Julie Walters, Tudor Reilly - Pharma rings the changes

Comms professionals can help companies deal with the uncertainties of a reorganisation.

If change is the only constant in the world, pharmaceutical companies have had more than their fair share recently. Mega mergers, emerging markets and empowered consumers have all called time on existing business models, and internal teams are being shaken up in search of new answers. In such times, effective internal communication is vital.

At Tudor Reilly, we are increasingly asked to support internal teams that have taken on massive change projects on top of their day jobs. We help communicate the change in a way that moves internal stakeholders from awareness through understanding, acceptance and ultimately engagement. Daunting, but doable.

You cannot over-communicate.

Organisational change can cause confusion and uncertainty, especially if the details are still to be worked out.

It is not unheard of for staff to be told their site will be closing but a year later they still don't know what it means to them. Routine and traditions are disrupted and a 'winners and losers' atmosphere can be created. Those who believe they may lose out can become disenchanted. High flyers fly away as the social contract breaks down.

Handled well, change can be perceived as positive. We have learned that people closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Communications must be a dialogue, not just between management and employees but between employees and employees - and it must be proactive. If the rumour mill is already in action, the organisation has waited too long to communicate. You need to help people to understand how change will affect them. If you don't, people will make up their own stories.

Employee involvement is vital to success, in the design of the project and in the communications process. Frontline staff must be consulted and have a meaningful say from early on to avoid complaints at rollout that it is 'one step forward and two steps back'.

Communications need to blend what management wants to say and employees need to hear. Although it is tempting to rush out with some key messages and say 'OK, here's what is going to happen to you', time spent talking with staff and understanding their perspective, wishes and insights pays off.

Communicate consistently, frequently, and through multiple channels about the change. Use speech, writing, video, training, focus groups, bulletin boards, intranets and more. Questionnaires, site visits and feedback requests - led by a dedicated project team - are all part of the toolkit, but you must connect with employees at an emotional level.

Identify potential champions for the project and introduce them to early discussion groups. This can make the urgency for change more real for others and answer the often unspoken question: 'What's in it for me?' Those advocates can then spread the message for change virally across the business.

Sometimes, dramatising the problem with video role-plays and expert critique will help, particularly if the change is likely to lead to challenging human interactions. We used professional actors and punchy scripts covering a range of encounters when working for a pharma company that was preparing its reps for tough conversations with high street pharmacists.

Finally, there must be sustained communication for everyone, with supporting materials that may include a Q&A document for project advocates, site meetings and an intranet/internet site with training information, roll-out schedules and a countdown clock.

And, to ensure that the changes become simply 'the way we do things here', do not stop communicating once the project has been implemented.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Which pharma company has improved its profile most in the past year?

GSK. CEO Andrew Witty means what he says about transparency in the pharma industry. Publishing the fees paid to prescribers is just one example.

- Who is the most effective third-party advocate you have worked with?

A patient advocate is usually the most effective. They know the condition better than anyone else and can speak with passion and conviction.

- What did you learn from the swine flu episode?

That you need to set up a dedicated cross-functional team to deal with the world's enquiries. This is not one that can be dealt with on top of the day job.

- Julie Walters is managing director of Tudor Reilly.

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