Where are the champions?

As the saying goes, there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. But perhaps we should add another certainty to this list: people talk. To some extent, it is possible to use effective communication to control what, and how, people talk about you. Companies have known for years that they need to manage how their brand and culture is perceived by the outside world. Slowly this focus is shifting, with many companies – particularly large multi-nationals, banks and professional service firms – realising that how they communicate internally is just as important as how they communicate with the outside world.

You can’t portray an idealised image of your brand and culture to the world if your employees feel poorly communicated to, not trusted and isolated from those at the top. They will be quick to speak externally about this disparity between the reality and the projected. On the other hand, great internal communications creates great brand ambassadors, and this is the starting point to brand and culture creation. Happy, empowered, knowledgeable and trusting employees in turn promote this image externally, supporting and enhancing existing PR efforts.

What’s changed?

Hierarchy will always have a place in business, but there is a changing focus on what’s important to employees as the millennial generation start to take rank in the work force. The digital age has created a generation that not just want to be spoken to, they actively seek it out. And communication to them is a two-way street. They want to be involved.

They are quicker to speak about what they feel is an injustice or something done in the wrong manner. And they have a number of social media platforms to share their feelings with the world instantly. Gone are the days of a couple half-hearted emails from the CEO having any impact. Messages need to reflect firm values, be creative, capture attention and spark imagination, whilst remaining relevant to the job in hand. They demand employers to say something meaningful, and to say it well.

Defining ‘good’ internal communications

At the heart of any good internal communications programme is the fostering of the employee/employer relationship. The goal is to make them feel part of what the company brand and culture is about. This can only be done by treating employees with trust and respect. Good internal communications should get employees onboard with the strategy and the direction of the company. It should support them through challenging times, such as structural changes, share price fluctuations or leadership changes. And it should keep them engaged and connected through the good times, celebrating news and congratulating company achievements, saying ‘thank you’ for the hard work.

Loyal, engaged employees will keep companies strong throughout the ups and downs. You don’t want to reach more prosperous times only to find half of your most valuable workforce has left. Or worse: to find they are still there, but that they are disengaged from the firm’s strategy and business decisions, simply there to collect a pay cheque.

What leads to best practice internal communications?

Good internal communications shouldn’t be complicated. It’s about understanding what needs to be said and then putting this across in a manner that your audience will appreciate and understand. But before you speak, it’s crucial to listen. Make an effort to get to know your staff – this will go a long way.  Ask your employees questions. What does their day look like? What issues do they face? What other comms do they receive on a weekly or daily basis? How many meetings do they attend each and every day?

If you don’t have a clue about what their working lives are like, this will come across in your communications. Your employees will know they aren’t being listened to. Remember, good internal communications is about understanding your audience, what they want and need to hear about and how they will react to it. One size does not fit all: never be afraid to try something new if it fits your company culture.

Top tips

On getting started

  • Be careful not to jump the gun. Thinking you need internal communications and building a strategy and plan quickly based on head office experience can be ineffective. You need to base it around what works for the majority of your work-force, not just those at the top. Seek an understanding of what the issues are and the best solutions.
  • Do not underestimate the time investment required for internal communications. It’s not a once-off quick fix. You will need to invest time and money.
  • Leadership need to have a good understanding of what internal communications is and its importance. Without this buy-in, little can be achieved. An internal communications plan needs support from those at the top.
  • Always seek measurement. You need to measure success and failures. Internal communications should constantly be adapted and evolved – no initial plan will be perfect. After all, internal communications is based around people and how they react. Actively seek out and embrace feedback and even criticism: this is the only way to improve.

On style

  • Get the tone of your brand right. Getting this wrong loses creditability. Are you very corporate? Is a more informal tone right for you? Consider which fits your company culture and brand.
  • Be as honest and transparent as possible. Have clarity, never avoid the obvious and cut the jargon.

On content

  • Keep it strategic. Don’t underestimate how pushed for time employees are. Content should, as much as possible, be relevant and useful to their day-to-day role. What do employees need to hear?
  • Remember: anything said internally, could be leaked externally. If you won’t be comfortable with it as a headline in the press, do not say it to your staff.
  • Make sure you update content on static platforms. Information needs to be current and relevant to keep employees’ interest. Keep your intranet and other internal conduits up-to-date.
  • Never forget to thank employees. Show gratitude to your staff for their efforts. Celebrating success is easier than breaking bad news, but as simple as it seems it often ends up overlooked.

On delivery

  • Timing of communications is key – don’t communicate too far before or too long after an event. Either way, the impact of your message could be lost.
  • Don’t do too little, too late. Many businesses are used to being reactive, especially in risk-averse industries. But nothing looks worse to employees than being an after thought. Keep your employees in the loop if you want to maintain their trust.
  • Beware over reliance on emails. Employees are often drowning in the volume of information they receive via email. So consider whether it’s the best channel to use. Remember: face-to-face usually trumps other methods of communications.

Get these basics right and you will be off to a good start. Continue to give the proper attention to internal communications and you will see the benefits good a internal communications strategy provides: helping to shape and promote the brand, the culture and the very life-blood of an organisation. Get it wrong, neglect or ignore your internal communications strategy and the brand and culture of your organisation may pay the price.