Performance Feeds on Commitment13 years ago
Cheryl Moore reveals how she and her small PR team are meeting the communications challenges of a company on the move.
I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to leave my job with a US regional financial institution, where I knew both the employees and the industry, to lead the corporate communications function for Performance Food Group (Nasdaq/NGS:PFGC), a Fortune 500 food distribution company.
To add to the challenge, my position was the first in the company’s history dedicated to communications, so it offered a real opportunity to create something from the ground up. In the nearly five years since, I’ve had the pleasure of working in the trenches with PFG leadership to provide the communications guidance needed to help unify the company so we could move to the next level. The challenges have been many, but the opportunities even greater.
PFG’s roots are in distributing food and food-related products to major restaurant chains, individually-owned restaurants and hospitals, schools and cafeterias. Several years ago, the company began a major surge in growth and acquired a number of smaller, primarily family-owned operations, with similar perceived customer focuses and cultures. These companies, referred to as PFG’s operating companies or opcos, vary in size and are located across the country, serving food service providers in every state and 44 foreign countries.
Initially, each of these opcos continued to operate independently with their own managerial platforms and processes. However, beginning in 2005, as PFG began to move forward with a more centralized operational approach, we redoubled our commitment to strengthening the corporate culture and fostering an environment of teamwork among associates at all 30 locations. Since PFG is the third largest in the marketplace, behind our much larger competitors, a “we try harder” attitude permeates the company.
Within this environment of change, PFG was challenged to develop a communications structure that ensured consistency of message and developed corporate brand while providing flexibility for each opco to personalize the communications approach to fit their structure, culture and individual company’s need while at the same time committing to consistent communications goals across the board, in order to:
• Enhance associate understanding of who PFG is, what the company stands for and how each individual contributes to the success of the company
• Demonstrate our commitment to the communities in which we are located, which reflects PFG’s core values
• Develop a multi-tiered approach that provides headquarters and opcos with multiple communications tools and options
One of our first steps was to establish a brand for the company as well as to bring consistency and cohesiveness to all aspects of communication, including design. We felt strongly that we needed to start internally to develop our brand; if our own associates didn’t get it, how could we expect others to understand it?
Taking Our Cultural Pulse
The internal brand platform provided a jumping-off place for our overall communications strategy. An initial cultural pulse survey quickly identified that each company had a strong independent brand and associate identification, but that PFG as a whole had low understanding and engagement.
Our initial efforts focused internally, helping associates to better understand the diversity within the company while celebrating the commonalities, core values and key initiatives. Our theme, “We’re Committed!” seems to resonate with associates at all levels within the organization since it allows them to home in on both their team’s commitment and their individual commitment to driving the company forward.
The challenges have been numerous. Key among them is that most of PFG’s associates work in a warehouse setting, or are truck drivers or in sales, and as such, do not have access to the computers or the Internet. In today’s age of technology, this lack of access makes communicating with most of our associates in a timely manner difficult - and yet we still must rely on company management for the downward flow to relay important information about company policies, procedures and decisions to this group of associates who conduct the bulk of PFG’s day-to-day business.
To address these challenges, we have explored a variety of non-traditional tools designed to reach our associates in a way that is integrated into their daily work. We use audio CDs and mirror hang tags to communicate with our drivers and sales force. In the warehouses, we use floor graphics and decals to reinforce key messages.
Traditional Comms with a Twist
We also employ a number of more traditional communications tools, although we look for opportunities to use them in unique ways. For example, associates identify our print newsletter as one of their primary sources of company information.
However, the newsletter is sent to associates’ homes rather than delivered at work. This way, they can digest the information on their own time. Associates’ families often read the newsletter too, reinforcing PFG’s family-oriented culture. When it came time to communicate an extensive benefit change, user friendly and entertaining DVDs were sent to associate homes so that family decision-making could take place.
Additionally, PFG leadership is committed to using face-to-face communication to relay important information about the company’s goals, strategy and growth. We hold town hall meetings at headquarters and take our exec team on the road to the opcos for quarterly all-associate state-of-the-company meetings, or more frequently if needed.
Letters and e-mails from our chairman and president, an associate news hotline, a CEO Blog, and opco communications toolkits with templates for internal and external audiences help ensure that there is a communication tool and method for every preference.
Although we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, we still have a lot to tackle. The communications department is small - a staff of three covers nearly 8,000 associates, customers, shareholders, investors, the media and other stakeholders. We’re continually challenged to improve our efficiency, gather additional resources and look for creative ways to reach our audiences. But at the end of the day, it’s a challenge we’re committed to meeting.
Cheryl Moore is Director of Corporate Communications, Performance Food Groupmail the author
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