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Effective communication a priority for state’s largest employers

In small businesses with only a few employees, communication can be casual and informal. But for the state’s largest businesses that have thousands of employees, effective communication through all levels of the company takes a variety of techniques ranging from town hall events and frequent department meetings to podcasts, videos, e-mails, teleconferences, Internet conferences, announcements on plasma screens and printed newsletters.

“Good communication gives everyone continuity and keeps us all on the same team,” says Kelly Scrivner, internal communications specialist for Entergy Mississippi. “We have a weekly newsletter that is sent out through hard copies as well as e-mail to everyone who works for Entergy Mississippi. It updates them about what is going on in Entergy Mississippi, and also our sister companies.”

Entergy doesn’t rely on e-mail alone for distributing the newsletter because not everyone is at a desk most of the time. There are crews out in the field servicing the electrical distribution system. There is a printed newsletter they can pick up to read whenever it is convenient.

One of the top issues communicated on a regular basis relates to safety. In addition to videos for safety training and podcasts on their internal website, the company also has monthly safety meetings at every location.

Scrivner says it is important to remember that communication is a two-way street.

“Listen to your employees,” she says. “Ask them what they prefer regarding communications. We do surveys often.”

Ongoing employee communication is essential to maintain a high level of customer service in the 23 Southeast Mississippi counties served by Mississippi Power Company (MPC), says Cindy Webb, manager of corporate information.

“We use several different methods to communicate with our employees such as printed, weekly newsletter, employees can take this with them and electronic newsletters available 24/7 on any company computer,” Webb says. “Posted information is maintained in common work areas and display monitors with company information are also in common areas. Employee briefings are held in locations where employees spend their workday out in the field or in the plants.”

In emergencies, MPC has a dedicated phone line that alerts employees in the event of an emergency. They are given instructions or are directed to call in for instructions.

Organizational communication is people working together to achieve goals, says Dr. David Powe, associate vice chancellor for administrative affairs, University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC), which is the second-largest employer in the state with 7,200 employees. With such a large organization, there are many different networks and channels needed to communicate with everyone involved starting at the top with the Institutions of Higher Learning that is the regulatory board that governs UMC.

“In our particular environment, our goals are related to the mission to provide health care, education and research,” Powe says. “We are the only academic health science center in Mississippi and as such are different than any other university. The more you communicate, the more involved people can become, and we as a collective team can be part of the growth and changes in the healthcare and academic science environment we have here. We have been recognized as one of top 100 hospitals in the country. We have a great institution here for the State of Mississippi, and you will be hearing a lot more positive things about us because of the system we have established here for communications.”

UMC uses many different forms of communications including individual, group, internal and external communications. There are both formal and informal means of communication, and employees are often surveyed about how to improve operations or organizations. There are messages, letters, e-mails, meetings and weekly publications to all employees.

“We have a flow of information from top down and bottom up, and parallel across missions communicating with each other,” Powe says. “You have to provide good communication, open communication and lots of communications in order to function well as a large institution. There are so many ways of communication that are open these days. We have lots of meetings, briefings and town hall meetings communicating any changes systemwide. We try to keep people informed of any new initiatives we have. We don’t like surprises for our employees, so we try to do lots of communication upfront and try to keep people involved.”

Newsletters have long been a mainstay of good communications within a company. Robbie Channel, media manager, Baptist Health Systems, sees her company’s newsletter as not only keeping people informed about the latest news, but it also serves as a historic document.

But you can’t rely on newsletters alone. Channel says effective communications depends a lot on department directors communicating with staff about what is trickling down from the administrative level.

“A lot of people will walk by a memo that is posted, or not check e-mail because they are busy taking care of a patients,” Channel says. “It is really important from my standpoint as a communicator that it trickles down from your boss.”

Baptist Health Systems also has quarterly town hall meetings hosted by executive vice president Jerry Cotton.

“That is where he gives financial information, human resource information and talks where we are going, what we are doing and any big news coming up,” Channel says. “We have 3,000 employees so it is challenging to communicate if they don’t read their e-mail or newsletter. We depend on them going to the town hall meetings or talking to their department director. There are also monthly department director meetings. We try to cover all the bases with newsletters, e-mail, department director meetings and town hall meetings.”

North Mississippi Health Services also uses multiple ways to communicate to employees, says Rodger Brown, vice president of human resources. John Heer, the CEO, sends a weekly e-mail to all employees of what happened in the week, there are monthly staff meetings with department heads, quarterly town hall meetings with the president where employees can ask any question want answered.

There is also a bi-weekly newsletter and employee news TV.

Brown says in recent years the NMHS has become much more transparent in communicating with employees. They’ve also learned that to meet the wide range of communication challenges a medical system has, they have learned saying something once isn’t enough.

“You have to say it multiple ways and multiple times,” Brown says.

Internal communications is an essential tool for providing excellent customer service, says Karen Sock, senior vice president and general manager of Grand Biloxi Casino, Hotel & Spa.

“It enables our associates to know what is important for the guests, provide information that is valuable to guests, and keep our associates knowledgeable about our business so they can learn and grow,” Sock says. “We use a multi-layered approach to ensure we reach all employees with relevant information. This includes buzz sessions before each shift, where we take a few minutes to update employees; weekly newsletters; daily e-mails with detailed information, which are used in buzz sessions for employees without Internet access; corporate intranet with information that relates to all Harrah’s properties; posters and tent cards in work areas and dining room; and quarterly meetings for all employees.”

At another of the state’s largest employers, IP Casino Resort & Spa in Biloxi, there are new plasma screens set up in strategic locations. The plasma screens indicate which events are happening and which groups are meeting on property.

Elaine Stevens, public relations manager for IP, which has approximately 2,800 employees, says they have an associates’ newsletter for internal communications and also the “IP Today” newsletter. Departments are required to have meetings before each shift to inform every employee what is happening on the property.

“Every day is different,” Stevens says. “As many events as we have with people going in many different directions onsite and offsite, we have to follow up with various departments, which requires communication. We use banquet event orders (BEOs) as a way of communicating to the departments involved in an event what they are supposed to do.”

E-mail is one of the most important tools for effective communications. Stevens says IP uses it so much that it recently had to increase the size of its system.

Another effort to improve communication and build morale is quarterly pep rallies.

“That gets everyone going,” Stevens says “It is highly motivational and includes updates on construction, policy and procedures, new insurance or anything that relates to employee welfare and good works. We hold the rallies in shifts.”

One important facet of effective communication is making sure the message got across. “Followup, followup, followup,” Stevens says.

Harrah’s, with approximately 5,000 employees divided among Harrah’s, Horseshoe, and Sheraton casinos as well as administrative offices in Memphis, uses a three-prong approach to effectively communicate a tremendous amount of information to employees.

“ Our primary methods include print, electronic and personal communication techniques,” says Valerie Morris, regional vice president, communications and community affairs, for Harrah’s, Horseshoe and Sheraton casinos Tunica. “We distribute a glossy, 14-20 page printed newsletter entitled “Full House” that includes information pertinent to all employees at all locations in Tunica on a bi-monthly basis. We distribute “Daily News” and other time sensitive messages via e-mail to all computer users in Tunica. Department leaders then print and post within each department for those without e-mail access as well as discuss in departmental pre-shift meetings.”

Morris says they are excited to begin implementing digital signage in employee areas in the next few months. This includes plasma monitors strategically placed in employee areas where messaging can be implemented, modified and targeted to different and specific locations at all of our Tunica properties with the click of a mouse.

Also, once a quarter, Harrah’s Entertainment provides all of their employees the opportunity to “Talk to the Top.” Each quarter on a series of specific dates and times a senior level executive holds a conference call where any employee in the company may call in to ask them question they would like.

“Some of our more exciting personal communication techniques are our yearly employee rallies, produced at each property,” Morris says.

Morris says there are always challenges when communicating with such a large number of employees in a variety of locations who work different hours and come from differing cultures.

“We are constantly monitoring our communications effectiveness so that we can keep our employees informed and engaged,” she says. “One of the ways we do this is through annual employee feedback surveys. Employees anonymously answer a series of questions related to their lives, their specific properties and their supervisors.”

Editor’s note: Freelance writer Lynn Lofton contributed to this article.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

About Becky Gillette

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