This week we hand over the reins to Kelly Regan-Mears, Head of Communications at Connect Plus Service – a civil engineering company based in Hertfordshire.
Ask your average IC professional to describe their physical attributes, and I’m guessing squat, red and strategically placed on street corners aren’t the words you’ll hear. So, if we don’t look like a post box, why are we treated as such?
Good internal communication is an art: our objective is always to engage our audience through creative and carefully crafted copy. There’s also a strategic approach to our discipline – who wants to be bombarded with nice to know messages? We get the ‘need to know’ delivered and wrap up the rest in a regular communique that allows us to indulge our love of words and cheesy headlines.
We’re also masters at finding key points in what we’ve been asked to communicate, the interesting needles in the haystack of lesser importance. When you submit a missive, please don’t expect it to be replicated verbatim. We’ll edit it to improve it, and provide you with a masterpiece that works for everyone.
For those businesses that recognise the importance of employee engagement, that want to invest in and build their brand, the IC professional is a critical member of your team, not just the person who owns the coveted distribution list all.
We’re more than a conduit for words – we’re skilled virtuosi with stories to share. We know our discipline, and we know how to communicate effectively. We’re not ‘mai’l or ‘femail’ – we’re maestros. We apply the stamp of excellence to what we write. We may keep you posted, but we’re not posties.
I started working in internal communications in 1997. I don’t know if it’s more chastening to say 20 years ago or last century!
While internal comms has developed enormously in these last two decades, I’m not convinced it’s fully grown yet. Here are three reasons why I think its best years are yet to come.
The best way internal comms has changed in the last 20 years is its development as a profession. This is thanks to a handful of commercial organisations who recognised the need and desire to share best practice, accelerated by social media and how easy this made it for internal comms people to do this themselves.
The dedication and determination in recent years for our professional bodies like the IABC, CIPR and IoIC to make membership more meaningful has also helped enormously.
Thanks to this, we better appreciate and understand all the components of internal comms that sit alongside our responsibility for great content, which felt like the main focus 20 years ago.
The more we continue to develop ourselves to also deliver strategies, planning and measurement that demonstrate we understand and can add value to the organisations we work for, the more mature we’ll become as a profession.
Developing our internal comms armoury shifts the perception that we just exist to write and send stuff. Others have written more extensively on the importance of an organisation’s purpose, notably Christine Crofts in an excellent recent series of LinkedIn posts. I agree with her that internal comms has the chance to define its own purpose more clearly by taking the lead in helping to shape and connect people to this.
Great internal comms allows people to understand how their work contributes to their organisation’s purpose. In my view, nothing could be more engaging than people feeling what they do makes a difference to the fundamental reason their organisation exists. Internal comms has a huge opportunity to be the profession that organisations turn to first to make this happen.
The reason I got into internal comms 20 years ago and why I’ve stayed ever since is people. I’m curious about what people are interested in and how to grab their attention, and it’s exciting when you can harness this energy to connect them to what their organisation does, where it’s going and their role on that journey.
People should always be at the heart of great internal comms – we listen to them, talk to them, share things with them, involve them and understand the difference this all makes to them.
I recently heard someone say HR is the voice of an organisation’s management, so internal comms should be the voice of its people. There may be something in that, and it’s a debate that’s probably a blog in itself.
But if we believe that, we should say so more explicitly. Along with purpose, it has the potential to clearly define us in the years ahead.
I’d love to know what you think. What has made you stay in internal comms, and where do we go next?
Neil Jenkins is the Head of Internal Communications, BT Group.
He joined BT in December 2016, having held senior internal comms roles at Siemens, Vodafone and Coca-Cola in a career spanning more than 20 years. Passionate about the difference great internal comms (with a heavy dose of digital) can make, and still yearning for Liverpool FC’s 19th league title.
And the questions posed were identical to when I first found myself in internal communications, nearly a decade ago, and the case studies seemed to be a tad dull.
Almost everything seemed to be on a loop and marginal success seemed to be over celebrated.
Around this time, I started working with some of the UK’s leading digital thinkers and quickly found myself emerged in ways of thinking that were totally alien to me as an ‘expert’ in internal digital communications.
Their user-centric approach to building products with a focus purely on delighting the user was a substantial shift from merely keeping stakeholders holders happy with little true knowledge of the project.
It was joy to work with the actual end users of the products and engage with stakeholders using data and research to drive decisions rather than mere opinion.
This approach led to the creation of some of the best digital projects out there, according to the IoIC.
And these all began with a sole focus on the end user at the formative stages.
They did not have a project manager.
Instead, they had a product manager running the show, supported by a handful of business analysts – something I have not seen too much of in the IC industry.
There is method in the madness. At the messy start of each project, we set out to discover what type of product should be built or what type of channel should be developed.
The amount of interviews and sessions with users is mind-boggling compared to the early days of delivering internal channels.
There is a landscape designer in the US who lives with her clients for nine months before she designs the landscape.
Yes, you’ve read that correctly.
I’m not suggesting taking nine months to understand your audience but a deep sense of understanding is essential before even thinking about the product.
This experience changed the way I approach IC.
Nowadays I always start with deep dive into Persons (and non-personas) and the Employee Journey: the two underlying pillars that enable the building blocks of employee experience.
This is followed by several sessions called Assumption Consumption, which takes all of the assumption towards an audience, a channel or a product and rips apart them if the evidence is there.
This takes away the painful conversations that may come in the design/build phases of a product.
I don’t go into the complete methodology here, but wanted to use this opportunity to nudge you not to ‘lean in’.
Turn around. Take a moment.
Spend time taking a long look at what is happening outside the world of IC.
It may just help you create the some of the best products and services you can.
** Kevin McDougall is an Employee Experience Consultant helping businesses understand its people’s needs and requirements.
Kevin has worked with the BBC, Unilever, Transport for London and Hiscox Insurance.
Okay maybe not exactly like GQ. But bear with me – there is some logic here!
When you wander into WH Smith’s and spend £5 on a magazine, you are buying it because you get something out of it; enjoyment, laughter, information, ideas on what to buy or what to listen or what to go see at the cinema.
Whatever the subject, you read it because there is something in it for you, it makes you feel good – otherwise why would you bother?
You could argue that employee magazines have a harder challenge than commercial magazines, because they are constantly trying to entice what we would describe as an unwilling audience to pick up and read them.
And when we are putting together an employee magazine, we must constantly ask ourselves: what’s in it for the readers?
There are lots of things that inform the content of employee magazines, the need to share company news, important announcements on policy changes, explaining strategy and company direction, recognising people or teams that have done great things in the business, but when we include this content in a magazine we need to be honest with ourselves and ask – what the readers motivation for actually looking at this?
Reading a employee mag isn’t mandatory, so what makes it killer content above all the other things jostling for attention in the lives of your employees?
Picture the scene – you are late waking up in the morning, you rush around getting yourselves fed and ready for school or nursery, when you arrive at work you spend 8-10 hours working your socks off.
You may not even get the time to have a full lunch break. When you get home it is (hopefully) quality time for yourself or your family and then, in theory, bedtime.
In this context can we honestly say that we think people will take the time to sit down and read their employers magazine if there is nothing in it for them?
Of course you can argue that employees do get something from corporate magazines – information that helps them be better at their jobs, updates on pensions and benefits schemes that will help them outside of work and later in life.
But in order to get them to read this we need to provide more killer content – the stuff they will really tune in for.
When you read a copy of GQ, most of it is advertising. Before you have even got to the main contents list you’ve had 10 to 15 pages of Burberry, Tom Ford and other fashion designers.
This is not why you buy the magazine; you buy it for Matt Damon on the front, or Prince Andrew or Cara Delevinge.
At first, the advertising is an annoyance, a distraction you flick through to the get the good stuff, but you still absorb it and, over time once you have read the main features, you might find yourself looking at it more for inspiration.
And maybe even making a purchase off the back of something you subconsciously flicked past in the magazine on your way to somewhere else.
I often think of the more corporate content in the same way as advertising – it is important, the magazine wouldn’t exist without it, but it isn’t going to be the thing on the cover that entices you to pick it up and read it.
Then, once they have cherry-picked their favourite things to read first, they will find themselves coming back to that important content, and they will be prepared to look at it in good will because so much content in there was entertaining and relevant.
There was something in it for them, so they were prepared to give something back.
Too much one way and it is frivolous, too much the other and no one will bother to even pick it up.
So while I don’t imagine that many IC mags will start looking like GQ any time soon, there is a lot we can learn from commercial magazines, and the tactics they use to get people to buy them, that we can employ to make employees more likely to pick our magazines up and engage with the content.
Ever since I did my first piece of corporate communication work, an audit of UK external and internal communication for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in 1997, I saw the massive strategic potential of internal communication.
Yet, in the last twenty years, I have seen internal comms used less and less as a strategic tool, and more and more to drive the easier-to-measure but more nebulous objectives of “awareness” and “employee engagement”.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
At the turn of the century in London, there were actually large internal comms strategy firms who were looking at ways to use communication to identify specific groups of people, and mobilise them to help organisations achieve specific objectives.
Rather than driving awareness with infotainment indiscriminately broadcast to all employees, internal communication strategists focused on developing, delivering and facilitating complete messaging for people who needed to act on it, or those who needed to be aware so they could lead, follow, or get out of the way.
The strategic approach to internal comms was never repudiated. But in the early 2000s, it was overwhelmed by the drive for employee engagement.
The quest to measure it, and the corresponding push among corporate leaders to drive and demonstrate ever-increasing employee engagement scores, has had the effect of subordinating any other business purposes for internal communication to the two-fold purpose of raising employee engagement scores, and increasing the percentage of employees participating in employee engagement surveys.
When your job as an internal comms function is to make sure 100% of employees submit their engagement surveys and feel sufficiently happy to deliver an 80% to 100% engagement score, there is little tolerance for emphasising the selective delivery of hard messages to the minimum number of people necessary.
Some stakeholders squeal that such selective engagement is “discriminatory,” and other express concern for the potential impact on engagement scores.
It has also become a resourcing and sponsorship issue.
Some years back, when “precious” IC resource was being focused on “engagemen-tainment,” comms departments responded to urgent requests from senior stakeholders for change communication support with “toolkits” – essentially giving these stakeholders uncustomised instructions in “how to communicate” and telling them to take a hike.
This approach not only further diminished the active practice of strategic internal communication, it also had the perverse impact of distancing internal comms from potentially supportive senior stakeholders.
Now, as more and more businesses and practitioners are actively questioning the value of all-employee engagement and “engagemen-tainment,” a window is reopening for internal comms to become a strategic function again.
Moreover, if it doesn’t, how will IC otherwise be able to retain any perception of value, if it is neither driving engagement nor driving alignment and action?
Some ways to make IC more strategic in this transitional period:
1. Start proactively helping your business stakeholders, not just your engagement stakeholders 2. Conduct interviews and learn more about the business’s priorities, and then look more at how you can support and accelerate them 3. Kill off eyeball and awareness measurements. 4. Develop measurements that track the flows of messages and attitudes in different parts of your business 5. Invest in influencer research and/or social mapping to find the three percent of people who are driving 90% of your conversations 6. Develop a two-tier communication platform: a brief and snappy infotainment approach for all employees, supplemented with a more adult and comprehensive approach for influencers, leaders and managers 7. Don’t be afraid to use the same vehicles for delivering lightweight and heavyweight content, but do make sure they are effectively signposted
Embracing a strategic approach to internal communication offers massive advantages. For organisations, it offers the possibility of greater alignment and faster results.
For communicators, a clearer path to making a difference and a more tangible set of tasks and tools, and a greater opportunity to be seen as strategic assets and even, leaders.
Why not start now?
Mike Klein is an internal communication strategist, writer and blogger, based in Delft in the Netherlands.
His blog, Changing The Terms, has been recognised by Communication Director Magazine as one of Europe’s top communication blogs.
He is also currently Vice Chair of IABC’s Europe-Middle East-North Africa region.