UPCOMING WEBINAR (11/17) | A Personal Definition of Success


Engaging Employees Through Strategic Communication, with Jon Stemmle and Mark Dollins

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Dr. Pelè: (00:04)
Hello everyone. This is Dr. Pelè with the WorkProud podcast, and it is my double pleasure to introduce to you guys today to leading experts and thought leaders in the area of strategic communications and employee engagement. I’m speaking today with Mark Dollins and also Jon Stemmle and you guys are both professors. I am so excited to have you teach us stuff about how to engage employees. So how are you guys doing today?

Jon Stemmle: (00:35)
Doing good, doing good.

Mark Dollins: (00:37)
Not bad. We love your excitement and we’re every bit as excited about what we have to share. So we’re totally there. Yep.

Dr. Pelè: (00:43)
Absolutely. And, by the way, through the magic of technology, let’s just see, where is everybody? Where are you Mark?

Mark Dollins: (00:50)
I’m in Ridgefield Connecticut, a little bit over an hour north of Midtown Manhattan, New York City.

Dr. Pelè: (00:56)
Awesome. And where are you, Jon?

Mark Dollins: (00:58)
I am pretty much in the Heart of Missouri and Columbia, Missouri, the home of the University of Missouri and School of Journalism.

Dr. Pelè: (01:05)
So cool. Okay. Now I’m here in Austin, Texas. And I want to ask you guys probably the most important question is what on earth is the problem that your book solves? Now, your book is a powerful new contribution. It’s called ‘Engaging Employees through Strategic Communication’. I love the angle, but please take us back into the problem. What is the core problem that your book is addressing?

Mark Dollins: (01:30)
I’m happy to jump in and Jon has got plenty of insight as well, but the problem is that organizations are trying to move through so much change and so quickly it becomes very a complex. And, as you know, people are no longer interested in solely a paycheck, right? They want to believe in what they’re doing. They want to believe in the purpose of their organizations, mission, vision, and values. And we sound like throwaway concepts, but they are so critical to engaging employees to want to do work, to want to do what we call that discretionary effort to put forth that extra effort that comes with when people are engaged in the work that they’re doing and they believe in their company and that they are truly engaged, not only with the company, but the people around them.

Dr. Pelè: (02:19)
Wow. That is so powerful. And as you say, that’s not that easy to just come by. You have to inspire that from employees at some point, right? Jon, what are your thoughts on the problem that exists today that you guys are solving?

Mark Dollins: (02:32)
So on my end, on the academic side of things, the problem is no one’s really teaching this. It might be a chapter here, it might be a one day there, but usually it’s more about just corporations. And how do corporations communicate in general? They don’t talk about employees. They don’t talk about engaging employees. And so, we saw a real lack there, and through this work, we can show students and soon to be employees themselves, but we can show students how dynamic this field is and how important it is. And even if you’re talking internally, rather than externally, you’re still doing all the same things. It’s still an audience that you really have to talk to and try to win the trust of. And so, we want to make sure that’s really clear and that people have the skills to get into this profession when they’re done.

Dr. Pelè: (03:26)
No. And Jon, I have to sort of echo what you said earlier, that this is not a topic that has to be boring. In fact, if anything, it can be extremely exciting for students, and Mark, as you said, this is not just exciting, it’s critical for business success, leaders have to understand these things. Before we go into the details of this topic through, if I could ask you guys what exactly brought you both to this profession, this field, this mission to solve this problem in the world? How did you get here?

Mark Dollins: (03:58)
Actually started on a flight. [crosstalk 00:04:00]. It started on a flight from Dallas to New York City. And I happened to sit next to a man who was at the time, a Assistant Dean for Journalism school in Louisiana. And he is now the Dean of the Missouri School of Journalism. And so, that’s who Jon works with, and he is just one of the most engaging people. We talked a lot on this flight from Dallas to New York City about the power of storytelling, journalism, about writing as a core skillset. And the more we talk, the more we realize we got to do something together and we’ve done quite a few things together. And he introduced me to Jon Stemmle on a visit two years ago, or three years ago, Jon, I guess [inaudible 00:04:46].

Jon Stemmle: (04:46)

Mark Dollins: (04:48)
To the University of Missouri and Jon and I just, we just hit it off. We started talking about this book that I had a dream of doing, and he’s like, ah, “this sounds really strategic, and I’m leading Strategic Communications Education at the school. Let’s talk about how we can make this happen”.

Dr. Pelè: (05:05)

Jon Stemmle: (05:06)
It was an amazing partnership. I mean, Mark has done this professionally for 30 years, I think. I don’t even know if [crosstalk 00:05:15] [inaudible 00:05:15]
Mark Dollins: (05:15)
Thank you. I’ll take 30 years.

Jon Stemmle: (05:17)
Quite a while.

Jon Stemmle: (05:18)
And, I’m more on the academic side, I’m thinking about, okay, what are ways that we can not only talk about all of this important stuff, but then show the research to support why it works and how it works and best practices. So kind of the combination of academia and the professional side was just a perfect match and something that we’ve learned, isn’t very common. So, it was just Keesmann.

Dr. Pelè: (05:44)
No, no. Oh, I totally agree. Sometimes they say common sense is not so common. And as educators and PhDs, isn’t it interesting how we end up taking things everybody kind of can see in the real world, that we put data behind it and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘yes, the research says’.

Mark Dollins: (06:03)
Right? Exactly. And we break it down. Right? All of a sudden this thing that seems either super complex is not that complex or something that seems very simple it’s like, oh, actually there’s a bit more to that. So, [crosstalk 00:06:14] that’s the difference to that.

Mark Dollins: (06:16)
It works both way.

Dr. Pelè: (06:17)
Absolutely. All right. Well you know what, if you guys don’t mind, I’m anxious to learn some of the details behind your book specifically, how do you guys address this challenge that you’ve defined? How does your book bring change to the world of business and to the process of teaching this to students or practitioners?

Mark Dollins: (06:36)
Jon, I’ll let you start and then I’ll jump in. How’s That?

Jon Stemmle: (06:38)
All right. So I think what we do is, we tried to create a book that would work for both audiences. I mean, even though it’s a textbook per se, we want it just to be more of an instructional manual. If you want to get into this field, if you’re new to this field. And like we said, there aren’t a lot courses in this, so you probably are getting into this field and kind of like, ‘I don’t know what to do’. So, this can be used as kind of a how to, but it’s also perfectly fit for the classroom. So, we set it up in that way.

Jon Stemmle: (07:10)
We go over the history of the profession. We talk about the ethics of the profession. We talk about the key skills and competencies. We talk a lot, we have a few different chapters where we talk about the research aspect, the measurement, making sure that you’re listening to your employees and how are you listening, getting those feedback loops established so you can know what’s going on and take care of problems before they even begin.

Jon Stemmle: (07:37)
And then, we talk about so storytelling and then at the end we kind of get into, okay, where are we now? And where are we going as a profession? If I’m getting into employee communication, what are things I really need to know that are bubbling up? And that’s where we talk about social justice and DEI and then technology like artificial intelligence and blockchain, which was, when you start getting into that, it’s like, ‘whoa, this is heady stuff’, but it’s so important to where we’re going.

Dr. Pelè: (08:09)
Wow. Go ahead, Mark.

Mark Dollins: (08:13)
So, I mean, Jon did a great job of outlining what the book is about and how we went about organizing the content. But I called out a couple of chapters that I think are particularly helpful in solving that problem, that we’ve talked about, Dr. Pelè.

Mark Dollins: (08:28)
So, let me start with what makes employee communication strategic, and really it is about looking at the tools and the skills that are required for making strategic business priorities successful, right? So we gather insights from all the stakeholders who need to understand what that change initiative or that business priority is. We get clarity on success measures, but I think it goes beyond just data, right? It really gets into, we kind of touched on this earlier. There are creative solutions for this, right? So we’ve got wonderful case studies in every single chapter from all over the world about what companies have done to add creativity to strategy, to engage employees with whatever that business priority is.

Mark Dollins: (09:21)
So, it could be something as simple as a digital campaign that empowers employees with content and information to share with other stakeholders. It could be something that is programmatic, where employees might wear something that could engage other employees to talk about an issue or a priority. So, we really take a look at both the strategic and the creative as we try to advance and help companies address their organizational priorities. And I think Jon mentioned measurement as a critical piece of what we go into detail, like what actually shows that communications is moving the dial, and whether that is, here we have fewer lost time accidents in a manufacturing environment. We have more leads generated from sales employees because other employees who are not necessarily sales are talking about our new products, they’re given information to share both internally and externally.

Mark Dollins: (10:21)
Those are the kinds of things that lead to measurement that shows the impact of strategic communications. We also talk about internal segmentation, right? So, inside an organization, particularly the larger you get, the more you have to realise that one size doesn’t fit all. You have to really think about employees across a number of segmented target bases, right? So, you can think of them as we have managers employ… People who lead more than one person as a team leader, you have to think about executives who lead lots and lots of different employees. They may have different needs, but even within employees, you may say, ‘maybe we focus only on North American employees or employees in Europe, or maybe we only work on headquarter employees because the functions are where we are having these kinds of issues’. So, there’s lots of insights about how you begin to think about segmenting internal audiences. And then you start thinking about how do you build the channels that will actually reach them. So, there’s all kinds of stuff around, is email the right way, face to face.

Dr. Pelè: (11:28)
Yep. Yep. No, no. You make some powerful points. And in fact, before we started, I had shared with you just my admiration for how you guys are bringing paradigms like change management and marketing that are usually thought of as sort of external efforts into the employee engagement conversation. Could you maybe take this through? And by the way, I completely share this because guess what, the psychology of marketing that works on customers usually kind of works on people inside too [crosstalk 00:11:58] employees.

Jon Stemmle: (11:58)
It’s amazing how that happens.

Dr. Pelè: (12:01)
It’s amazing how that works. We’re all people, right? But I wonder if you would be kind enough to take us through any, maybe three-step plan or five-step plan, or maybe if you, maybe you have the 12-step plan that takes your style of change management, there’s so many styles and approaches or your style of marketing and just says, ‘Hey, do this first, then that, and then this, and you will get employee engagement through strategic communication’.

Mark Dollins: (12:29)
Well, let me start with the one, the model that I know, which you may be familiar with and that’s the Prosci, I’m certified in Prosci Change Management. And I won’t do the whole thing because it can be quite complex.

Jon Stemmle: (12:41)

Mark Dollins: (12:41)
But if you think about, what are the elements of Prosci that are consistent with other change management models, it always starts with knowing your audience, right? What do they know about the change that you want them to adopt or adapt and then it’s, are they aware of it? And then using the Prosci model of what they call ADKAR. So being aware is important, right? But that doesn’t mean I want to actually make the change. Like “I’m aware that you’d like me to do this”.

Dr. Pelè: (13:10)
That’s step one.

Mark Dollins: (13:11)
Right. But the hardest part I think, is creating that desire. Have I been convincing enough to you to say, not only should you be aware of the fact to change, but if you do change this good thing will happen and if we don’t change or we don’t change together, something threatening is probably going to be happening. So, that’s the first part and probably the most difficult, honestly, because you can’t really do that in most cases, by just bringing people together and talking at a town hall, you can create that awareness. But the desire and that belief, that what you want to change to really tends to come with more personal sort of interpretation, right? How does this change impact me and help me? What’s in it for me? Is really the, kind of the key question that employees ask.

Mark Dollins: (13:55)
So, once you get through awareness and desire, it’s about, do you have the knowledge to make this change, right? Do you understand what you need to understand to make the change? Do you have access to the information? Et cetera, et cetera.

Mark Dollins: (14:07)
And then it comes to ability, right? So you can have all the knowledge, but if you don’t have the right tools or you don’t have the right empowerment, you have all the authority to make those kinds of change. That’s where we talk about making sure that you have the ability to drive or to lead or to just simply execute the change. And then perhaps the most important is the reinforcement that this is not a one and done typically kind of an operation when you want large scale change, or even small scale change reinforcing, once it’s happened or is happening is a really critical part of making sure that it sticks. Right? Because we want to make sure that it’s not just a, ‘Hey push that button in’. ‘Oh, I got it’. It’s like, no, there’s a reason for that. We got to make sure you keep pushing that button for the right reasons.

Dr. Pelè: (14:48)
Right. No, that is powerful. And Jon, I’m going to ask you to maybe if you can expand on the marketing side, but the interesting thing is this change model that you’ve shared has a lot of similarities to marketing and sales; methodologies and processes. I’m looking at the awareness, the desire, the education, the learning transfer, reinforcement, powerful stuff. Jon, what’s your take on how to bring change to this problem?

Jon Stemmle: (15:18)
You’re right. As far as the research goes, there’s a lot of similarities. As you look at the literature and psychology, literature marketing, literature communications, the change process, the words may change the acronyms change, but the process is pretty much the same. What we’re trying to do is figure out what is the problem? How do we solve the problem? And how do we get everyone on the same page? We want them to be happy. We want our employees to be happy. We want our employees to have pride in our organization. Ideally, and I think one of the things we say in the book that the one constant in this profession is change. Whether it’s the change of employer attitudes, the change of technology you’re using to communicate, there’s always change going on and you have to be aware of that and ready to react to that.

Jon Stemmle: (16:06)
And so, I think as long as you are having that awareness personally and doing the research, you’re covered, you can, if you act, if you’re willing to act, if you’re willing to change the status quo, you can manage that kind of change.

Dr. Pelè: (16:24)
No, that’s so powerful, Jon. In fact, we were talking earlier about some of the different factors that can push or power employee engagement. We’ve talked about things like the impact of happiness on culture, pride on culture, recognition on culture. Maybe if you could take us into things like pride and recognition or even happiness, how do we sort of turn those on, right, for employees? People come to work and yes, they’ve got the salary, but what can we turn on that kind of brings up the heat on engagement?

Jon Stemmle: (17:03)
It’s interesting.

Jon Stemmle: (17:04)
So, a lot of the research that I do actually involves 18 to 24 year olds. We call them youth and young adults. So YAYAs is what we call them. And every year we kind of do a national survey to find out what are they thinking? What are their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors? And what we’ve learned is there’s been a huge seat change over the last few years, even before the pandemic was going on. But it’s really been heightened. Money is important to them. Don’t get me wrong, but they will drop any employer, like a bad habit, if that employer does not do things that they believe in. They need to have that belief in the employer. And that can revolve around again, social justice sorts of things. They want employer that they they’re proud to say that they work for them.

Jon Stemmle: (17:52)
So, they want to see if somebody believes in being environmentally sound, they want to see corporations that do that. If they believe in equality and work life balance, that corporation has to do those things. Or they’re not only going to lose the 18 to 24 year olds. They’re going to lose an entire generation of individuals who are willing to work there or even buy their products. I mean, this is a full revolt. If you don’t follow kind of certain rules of engagement with this audience. And I mean, you could say, ‘oh, well, we’re fine. We 18 to 24 year olds. We can write them off’. You can’t. That’s the next group coming up. You can’t lose an entire cycle of possible employees and consumers. And it’s not that corporations have to cater to them, just listen to them, see what they want. You may already be doing these things and you just have to highlight them, but sometimes it does come into changing the practices.

Dr. Pelè: (18:54)
Wow. I kind of like that full revolt thing. You said, it’s like, ‘we are going to, okay, we’ll stay and be engaged, if you can give us certain things’, that’s an interesting relationship, [crosstalk 00:19:06].

Jon Stemmle: (19:06)
Well, and we’ve seen it, Amazon. I have no problem having lockouts, Facebook, we were seeing protests. So, the voice of the employees becoming a huge element in managing communication change and just managing, having an organization move forward.

Dr. Pelè: (19:25)
Mark, if I could ask you about the voice of the employee. Traditionally communication has been an outward push. It’s been studied as an outward thing. When you talk about the voice of the employee, is this one directional communication, or are you guys advocating a kind of conversation, bidirectional approach? What is your view on this?

Mark Dollins: (19:48)
That’s a great question and absolutely the latter. We’re about omnidirectional, Pelè. Sometimes people go, “let’s go from one way to two way communications”. And I say, “no, let’s go to omnidirectional”. Meaning that communications and conversations are now happening all the time anyway. So, why not facilitate and be a part of that communication from a corporate or from an enterprise points of view. So, whenever we’re working with the clients, for example, we talk to them about, first of all, how are you assessing and how are you aware of how employees are responding to what you’re quitting out there? And so we talk about this idea of a continuous feedback loop. Whenever we’re communicating something from the enterprise to the employees, how are we giving them an opportunity to respond back, not just to us, but to others. How are we engaging leaders or empowering leaders to have conversations with their teams? Because, there’s only so much that an email can do, right? A newsletter can do. A lot of the change that actually happens in people’s hearts and in their hands and heads, happens with a direct interaction with another human being.

Mark Dollins: (20:58)
So, we talk about this, these concepts of omnidirectional, of continuous feedback loops, of empowering people to have these conversations. And to your earlier point, Dr. Pelè, you were talking about how we use these marketing technologies and marketing strategies on the outside. The same thing is now starting to happen internally. So, people who do employee communications for a living are now thinking, and in fact, working with digital platforms internally that allow for collaboration, allow for conversations to start happen. So, it’s almost like how do we take what people on the outside world are used to and enjoy Facebook, Instagram, et cetera? How do we create that kind of that experience because that’s their expectation and inside that the organization. So, a lot of us are now working in that space and say, how do we do this? But in a way that is about business.

Dr. Pelè: (21:49)
I have to tell you, I am going to be getting a copy of your book and like studying every word because these points are so powerful and practical. In closing, if you could maybe give us a sense of what success looks like, what does an engaged employee look like? What engaged culture look like in your estimation, based on your discoveries?

Mark Dollins: (22:14)
Well, let me start with what an engaged culture looks like and feels like. Number one, it has a really strong and compelling story that connects hearts with the heads and the hands of the people who are there, right? I mean, it’s amazing how many organizations overlook this. What’s our mission, our purpose for being here? And are we able to connect the work that we do every day? So, if we make screws and nails for a living, are we able to show how that screw on that nail give people homes that are important for them to live in and their families? Are we creating a sense of connectivity between the widget, whatever it is that we make and its purpose in providing for a better world, right? So, it starts there.

Mark Dollins: (23:00)
And then it moves to what are we doing inside our organization to ensure that every change initiative, every marketing change that we’re making, every, just anything that we’re doing helps further that mission? And that we’re constantly connecting what I call A story, right? ‘Dr. Pelè, Hey, we want you to change this information, this IT system, so that it can do X and that we’re connecting that A story to, and when you do that, we’re going to going to be able to better serve our customers, because the nails that we’re making are going to be done even more efficiently, they’re going to be stronger. They’re going to last longer, et cetera, et cetera’. So, in other words, we’re connecting A story to Z story. Now we have a whole subject on that. So, that’s what I think the culture begins to look like. And Jon, I don’t know if you want to jump in on the employee side, but well, I’ll let you do that. And then I can [crosstalk 00:23:53].

Jon Stemmle: (23:53)
Sure. I mean, when I think about it, we talk about this all the time, even in classes. What you’re trying to do is create brand ambassadors. You want people that work there that then go out and they’re proud to work there. They’re happy to work there. And they want to tell their friends how much they love their jobs and how much they respect what their employers are doing. And the work that they’re doing. I mean, in the past, it was, you’d have to work at a nonprofit [inaudible 00:24:20], saying, ‘oh, I’m giving back. I’m always giving back’. Now you have corporations and organizations. Again, they may be making nails, but they’re finding ways to give back, because they see the importance of that. They see the importance of diversity initiatives.

Jon Stemmle: (24:35)
I was talking to a former student the other day who works for Johnson and Johnson. The students asked me, what’s your proudest moment? And she said it was creating band-aids that had different flesh tones. So, to be more inclusive. And you may think, oh, that’s nice. Yeah. I mean, that’s nice, but why is that your proudest moment? She said, “they listened. They listened to what people were saying, and it was just a way to show, not just say you’re doing diversity and inclusion and equity, but to actually show it, to put your money where your mouth is”. And I think the more that you do that, the happier your employees are going to be, and the more that they’re going to stay with you, you’re going to build that loyalty and trust, which is critical.

Mark Dollins: (25:19)
Let me just kind of give one quick example, because this is what Jon just said is absolutely true and it played out. I’m going to give an example from PepsiCo, where I worked and led global employee communications for quite a few years. In the early 2000s, PepsiCo had a lot of changes in its portfolio. It had acquired the Quaker Oats company, so make a Quaker Oats and Gatorade. It had Tropicana, which is a healthier beverage juice, et cetera. But employees were starting to feel a little pressure from the world, right? Because most people only knew that PepsiCo made brand Pepsi carbonated soft drinks. And if they knew a little bit more about the company, they knew that it made salty snacks; Negritos, Doritos, Lays potato chips, et cetera.

Mark Dollins: (26:06)
But the company would, is very sensitive to the fact that employees were feeling less confident in talking about the broad range of products that were in the portfolio. And quite frankly, what the company was doing to reduce sugars, to reduce salt. And the company was making efforts like changing the salt, the shape of salt crystal on a potato chip so that the flavor stayed the same. But the reduction in the sodium on that chip was like over 40%.

Mark Dollins: (26:34)
So all these were those A stories I was just telling you about and how we were able to connect it to a broader thus story about a company that really was making food and beverage products that were better for the world, right? Yes, there were certain snacks that were more for enjoyment. And then there were others like Gatorade, which is the proven performance, sports beverage and Quaker Oatmeal, which is the first FDA approved food specific health claim for reducing your cholesterol. I mean, those were important stories for us to tell employees.

Mark Dollins: (27:05)
We did measurement before we started. And we did measurement after we had completed what ended up being about a 12-month or 12-week program called PepsiCo Pride. And we saw an 86% of those employees. I think we started with maybe under 50% that were comfortable talking to a friend, the neighbor, a family member, et cetera. And it went to about 86%. So that’s a measurable impact on how employees, their pride in their products, that what they make and what they’re all there to kind of join hands and lock hands and, and create for the world that they felt more comfortable and more prideful in talking about the depth and breadth of that portfolio.

Dr. Pelè: (27:45)
I have to say this for me is like a masterclass on these topics around employee engagement. How do people get a hold of your book? Do you have any new exciting reveals that are coming up, that we should all be a part of? How do we find you online?

Jon Stemmle: (28:02)
Well, this is it Dr. Pelè, you are helping us introduce this to the world, but we do have a website and it’s called engage-employees.com. So, again, engage-employees.com. And we have everything from outlines of the chapter content to a little bit more about Jon and me and how and why we wrote the book. So, there’s quite a bit of content and it’s available both through Amazon.com on the title, Engaging Employees Through Strategic Communication and through Routledge, which is our publisher.

Dr. Pelè: (28:38)
Awesome. Jon, any last words?

Jon Stemmle: (28:42)
This has been a pleasure, love the chance to talk to you, and it’s always great to see Mark.

Mark Dollins: (28:47)

Dr. Pelè: (28:48)
Absolutely. Right. We’re all remotes right now. Thank you. Thank you both so much for spending some time with us. It’s been a pleasure. And again, I’ll have links to your books, your…

Jon Stemmle: (28:59)

Dr. Pelè: (29:00)
Your LinkedIn information. And I really wish you the very best of luck. Great topic. Awesome inspiration. Thank you so much.

Jon Stemmle: (29:08)
Thank you, appreciated the chance.

Jon Stemmle
Jon Stemmle is a professional practice professor and chair of Strategic Communication and the former director of the Health Communication Research Center at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Mark Dollins is a Senior communications executive with deep expertise in Employee Engagement, Change Management & Communications Talent Development

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