The economy is not yet in recession again, but there has been
plenty of talk about the prospect nonetheless. This has been bolstered
by a clutch of corporations making large numbers of staff redundant.
Last week Barclaycard revealed it was cutting 1,100 staff. In the week
before that, defence company Vickers announced 650 redundancies and
Shell said it was to close its London headquarters, where it has a
workforce of 2,000.
In such a climate it is inevitable that the spotlight will fall on the
internal communications (IC) function. So how seriously is it being
taken by organisations?
’During the last recession people were seen as a much more disposable
asset,’ says Institute of Personnel and Development policy adviser
Angela Edwards. ’But with the rise of the stakeholder concept, companies
realise that they won’t get the best out of their people if they are
Adrian Seward, head of internal communications for Cable and Wireless
Communications, agrees. Earlier this year he had to handle an IC
programme explaining the reasons for 1,500 job cuts. He says that
unpleasant tasks such as these are made easier by the fact that the
board involves him in important meetings on issues like change
management so that he is able to develop communications programmes at an
early stage and put management decisions in their proper business
’It’s important to get the management story out, to be in control of the
story to your own people,’ says Smythe Dorward Lambert vice-chairman
Colette Dorward. ’The more open you are about what is being considered,
Clearly it helps if corporations can point to a history of strong
management communications. Companies which only trouble themselves with
staff communications at times of crisis or when breaking unpalatable
news will be viewed with suspicion by their staff.
Despite the advances made in IC, there are still far too many
organisations that fall into this category. As reported in PR Week last
week, a survey carried out by Synopsis Communication Consulting into UK
and US companies found that board-level messages are still not being
communicated effectively to employees.
Just 55 per cent of UK organisations had board level IC
And, where there was board level representation it was most frequently
in the shape of a human resources director: 33 per cent, compared to a
mere 13 per cent which gave the board responsibility to a communication
Although IC heads tend to report to either the personnel or corporate
communications departments, many feel that those with PR skills are the
ones best suited to running the IC function.
’The people who can really hack it are those with in-depth PR
experience,’ says Bass Brewers IC director Mike Maryon.
Maryon is also chairman of the IPR’s special interest group on IC. The
growth of which, he says, is proof positive of the increasing
seriousness with which corporations are regarding the discipline.
However, a change in attitudes can seldom be achieved by simply pumping
out information to the workforce.
Staff are increasingly being given more information, responsibility and
freedom to make their own decisions, particularly in streamlined
organisations, according to Maryon. ’If you do want them to go a certain
way you have to use sales, marketing and PR techniques,’ he says.
This is a theme close to the heart of Kevin Thomson, chairman of IC
specialist agency MCA. In the past, he says, companies have concentrated
on getting their product and external marketing right. In the future, he
argues, quality in these areas will be a given and differentiation will
lie in the standard and success of ’pan-company marketing,’ that is,
adapting external communications techniques for use internally.
Mike Pounsford, managing director of WPP-owned IC specialist Banner
McBride, agrees that marketing techniques such as identifying needs and
segmenting audiences can be useful in IC but cautions practitioners to
remember that employees are likely to be wary of anything that is openly
termed internal marketing. ’Employees are not like customers, they can’t
always make a choice and you’ve got to recognise that when communicating
with them,’ he says.
Much of Banner McBride’s work, for clients such as Eagle Star, the
Woolwich, Nokia and Lloyds TSB, is in the area of what Pounsford calls
’bringing the brand to life internally’ - namely making sure that
employees behave in a way that fits in with how the brand is positioned
through advertising and external relations.
Research published last week by MCA and MORI found that only nine per
cent of employees ’strongly agreed that their views and participation
are valued by their organisation’. While research among HR and IC
managers from another communication and change specialist, Hedron,
published this summer found that 87 per cent believed they could only
achieve high employee motivation if senior managers communicated ’better
than they do now’.
Selling change to staff is not simply a human resources issue. Trade
unions and the people facing redundancy are not the only groups a
company undergoing change needs to communicate with. It is just as vital
to sell change to those remaining in an organisation, and to do this
senior management need to lead from the front.