Poor staff comms will kill messages

As a new study concludes that internal comms departments are failing to keep pace with delivery of news, David Quainton asks how companies can improve the flow of information from management to staff

There is little point in an organisation running powerful marketing and PR campaigns unless all their employees are signed up to them, and at the moment many companies are failing to make that link.

This is the central finding of a report, entitled The Future of PR, based on interviews with 14 senior in-house PR practitioners, conducted by Henley Management College.

The study offers the following scenario to highlight the problem. A large retailer embarks on a stunning PR campaign, driving thousands of people into its shops. When the customers arrive, they find staff are not aware of current promotions, are rude and are not delivering the customer services promises made by the campaign. Inevitably, the customers drift elsewhere.

The reason this scenario may occur, the report contends, is that many heads of PR come from external affairs backgrounds rather than internal comms.

'The development of internal comms needs to be accelerated,' argues Kevin Murray, chair of Chime Communications PR division and author of the study alongside fellow Henley Management College associate Dr Jon White. 'Employees are no different to customers. They are besieged by information from an increasing number of sources. It places a greater imperative on management to engage with staff first.'

Instant decisions
In a world of blogs and RSS feeds, comms heads increasingly need to make instant decisions based on the speed at which news travels. These decisions have to be communicated to staff quickly, and with the right message. This puts an added burden on the quality of the management structure.

'The role of middle management in communication is vital,' says IPC director of comms Karen Myers. 'The manager has to present messages in a way staff can understand and implement.'

This becomes more difficult in organisations where staff are dispersed and have little contact with their management, such as at the AA or British Gas. 'You have to be more inventive,' suggests Myers. 'At the AA we distributed CDs to our staff with a radio programme on it that delivered our message.'

Abbey communications director Thomas Coops contends: 'You have to filter out staff who aren't capable of delivering the message. This starts at the recruitment process. Then the induction has to reinforce your message, followed by on-the-job training.'

His point is that the whole company should be involved in PR. If the managers responsible for hiring staff are not aware of a company's reliance on its staff to deliver a brand message, then its PR efforts will be directly affected.

'A core competency for any PRO is sticking your nose in,' says Coops. 'Although you are not head of HR and marketing, you have to maintain a close relationship with both departments.'

That relationship, the PROs say, has to work both ways. The study shows comms is becoming a vital function at the heart of any business, and that CEOs expect comms departments to deliver. But as Murray cautions: 'Comms departments can spend a lot of time on websites, intranets and seminars, but not enough teaching the rest of the company what its role is and how to perform'. 

Cultural change
This educational role may involve a change of company culture. 'Sometimes people think about comms the wrong way around,' argues Murray. 'But staff will be more effective if they can bring their problems and ideas to management and management responds.'
Coops, meanwhile, believes reinforcement of comms strategy should  be integrated in general training. 'If we [at Abbey] were training staff about new mortgage regulatory changes, then we would take it as a perfect opportunity to tell the wider story,' he says. 'Rather than technical training, matters should be explained in the context of the company, how it affects our message and their day-to-day tasks.'

The point the study makes is that 'staff engagement is not optional in brand and reputation management'. Comms alone cannot bear the weight of promotional responsibility, but internal messaging must play a major role.

'There can't be just one message,' Murray concludes. 'This issue is complicated and requires long-term planning, but it is mission-critical for businesses.'

* There are still places available for PRWeek's Innovative Internal Communications conference on 26 April at The Waldorf Hilton, London. Book at www.strategiccommunications2006.com

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