This case study won an IABC/Chicago Bronze Quill Award of Excellence 

BACKGROUND  

Standard Parking Corporation is a leading service provider of parking and facility management operations, providing on‐site services at multilevel and surface lot facilities. Headquartered in Chicago, the company manages more than 1 million parking spaces in hundreds of cities across the United States and Canada.

The recently launched SP Plus® brand highlights the company’s valueadded transportation, maintenance, event management and security service lines that complement its core operations. Standard Parking also uses the SP Plus brand to emphasize the extensive subjectmatter expertise that the company has developed to meet the varied demands of the marketplace. 

Standard Parking is publicly traded on the NASDAQ exchange [Symbol: STAN] and generates an annual gross profit of approximately $80 million.

History Founded in 1929, Standard Parking began in Chicago as a small gasoline station. Patrons began paying the station’s owner to watch their automobiles as they ran into adjacent businesses. The owner discovered that he generated more revenue from parking than from gasoline. The company grew strategically through large‐scale mergers and acquisitions, human resource training and development, and use of cuttingedge technology. Leveraging those tactics, in tandem with the creation of the SP  Plus® brand, Standard Parking has grown to become one of the largest parking management companies in the world.

Clients The company’s diversified client base includes some of the nation’s largest public and private property owners, property managers and real estate developers. Our clients own or manage a variety of property types, including: major office buildings, residential and commercial real estate, shopping centers and other retail properties. Standard Parking also operates in major sporting and specialevent complexes, hotels, hospitals, universities and medical centers. In the airport market, the company manages parking, shuttle bus and ground transportation operations, serving over 60 airports across the U.S.    and Canada.

Role of Corporate Communications The communications function reports to the Executive Vice President of Administration. As the Corporate Communication Specialist, this single‐person department carries two components, internal and external communication. Internally, the department is   responsible for creating the employee communication strategy and managing all related material: large‐ scale, system‐wide messaging to employees, including management of the company’s intranet, a quarterly company newsletter, biweekly eblast announcements (titled Up To Speed), e‐mail   distribution lists, annual Town Hall meetings and other special employee events. I work closely with all functional department heads, primarily in the human resources and training areas.

Externally, I am responsible for developing content for a variety of new websites; participate as a member of a digital marketing task force; handle media relations; create and implement the social media strategy and content; and create client and customer marketing.

The company contracts with a public relations firm to handle some of our cobranding initiatives and creative design work. We also work with an outside web developer/host company for our intranet site.

PROBLEM/OPPORTUNITY

Background Standard Parking had no formalized communication department prior to December 2009. Internal communication media consisted of a lengthy internal newsletter crafted by the human resources department and random e‐mail blasts. Among employees, communication was limited to e mail messaging, facetoface meetings or telephone conversations. Finally, since there was no Communication Department, the company lacked a formal communication strategy and failed to monitor communication effectiveness.

Before any communication department can plan and implement a successful strategy, it should conduct an indepth look at the organization’s current status specifically, how and what it communicates. I needed to understand how information flowed horizontally and vertically through the organization. I also wanted to assess what types of information was relevant to the audience and determine by what methods they wanted to receive it. A system‐wide communication audit was a logical first step.

Audience Standard Parking manages over 1,200 parking, shuttle and airport operations across the United States and Canada. Headquartered in Chicago, the company has approximately 12,000 employees and 13 regional offices located in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Cleveland and Toronto, to name a few. Standard Parking manages locations in almost every major metropolitan area in the country.

The intended audience consisted of approximately 2,000 management and office employees, but can be segmented into the following sub‐groups: (1)  Corporate and Regional Office staff and (2)  Field management (both sales and operations).

The Chicago Corporate Office houses our executive leadership, consisting of our CEO and six executive vice presidents; as well as approximately 110 personnel, mostly working within various departments like accounting, human resources, legal, finance or IT. The Regional Offices, consisting of about 150 employees in administrative and management roles, are located across the country. Each office staffs 10 to 30 people, depending on the location. Approximately 65% of corporate and regional office staff are men. Over 90% of this group (both men and women) have a bachelor’s degree.

Field management consists of two branches our Operations and Sales teams. The operations group is responsible for managing the daily operations of our facilities. This includes customer/client relations, facility maintenance and meeting projected monthly sales goals. Our Sales team’s primary responsibility lies in acquisition of new business and the addition of services to current clients. Of this group, 86% are men; 54% of the group has college degrees.

Research I researched various Internet and print sources for approximately four weeks.  My intent was to not only learn how to conduct an audit of this size, but also develop a framework of relevant questions. I read through over 15 IABC case studies and 10 Communication World articles. I purchased “The Communication Plan: The Heart of Strategic Communication” by Lester Potter, ABC, which  provided a fantastic view into the strategic planning process, and provided ideas for audit questions. I reviewed the Conducting a Communications Audit chapter of “Communication Research, Measurement and Evaluation” by Louis C. Williams Jr., ABC, APR, which provided a wide variety of sample questions.

I investigated outside sources as well. I found three templates for communication and cultural assessments, research conducted by Towers Watson and a communication plan published by Civicus.

Finally, I reached out to Standard Parking's Training Department and discovered that our company utilized SurveyMonkey for a variety of assessments. (SurveyMonkey is the world’s leading provider of webbased survey solutions and, according to its website, “utilized by millions of companies, organizations and individuals.”) This proved positive on two levels. First, I did not need to set up a new account, thereby eliminating any monetary cost. And, because the staff was already familiar with the look and feel of the product, no employee training was involved.

DEVELOPING THE SOLUTION

 Completion of the company‐wide communication audit was necessary to gauge current communication practices. The data would provide a benchmark, so that strategic communication could be measured going forward. In addition, communication practices and channels could be assessed and I could  identify areas of improvement.

Budget The mechanism of survey delivery was free, so no monetary budget was allocated to this project. The primary cost was the workforce hours needed for creation, implementation and evaluation of the survey. As I was responsible for multiple ongoing projects, I estimated the entire process would take five months, from survey creation to a finished report. I also estimated that employees could complete the survey in fewer than 20 minutes.

Goals and Objectives The system‐wide audit’s primary goal was to provide the communication department with a firm assessment of current communication practices, and gain an understanding of what employees wanted to hear. I determined the following objectives to reach that goal:

  • Objective 1: 25% of intended audience would complete the systemwide audit
  • Objective 2: Identify the top three companyrelated topics that are “important” to employees
  • Objective 3: Identify three challenges that occur within horizontal and vertical communication channels

PLAN EVALUATION AND MEASUREMENT

The plan was successfully implemented. Measurement against our objectives surpassed our expectations and was completed two weeks under the time allotted. I also was able to utilize the data to generate a needs analysis required for our strategic communication plan. Our measureable results were:

  • Objective 1: 25% of intended audience would complete the systemwide audit
  • Result: The survey was sent to 1,699 users across the company. 27% (463 employees) completed the survey in its entirety. This is a relatively good response rate for our company, as they typically receive less than 21% and this was the first system‐wide communication audit.
  • Objective 2: Identify the top three companyrelated topics that are “important” to employees
  • Result: Identified the five most important topics to employees, including:
    • (1) updates on policies and procedures (Likert score = 3.86 out of 5)
    • (2) HR/Benefits material (Likert score = 3.37 out of 5)
    • (3) Steering Committee/Executive Leadership decisions and direction (Likert score = 3.18 out of 5)
    • (4) Updates on technology and IT (Likert score = 2.74 out of 5)
    • (5) Company financial news (Likert score = 2.74 out of 5)
  • Objective 3: Identify three challenges that occur within the current horizontal and vertical communication channels, and obtain qualitative feedback to support those responses.
  • Result: Objective met. Employees stated the following:
    • The primary area of improvement lies within the Corporate to Field Operations (vertical) communication category. Qualitative responses included an increase in consistency across multiple department communication and ample notice when procedures change.
    • The second area of opportunity lies within delivery of changes to our internal audit program to employees. Almost 40% of responses noted that the Audit Department delivered inconsistent messages. Changes in audit procedures were not delivered effectively and occurred too often.
    • The third opportunity lies with the delivery of HR and benefits material. Over 60% of those surveyed feel that HR provides adequate human resource and benefits material, but employees find it difficult to locate the material when needed.

 The survey also allowed for respondents to provide subjective feedback in each of the four categories. The primary concern from my perspective was that 40% of the open‐ended comments received stated that the corporate office “does not reply to the field with accurate information in a timely manner.” Several of comments stated that policy and procedure information was delivered inaccurately between sources. For example, “When a person would call for support, the intranet says one thing, an eblast says another, then a staff member states something else.” This was extremely concerning and a key indicator to inconsistencies among operational groups.

As an ongoing process, we’ve taken the points that employees want to hear about (objective 2) and embed them with the majority of company‐wide announcements. Our newsletter has company financial news and updates on technology and IT, while our bi‐weekly Up To Speed eblasts focus on policies and procedure changes, HR and benefits information and safety topics.

Our company is implementing a sales transformation model with the business development team, headed by the Executive Vice President of Human Resources. The quantitative data and feedback regarding horizontal and vertical communication was shared with the consulting company contracted to take on the transformation process. They found it very helpful and added communications as one of the focal points of discussion.