⛴️ Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Lise Harwin
Employee Communications Manager, Port of Portland & Portland International Airport
I enjoyed talking with Lise Harwin to learn about her career path. This is her internal communications story.
About Lise Harwin
For 17 years, Lise Harwin made a career in media relations — pitching organizational stories ranging from life-saving at a Level 1 trauma hospital to life-affirming at the American Red Cross to life-changing in higher education. Now she’s turned her corporate raconteuring and social media savvy inward, transitioning to employee engagement and communication for the Port of Portland and PDX, America’s Best Airport for seven years in a row. Lise most recently served as VP of Communications for PRSA’s Employee Communications section and has presented several times at the section’s annual Connect conference. She also is an assembly delegate for the PRSA Oregon chapter and recipient of their 2019 Olga M. Haley Mentorship Award.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
My background is in media relations, public relations and journalism. I worked in high intensity media relations roles for a trauma hospital and for the Red Cross on their Advance Public Affairs Team responding to national disasters. I was comfortable being on camera and managing crisis communications, but I realized over time that there were a few things I loved and a few things I didn’t enjoy as much.
As an example, there was relentless pressure from executives and CEOs to be on the front page of The New York Times. You could make that happen, and then the next week they’d ask, “Why am I not on the cover of The Wall Street Journal?” No matter how much you achieved, there was always an expectation for more. I was burnt out on the constant need for visibility.
The aspects I did love about the field were the storytelling, working with people and community building on social media. Building up an audience that was supportive of your organization on social was really rewarding.
When I thought about storytelling and community building, I realized I’d be a good fit for employee communications. And that has been true! There’s a lot of storytelling about your own workforce and community building because you want employees to feel good about where they work and share their positive experiences with others.
How have your early career experiences shaped your current internal communications work?
In the early days of my career, I worked for employers that didn’t really care about keeping their workforce informed and turning employees into ambassadors for the organization. To me, this seemed like a huge missed opportunity.
Let’s say there was going to be a negative front page story about the organization. One option would be to ignore it, say nothing at all to employees and hope they didn’t read it. Alternately, you could tell employees in advance and provide context for the story so they understand the organization’s point of view and can help carry the message to friends and family. Which option do you think would be more effective to engender the trust of a workforce?
When I moved into this field six years ago, my number one priority was ensuring employees were informed, engaged and empowered. Every day, I help turn employees into advocates, to make sure they hear the news first and understand the nuances of a story.
One of my favorite things to tell people is that I have the most self-serving job ever. Why? Because I’m an employee and I’m making my workplace better for me just as much as I am for everyone else. I have the power to advocate for our entire workforce – for better benefits and perks, for clearer communication or for more transparency and action from our leaders. Every single day, I get the chance to directly impact where I work for the better. What could be more exciting than that?!
How do you describe your role to others?
I’ll start with a story that isn’t quite what you’re asking, but hopefully you’ll quickly understand the connection.
One of my conference presentations is about building an onboarding program. Most communicators' first reaction is: “Onboarding! Isn’t that HR’s job!?”
But as I see it, I’m responsible for shaping the entire employee journey. It begins with recruiting: I should be influencing our careers website and how we show up for people who might want to work on our team. Then it’s about the onboarding experience and how new hires make their transition into our workforce. I’m managing the communication you receive once you’re part of our team and, ultimately, I should help ensure a smooth departure from the organization when you leave or retire.
I believe my role is to influence the whole spectrum of employee experience, and that HR and communications can work together to make those experiences extraordinary. Bottom line: If it’s not your job, make it your job. If you can jump in to make HR communications better, do it. We all have a common goal of making life better for employees.
Can you share more about how you’ve transformed onboarding?
To get to onboarding, you have to start with recruitment.
When I was hired at the Port, our head of HR asked me to redo our careers website which was straight out of the 1990s. Her vision was for our careers site to look like those of Nike, Apple or Google.
That was really aspirational, but we made it happen. Today, our careers site better reflects our organization and shows the work/life balance we offer, the diversity of roles and the many perks employees enjoy. We now tell the stories of real employees and show ourselves in the best possible light.
One of the most powerful statements we use throughout the site and in our recruitment materials is, “We’re not what you’d expect.” That’s because when you think about government agencies, you don’t usually think innovative, forward-thinking and modern…which is exactly what we are.
But as I reflected on the careers site, I started to get worried. We’re saying we’re not what you’d expect…but are we living up to that goal on a new hire’s first day, first week or beyond? I realized we needed to ensure the entire onboarding experience wasn’t just not what you’d expect, but far better than you’d ever considered.
In the planning process, we sat down with HR and asked for every single touchpoint, from the formal job offer through new employee orientation. Then we took each touchpoint and brainstormed: How do we make this particular piece as amazing as it can be? Are there any holes or gaps? If so, how do we not only fix them, but make them better?
Before their first day, the new hire should receive a personal welcome note from their manager. They should have advance access to any required paperwork and the ability to fill it out at home with help and input from their family. We all know about the “fat envelope” mailed to seniors when they’re accepted to college. We took that idea and mailed a “fat envelope” of goodies and swag to the new hire’s home to create that same sort of excitement.
Looking at all these touchpoints also helped us spot areas for improvement. As an example, we always take a badge photo on a new hire’s first day, but never told them in advance. As you might imagine, no one likes being surprised with a photo that will then stick with them forever. Now, when we send the welcome packet to new hires at home, we also send a lanyard with a heads up that we’ll be taking their badge photo on their first day. All of these small details really make a big difference in easing the transition process.
One more helpful tip that I picked up from my friend Elisabeth Wang: At Piedmont Healthcare, they give all new hires a special color badge for their first year. In this manner, colleagues can tell at a glance if someone is new and can stop, say hi and make them feel welcome. Plus, new hires have the benefit of “graduating” to a new color badge at their one-year anniversary, marking the occasion.
In any case, our Ready Set Go! onboarding website is just one small piece of the full process. While it’s hidden from public view, we opted not to put it behind a firewall so that new hires can access it before they are “official” employees – you are welcome to check it out!
What are the sources you read to learn about Internal Communications?
About seven years ago, publications like Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Inc. and The New York Times started to write about the importance of recruitment, retention and engaging employees as ambassadors. “Employee experience” began to become a hot topic.
These publications helped leaders understand the key role internal communications could play within an organization, and it helped transform our jobs from “newsletter writer” to “employee communications strategist.”
Reading these publications – the same ones that executives read – helps me bring strategy and authority to my role and stay on top of business trends. I like to think this makes me a valuable consultant and partner.
As an example, I recently read an article about Dollar General and how they’re giving employees time off to get COVID-19 vaccines. I know this is a topic on the table for our workforce and that there’s still time to implement similar ideas. Without hesitation, I shared the article with our HR leadership. The outcome? We’ll be sitting down to discuss our approach and incentives next week.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
When I started at the Port, we had a different executive director and we were quite cautious, especially when it came to politically sensitive topics. It was for good reason: We are a government agency and often need to remain neutral. On the other hand, we wanted to lean in on diversity, equity and inclusion, and there were times when not taking a strong stand felt in direct conflict with this goal.
Fortunately, many internal CEO messages make their way into public view, especially those from high profile leaders like Tim Cook and Howard Schultz. These were leaders who weren’t afraid of taking a stand, even if it cost them customers. One tactic that initially proved useful was rounding up some of these examples and using them to help persuade our executive to speak out.
What started as a slow process where it might take days before we offered perspective, even internally, gradually began to shift. Now, with a new executive in place, clearly defined core values and an even stronger organizational focus on DEI, we are more comfortable taking a stand and are often able to weigh in the very same day. We may debate the format – is it better shared as an organization-wide email or at a town hall? should it also be shared externally on our social channels? – but we no longer debate whether it should be done.
I’m glad to have helped push the organization to live our core values and acknowledge how the world around us directly impacts our employees. Employees also value leaders who have a heart, take a stand and show that they believe in something, especially at mission-driven organizations. This transformation has been a win-win for all.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
Writing and interpersonal skills share the number one spot. These jobs call for a lot of translating information – taking things that are technical and hard to understand, like policies and processes, and making them easily understood by all employees. Being a “people person” also helps. Many great stories come to you by way of casual conversation and it’s important to enjoy listening and connecting with others.
Every day, I’m setting a content strategy, writing copy for the web, creating eye-catching digital signage and managing an employee social network (in our case, Yammer), among many other things. Many of these skills mirror those of my external counterparts. If you have web content experience, you can run an intranet. If you have email marketing experience, you can produce an employee newsletter. If you have event planning experience, you can run a town hall. Making the shift from external to internal – or vice versa – is easier than you might think.
Finally, having strong relationships with your communications teammates is critical. Great internal stories can also be great external stories, which gives you the opportunity to work closely with media relations. An intranet revamp or onboarding program wouldn’t succeed without your digital and design partners. Have a vision and then get the right colleagues on board to make it a reality!
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?
I’ve been a PRSA member for more than 20 years, and that relationship has continued as I moved from media relations to internal communications. Right now, my most important resource is PRSA’s Employee Communications Section.
I initially got involved with the Section after their Connect conference, which has attendees from every different industry with communications budgets of all sizes. The energy and innovation is incredible! Immediately after attending, I contacted the Section board and asked if they might have an open role for me. They kindly said yes and I’ve been part of the team ever since.
Those who work in this field are passionate about making people feel connected. They’re friendly, great at talking to others and creating a welcoming space. Every time I attended Connect, I’d go home wanting to recreate that same energy. A few years ago, I started a group called Portland IComms by going through LinkedIn, searching for local internal communicators and inviting them to connect. Before the pandemic, we got together every few months to share successes, challenges and ideas. I’ve learned a ton from my Portland IComms colleagues and encourage all internal communicators to consider building similar groups in their own communities!