FOCUS: INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS - Creating a breed of company converts/Companies with a vision can turn staff into brand evangelists Mary Cowlett investigates.

Ask any senior company executive about the merits of their workforce and at some point, they will spout the phrase ’our staff are our most valuable asset’. In the past, this assertion has tended to focus on feel-good factors such as treating staff well. But in the current climate of mergers, downsizing and outsourcing, an increasing number of companies such as British Airways and Barclaycard are rethinking the genuine value of employees. They are striving to capture both the hearts and minds of the workforce to make a tangible difference to the bottom line.

Ask any senior company executive about the merits of their

workforce and at some point, they will spout the phrase ’our staff are

our most valuable asset’. In the past, this assertion has tended to

focus on feel-good factors such as treating staff well. But in the

current climate of mergers, downsizing and outsourcing, an increasing

number of companies such as British Airways and Barclaycard are

rethinking the genuine value of employees. They are striving to capture

both the hearts and minds of the workforce to make a tangible difference

to the bottom line.



Kevin Thomson, chairman of internal marketing and communications

specialists MCA, says such organisations recognise that their future

success lies in their internal culture. ’Virtually everything a company

does, from launching a new product to issues of quality and service, is

replicable.



So to steal a march on competitors, you now have to look to the last

differentiator, an organisation’s personality,’ he explains. ’This is

decided by the people within a company, so effectively, they are your

brand.’



In a retail or customer service environment, it is easy to see how

customer attitude to a business brand is directly affected by

interaction with the workforce. But the importance of an organisation’s

internal climate is also becoming more pertinent to stock market

performance. A survey of 275 analysts and portfolio managers, conducted

last year by Ernst and Young’s Centre for Business Information, shows

that institutional investors base one-third of a decision to buy or sell

stock on a company’s non-financial performance. In addition, the study

reveals that investors’ perceptions of improvements in areas such as

corporate strategy, innovation and the ability to attract and retain

talented people, can have a major impact on share price.



So for companies to flourish financially, it seems they need staff who

understand business goals, and act as internal and external evangelists

for the business and its brand. According to Thomson, developing such

individuals involves more than gaining intellectual buy-in. ’Harnessing

and managing knowledge is one thing, but organisations need to manage

the emotion, feeling and beliefs that motivate people to apply that

knowledge constructively,’ he says.



Last autumn, to gauge current employee buy-in and its relation to

business performance, MCA commissioned MORI to conduct a survey of UK

organisations.



Conducted on a sample of 350 staff across companies employing 1,000

people or more, this revealed that only 35 per cent of respondents

strongly agreed that they would recommend their organisation to others

such as customers, consumers and recruits. Furthermore, while only half

said that their understanding of organisational goals was high, barely a

quarter strongly agreed that they were committed to giving their best to

help their organisation succeed.



This lack of commitment, or emotional buy-in, to the business brand, is

where many believe internal communication tends to break down. ’The

reason internal campaigns often fail - especially mergers - is because

at the research stage, people don’t ask what the emotional hooks are for

people within an organisation,’ says James Harkness, director of

consultancy at Banner McBride. He adds that his agency undertakes

’discovery days’ with new clients, to uncover employees’ attitudes and

get involved with what makes them tick.



At the moment, Banner McBride is working with IT giant Compaq, following

its acquisition of Digital. ’People feel the reasoning behind the coming

together of the two companies was well explained,’ says Harkness. ’But

now we are communicating issues about maximising the benefits of the

merger to people working for an organisation that has dramatically

changed in size and for some, identity.’



So how might you use communication channels to convert your

workforce?



Bill Quirke, managing director of communications consultancy Synopsis,

says: ’You need to use different media to take staff through the various

stages. So newsletters, posters and videos are good for creating

awareness, but small discussion groups are better for generating the

conversation and involvement that ultimately leads to commitment.’



While creating brand evangelists who sing the praises of an organisation

is vital to its success, it’s possible for employees to go further and

actually live the brand.



Alaric Mostyn, managing director of Burson Marsteller’s change

communication practice, says: ’Talking about the brand is not enough.

What about the bottom line? What do real people doing real jobs have to

do differently on Monday? Everything employees do, everyday, must

deliver the brand.’



Mostyn thinks using staff as evangelists or ambassadors is only the

start.



’Sure, you shape your communication plans and activities to be

brand-consistent,’ he says. ’But you also need to adjust your business

processes, pay and recognition processes, your recruitment, your

innovation processes, every management initiative - everything that

shapes the perceptions and performance of employees.’



As an example, Mostyn cites the horror story of an international

financial services company which redefined its corporate brand and

desired positioning.



’The new brand was built around ’innovation’. This was communicated to

employees and brand champions were identified and trained,’ he says. ’At

the same time, the human resources department launched a major quality

initiative, with the slogan ’Right first time, every time’. It had

incentives and rewards. So employees had to choose between two apparent

contradictions - innovation or right first time. Brand ambassadors were

of no consequence, because the incentives and rewards had more

influence.’ He concludes: ’Employees were cynical and ignored both.’



So how do you get it right? Liz Stanley, consultant at Smythe Dorward

Lambert says her agency uses a framework to highlight to senior company

executives the influence employees have on the delivery of the

brand.



’It captures the essence of the ’what we say is what we do’ sentiment,

emphasising the need to align external marketing messages, the products

and services delivered and the actual behaviours of employees,’ she

says.



’All of which impacts on the organisation’s reputation and the customer

experience.’



This attention to consistency of both internal and external messages is

a view echoed by Nicholas Wright, head of Fishburn Hedges’ internal

communication consultancy. He says that recent research by Shell

International shows that 20 per cent of the hits on Shell’s external web

site come from employees. ’You have to recognise that staff also

experience external media, so messages have to be in tune,’ he says.



He also suggests that many organisations are tempted to stick their

heads in the sand when communicating more tricky issues - such as crises

- to staff. ’Companies say ’We can’t discuss this internally, it’s too

controversial’, so people simply take their cues - right or wrong - from

outside sources,’ he says.



The importance of the entire organisation living the brand should not be

underestimated. Nicola Fawssett, joint managing director of strategic

marketing consultancy New Solutions, says that it is this holistic

vision that allows organisations such as Virgin to operate successfully

in different product areas. She uses the analogy of cutting a stick of

rock and says: ’The brand should pervade through everything. It’s the

internal glue that ensures all employees and departments are facing in

the same direction.’



For the future, it seems that many organisations need to take their

employees more seriously and evolve systems that go further than the

’customer service with a smile’ approach. If the brand or frontline

staff are saying one thing and the people and systems that support them

doing another, people will not be fooled. A recent study by the Journal

of Marketing startlingly revealed that the main reason customers defect

from an organisation is related to employees. While nine per cent are

lured away by competition, 68 per cent walk away of their own accord,

because of staff attitudes or indifference.



ABBEY NATIONAL: INVITING BRAND INPUT FROM EMPLOYEES



When Nick Chaloner joined Abbey National 18 months ago as director of

corporate affairs, he conducted a communications audit of both internal

and external audiences. This revealed that while staff were very loyal,

they didn’t really understand the vision of the company.



Newly appointed chief executive Ian Harley developed a statement of

simple values that represented what the company was about. ’Called ’the

four pillars’, these were focus, communication, synergy and, most

importantly, partnership,’ says Chaloner. Three quarters of employees

hold shares in Abbey National, so Harley was keen to make staff feel

they had ownership of the company.



To inspire confidence in these new values, the corporate affairs team

developed a strategy to get Harley in front of as many employees as

possible.



’It’s not just about what the chief executive says and does,’ says

Chaloner, ’it’s that every employee is as important as another and their

views count.’



Inevitably, this involved improving some of the channels of

communication.



’When I joined the company there was a rather inappropriate staff

newsletter in place called Talking Shop. This was fine for our retail

division, but didn’t sit well with the other half of our business, such

as our treasury group of investment bankers in the City,’ explains

Chaloner.



A glossy quarterly magazine, Abbey View, was developed to cover popular

subjects such as football next to issues that affect the business. As a

personal touch, this is mailed to staff at home. It also ties in to the

group business television programme that positions hard news on topics,

such as the company results, next to features on different parts of the

business and community affairs activities.



However, as these delivery methods are one-way, the company has used

other means to breathe a sense of partnership into the organisation. A

new company intranet site is up and running and Harley holds informal

lunches for a cross-section of the workforce to discuss ideas and takes

part in monthly ’talk back’ sessions.



The sessions are held at different sites around the company, are open to

all local staff and include local directors and members of senior

management.



The meetings enable staff to put the top team on the spot and gain a

picture of how their individual responsibilities fit into the overall

company strategy. There are also presentations of awards of up to pounds

20,000 to staff who have come up with successful efficiency ideas.



Chaloner says that a communications audit at the end of last year showed

that all these initiatives have had a dramatic impact on staff and the

business. On average, staff rate internal communications at eight out of

ten and last year, the company saved over pounds 8 million through

employee initiatives.



INTERNAL IMPACT: IT’S TIME TO COMMIT TO MEASUREMENT



Published last month, the PR Week/Countrywide Porter Novelli (CPN) Proof

survey reveals that almost a quarter of those working in internal

communications are doubtful about measuring their work.



Conducted by CARMA International, this detailed study of more than 200

respondents shows there is much confusion about which evaluation

techniques are the most effective. CPN director Keith Taylor thinks much

of this uncertainty stems from a lack of commitment by senior

management. Taylor states that measurement is the biggest challenge for

internal communications as it moves forward.



’Many people still treat it as something which they instinctively know

is the right thing to do, but can’t be bothered to spend time or

resources on,’ he says.



A further problem, identified by Hilary Scarlett, associate director of

internal communications specialist Smythe Dorward Lambert, is that

organisations are not always prepared to accept measurement findings, or

the need to act on them.



Mel Lowe, director of Burson-Marsteller’s change communication practice

goes further and criticises the validity of much of the current

evaluation methods. ’A lot of internal communication research is

ineffective because it simply measures what people think about various

communication channels, asking whether people ’feel’ well-informed,

instead of testing whether they really are,’ she says.



In other words, if the aim of an internal campaign is to improve

productivity or staff retention, knowing that employees have understood

the message only goes half-way towards measuring its success. It is not

an indicator of any change in behaviour and performance, and is highly

unlikely to have any impact on those who hold the purse strings.



As with external relations, the key is to link measurement of internal

messages with business objectives. Lowe says: ’You have to do internal

communication research which measures whether people are actually

well-informed about what’s going on in the organisation, tells you what

impact communication is having on performance, and produces specific,

actionable results.’



’You have to ensure research and measurement is co-ordinated across an

organisation,’ says Nicholas Wright, head of the internal communication

consultancy at Fishburn Hedges. ’For example, many companies have

external customer satisfaction indices, but fewer have internal employee

satisfaction indices. You can only look at performances between the two

and demonstrate where internal communication has made an impact,’ he

says.



As with all measurement, this involves some initial benchmarking and

agreed measurable objectives. But evaluating internal processes also

needs to be a serious matter for the whole company and built into the

business cycle. For example, individuals’ communication skills ratings

should be tied to incentives such as remuneration and perks.



However, hooking into business aims does not mean discarding the

individual components of communication or ignoring employees

perceptions.



CPN’s Taylor says it is equally important to measure the detail of

specifics, such as information cascade systems or the impetus of the

company newsletter.



And he also thinks it is vital to check people’s attitudes and awareness

of broad themes across sites or internationally, with a mix of

questionnaires and face-to-face interviews.



’This helps to identify problems such as staff who feel a manager is

taking the credit for others’ work, or difficulties with downward or

upward communication,’ he says.



The crux for internal communications specialists seems to be that for

many, this is where the measurement process ends. For the future, Taylor

thinks the discipline needs to take itself more seriously. ’If internal

communications doesn’t have self-esteem, how can you expect anybody else

to believe in it?’ he concludes.



BEST FOUNDATION: EMPLOYERS PRACTISE WHAT THEY PREACH



Before a firm has any hope of getting employees to buy-in to its brand

and ethos so they can act as ambassadors, it needs to ensure that those

at the top of the company also believe the hype.



A survey carried out by MORI at the end of last year for PR consultancy

Smythe Dorward Lambert found that while employees approve the values of

their organisation, they do not always trust their leaders.



Just 11 per cent of all workers in the UK strongly agreed with the

statement, ’I trust and believe what the directors of my company

say’.



Trust in directors is lowest among blue-collar workers - 47 per cent

don’t believe a word they say - and highest among professional women

under 35, where 28 per cent distrust their bosses.



Staff in the South are twice as likely to have a strong trust in their

directors - 18 per cent - than in the North.



At the same time, more than three-quarters of all workers endorse the

core values of their organisation and seven out of eight feel they

understand what their company is trying to achieve.



Smythe Dorward Lambert - which bills itself as ’the consultancy that

puts people at the heart of business change’ - has used a selection of

techniques to overcome the trust gap with clients such as Microsoft,

Scottish Power and Pfizer.



These include shadowing the board to review behaviour and performance

against the company values, to help senior executives ’walk the walk’

and to be seen to live by the values the employees accept.



Agency chairman John Smythe says: ’UK companies’ recent enthusiasm for

internal communications is already starting to pay off. That so many

employees understand what their company is trying to achieve is

fantastic for business.’



But he adds: ’The fact that so few believe their leaders is much more

distressing, particularly for companies embarking on a major change.

Trust does not come from the stylised video or slick conference. It

comes from listening, involving others in decisions, admitting mistakes

and personal difficulties, and being consistent in the way leaders

behave, day in, day out. This research suggests there is still a way to

go.’



Maja Pawinska.



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