Internal Communications: Playing the right cards to ensure staff loyalty - Those companies which keep internal communications channels open during good times as well as bad are the ones that are more likely to ride out an economic slump

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.

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

treated badly.’

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,

the better.’

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.

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