The domestic plastics industry has confronted radical, often gut-wrenching changes in recent years: plant shutdowns and slowdowns. Layoffs. Downward pricing pressure. Foreign competition. Some firms have even merged in the midst of this tumult, creating additional challenges.
On these very pages and elsewhere, countless chief executive officers and marketing directors have recounted these challenges. Through it all, company managements have time and again demonstrated tremendous resolve to remain competitive and forward-looking.
Quite sensibly and intuitively, most companies focus largely on the “hard” economic, manufacturing and product-development issues associated with change. In doing so, however, many overlook the also-important, so-called “soft” issues that are also involved: How do we ensure that our customers recognize our continued (or improved) viability? Do our employees understand where we're headed, why we're headed there and their role in getting us there? Do media and investors understand how we've changed? Is what we're saying and doing inside our company consistent with what we're saying and doing in the marketplace?
When these considerations are overlooked, a lot of bad things typically follow: Employees become frustrated, customers become confused, investors become uninformed, competitors begin speculating and initiatives fail.
Viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear that managing change isn't only about economics; managing change also requires well-considered communications designed to inform, educate and motivate key constituencies, while helping the company sustain momentum (or avoid backsliding during particularly difficult times).
As change is essentially constant, it behooves companies of all sizes — even small ones — to maintain some form of ongoing communications, whether it's a global-scale, multilayered effort, or a modest, ongoing program simply designed to inform employees, customers, the media and others what's happening at your company, and how it's moving forward.
While communications should always be tailored to reflect the specific needs of your company and audiences, following are some of the basic guidelines to keep in mind, regardless of your company size:
* Employees first! Some companies figure their employees will simply “figure out” what's going on, and adapt accordingly. However, you can't achieve what you're trying to accomplish outside the company unless it's consistent with how you're preparing your team inside the company. This holds true whether your employees number 20 or 2,000. Employees must understand how their world is changing, and their stake in it.
* Keep customers current. In the plastics industry, if you don't manage your message, someone else will do it for you. It's impractical to assume your sales people can manage information flow on their own. More important than the medium you choose is the message; regardless of whether you're introducing a new product, closing a facility or tweaking a technology, make sure the information you share reinforces the “big picture” about your company, and the benefit to the customer.
* Include the media. Many plastics companies believe they're too small or too busy to communicate with the media. Or, they believe that their customers already know everything about them. To the contrary, few things boost an organization's credibility or keep it more top-of-mind than an active media communications program.
* Watch your language! A recent Plastics News story noted that communication between designers and manufacturers are often hindered because they don't speak the same language. This kind of miscommunication is common. Resist the temptation to use “plastics-speak” when simpler language might better convey your messages.
* Don't go through the motions. A common mistake is to approach communications formulaically, such as automatically publishing a newsletter every month, or sending out one press release a week. It's great to have a plan, but even better to continually evaluate events and the needs of your business to determine the best times and methods for communications activities.
* They all go together. Finally, resist the temptation to view all of your communications as stand-alone efforts independent of each other. Much like a puzzle, each piece should complement the others, creating a larger whole.
Phil Mann is senior partner with Mann Communications in New York.