Little more than a week after the Paddington rail disaster in
October, staff at Great Western trains were horrified to receive a party
parcel designed to promote ’team spirit and bonding’. Inside, with a
morale-boosting letter about ’celebrating the changes for the better’,
was a party hat, balloon and paper whistle.
The timing of such an exercise could hardly have been worse. With the
recent rail tragedy - including the death of one of Great Western’s own
employees - still fresh in people’s minds, this jolly mail-out from head
office backfired, big-time.
Despite an apology for its mistake to Great Western staff from parent
company FirstGroup, the matter raised the hackles of the Rail, Maritime
and Transport Union - and found its way into the national press.
This is just one example of the best-laid plans going wrong. Sometimes,
rather than encouraging staff pride, enthusiasm and understanding, an
internal communications exercise can not only fail to meet its
objectives, but can turn into a disaster.
If the mistake reaches the media, then negative perceptions are likely
to be taken on board by external as well as internal audiences. Indeed,
the end result of a disgruntled staff member squealing to a journalist
can often be a more united workforce, but not in the way management
It is almost impossible to rule out the rogue element of staff who are
prepared to talk to the press but there are many other ways for an
organisation to get its internal communications wrong.
’First there are the gifted amateurs, who don’t think through the
implications of their actions,’ says Bill Quirke, managing director of
internal communications specialist Synopsis.
As an example he cites how his agency was recently called in after an
organisation had promoted a new IT strategy, based on ’preventing
trouble’, by sending a fluorescent condom to every member of staff.
’Then there is the flat-pack approach - where an employee receives
separate bits of information that he is supposed to put together,’ says
’Lastly, there are the competiting departments, who think by shouting
louder they’ll drown out the ’opposition’.’
In his time, Quirke has seen it all from ’bathroom bulletins’ stuck on
cubicle doors, to competing departments with rival initiatives ripping
down each others’ posters in the middle of the night.
These examples might be petty, but the implications can still be
And when it is a question of communicating a far-reaching corporate
policy, or major change such as a merger or acquisition, the results of
ill-thought out internal communications can be very damaging.
Lorrie Hecker, director of communications agency MCA, says: ’The
tremendous investment of time, money and energy in bringing two
organisations together can be completely derailed by poor communication.
Productivity drops, customer service suffers and top talent leaves.’
She adds: ’Without effective communication to address concerns and
create a clear vision for the future, the newly formed organisation can
actually come apart at the seams.’
But when an internal communications exercise has gone belly up, how can
you pull things together? The obvious solution is to be prepared, with
systems in place to identify potentially explosive issues and procedures
for dealing with the unexpected.
Banner McBride CEO Michael Pounsford says: ’Organisations that value
internal communication and have it at their core can often minimise the
effect of negative issues. In practice, this means your structures for
communicating will be in place - you will have already identified your
key internal communication champions; distribution channels will be
established; helpline numbers and contact points will be set up and in
However, many organisations are tempted to interpret this as an excuse
to get tooled up with the latest technology.
Companies with a widely spread workforce may benefit from satellite
communications, videos, e-mail and the internet, but one of the most
common complaints from their employees is that senior management are too
Grayling director Caroline Black says: ’You can get carried away with
intranets and so on, and it can all become Big Brotherish. Of course,
there is room for technology, but you still need a chief executive and
board of directors that goes out and sees people and has interaction
from getting people in a room together.’
This is a view echoed by John Harben, client director of internal
communication specialist Smythe Dorward Lambert. ’Increasingly people
want the work experience to be meaningful, so people need real emotional
involvement with change,’ he says.
At a practical level this involves face-to-face contact and creating a
true dialogue with employees whose biggest concern is ’What will this
mean to me?’. According to Harben, this is especially important now that
what he describes as ’the age of deference’ within the workplace is
’As people agree to work with a company for a shorter time, in return
for good training and other benefits to their career, they expect a
higher level of consultation and influence, or they will move
elsewhere,’ he says.
But one of the intrinsic problems with change is that initially it can
be unpopular. Unless employees are given an idea of the context of the
need for something new, fear can creep in, closely followed by
And while it would be naive for any organisation to expect absolutely
every employee to be won over to a major initiative, much of the
responsibility for employee buy-in lies with middle managers on the
’A major reason for internal communication going wrong is the
disproportionately small investment made by organisations in line
managers,’ says Nicholas Wright, head of internal communication
consulting at Fishburn Hedges.
He stresses that organisations should be more open about their business
strategy with employees and spend more on training managers to
communicate effectively with their staff. ’If you don’t, then you can
end up with managers who abdicate responsiblity and take a ’They’ve told
me to tell you’ approach,’ he warns.
But some organisations have looked to harness the negative energy that
major change can bring and turn it to a positive force for good. A
year-and-a-half ago, food manufacturer McVitie’s UK launched a new set
of company values to staff. Alison Heads, head of communications says:
’There is always a team of people within a company who are early
adopters and to which other people tend to gravite, so they help
accelerate change. These are not always the most positive people -
sometimes they are even the cynics - but you can get them to help
To involve employees emotionally and intellectually, the company
developed a team of communications champions. Drawn from various levels
and departments, these champions became the innovators for best practice
within the organisation and helped facilitate the execution of this best
practice among others.
Outside consultants, that go into organisations to support major change,
can also face huge negative perceptions from staff. This is particularly
true when employees fear that jobs are under threat.
At Banner McBride, Pounsford says: ’It’s important to confront people’s
worries and concerns head on. Be honest with them. Ask them what
information they need and want and how do they want to receive it - then
give it to them.’
This was the line taken after the merger of Lloyds and TSB. In May this
year, Caribiner was behind a live internal communications event at the
NEC for 5,000 of the bank’s 77,000 staff. The objectives were to unveil
its new blue and green identity, explain the values behind the brand,
and gain commitment from the employees to the new way they would be
This also had to be filtered effectively to the rest of the staff.
Caribiner asked every staff member, at all levels, to nominate a
’pathfinder’, or a brand ambassador, who would each attend the event and
then bring the messages back to 15 of their peers.
The show itself involved a minimum amount of management preaching on
stage, and around 60 employees at all levels took part in a fast-paced
presentation showing how the transformation was happening in every area
of the bank’s operation. The day was followed up with independent
research which showed that the messages had succeeded in cascading down
to the staff who were not at the event.
Carabiner marketing manager Fiona Kearns says: ’We spent a lot of time
before the event finding out how staff from senior managers to the shop
floor felt about the merger, including a survey, and staff at all levels
worked with us to develop the content of the launch day.’
She adds: ’One of the main issues was that it is an enormous company,
but it includes people working in village branches who don’t feel part
of the bigger picture and thought nobody cared about them. They know now
that they are part of one of the big boys, and they are proud of
Brand changes were also involved in a project carried out by Bamber
Forsyth with waste management company Shanks, to develop a new corporate
identity and bring together a number of sub-brands to create one core
identity. While jobs were not on the line, account director Rebecca
Price says: ’We ensured that the project was seen to be supported from
within from the word go.’
To ensure that staff did not feel put upon by a group of outsiders,
Shanks and Bamber Forsyth set up a steering group involving key players
with an overview of various parts of the business. In addition, once the
new identity was up and running, an implementation group was set up to
involve people and avoid any careless mistakes.
’For example, unless you speak to the person responsible for lorries,
then you don’t know that, for safety reasons, it’s vital that any new
vehicle livery is highly visible on landfill sites,’ says Price.
It is clear that, when internal communication goes wrong, it is the
credibility of senior management that is the first to be dented. If the
CEO says a key value is equality, but has a reserved space in the
company car park, then belief in his leadership can be hard to win
Forward-thinking companies are ensuring that internal communication is
being represented at the most senior level within their organisation,
and thinking through the consequences of business decisions on
individual staff and their day-to-day jobs.
As Pounsford says: ’When issues have a direct impact on staff, they
deserve to hear about them first from their managers, not by reading
about them in the newspapers or seeing them on television.’
MEASUREMENT - ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
With organisations constantly stressing the importance of people,
coupled with the advances in communications over recent years, it would
seem a safe bet that employees feel more involved within the workplace
than ever before. Yet, data from MORI suggests that staff feel no better
informed now than they did 25 years ago.
’Despite all the expenditure on videos, business television and new
media, the average number of staff who fell well informed has remained
at around 50 per cent,’ says Susan Walker, managing director of MORI
Human Resource Research.
This less than encouraging figure hides huge disparities between best
and worst practice. And even with the arrival of e-mail, intranets and
glossy magazines, some organisations still find it hard to make use of
such tools to talk with staff.
So when it comes to evaluating the results of a corporate shake-up, how
can you ensure that the reach of your internal communication effort is
rising above this depressingly low average?
While there are numerous techniques such as questionnaires and focus
groups for revealing employee satisfaction and awareness, where does the
impact of big change sit with staff?
One answer is to find out what is really going on using both informal
feedback and solid benchmarks. Recently, Countrywide Porter Novelli had
the opportunity to test out this on itself.
Earlier this year, Countrywide Porter Novelli bought Ellips, a Belgian
top 10 agency, which meant forging a single entity from its new purchase
and its existing Brussels operation.
’The most common reason for mergers and acquistions to fail is a clash
of cultures,’ says Mike Rigby, head of internal communication practice
at Countrywide Porter Novelli.
Using an e-mail based culture questionnaire, the agency examined eight
separate dimensions in its two operations: professional excellence;
innovation; social culture; internal and external focus; procedural
practices; decision-making; attitudes to performance; and degree of
With nine questions in each category, CPN used the results to identify
areas of similarity and difference. This revealed a healthy culture
overlap of 65 per cent, a smaller area where there were some differences
that would need monitoring and a 15 per cent clash between the two
Countrywide Porter Novelli used these findings to pull together action
teams from both sides, to examine problem areas and recommend
appropriate strategies and solutions to a joint board.
Rigby says the advantage of using an electronic tool was that data was
automatically downloaded so there was less scope for error. In addition,
it was easier to analyse information and identify factors that could
undermine individual performance during a period of transition.