Internal Comms: Talking to the Group

Adam Hill sits in on an agency pitch with Woolworths Group's internal comms head

Internal Comms: Talking to the Group
Internal Comms: Talking to the Group

Internal communications, by its very nature, is not the most media accessible area of PR. However, earlier this month PRWeek was allowed behind the scenes at leading retail group Woolworths, to witness a day in the life of internal comms manager Ginny Smith and to sit in as an agency pitched to handle the critical new internal comms initiative, the Group Leadership Programme.

Despite the high profile of its best-known operating company - 'opco', in Wooliespeak - Woolworths Group itself is relatively young, formed in August 2001 following a demerger from former parent Kingfisher. The group as a whole employs 35,000 people, rising to around 37,000 at Christmas, but Smith tends to target a senior team of 80 or so directors across the opcos with her comms initiatives. 'The opcos need the overall (group) messages from me, such as "managing costs is important", but it is up to them how they communicate them to their staff,' she says.

As well as ensuring Woolworths Group's internal messages are in tune with its external PR, her job is to bang the drum on staff pensions, benefits and training programmes, presenting them in the most attractive way to line managers. She is also responsible for Insight, the fortnightly magazine for staff and for presenting the Rewards programme, which includes store discounts. Most Woolworths' staff who work in the stores do so part-time, so reaching them requires communication such as payslip messaging or posting information to home addresses. Smith regularly compiles questionnaires which help her ascertain which staff populations (in terms of gender, age or length of service) are interested in various benefits.

8.15am Smith arrives at Woolworths Group HQ on Marylebone Road, London.

The building has the air of a place where things are still being sorted out following the demerger.

The first half hour or so this Monday morning is spent checking emails and sales figures and going over the weekend's press clippings. At present she has a temporary desk in the finance department, but this is to change in the next couple of months when the corporate affairs team, of which she is a part, will be gathered on the same floor. This sort of logistical flux is quite common at the moment. She gathers her files together for her first meeting.

9am It is a one-to-one with Daniel Himsworth, a new member of the corporate affairs team who covers entertainment - the thread that links each of the group's brands. Woolworths has 827 stores and accounts for £2bn of the group's £2.5bn sales per year, but the FTSE 250 company also takes in MVC, which sells videos, CDs and DVDs from 87 outlets; E UK, which distributes a quarter of all recorded music in the UK to retailers, including Tesco and Safeway; Streets Online, the internet entertainment retailer; audio visual publisher VCI and Woolworths Big W, a chain of out-of-town shopping developments concentrating on children and home essentials.

10.20am The weekly meeting on the second floor chaired by head of corporate affairs Nicole Lander. She is Smith's direct boss and the whole PR team is there: Sara Tomkins, consumer affairs manager, plus corporate affairs managers Chrissi Monteuuis and Himsworth, along with Trevor Dahl, manager for the group's Kids First charity and responsible for CSR. Around the walls are framed pages from various publications: The Sun, Daily Mirror, The Daily Telegraph, The Financial Times - even Vogue. All mention Woolworths products.

Each of the team gives an account of their week to come and Dahl announces that MD Trevor Bish-Jones is to run the London Marathon in April, and is looking to raise £100,000 for Kids First. These exchanges about contacts and media coverage may provide Smith with useful potential leads for Insight.

Lander asks for opinions on mock-ups for the annual report and accounts brochures.

The images of children and Woolies goods are strong, but Smith has a problem. 'Can I be a bit controversial?' she asks. 'It's very Woolworths.

It's not very "group".' Lander nods assent. 'And I'm struggling as to why we're doing product PR in a document for shareholders,' adds Smith.

The simple answer is that Bish-Jones wants to focus on products, but Smith feels it is a point worth making. At a one-to-one with Lander later in the week she will suggest that all opcos get a chance to see and comment on the designs.

11.15am Time to check emails and make calls. The commercial director's PA has rung to say a drawerful of corporate videos has come to light, and might some of the footage be used for future videos, thus avoiding re-shoots? Smith phones the HR director's PA to ask for some time with him to run over ideas for the next issue of Insight, which will have an 'innovations' theme.

11.50am Justine Franks from the HR department, who is responsible for the group's new Deals and Discounts booklet for staff, wants to show Smith the proofs. Franks is unimpressed with the front cover, an image of a laughing woman with a glum looking man behind her. 'She looks like she's going flying,' she says, referring to what looks like an aviator's hat.

Both agree that something needs to change.

12.05pm A chance to grab a salad.

12.20pm - 1.10pm Smith is in a one-to-one meeting with Jo Bootle of MVC regarding the head office of MVC moving from Harrow to the Woolworths Group HQ. Smith wants to know from Bootle if there is anything she can do to facilitate the move. The cultures of Woolworths and MVC stores are deliberately distinct - but staff from both will be working in the same environment together from April. Since both brands are to be maintained and developed separately, it will only be at the most senior level that managers will have cross-brand responsibility. There will still be dedicated HR, training, store development and communications for the brands, so it is unlikely to be appropriate, say, for MVC employees to feature in the fortnightly Woolies News staff paper.

Bootle has another concern. Over the last year, Bish-Jones has made no secret of concentrating his energy on Woolworths, which remains the group's main brand by some distance. She likes the idea of putting 'welcome' screensavers on computers for MVC staff when they arrive for their first day at HQ, but adds: 'There will be an issue in terms of how Trevor communicates here. Every time he is talking to the (head) office population (after the move) he is talking to "group". This is about Trevor using the right language in emails, etc.'

They must get Bish-Jones to be seen to be embracing MVC. Bootle adds that MVC, as a relatively small company, has a culture of sending out weekly bulletins although these have stopped temporarily while the merger is thrashed out and she is not sure whether to carry on producing them.

Smith shrugs. 'You need to as the (MVC) staff.' She suggests finding the top three concerns on which they want to be regularly updated and the two arrange a meeting for February to go through communications processes 'line by line'.

2.05pm The final pitch for the Woolworths Group Leadership Programme gets underway. The scheme is designed to identify existing staff as future senior management. Flag Communication is the last of four agencies to present ideas about printed internal publicity material. One of the brief's key points was to educate managers - who nominate staff - about the quality of candidates needed for this demanding fast-track programme.

Flag presents a bold series of concepts, which the Woolworths team like, but wonder how they might go down. 'I like the harsh words,' grins the HR department's Richard Vallis, on an idea which uses the tagline of 'The Acid Test'. Not everyone appears likely to be convinced of the idea.

3.05pm The Flag pitch team are shown out, and Smith encourages Vallis and his colleague Caroline Darker to think about how they will sell all the ideas they have seen to the steering group of commercial and HR management, who are to make a final decision at a three-hour meeting on 12 February.

Choosing a solution that offers a degree of flexibility for future changes to the scheme and which can be produced on budget are also major considerations.

Smith suggests presenting them across a spectrum on mounted boards from 'soft' to 'hard', 'traditional' to 'non-traditional'. They need to nail down exactly how they are to walk the committee through the process.

3.30pm Smith finalises the agenda for Friday's meeting of her 'network'.

These are colleagues from other opcos, such as Bootle, who do a similar job to Smith and get together regularly to talk about internal communications issues within the group. She makes a couple of calls about the latest proofs of Insight, rounding up some missing images. There is also work to do on a new proposal for changing the way the group presents its results internally, including filming Bish-Jones making his announcement.

5.30pm A scheduled half-hour meeting has been cancelled, leaving a gap for more emails, paperwork, and general 'housekeeping'. Smith is researching conference venues and plans for the launch of a group intranet, so the extra time is useful. Tomorrow brings another pitch, this time from a design agency that is hoping to work on the Rewards brochures. Smith sees her role as providing channels of communication for people at various levels within the group and she believes this has been a successful day.

6pm Smith leaves the office and walks to Baker Street tube. It has been a busy day, and a typical example of the work that makes up her role.

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