By terrymckenzie on Jun 04, 2007
The sky is definitely orange. The sky is definitely purple.
I was listening to a National Public Radio show from April in which Bill Moyers talked about his return to PBS. Moyers spoke about the role of the press in reporting and interpreting information, and how that's more difficult today than it has been in a long time. This made me think about my own role as chief employee communications guru at Sun, and what the role of my team is in communicating with Sun employees.
When I first joined Sun early in 2003, I spent a fair amount of time just reading and listening to much of the archived internal communications we had on hand. Frankly, I was disappointed. It felt to me like a spin machine, and after hearing again about how splendid things were at Sun, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I remember taking my headset off and groaning. Why couldn't we just 'fess up and talk about the world as it really was in 2003 - we had quality problems, our stock sucked, morale was in the toilet and there was tangible fear that we would be acquired by a company whose vision and values were very different than ours.
I've lost some of my naivety since then, and I do understand that there are some things that it is wise not to discuss in public forums - you don't want to yell, "Fire!", and start a stampede, for example. But there are many others that should not be kept in the closet. You don't solve problems by pretending everything is just ducky. You solve problems by facing them and coming up with solutions. And that means communicating about them. Honestly. Fairly. Objectively.
The sky is definitely orange. The sky is definitely purple. Who is right? How do you get to the underlying facts and how do you present them in such a way that you treat both sides with respect? And what is your role in pointing out that maybe, just maybe, the sky is, in fact, blue?
We've done some pretty interesting things at Sun to open up the environment. We've run polls on our internal home page after quarterly earnings reports, asking employees if their confidence in Sun was better, worse or about the same after hearing the news. The results weren't always fun to get, depending on the quarter. But it let us know what people were thinking. We've asked employees what one question they would want answered by our executives -- and received hundreds of questions, some of them tougher than what even Mike Wallace in his heyday might have asked. When executives know that employees know what's going on, good things happen. Just like when politicians know citizens are paying attention...
Open questions help with open communication. It's harder to dodge the tough issues when you have 34,000 employees asking you about them. So what are the principles of a principled communicator? Well, just about the same as a principled Sun employee, as embodied in our Sun values of innovation, courage, collaboration, pace and perhaps most important of all, integrity.
And by the way, the thorniest communication problems come not with reporting if the sky is purple or orange. It's those shades of blue and gray that are the toughest to manage...