COLORADO SPRINGS — Kroger Co. and Campbell Soup Co. are making progress with the challenging task of effectively managing internal communications across their large companies, according to presentations in a panel here last week.
Each is moving forward with a multi-layered effort to ensure their organization is communicating with one voice on critical topics such as company vision and strategy.
“It starts and ends with our associates,” W. Rodney McMullen, president and chief operating officer, Kroger, said during a session at the Grocery Manufacturers Association's Executive Conference, referring to the retailer's 334,000 employees. “We had to determine how to create a common vision — a common language — across the company.”
“At Campbell, we connect winning in the workplace to winning in the marketplace,” said Douglas Conant, president and chief executive officer.
Kroger's program ranges from a system of internal “Culture Councils” in which groups of employees meet to help solve company problems to direct communications between employees and top executives.
“We want to make sure associates see their work as contributing to the company's vision and strategy,” said Lynn Marmer, group vice president, corporate affairs, Kroger.
She noted that David Dillon, chairman and CEO, and McMullen communicate to associates via a blog to help stimulate internal dialogue.
The retailer recently surveyed some 250,000 associates in its “Associate First Tracker Survey” and found the feedback both invaluable and “humbling,” she said. Kroger shares the results with employees who participate and that creates a new dialogue about what the next steps should be.
“Each unit or group creates its own action plan and executes it,” she said.
McMullen said the blog is an example of taking a flexible approach to communications.
“We have to be open to how we communicate, especially in reaching younger employees,” he said.
Campbell's organization manages some 19,000 employees worldwide.
Nancy Reardon, the company's senior vice president and chief human resources and communications officer, emphasized the need to be innovative in methods of reaching employees. She said her company, for example, uses an internal social networking tool and electronic signage in hallways to help make employees more engaged.
“We're hiring more younger employees who are attuned to electronic media,” she said.
The company's “Campbell Today” online portal includes stories and video that keep associates informed. The newest electronic medium is “Campbell Connections,” which is “like an internal Facebook,” Reardon said. “Employees can communicate around work issues,” she explained.
Campbell also hosts a number of internal recognition programs and encourages lots of face-to-face meetings in which managers can relay company information and vision to employees. The company has won awards that recognize it as a great company to work for. Campbell uses Gallup to survey its associates, and its employee engagement levels are considered world class by that polling organization.
Kroger and Campbell executives stressed the importance of being consistent with information transmitted to associates.
“You need to be consistent with both internal and external messages,” McMullen said. “Use the same words with shareholders as with your internal audience. Use one song sheet inside and outside.”
“It's about building trust,” said Conant. “Say the same things to both audiences. You also have to declare what's important to the organization, and then keep saying it and have programs behind it.”
Both companies said keeping managers informed and empowered is a key part of their strategies.
“We sponsor communications training for managers,” Marmer said. “Managers are the people who are most important to our employees.”
“You have to empower managers to have quality conversations with employees,” Conant said. “Managers need to know what's happening at the company.”
The economic downturn has created new employee communications challenges for both companies.
One of those is making sure associates don't let the downturn curb their drive and creativity.
Another downturn-related hurdle is keeping employees engaged. “A lot of companies get lower turnover in a poor economy,” Reardon said. “But that's a challenge for leaders. You don't want employees to retire on the job. So we focus people on new opportunities and growth, and leaders should relay the upsides regardless of the situation.”