Written by: Gabriel Sanchez, First 5 LA
“I know Kung-Fu!” That is one of my all-time favorite movie lines. And just as Neo in “The Matrix” mixed and matched martial arts moves as he sparred with Morpheus after uttering that line, professional communicators must also be agile in blending different public relations and marketing approaches in order to be effective.
I personally can attest to this, particularly after having applied this principal to the internal and external communications associated with First 5 LA’s recent organizational shift.
First 5 LA is an independent county agency with a goal to support the safe and healthy development of young children so that by 2028, all children in L.A. County will enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life.
Four years ago, the agency’s leadership took a deep look at its goals, the needs of parents and communities, and the effectiveness of its efforts. After listening to exhaustive stakeholder feedback, agency leadership decided to shift toward prioritizing advocacy for policy and systems changes within our region. At the same time, the organization also saw an opportunity to address a number of long-standing roadblocks that had stood in the way of First 5 LA’s effectiveness and greater success.
This was no small task. The implementation spanned two years and had a profound impact on the First 5 LA staff.
From an employment point of view, change can be a terrifying—especially when the organization is already engaged in demanding and challenging work that requires a high degree of dedication and personal involvement.
And it was my job to help communicate this to a dedicated group of employees that a major structural and cultural shift was coming. We needed to explain the new plans and objectives of a dramatically new strategic direction that could result in possible staff reassignments.
We needed to be clear how this shift would be true to our mission and vision and how it would help us make a greater impact for all children in L.A. County.
As communicators, we have unique experiences and skills we apply to our work. But sticking exclusively to what we are accustomed to limits our ability to tackle new issues. The challenge is to not only use what we know, but also to learn from others—including from other sectors—and adapt. In my case, the approach that best succeeded in internal communications during the organizational change might be surprising.
I turned to crisis communication – something I’d had some experience with in other communications roles.
I decided to take this approach after experiencing the situation First 5 LA faced six months after changing its organization structure to match its new strategic direction. According to the Change Curve, an organizational change model based on the five stages of grief developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the staff at First 5 LA was mired in “frustration” and “depression.”
During our transition, we followed best practices regarding our staff—constant communication, feedback opportunities, and access to the management. We wanted to make sure staff felt motivated and engaged throughout the transition process. In fact, for more than a year, we engaged in the thoughtful process of collecting input from our teams in order to make the best decisions possible regarding the structure and staffing of our new strategic direction.
But this was not enough—at least in our case. The staff still yearned for a better understanding of the goals and objectives of our Strategic Plan, our new approach to funding, and the new structure. Despite our best efforts, the negative effects of the transition were palpable. So I changed direction incorporate a crisis communication approach.
Obviously, we were not facing a natural disaster or any other type of calamity. But after thoroughly evaluating different communications strategies and tactics, this approach made the most sense. And we were right to begin treating the organizational shift much like we would a crisis. It helped us move past the first stages of the Change Curve and reach the later stages of understanding, acceptance and support.
The work we do at First 5 LA is enormously important to L.A. County’s youngest children and their families. It was most important to communicate that we weren’t shying away from our core objectives—we simply believed that restructuring the organization would help is more efficiently and effectively attain them.
Restructuring is never easy, and can lead to fears of instability and dismissals— even though the purpose of the reorganization never was to reduce or reassign staff. Our purpose was to clarify roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities to make the best possible use the core capabilities of our talented staff.
With a sense of urgency now embedded in the organizational shift, we began to apply a crisis communication approach to the mix to address staff frustration. To do this we took several specific steps:
- Acknowledging the situation. We took responsibility, were proactive, and accepted that we had a challenge on our hands. We took time to listen to concerns and created a two-way communication environment.
- Acknowledging missteps and misunderstandings. We made sure we acknowledged previous miscommunications and created a pipeline to capture feedback.
- Creating an action plan to correct the situation (and how it will help). We explained our plan in great detail and made sure we addressed any and all doubts head on. We carried out numerous large-group meetings, individual conversations with managers, and one-on-one conversations with different staff members.
- Following up. We monitored progress among our teams and continuously communicated relevant details throughout the transition. We made time to touch base with staff and field feedback and ensure staff members were adjusting to their new roles and responsibilities well.
And we didn’t stop there. In order to measure if our strategy was effective, we continued monitoring our staff to confirm it was evolving positively. To do this, we launched an internal newsletter and increased the vehicles of consistent communication, developed “About the Division” fact sheets, and solicited staff input regarding messaging. This allowed us to encourage buy-in and ownership of our new strategy and approaches, help our staff talk about their work, and explain First 5 LA’s strategic shift.
Change is hard for everyone, no matter how high or low they are in the hierarchy. However, planning can minimize challenges. The organizations that are most effective during times of change are those that remain flexible and admit when something hadn’t worked openly to gain trust.
You would be surprised by what you can accomplish when you keep your mind open during times of crisis. Can you dodge bullets? No. But like Morpheus told Neo, if you are prepared, creative and flexible when times demand it, you won’t have to.