One of the many jobs performed by public relations professionals is to create a positive image of, and goodwill toward, their customers. Although they are many times accused of trying to “spin” information about their clients, the most successful public relations campaigns are built around open and honest communication.
It is usually during a crisis that PR operations swing into full-motion, sorting through information and trying to organize it in a way that does not damage the company’s reputation, but provides enough to let others know what is going on. In some ways, that’s the easiest type of situation to work through because the job is focused on a specific event. Ongoing campaigns are much more difficult to sustain, for any number of reasons. Companies that put an ongoing emphasis on communication — with the public as well as among its employees — are generally well thought of.
Two companies that currently appear to be headed in opposite directions illustrate that case in point. Locally, plant officials at Kohler say they have committed themselves to opening a stronger line of communication between themselves and the community. On the reverse side, Fort Worth-based Radio Shack has been fairly mum about its activities to increase profitability, which have come mostly through expense cuts, and its public perception is quickly eroding.
Last week, several representatives from the city of Brownwood and the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce were treated to a tour of the massive Kohler plant, and had the opportunity to learn about the products that are manufactured there. Kohler has been in Brownwood for more than 30 years, has undergone major expansions twice and is the area’s largest employer. The company and its employees give tens of thousands of dollars to local charitable causes each year. The special tour included an explanation of the production processes used in the plant, where toilets and whirlpool tubs are manufactured. Sharing that type of information has not always been encouraged at Kohler, which is a privately held company and maintains confidentially about much of its operation.
In Fort Worth, Radio Shack was once a leader among businesses based there. It supported the arts and other local institutions and was in many ways a local success story. The company, which is publicly traded — meaning it is owned by shareholders and is required to disclose certain information relating to its financial condition — has seen a downturn in its fortunes in recent years. The company’s new CEO is attempting to reverse those fortunes, but does not share with the media, or even the company’s employees, what his plans are. It’s even been rumored that a round of layoffs at the corporate office was conducted by e-mail — how’s that for speaking with employees? That lack of communication has soured the opinion of many Wall Street analysts, not to mention the Fort Worth community, in regards to Radio Shack’s future.
Posters, signs and bulletin boards at Kohler’s plant encourage employees to work safely. That’s positive reinforcement of a very important message and corporate goal. At Radio Shack, sales commission plans were restructured so that they no longer encourage cross-selling multiple products. The effect has been to lower morale among salespeople. By communicating its corporate goals, one company is making sure employees understand what management is hoping to achieve. The other, through its secrecy, has created an atmosphere of confusion and frustration.
Sustaining open lines of communication with both employees and the community over a period of time is difficult. Many companies have struggled to maintain employee newsletters, to stage public open-house events as well as other efforts. The rewards reaped from increased productivity, teamwork and understanding that result are usually worth the effort, though. Just ask the folks in the big building on Highway 377.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.