Shel Holtz Interview: How Westar Reaches Frontline Employees With SocialChorus

 In Employee Experience

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Westar Energy is an investor-owned utility company that serves 700,000 customers and has over 2,400 employees, who mostly work out in the field and don’t sit behind a computer. With a merger with Kansas City Power and Light on the horizon, Westar needed to find a solution to connect with their hardest to reach employees and have the ability to scale once the merger is approved, which would effectively double the number of employees.

Shel Holtz is the co-founder of the FIR Podcast Network, the podcast for communicators. With over 35 years of employee communications experience in both corporate and consulting environments, he recently interviewed Jana Dawson, Director of Corporate Communications, and Jaycee Breese, Corporate Communications Representative, at Westar Energy in Kansas City, Missouri. And they had an in-depth conversation on Westar’s challenges and how they successfully connected all their employees with SocialChorus’ platform for workforce communications.


Shel:  I’m talking to two representatives of the same organization today, and as always, I’m going to let them introduce themselves.

Jana:  I’m Jana Dawson, and I’m the Director of Corporate Communications at Westar Energy.

Jaycee:  I’m Jaycee Breese, and I am a Corporate Communications representative of Westar Energy.

Jana:  Westar Energy is a publicly traded regulated utility in Kansas. We’re the largest provider of energy for our state. We’re also a leader in renewables. We generate about half of our power from emission-free sources about one-third of that coming from renewable energy. So, we take a leadership position in new technologies and innovation in the energy sector.

Jaycee:  We have about 2,400 employees who are headquartered in Topeka, Kansas that serve about 700,000 customers in eastern Kansas. And about 35% of those employees are in the field on a daily basis and have tablets that they can utilize. But other than that, they are not in the know with using a laptop on a regular basis.

Shel:  Jana and Jaycee, and I will talk about how they implemented SocialChorus, what they were doing for communication before they got there, how they went about deciding how they were going to use SocialChorus, the features they employed, and how they got employees to adopt it and retain it. It’s a little mini case study in employing one of these full-purpose, internal communication platforms into an organization that can benefit from what SocialChorus has to offer.

Shel:  How were you communicating before you brought SocialChorus on board?

Jana:  Well, we weren’t communicating very well with our field employees before we added SocialChorus to our communications lineup. These guys are in trucks. Their job is to keep the lights on, keep people safe, and power people’s lives. But they didn’t have a really good avenue for understanding what was happening in the company, and how their role directly tied back to those strategic priorities. So adding SocialChorus has given us an opportunity to make that connection and engage our employees in a way that we weren’t able to do that before.

Shel:  The channels that you were using, did any of them reach the people out in the field?

Jaycee:  We did have some digital signage. So we have about 80 TVs across our company that share very quick messages with employees. So that was resonating well, but you can’t tell a whole story on a TV screen when it’s more like a billboard.

Shel:  Are you still using that now that you have SocialChorus – the digital signage?


Read Shel’s interview with SocialChorus founder, Greg Shove, as they discuss how technology can be used to reach every employee with the relevant information they need to thrive.


Jaycee:  We are. We’re tying those messages together and leading people back to our employee app.

Jana:  We do have a multi-channel communications strategy. We have a little bit of a camel when it comes to demographics. We have a lot of Baby Boomer employees who do still rely on more traditional methods of communication. But we’ve also had a lot of them retire in the past two or three years, and we’ll have more retiring in the coming months and years especially as we go into a merger with our neighbor, Kansas City Power and Light. We’ll have more of those folks leaving and more people from the millennial generation who we need to be thinking about communicating with as they are accustomed to as a consumer and providing information to them in a format that’s recognizable.

Shel:  Why did Westar need a better mobile solution for communicating with employees?

Jana:  Our demographics was one driving factor. As we have new people coming on, they’re looking for a mobile solution and a way to connect with the company.  We also are merging with our neighbor next door, Kansas City Power and Light. When that merger is complete, we expect regulatory approval sometime in June; we will effectively double our workforce. And that means we’re going to have twice as many people in the field who are going to have an even greater need to understand what’s happening with the company as you’re trying to build a combined culture.

So, we were looking at this as an opportunity to pilot this program with our Westar employees and then have it in place to be able to roll out to the combined company when we come together. And we were able to put together a business case to take to our leadership team for the combined company. We will have the implementation of this app as a day-one deliverable for the combined company to help us build that engaged culture and sustainable workforce that we’ll need to be successful in our combined state.

Shel:  Did you explore other solutions in addition to SocialChorus?

Jana:  We did consider alternative options. We took a look at what was out in the marketplace but really liked the engaging nature of SocialChorus, the ease of access, the ease of use for the app, and just the clean look and feel of it. We felt like that was something that would be very easy for our employees to adopt, easy for them to understand, and would fit in nicely with the other channels that we’re developing for our employees.

Shel:  What other channels are you developing for your employees?

Jana:  As we go into one company, we are adding a SharePoint-based intranet that will include a message center that allows for two-way interaction with employees to add a little bit of context around strategic priorities and how people connect to that. We’ve got digital signage that we have throughout the organization. We also use a content management system to send out some traditional email newsletters on a regular basis. Again, because we have some different demographics throughout the organization, we want to make sure that we are conveying the same message but repackaging and repurposing it in different ways to where it resonates with people in the format that’s most conducive for them.

Shel:  How about the strategic planning that went into the process? How did you figure out what channels they were going to introduce and who was going to manage the content for those channels?

Jana:  The most significant requirement that we had beyond just the basic technical aspects of the app was the strategic support that was available. And that’s something we’ve been very pleased to have with SocialChorus. There’s a team of dedicated professionals for our team who has helped us as we’ve developed our implementation plans. They’ve been by our side every step of the way and worked closely with Jaycee as she developed that implementation and basically an internal marketing plan to bring people on board to where we reached the goals that we had set for adoption right off the bat.

Shel:  So, what was the process of getting it ready to roll out like? How did you identify the channels that you were going to implement and find the people who were going to manage that content?

Jaycee:  SocialChorus was really with us every step of the way with the process. We started with some strategic planning sessions and talked about what were our needs for channels and who were our audiences. So, we delved into all of that and took a look at a huge list of opportunities and drove down hard on the biggest hits—the low-hanging fruit first. And then SocialChorus had touched base with us to look at all of the IT requirements, and how we would develop and implement this over about a three-month period.

Shel:  The way SocialChorus works in one regard is through channels. You set up channels that have specific topics, specific themes. And you can opt employees into channels. If, for example, there’s a channel for their job class, you can make sure that they’ve opted in when they start to that channel, and they can also subscribe to channels that interest them. So, the newsfeed that they see when they open the app is a combination of the content that has been shared through the channels they subscribe to. So, every employee gets a unique feed.

At Westar, how many channels did you start with when you introduced SocialChorus to the employee population?

Jaycee:  We ended up starting with 14 channels, and we cover anything from our continuing merger to clean energy. And our employee resource information, “In the News,” is a specific channel that covers anytime Westar is mentioned in external media, and then our probably biggest following basis to our social media channels, which share information that we have on our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Shel:  Have you established any capabilities for employees to contribute content?

Jaycee:  Yeah, absolutely. Employees can submit pictures and links that they think are good fits for the channels. But we get a lot of community volunteer pictures submitted that way, which we are then allowed to repurpose into our other channels which have been a great aspect of the app.

Jana:  We’ve also found this to be a great supplement for our external communications team because what’s happening. Now, we’re getting all this great user-generated content live as it happens and the folks who manage our social media channels can pull those pictures from the internal app and share that on our external channels to help drive engagement. Because we’re trying to position ourselves as an electric company, but we’re all about people. And it’s the people out in the field who are staying connected to our customers, and then this is an opportunity for our customers to see how those folks are interacting with the communities we serve on a day to day basis. It’s worked really well.

Shel:  That ability for employees to contribute, to have a voice, and to even have their content shared externally is such an important element of what SocialChorus can bring to your internal communications. How did you go about recruiting people to populate the 14 channels that they have created so far with content?

Jaycee:  So, over time we’ve built relationships with people in each department that are our key accounts, basically, that we talk to on a regular basis. And it’s such an easy tool to use. It wasn’t hard to get them on board that, “Oh, wow, I can just add this content myself and have you guys help me review it right before.” So, it was really helpful. We’ve trained about 12 other content managers to help us with the system.

Shel:  Do they find that it saves them time? I mean that they can distribute content through this channel and therefore not have to write another email, for example?

Jana:  Absolutely. And the great thing is that people love to tell their own story, and this gives them an avenue to be able to tell their story. A great example is Laura Lutz who’s our government relations manager here at Westar. She’s been able to go in and create a government affairs channel and content to keep people updated about what’s happening at the Capitol Building. Obviously, it’s a regulated utility. That’s something that our employees are very interested in. And that gives her a chance to add a little perspective to what people might be reading in the newspaper but not really understand what the bigger picture is.

And Laura has done a great job of telling that story. And the end result of that is that we have better-informed employees who are now brand advocates. When they’re at a backyard neighbor event, a barbeque, and somebody has a question about what’s happening at the Capitol in regards to our electric rates, for example, they know what’s happening because Laura shared that story via SocialChorus.

Shel:  What I love about SocialChorus is that you can drive communication down to the level where the work is done and have the people who are responsible for parts of the business do their communication through SocialChorus, so it reaches people who either opt into that channel or whom you opt-in proactively. And that gets mixed up with the content that they choose to see in a personalized newsfeed. And that’s how, in this case, employees who had an interest in what was going on in the Capitol as it related to the regulated energy business were able to answer their friends’ questions because they were right on top of it.

This is something that you really should be doing in your organization – more orchestrating communication that other people are creating as opposed to investing all of your time in the creation of content.


What’s ahead?

Read part two of this interview in our next installment, as Jana and Jaycee walk through their SocialChorus rollout and launch, how their CEO incorporated video into his communications strategy, and how they got executive buy-in for their workforce communications platform.

And learn 10 key ways communicators can increase employee engagement with our latest report, download The Digital Transformation in Communications: SocialChorus’ 2018 Comms Effectiveness Survey now.

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