the changes. Cost pressures? Increased or new competition? Is it to enable revenue growth? In the latter case, a reorganization doesn’t mean headcount reductions. But if it does, it’s important to be clear about that as well. If jobs are at stake, say what you can early on and be as specific as possible about when you’ll be able to share more information. Show employees what’s in it for them and the future of the organization.

Consider other change

Another element to consider when developing key messages is the level of change that has already happened or is currently happening within the organization. If the company has been in “reorganization mode” for years, your messaging needs to take that into consideration. Is this a continuation of a strategy from years ago? Then say so. Is this reorganization a result of a reorg or business mistake of the past? Well, as hard as it is, say that too.

To an outsider, the development of key messages might seem shallow. But the truth is most reorganizations are done due to competitive pressures. Few leaders like the thought of doing what needs to be done, because it often means cost and staff reductions. In our view, though, it’s important that leaders tell the story authentically and honestly. That’s the least they can do during a time of emotional change for employees and other internal staff.

Maintaining perspective during communications planning

During the communications planning for a reorganization, we tend to be hyper focused on the people who’ll be most impacted by the change. In general, this is a good thing. But, don’t forget that after boxes are packed and people have left, those who remain will need to pick up the baton and carry the mission and vision of the organization forward. How people are communicated with and treated on their way out speaks volumes to the folks left behind. Will they feel that you, as an organization, demonstrated integrity and respect to outgoing staff? Do they believe that leadership has their bests interests in mind? And do they think the decisions made are for the long-term good of the organization?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then they’ll likely stay engaged in their work. If the answer is no, then you’re at risk of lower employee engagement, higher staff turnover and a decreased ability to recruit the best and brightest. Key messaging that’s carefully thought through and respects the various audiences can keep hearts and minds engaged in your business.

Summary

How an organization handles communicating a reorganization can impact its reputation for years to come. So, the stakes are high. It’s crucial to plan your communications well. Equally as important, is assessing your organization’s readiness for a reorg as it relates to communications effectiveness. Being at the planning table early will help you adequately prepare for the initial announcements and ongoing questions and dialogue. Your planning needs to clearly segment your key audiences. From there you’ll be better prepared to develop key messages that’ll answer people’s most pressing concerns and questions.

Want to know more? Check out our second article of this series on how to communicate effectively during a reorganization. And don’t forgot the third and final article of the series on potential detours during a reorg and how to adjust. If you’ve had experience with a reorganization, we’d love to hear your perspectives on what went well, or what you wish had been better communicated.