The 2005 International Conference of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) provided a forum for discussion of a critical issue for business: how to communicate effectively with employees.

The most rousing presentation of the IABC conference set off some of the most passionate discussions about effective employee communication. On Tuesday, TJ Larkin, a consultant and researcher in internal communications, discussed the topic, “Intranet, Paper or Face-to-Face: What Each Channel Does Best.”

More than a decade ago, Larkin caused a stir among corporations with his best-selling book, “Communicating Change: Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals.” Larkin’s book advocated focusing attention on employees’ direct supervisors to ensure that key messages would be supported by employees. He quoted research indicating that employees place the most trust in their direct supervisors when they want the “real facts.”

Based on discussions following Larkin’s latest presentation to the IABC, he is still causing a stir–and, according to two well-known and respected communications consultants, is still off-track.

Following Larkin’s IABC presentation, I posted an effusive blog entry that accurately reported the audience’s reaction to the presentation: a standing ovation. IABC Fellow Shel Holtz, ABC, posted his own detailed “deconstruction” of Larkin’s findings on his blog. In Shel’s deconstruction, he mentioned a point made against Larkin’s book premise by Angela Sinickas, ABC, a well-respected consultant, presenter and authority on the topic of communication measurement.

As luck would have it, today I had the opportunity to ask the opinion of a well-known CEO, Mark Hurd of Hewlett-Packard. Hurd answered questions following his speech upon receiving the IABC’s 2005 EXCEL Award, the highest award given by IABC to a non-member. Later, I ran into Angela at the airport, and she graciously provided some insight as well.

I’ll cover Hurd’s speech more thoroughly on the IABC Cafe Press Corps blog in coming days, but I want to relay his answer to the question of employee communication here.

I told Hurd about the discussion underway regarding the role of CEO communication versus supervisor communication, and asked for his view on what works in his organization. This is a fairly accurate quote from him.

“I don’t think that a CEO can replace the relationship of employees and their front-line supervisors,” Hurd said. “But the CEO can provide a context relative to the whole company, to try to create clarity around the mission.” He later provided a supporting comment while answering a separate question when he said, “When I promote, demote, recognize and reward people, I tell 30,000 people what I value.” That is the essence of the CEO’s influence.

When I asked Angela later at the airport about her opinion of Larkin’s work, she pointed out a couple of “fallacious arguments” in Larkin’s presentation. “He is a good speaker, who carries an audience along on a wave of sound bites,” she said. “They may sound good, but they may not be factual.”

Some points mentioned by Angela:

  • Larkin mentioned that “he has never seen any studies correlating CEO communications with employee trust.” Angela has “seen many” that show a close correlation between CEO communication and employee trust in the CEO and organization.
  • Angela gave an example of one manufacturing client where measurements showed that the most trusted individual by employees was the plant manager. In fact, many supervisors within that company were new. “They were an employee’s coworker the year before,” she said. “Just because they were promoted, now the employee would want to hear what they think? I don’t think so.”

It’s the age-old point, Angela added: You have to pick the right communication vehicle for the audience and the message.