In times of great change – of which 2020 is the perfect example – we tend to consider how external communications need to adapt, and the messages that customers want to hear. Internal comms, on the other hand, are often forgotten. But when job losses are looming, companies are in turmoil, and anxieties are running high, reassuring employees through a robust internal comms strategy is more important than ever.
At our latest event on June 18, James Carruthers, Internal Communications Business Partner at GVC, Benjamin Griffiths, Internal Communications Manager at BT, John Hosken, Internal Communications Expert, and Madeleine Kavanagh, Internal Communications Specialist at Clifford Chance LLP joined us to discuss internal communications and the differences across sectors.
Internal comms presents its own set of unique challenges. It’s all very well building an intranet,
for example, but you’ve still got to incentivise employees to sign up – and then actually use it. And how can you get on-the-ground employees to feel connected to head office, and like their voices are being heard? During the event, our experts covered everything from picking the right channel for your message, to how the world of internal communications had adapted to the global pandemic. Read on for a summary of their insights.
Size isn’t everything
Internal communications involves disseminating consistent messages to diverse audiences, so it’s a natural assumption that the larger the organisation, the more complex the strategy. But according to our experts, that’s not necessarily the case.
“We’re a business of almost 25,000 and that’s quite a challenge because we’ve got so many different functions,” says James Carruthers. From his experience, “it’s far easier to communicate to one office of 1000 people, than ten offices of 100 people – even though it’s the same number of people.” That’s because the audience at one physical office building is likely to be similar – but with ten offices around the world, complicating factors come into play. How can we combat these types of issues? “The key to getting around that is effective business partnering. Getting the leaders on board with corporate messages is key because then, we can filter things down,” advises Carruthers.
John Hosken and Madeleine Kavanagh agree. “It’s about how they want to receive the message – it’s the type of workforce that matters, not the size,” Hosken says. “Size matters less than the audiences’ needs. For messages to land, they have to be relevant to the actual audience,” explains Kavanagh.
And for messages to land, they need to be transmitted through the appropriate channel.
Matching the message to the channel
The key tool in internal communications – whatever the industry – is usually a company-wide intranet system. Used for sharing key business messages and updates with employees, the benefit of an intranet system is that everything is centralised in one place. “My argument to the business leaders [for the intranet] was that there needs to be a single source of information,” explains Kavanagh. “One place that people go when they’re looking for key information on business strategy, for example, or key initiatives. Where can they go to find it? It has to be the intranet.”
But these systems have their limitations as well – especially when internal communications aren’t just limited to one channel. “We’ve come to the realisation that there’s confusion when to use the intranet, and when to use Microsoft Teams to connect with people,” says Carruthers. Employees won’t be inclined to engage with your intranet or internal platforms if they aren’t crystal clear on how to use them. To combat the confusion, Carruthers and his team worked on communicating the different uses in language that employees could easily understand. “Microsoft Teams is like your WhatsApp – a small group of people you can chat with and connect with. It does a different job than Instagram or Facebook, which is like our Intranet – a place where we can post news and updates, and people can comment and share their views,” explains Carruthers.
It’s not a case of either-or: multiple channels can and should “work harmoniously, but you can’t take it for granted that people automatically understand that. Once people start making that connection, it makes life a little bit easier,” he says.
The trick is ensuring you’re communicating your message on the relevant channel. The options for internal comms are endless – intranet systems, existing tools like Slack, Basecamp and Microsoft Teams, using animation, video and podcasts, and virtual town halls are just some of the possibilities open to companies looking to connect with employees at all levels. “The key to it all is knowing what your channels are good for, and what they’re good for,” advises Carruthers. “You can introduce a new channel and it’s exciting. You think, ‘let’s do loads of podcasts’. But podcasts are great for conversational topics and the here and now, but they’re not so good for operational messages.”
How to convince employees
The question remains as to how you convince employees to actually make use of your fancy and exciting internal comms channels. This is where the humble email has its moment in the spotlight. “We use email to drive people to the intranet, and once they’re there, it’s up to us to ensure they’re met with relevant information,” says Kavanagh. So it’s not like intranet systems are totally replacing traditional communication forms – they’re working together to help employees get the maximum benefit from the available channels.
Griffiths agrees. We all know that with the barrage of posts on social media each day, it’s easy to miss a friend’s latest update. In the same way, just like on other social media channels, things get lost if employees don’t check their intranet for one day. “There’s still a place for email,” says Griffiths. “We email a certain segment of our audience with critical business updates. At the end of the week, we’ve created a roundup so that people can digest our key stories at the weekend.”
Conversely, it’s not a good idea to use email as the only internal communications channel. If hundreds of emails are flying into employees’ inboxes every day, there’s always the risk that internal comms correspondence will sit unopened. To make sure all your bases are covered, Griffiths details the importance of offline activations as well. “When we launched Workplace [BT’s intranet system] we held events and made clear post markets telling people how and why to join. Sometimes we don’t give people the why.” Sometimes old-school handouts can do the trick as well – BT created incentives like a game where employees had to collect certain cards around the building pertaining to Workplace. “We also gave out mugs and cards encouraging people to sign up,” says Griffiths.
If employees seem reluctant to follow orders from corporate to sign up to your new intranet system, consider engaging them through their managers. “Word of mouth is a great way to get people engaged,” explains Griffiths. “If you engage leaders in a cascade form, they’ll drive their colleagues to sign up, because employees trust their managers more than the corporate office sending out an email.”
Hosken and Carruthers agree. “Emails driven by a cascade system work, because you’re much more likely to read an email from your manager than you are from some comms person you’ve never heard of,” notes Hosken.
Carruthers points out that “each of those leaders has a different style, so it’s difficult to try and push something on them. It’s better to work with them in their own way to get the message out. If you get the leaders speaking out about it, people soon follow.”
Adapting in strange times
Just as external comms have had to adapt their messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic, internal comms must also make that adjustment. “We’ve overcome our issues with technology with fast – because we’ve had to,” notes Kavanagh. “Tools like Yammer have taken off big-time over the last three months.”
“Lots of this new technology [like Zoom, Yammer, and Microsoft Teams] was tried out 10 or 15 years ao when the tech was very early stage and there was no overarching need to use it – people didn’t get it and would rather talk face to face,” explains Hosken. “Now, those opportunities have been withdrawn for two or three months, and people are realising that these things actually do have a value. They have a lot of limitations, but also a lot of value – and if you don’t use them, you’re just going to fall out of the loop.”
“It’s a great time to try new things,” Kavanagh agrees.
Are comms just comms, or does industry matter?
The question we came together to explore with our experts was whether there’s a common thread through internal communications, or whether it’s totally industry dependent.
“Good comms are good comms,” says Carruthers. “The principles will apply to any industry.”
And which principles are those?
“You want to get everybody behind the same goal, and all your comms funnelling into driving that business goal forward. Knowing your audience is also key. Of course nuances always change across businesses, but the idea of getting everyone aligned, and leaders involved and using channels effectively is the same regardless of industry,” explains Carruthers.
Hosken and Kavanagh are in agreement that sometimes, traditional methods work best. “We discovered that technology was not the answer: if you wanted people to take action, you stick posters up in the canteens,” says Hosken. “It’s probably the oldest form of internal comms, but it works incredibly well, so keep it as part of your toolkit!”
“Posters have worked well in every single business I’ve been in. It’s an adjunct to the water cooler conversation. Where do you put them up? You put them up where people are gathered to make coffee, spending a few minutes reading what’s on the walls,” Kavanagh points out. “And face to face is never going to die.” Kavanagh suggests encouraging senior leaders to meet employees, so they can get to know each other as people, not just as titles – and that’s relevant no matter which industry you’re in.
Communicating sensitive topics internally
Events of recent weeks have raised new challenges for internal comms teams. Crises mean that internal comms teams have to adapt quickly to every-changing situations.
Kavanagh advises internal comms teams to think about their audiences, and how messages might land. “It’s important that you don’t make assumptions,” she says. “However well intentioned you are, you might be operating in a bubble. So if you’ve got a sensitive topic to communicate, test it before you send it out.” Taking this one step further, Kavanagh also suggests doing a trial run with internal crisis comms. That’s what Clifford Chance did, so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team was prepared with a fully formed crisis comms strategy in place. “Having a dummy run helps people engage with the real-life situation as a human, because they’re not overwhelmed by it,” she notes.
Carruthers agrees, and stresses the importance of being transparent and genuine. “Having an authentic voice is important, or else people will soon see through you,” he advises. “If you genuinely make a mistake, hold your hand up and apologise.”
But make sure you’re not just speaking empty words. “Show you’ve changed your behaviour as a result of the mistake you’ve made,” says Hosken. “It’s just common sense!”
If you’re not sure how to approach a difficult topic, speak to those who know better than you do. Griffiths suggests speaking to subject matter experts if you don’t know what to say. “Make sure you’re going out with a strong, clear message. Sometimes being silent is really not good for the long run,” he points out.
Carruthers also suggests that internal comms teams push back if they feel like management isn’t doing enough to respond to a situation. He advises, “sometimes you’ve got to challenge your leaders, but that’s what comms professionals are all about.”
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