Internal communication: the beginning is a very good place to start
“The pace of change has never been this fast…but it will never be this slow again.”
That’s a quote from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who acknowledged at last year’s World Economic Forum that along with the great technological breakthroughs that enhance our lives, comes an anxiety – especially from employees – about the implications of labour saving automation and artificial intelligence on their employment future.
This anxiety is one of the reasons we’ve seen a marked increase in enquiry about internal communication strategy in the last year, from large corporations and government organisations, as well as small to medium businesses.
Many of these enquiries start by seeking a tactical communication solution – a quick fix to increase transparency, build team cooperation and “keep everyone in the loop”.
Typically businesses with a 21st century mojo are stepping their way through a confusing minefield of digital internal communication solutions…Slack, Trello, Troop Messenger, Hip Chat, Twist, Campfire, Flock, Skype… the list goes on.
While all of these online solutions offer opportunities for real time team public chat and/or private conversations, as well as sharing news and ideas and managing projects, they are the cart before the digital horse.
Internal communication is no different to external communication – you must decide why you want to communicate and what you want to communicate before you start thinking about tactics.
Set a goal
So let’s start at the very beginning – what is your goal for an internal communication strategy? Is it to harness the loyalty of millennial employees and improve retention? Is it to increase sales and profitability by building a winning culture? Is it to improve the quality of customer service? Or perhaps it is to drive a team culture that is more united and has a shared purpose?
As New York employee relationship agency Staffbase suggests, it could be to drive purpose, remain in control of the message, empower middle management or prepare millennials for promotion.
Whatever the reason, you need to be clear about it. There’s no point setting your financial goals every year if you don’t revisit and refresh your communication goals.
Define the objectives
It’s all very well to set a big picture goal for your strategy, but how will you measure it? Defining measurable objectives that can be benchmarked and tracked annually means your strategy is both relevant and viable and more likely to get support from the Board.
In a large organisation where employee engagement needs to be measured objectively, it might be wise to set a baseline through a survey that sets an Employee Net Promoter Score.
Alternatively, you may already have the benchmark information tools at your fingertips. The number of sick days staff take (in a workplace that has never been healthier) could be a sign of disengagement; retention could be measured (and rewarded) in annual anniversaries, or there is the crude measure of profitability per team member.
Tell the brand story
What makes the four biggest brands on earth – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – survive after thousands of years? They have a story…and millions of salespeople (popes and priests, imams, pujari, monks) and faithful consumers retell it every day.
There’s something extraordinarily powerful about a founder of a business or the leader of an organisation telling the story about how the organisation came to be and why it does what it does.
Surprisingly, most companies have forgotten how important this is – the blunt, raw and often emotional reminiscences of the person who put their most sensitive body part (their wallet) on the line to pursue a dream.
And as is the case with religion, the founder doesn’t have to be alive. No-one has heard a speech from Colonel Sanders (Kentucky Fried) or Steve Jobs (Apple) or John Stith Pemberton (Coke) for some time but their brands remain strong because their CEOs and managers tell their stories at staff orientation and constantly remind their staff about the original mission.
Do you have a passionately expressed brand story that has been written down and shared? Do you tell it to new staff and remind older staff at an annual storytelling day?
Identify your values
Most companies have a list of brand values that tumble out of the brand story, but too few acknowledge these values on a daily basis.
If you manage a large public company, a medium sized private SME or a government department there’s a risk that the reasons why you do what you do can be forgotten in the unending quest for success, customer engagement, profit and promotion.
Values don’t tend to be believed if they are “bestowed” by management. The process of developing an internal communication strategy is a great opportunity for staff to get together and workshop what they see as the company’s values or to reconsider and review ones that already exist.
This open process of sharing the things that really matter to your staff – honesty, integrity, transparency, mutual support, positivity, inclusiveness – will provide insights into your authentic culture…and the team bonding will be a lot more powerful than sending them off to a boot camp to climb trees.
You may also like to talk to some of your long-term clients to understand what they see are your values – this can be uncomfortable and revealing but ultimately rewarding.
Make it happen
So you have your goal and objectives, brand story messages and values – now you just have to make it happen.
Our theory of internal or external communication is to take an integrated approach. Everyone takes in information differently – some read, some listen some watch, some discuss. So use as many different tactics as possible to ensure that everyone at least has the best chance of getting your message.
In most cases, verbal face-to-face communication is always going to work better than non-verbal – particularly because of its novelty in this impersonal digital era.
That’s why tried and tested techniques such as Monday morning WIP (Work-In-Progress) meetings, Wednesday stand-up brainstorm sessions, and Friday afternoon downloads over a few drinks and snacks are essential to ensure a business culture remains healthy.
This needs to be supported by private one on one reviews, but ensure that these are about reinforcing values as well as measuring performance.
Of course with thousands of employees scattered across multiple sites face-to-face is not always possible, so there is a need to mix it up.
How do you make staff read internal newsletters? Start by surveying to find out what they do read, rather than what they don’t. We found that news services such as InDaily or The New Daily achieve cut through with lots of office based employees because there are only 10—12 stories and these are presented as headlines and a teaser paragraph that can be clicked for the full story. There is also a consistency in its daily arrival time (1pm) so that people can read it during their lunch break. Of course, not everyone is an online publisher but there are plenty of takeaways from these examples that employers can adapt.
The other tactic is to go where the fish are already biting. If you have outdoor or remote workers who are rarely in front of a desktop and don’t like reading, then use a more familiar and comfortable communication channel such as Facebook or Twitter. Increasingly, podcasts are also useful tools to provide news and information to employees who are on the road for long distances. And then there is video’s popularity as a short, precise and engaging form of information for the TV generation.
So, where does this leave the army of communication apps available to businesses and their teams? They are certainly novel digital communication tools but a lot of energy, time and money can be invested in bringing people to a trough that they will never ever drink from.
Remember the main gripe of every employee is being treated like a mushroom – being kept in the dark and fed bullshit! You can never communicate too much with your employees to inform them, guide them, mentor them and most importantly, assure them that they are valued and appreciated.