What I Did on my Summer Vacation

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

As an associate professor, who spent the first half of her career working in public relations for Fortune 500 companies, I was curious to see what has happened to corporate communications in the ten years since I escaped and went to Academia. So, when the opportunity to apply for a Fellowship through the Plank Center at the University of Alabama appeared, I immediately jumped at the chance to go back into Corporate America with the eyes, perspective, and skills of an academic.

And I’m glad I did!

I worked for two weeks at the world headquarters of Harley-Davidson, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the Corporate Communications department.  I thought I might just be relegated to observer status at the iconic American company, but to my delight, I was immediately treated as part of the team and asked for input at several high level meetings. My host, Joanne Bischmann, VP of Communications has a staff of 22 employees.

Like many organizations, Harley-Davidson is in the midst of change—its global presence is growing and the company has repositioned itself to be more competitive and innovative. As operations and marketing have expanded, so too, have the responsibilities of Corporate Communications. With resources deployed to the max, the department is looking for a better way to organize itself in order to maintain the quality of its service to internal and external constituents and audiences.

For several months before I arrived, an internal leadership team had been working with an external consulting group interviewing senior leadership and communication employees, and benchmarking the best communication practices of other companies. The amount of data collected was astonishing. But as impressive as that was, the real work was just beginning.

I completed two projects for Harley-Davidson. The first was a 40-page workbook I designed and wrote to help guide employees through the process of thinking about how a new structure for the department might look and what kinds of roles and resources would be needed to make the change worth the effort.  The second project was to design a step-by-step social media program that could be implemented at the upcoming dealer show, which is expected to draw more than 4,000 people from around the world. This is a low-cost, dip-your-toe-in-the-water effort that would give many of the social media-risk averse employees a chance to tweet and blog, and become familiar with location-based tracking.

Both projects were challenging and exciting, and required me to think strategically about how to engage employees in the change process, and how to introduce social media into a department that will eventually need to add new media to its list of core competencies.

What I learned was this: corporate America is fundamentally the same as it was when I last called it home, but the amount of work has increased exponentially for communicators, not just in the quantity, quality and authenticity of information flowing to, through, and from the organization, but in the number of channels and modalities.   Communicating is an absolutely relentless process in organizations. This is one of the lessons I will drive home to my students.

At the end of my two weeks, I got what I really wanted—a ride on the back of a big old Harley that took me along Lakeshore Drive, cruising by Lake Michigan on a beautiful Friday morning. It was the perfect ending to an extraordinary experience.

Many thanks to Joanne Bischmann and her staff at Harley-Davidson for the warm welcome and opportunity to participate in the “operationalization” of the Corporate Communications Department.


About Dr. Astrid Sheil

Before becoming an academic, Dr. Sheil spent 15 years as a senior-level communication/PR director for two Fortune 500 companies and worked internationally in Finland and the Netherlands. As CEO of Sheil and Associates, she has worked with clients from all sectors of the economy—public and private companies, NGOs, hospitals, government agencies, United States senators, and university administrations. She is the author of Dynamic Public Relations: The 24/7 PR Cycle, published by Pearson—one of the top PR textbooks in the country, and was a 2015-2016 American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow.

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