We are all pretty comfortable with the idea of external communications. It is no secret that the marketing of products and services to the outside world can help a company’s sales to grow. In the same way, the idea of internal marketing has been around for a long time. Educate your staff about your products and business and it will more than repay your investment. So the theory goes. This was all fine for a while, but then something changed all that – the workplace revolution.
With hindsight, the shortcomings of the old approach to communications are quite plain. An educational spirit is all very well if the teachers know what should be taught. But in this case they didn’t. There wasn’t much enthusiasm among managers of organisations to learn a thing or two from the people who actually make the business what it is – namely the customers and the staff. Well as we know, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
‘Internal communications was once seen as internal marketing. It was all very one way. But now that is changing it is much more exciting,’ says Imagination marketing and strategic planning director Ralph Ardill. In his view there is now a significant imbalance between all things internal and external.
‘One of the biggest challenges is the challenge of alignment – the alignment between companies-to-consumers and companies-to-themselves,’ he says. Ardill explains that there used to be a ‘wall’ between the two ideas, until it slowly dawned on organisations that there needed to be consistency between the two.
But for now let’s focus on things internal. Client organisations have slowly come to realise the tangible benefits of maintaining a dialogue between their people – particularly the ones at the top and bottom of the pile. It can save them money for a start. This was demonstrated in a recent US study by the communications group Fleishman-Hillard, (which polled 30 global organisations including 18 Fortune 500 companies). The study found that the two most sought after benefits of employee communications programmes were: the creation of bottom-line results, and cost-cutting opportunities.
But internal communications is still many things to many people. Like the elusive science of branding, internal communications is practiced by the full swathe of client services groups, ranging from design consultancies and business strategists, to ad and PR agencies. There are even several internal communications specialists, such as The Brand Union’s MCA Communicates.
Within the context of the branding sector, internal communications is often tied closely to corporate branding projects. After all, the success of most corporate branding depends on the ability of a management team to instill a vision inside the heads of the people associated with their organisation. These people are, necessarily, either outside the organisation (customers, suppliers and so on), or inside it. The art of the successful internal communications project is to marry the two.
The Tutt Consultancy recently completed an internal communications project for a major retailer, which sought to understand how the marketing department communicated with the group’s other departments. It is an area which clients have not given too much thought to until recently, says The Tutt Consultancy founder Simon Rhind-Tutt.
Internal communications projects take e e many forms, says Rhind-Tutt. He highlights internal marketing strategy, projection of the company vision, internal written and video communication, training and internal research, as the key areas.
Richard Brennan, managing director of training and human resources consultancy Time Manager International, defines internal communications nicely. For him it is, ‘connecting people together around a common message using a variety of mediums to reinforce the core themes and detail.’
As far as these mediums are concerned, the Fleischman-Hillard study found that the most common corporate communications channels are print newsletters and intranet sites, e-mails, voicemail, television, audiostreaming and videostreaming. Other groups have begun experimenting with some of the newer technologies like text messaging, digital radio and interactive news bulletins as well.
Historically, organisations have tended to look to the power of the internal communications programme at certain points in their development. The most obvious of these is probably following a merger or acquisition, where disparate groups are being integrated. People within the incoming group clearly need direction, and management at HQ is anxious to explain the game plan, as well as keep the wedding running smoothly.
After insurance group Primary Insurance recently acquired some half a dozen companies to form the Primary Group, it appointed e e Brand Frontier to handle the internal communications as part of an overall brand identity programme.
‘Internal communications has been vital for Primary Insurance,’ says Brand Frontier director Mark Pinder. ‘We looked to engage Primary’s staff in a conversation about what the brand stands for and what the brand is trying to accomplish externally. We also encouraged them to understand that each employee was part and parcel of delivering the brand. It came down to the fact that if they did not develop the right kind of relationship with customers then they were going to lose business.’
Like Rhind-Tutt, Pinder has seen interest levels in internal communications work growing, as companies have slashed marketing budgets and cut their workforces.
‘With the recent economic downturn across the Atlantic and many global companies cutting budgets and staff, it’s interesting to see how many of them are turning to internal communications to not only raise morale, but also to redefine their brand offer. Internal communication is a two way process: it’s as important to listen to staff as it is to communicate a given message. Rather than reacting to a time of crisis with such a dialogue, companies must keep communication lines open at all times,’ he says.
Internal communications programmes are also a powerful tool for any organisation changing its direction or positioning, even if for some management teams this can be an all too infrequent event. To give a simplistic analogy, if a traditional clothing manufacturer decides to start producing fashion clothing instead of traditional raincoats, there is clearly a need for this strategy to be well understood by the staff on the shopfloor, who are in direct contact with the customers.
The most enlightened management teams now have company systems in place to enable their people to have a much greater influence in the running of the company. Consider Richard Branson’s policy of encouraging Virgin staff to e-mail him about potential problem situations. This attitude goes hand in hand with Virgin’s policy of ensuring no letter from outside the business goes unanswered, no matter how banal it might seem. Such behaviour starts to fundamentally change what a business is about and how it behaves. And this is when a business starts to become the proverbial brand.
Of course all people within companies communicate, but not necessarily with as many people as might ultimately benefit from the act. The most important thing is for any communication to be a genuine dialogue whenever possible.
When the former Bank of Montreal chief executive officer Matt Barrett took the helm as chief executive of Barclays Bank, he needed to find a way to communicate his vision to bank staff. Imagination was appointed to design The Open Forum, an internal communications project designed to signify a new style of leadership for the bank. ‘Barrett wanted to meet and address the concerns of staff in a way that made an immediate impact and set new standards in communication across the Barclays Group,’ says Imagination marketing and planning director Ralph Ardill.
Imagination developed a rolling programme of meetings in which Barrett met with Barclays’ staff face to face. Within an informal setting, The Open Forum allowed Barrett to bring his vision for the business to life, while demonstrating his desire to forge a new business culture at the same time.
In addition to developing the concept and managing the production of the events, Imagination developed a distinctive identity for the programme, which was later adopted to cover all of Barclays’ internal communications activities. ‘The Open Forum meetings, attended by nearly 20 000 staff, constituted the largest internal communications activity ever undertaken by Barclays, or any other high street bank, and was met by a 95 cent approval rating from delegates,’ adds Ardill. Having toured the UK, The Open Forum concept was then rolled out to staff in the US and continental Europe.
One organisation where internal staff communication lines play a particularly critical role is British Airways. At its ultra-modern HQ near Heathrow Airport, which features a shopping mall and a street of coffee bars, BA staff can access computer touchpoints around the building hosting the company intranet. This system provides interactive information for all of BA’s office-based staff.
BA design manager Mike Crump outlines a few of the airline’s other initiatives. He explains that the weekly newsletter, BA News, is received by just about everybody in the company. In addition, various niche workforces, like cabin crew and ground force, have their own newspapers, written in an appropriate vocabulary and style of language. There are also e-mail circulars for the management population, which highlight important company issues.
‘At BA, we have a communications department that runs the internal communications. It is a complex job,’ says Crump. ‘My responsibility is to provide a consistency and tone of voice for the brand internally as well as externally. In this respect, the way we speak to our customer is the same as we talk to our staff.’