Insights From Gina Laughlin, Managing Director of Employee Communications at Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines was on top of the world at the start of 2020, with a workforce that was 90,000 people strong. They were winning awards for customer experience and paying out $1.6 billion in profit-sharing to employees.
Six weeks later, COVID gut-punched the entire airline industry — along with many other industries – and Delta Air Lines had to simultaneously figure out how to continue doing business while keeping employees and customers safe, all in a constantly-changing environment of rules and regulations, while adjusting to a harsh new financial reality that saw business and leisure travel come to, effectively, a screeching halt.
Gina Laughlin, Managing Director of Employee Communications at Delta Air Lines, described the strategies the company took to get through their 3 Phases of COVID-19:
- Phase I: Crisis Mode (March 2020 – Sept. 2020). This included working with HR to downsize the workforce without involuntary furloughs, offering unpaid leaves of absence and retirement packages and communicating daily to employees as the CDC and World Health Organization issued rapidly-changing operation guidelines for the airline industry. Fortunately, Delta had built a culture of open, two-way communication – and they found employees were hungry for as much information as possible during this uncertain time. They ran weekly town hall meetings with CEO Ed Bastian and other key leadership team members; brought in medical expert partners for updates and sent out daily emails in support of the Stop The Spread-Save Lives campaign. All communications could be accessed after the fact – key for a 24/7 traveling workforce. All messaging revolved around 3 basic tenets: Take Care of Delta Employees; Take Care of Customers and Preserve the Liquidity of the Company. Communication professionals listened to employee feedback via a quarterly Pulse survey and adjusted any communication that would make Delta appear “tone deaf” in this new environment.
- Phase II: Adjusting To The New Normal (Oct. 2020 – Oct. 2021). As spring/summer travel started to come back, Delta focused on the best way to accommodate the increase while hammering home messages on what to do to keep employees and customers safe, which included cleaning protocols, providing free testing and, when the vaccine became available, getting employees vaccinated. They adjusted communication frequency to “pre-COVID levels”, and laid the groundwork early with vaccination messaging in a highly-targeted campaign that rolled out state-by-state. They partnered with state officials and CVS on the distribution of vaccines and worked with the community to make them as accessible as possible under the “Connected Together-Protected Together” campaign. Because the culture of rewarding employees for making responsible health choices already existed (e.g. earning Delta health rewards for actions like getting physicals and flu shots), they were able to get 50% of employees vaccinated (1 dose plus) by April 2021 – an impressive number. They then focused on removing all barriers to getting the vaccine, including offering it in the airport, via “vaccine trucks” on the ramp and in employee parking lots, offering personal paid time off to recover from any vaccine side-effects and allowing employees to bring family members to get vaccinated with them. To get to the goal of 75% (considered at the time to be the herd immunity benchmark), they used an incentive drawing with cash and travel prizes, spotlighting the role models by sharing footage of the winners in their communications. Important point: although leadership was clear they wanted everyone to get vaccinated, they made a promise not to mandate it – so no employee would lose their job as a result of not getting the vaccine. Instead, they gave employees a choice – they could get vaccinated, or pay a healthcare surcharge. They talked openly about this decision in town hall meetings, sharing the “why” behind the decision and providing a two-way forum for employees to ask questions and give feedback. This open communication platform was important for employees to both agree and disagree with Delta’s decision.
- Phase III: Living With The Changing Face of COVID. (Nov. 2021 – Present). This is where “optimism meets reality” as new strains of the virus appear, and regulations are issued (e.g. Federal mask mandate). With more than 95% of the workforce vaccinated, Delta is now focused on reinforcing key messages delivered by trusted leadership and making testing as convenient as possible (Delta employees are able to order boxes of 6 online and also can be tested weekly at work). Another strategy: Delta is leveraging the compliments they get from customers by sharing them with all employees, building pride and morale. Finally, a simple piece of advice that costs nothing – recognize and thank employees often for a job well done in difficult circumstances!
For further questions, Gina Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about Delta Air Lines and CEO Ed Bastian, view the recent article from PRSA Issues and Trends https://chiefexecutive.net/delta-air-lines-ceo-ed-bastain-we-keep-climbing/.
For information about Yankee Chapter PRSA Membership, visit www.yankeeprsa.org.