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The article is based upon papers the author delivered to the Association for Education in journalism in 1994 and to the International Public Relations Association in 1995. The author is professor of communication at the University of South Alabama.
Public relations people have claimed to have been interested in the role of employee communications for decades. This interest, however, is limited when compared to the attention public relations devotes to external communications.
Cutlip, Center and Broom claim, "no organizational relationships are as important as those with employees..." Seitel says, "the first step in promoting positive external public relations is achieving good internal public relations." Levinson points out employee attitudes often reflect accurate conceptions of any organization's image of itself. Thirty years ago, Dover said there had been these three eras of employee communications: the era of entertaining employees in the 1940s, the era of informing employees in the 1950s and the era of persuasion in the 1960s.
In spite of this interest, the majority of public relations practice and research for much of this century has concentrated on external communication, especially that related to shareholders and to the general public. Even though Pincus, Rayfield and Cozzens and Pincus and DeBonis point out the major public relations textbooks have chapters, or at least portions of chapters, covering employee communications, the major emphasis of American public relations -- teaching, practice and research -- has involved external communications. Although Pincus and some others suggest this changed a decade or two ago they forget two major factors.
First, most university-based public relations education remains housed in journalism and mass communication departments/schools/colleges where neither Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) accreditation nor Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) certification recommends, much less requires, a separate course in employee (or internal) communications. Most of these programs still teach employee communications, not as a separate series of courses, but as a module within another course -- and usually simply by means of one or two hours worth of lectures in the introductory or "principles' course. The most effective teaching and research involving employee communications in the U.S. today probably takes place in departments of speech or rhetoric (many of which now are known by the title, "speech-communication") under the label of "organizational communication."
Second, employee communications functions in public relations departments usually are carried out by junior staff employees who perform mainly basic technician-related tasks such as writing and editing the company newsletter.
ARE RELATIONS WITH EMPLOYEES
NEARING A BREAKING POINT?
The 1990s are not the best of times for the American worker. Over the past four years, employees at many large corporations have faced layoffs, restructuring, increased workloads and responsibilities while also facing huge clouds of uncertainty. At the same time many corporate responses to a tough and competitive marketplace have pushed relations with employees to the breaking point.
On one hand, companies imply that maximizing shareholder value is the most important priority, despite the reality this might call for additional downsizing and restructuring. At the same time, corporations want employees to be "more dedicated than ever, working smarter and harder to help the corporation survive and prosper."
WHY ARE EMPLOYEE COMMUNICATIONS
AND PUBLIC RELATIONS DETACHED?
Most public relations authors ignore the reality that employee communications has not always been given serious attention in the public relations process. D'Aprix acknowledges this and says, "one of the great ironies in the practice of public relations is our tendency to shortchange the employee audience in our organizations." A worldwide leader in employee communication and a noted consultant, D'Aprix claims many organizations pay careful attention to public constituencies, but ignore employee audiences on the assumption the organization always can count on employee loyalty and commitment.
Black points out that internal public relations is "an extremely wide field" that "embraces almost everything -- other than pay -- which encourages employers to make their maximum contribution to productivity and the prosperity of the company." He also notes the role of the public relations function in employee communications is not acutely defined and overlaps with other functions such as personnel, human resources, labor relations, etc.
THE COMMUNICATION EMPLOYEES WANT
The Opinion Research Corporation has been measuring employee opinions of communication in more than 200 organizations for four decades. In all of these studies, employees indicate they receive most of their useful information about their organizations from the "grapevine," but would prefer to acquire it from their immediate supervisors or from group meetings with top management. Impersonal written information sources, such as company publications, are the least preferred method of receiving internal communications messages. Other research studies report similar results.
D'Aprix says the greatest communication needs employees have are answers to questions such as these:
* How is the organization doing and where is it going?
* What is our charter and how does it match up to other functions?
* What am I expected to do? How am I doing?
* Am I performing appropriately?
* What do I need to know to do my job better?
* Does anyone in this organization care about me?
* How can I help?
Yankelovich (1994), a well known public opinion authority, claims the 1980s paradigm of maximizing shareholder value is in direct conflict with the emerging 1990s paradigm of empowering employees to unleash their creative skills and enthusiasm to power corporations to success. He says this conflict has produced five patterns of employee response.
* They no longer believe in job or employer permanence;
* They believe employers are no longer loyal to employees;
* They have lost confidence that acquiring new skills will be recognized
* They believe that corporate quality initiatives are really shorthand
for downsizing efforts; and,
* They no longer look to their work as a prime source of satisfaction.
One of the major contributions the public relations function has provided employee communications involves a variety of media programs. In some small organizations these might be as simple as a quarterly, …