Internal communication has changed beyond all recognition in the past two decades.
Peter Doherty founded Headlines with a mission to make internal comms more relevant and effective. As the agency celebrates 20 years of challenging convention, he offers a candid commentary on how our profession has transformed – and where it is going next.
The android voice of Stephen Hawking eloquently expressed the power of communication: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.
“We learned to talk and we learned to listen.
“Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking.”
Inspired by this light-bulb synopsis, 20 years ago Headlines was born.
In the two ensuing decades, internal communication has transformed beyond imagination. The future is more interesting than the past, but to create context, it is worth reflecting on the journey so far.
In 1995, John Major was Prime Minister, a typical home cost £51,000, the average UK salary was £17,470, and unemployment was nine per cent – 2.3 million people.
The latter is particularly relevant to IC and the way it has evolved. In 20 years unemployment has fallen by 450,000 to 5.6 per cent. Even at the height of the recession, it never came close to its 1995 level.
Today the need for IC and engagement are a given. Like IT and HR, they are part of corporate fabric.
Twenty years ago it was different.
The term “internal communication” was rarely mentioned and seldom understood.
Even the professionals didn’t recognise it.
In 1995 the British Association of Industrial Editors became the British Association of Communicators in Business – and it wasn’t until 2010 that it morphed into the Institute of Internal Communication.
The concept of employee engagement was also in its infancy. Sometimes a CEO would say: “Our employees are our greatest asset”. But you had to search hard to find evidence they meant it.
Even in progressive organisations, what we now know to be IC often meant little more than a newsletter. Frequently this was pulled together by the CEO’s personal assistant or as an afterthought by the PR department.
And nine-and-a-half times out of ten, that newsletter was appalling: a dreary fusion of edicts from above, long service line-ups and charity bike rides. It was usually a box-ticking exercise that did little for the interests of the organisation or its employees.
Nobody really believed in the power of communication to shape success.
So from the outset, Headlines saw the need to challenge convention.
If Stephen Hawking provided the vision, the strategy was inspired by Brian Clough – and regional newspapers.
Between 1975 and 1993, Clough took Nottingham Forest Football Club from serial mediocrity to win the European Cup and claim a permanent position at the top end of what is now the Premiership.
He wasn’t gifted with an enormous budget or the world’s best players. But he was a brilliant communicator.
When he opened his big mouth, he made a big difference.
His style was to speak with clarity, candour and humanity – in a language that resonated with his team.
He was a breathtaking example of how the power of the word can harness the energies of a group of people and transform the fortunes of an organisation.
Regional media provided an equally inspiring lesson.
A local newspaper can shape the mood of a community, creating despair or optimism, disillusionment or pride in belonging.
It can inform, equip, motivate, listen – create dialogue and provide people with a platform to participate in discussion and debate.
But most newspapers don’t.
They paint a picture of death, crime and destruction interspersed with images of people with their thumbs up – and charity bike rides. A life of mugging and misery cheered only by fund raising and largely irrelevant to most readers.
For five years before Headlines, I was lucky enough to have a role as troubleshooter, transforming papers from the Chilterns to the Derby Dales.
I took inspiration from experience in places like Luton, Leicester, Northampton, Nottingham, Hemel Hempstead and Heanor.
The formula was simple: Learn about your community.
Think as a resident.
Ask: “What does it mean to me? Does it interest me or touch my life?. If I read it, am I happier, more informed, more motivated to do things? Do I feel like a proud participant – or someone who regrets being here?”
We monitored the impact.
A small editorial revolution would send ripples of positivity across a community – and increase our readership.
If it worked in geographic communities, why wouldn’t it work in a company?
From the outset, Headlines helped big organisations reinvent their corporate newsletters. We made them more interesting, more honest – and above all, more effective. We made them make a difference.
We persuaded bosses that 1,500-word sermons were not the best way to share their ideas. We found a new home for firing squad shots and charity bike rides.
And we created vibrant hubs that energised communities – sharing information, ideas, best practice; creating conversation; recognising people’s contributions; treating everyone as equal and important; and always telling the story from the perspective of those involved.
The World Wide Web was little more than a rumour then, and its uptake since runs in uncanny parallel to the growth of internal communication.
It would be nice to think Headlines played a part in that success by showing people what was possible. But it was the economy, stupid – plus the advent of Gen Y, that has really made a difference.
From 1995 to 2008 the UK enjoyed sustained economic growth and a steady fall in unemployment – causing skills shortages. We are now back on the same track.
In recent years, a new generation came on stream: more ambitious, better educated, more challenging and more restless in employment than its predecessors.
This conspiracy of events meant companies had to reflect on the concept of their people being their most precious assets.
On the whole they concluded it was true and started to explore ways of engaging them – to improve performance, but not least to attract the best new ones and discourage the rest from leaving.
Employee engagement was emerging as a litmus test for corporate health.
In 2001, the Sunday Times responded by launching the UK’s first engagement league, 100 Best Companies to Work For.
As engagement gained traction, IC evolved from a box tick to a business essential.
Doubters still regarded it as a homeopathic remedy: interesting but unproven.
That changed in 2009, when its efficacy achieved official recognition in the Government-backed MacLeod Report.
David Macleod concluded: “We believe that if employee engagement and the principles that lie behind it were more widely understood, if good practice was more widely shared, if the potential that resides in the country’s workforce was more fully unleashed, we could see a step change in workplace performance and in employee wellbeing, for the considerable benefit of UK plc.”
Four years later, with Engage for Success in full swing and backed by an array of thinkers, politicians and blue chip chief executives, MacLeod published further research quantifying the added value of a more engaged workforce at £26 billion a year.
We know what internal communication and engagement means today.
But what’s next?
I have five predictions:
1. Open, unmoderated dialogue will become the norm. Companies will embrace a culture where employees at all levels speak, collaborate, challenge, question, comment and suggest – on equal terms. They will recognise free speech is essential for a healthy organisation.
2. CEOs will be expected to make communication a personal priority. Individual inhibitions and failure to engage honestly and regularly will increasingly be seen as a bellwether for poor performance at the top.
3. IC teams will gain more respect – and become more professional. Expectations will grow as boards recognise their value. Senior executives will be more receptive to direction and less eager to control content. But IC teams will have to deliver – delays and compromises will become unacceptable.
4. Print will thrive. News and information will be delivered online and face-to-face, but print will be key – in the form of high quality magazines offering tangible value and playing a lead role in emotional engagement.
5. Bring your own device (BYOD) will be the IC nirvana. Companies will ride the mobile/video communication tsunami by creating the desire for employees to engage via their own mobiles. This will be part of a revolution in which working for an organisation becomes a genuine lifestyle preference – to be enjoyed rather than accepted.