Smythe Dorward Lambert CEO John Smythe says companies have to face up to the fact that the militaristic methods of communication - where people are simply told what is happening - no longer work. Instead of operating on a parent-child model, employees want an adult-to-adult relationship.
'They want to be engaged as equals rather than as subjects,' he says.
This changing attitude has also resulted in changes in one of the key mechanisms for internal communications: the off-site conference or workshop session. MCA Communicates president Kevin Thomson says many of these events have now ditched dry ice, Tina Turner's Simply the Best and the long, boring speech by the CEO for a more inclusive approach.
A recent event for Telewest organised by MCA used a ratio of 1:4 for input and discussion. 'Only at the end of the day did they then put it together with a (more traditional) Q&A,' he says.
The idea is that by presenting employees with the same information and challenges faced by senior managers they will understand decisions that have been made far more than if they had merely been told what was happening. Dik Veenman, partner at internal communications consultancy BeAsYouSay, adds: 'There's a move towards active conferencing. Something that is much more free-form and moves the senior management off the stage and among the audience. Modern technique is based on the belief that people need to come to their own conclusions. It makes the senior people not so much leaders but more facilitators and coaches.'
One of the new techniques that is gaining widespread use for internal comms purposes is the Appreciative Inquiry Approach. AIA is designed to lift morale and have a lasting effect beyond the conference by exploring how employees view themselves and each other and how they have appreciated each other's function.
Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, a Hedron director, says AIA is being adopted by Hedron client the BBC: 'People own what they create. When you design and plan an off-site conference of this nature, you need to plan what every individual at the meeting is doing every five minutes during the event. That involves some psychodynamics. We ask: what is going to be a "success
for this conference three months down the road? What will the commercial outcomes be? People have to motivated to take action off their own bat.'
Thomson notes that the need to get staff on-side has seen a dramatic shift in the make-up of attendees to internal communications seminars.
Conferences used to be dominated by human resources and internal communications specialists but are now attracting as many as half their delegates from the ranks of marketers. Jacobs says that successful live events need to include two facets: 'Firstly, it's important to give people an opportunity to discuss their concerns and feel that they are taken on board,' she says, citing a conference for a retail bank with 1,500 delegates that allowed groups of 30 to sit down with a main board director.
Secondly, despite the fact that employees want to make up their own minds, they also need to have confidence in the people at the top: 'Employees want to see visible leadership. Companies are increasingly realising that it's important for the senior managers to devote time to these events.'
There is some disagreement about which industries have proved more adept at adopting this new thinking. There is a view that the knowledge-rich industries, with their reliance on personal skills, are leading the way, having taken this approach on board far earlier. Others cite financial and professional service companies, although some argue that it's a case of individual firms rather than sectors.
Despite the current tough climate, Edelman London deputy MD Stuart Smith says companies still have to invest in bringing people together. That's echoed, he says, by the need to mix people up at conferences and workshops and put space in the schedule for people to 'just meet in an informal way'.
It also seems that despite the arrival of the internet - a technology that enables instant feedback on company decisions - some companies are still putting short-term financial considerations before their communication needs. 'Companies that fail to invest in terms of bringing people together may save money, but they will also lose organisational effectiveness,' he says.
However, while the events or workshops may last just a few hours, Jacobs warns that to get full advantage, they must have a longer presence within a company: 'Any event must have more impact than just the one or two days that you are there. It's a communications tool probably for several months before and after.'
Veenman adds that the whole event has to be part of a much longer plan: 'The challenge is not to create just one-off experiences, our role is to form a long-term strategic programme.'
Smythe warns that companies also have to be wary about creating expectations and then not following through, particularly if the style of the event represents a marked change: 'You may be able to energise people now, but you have to watch out for the eruption without any lava flow.'
Internal comms and events are a highly competitive marketplace bringing together a range of specialists. PR shops compete against change specialists, management consultants, human resources specialists, event organisers and brand consultants. Veenman argues that clients are looking for two different groups of people: 'very high-level strategists' to advise senior management and implementation specialists who actually put on the events or manage elements of the programme.
Sue Ryan, chief executive at GCI London, which has just signed a strategic alliance with BeAsYouSay to strengthen its credentials in this area, says PR agencies can find getting access to this kind of business difficult, unless it's part of a wider comms review. 'If the starting point is all about a major business re-engineering programme, that's probably where the high-end strategists are probably going to be the most active,' she says. Despite this she remains convinced that internal communications is a potential growth area this year.
Smith agrees: 'Internal comms is definitely something where we see an appetite.' But he warns that companies won't buy-in the services from just any PR agency: 'I do not think clients will buy internal communications from people that aren't already proven specialists, or people who know it from their own side of the fence.'
Some of the specialists are sceptical about PR agencies' ability to really make a major impact. Good internal communications involves disciplines such as marketing, advertising and branding, as well as newsletters and other more traditional PR skills.
Impact on strategy is the differentiator in the type of internal programmes now being used. While internal communications is expanding as a specialist area, large off-site conferences are being viewed increasingly as a valuable tool and clients expect them to deliver more commercial value than in the past. This is particularly true during times of bad news. While a large event with balloons and music creates a warm feeling for sales teams celebrating a banner year, companies with negative news on the horizon require a motivational programme that delivers results in the long-run.
Dawson-Shepherd says: 'Lights and dry ice activities can be highly motivational in good-news situations. With tough scenarios, such as redundancies, they don't go down well. Management needs to show appreciation.'