Good internal comms has a mobilising effect: it is an clarion call that brings disparate parts of the business together, informing workers about the company's common objectives and where they fit into the overall picture. At least that is the theory.
The reality, however, is that many internal comms projects are falling short of their targets. While Harold Burson recently announced that internal comms was Burson-Marsteller's fastest growing sector, some commentators believe firms' business effectiveness will increasingly be compromised if their internal comms practices are not thoroughly reviewed.
The last annual study by workplace comms agency CHA uncovers a litany of problems. 'A Little More Conversation' found that many employees are beset by lack of relevant information, dull corporate-speak and lack of clarity and timeliness in the information detailing what is required of them.
These findings are supported the most comprehensive survey into internal comms - 'The iC Survey 2006' revealed exclusively to PRWeek - which questioned more than 650 internal comms professionals. According to report author Ghassan Karian - former head of employee comms at British Gas - practitioners need to make their messages more relevant to staff.
'The survey reveals that while 36 per cent of internal comms officers have a PR background, fewer than half (38 per cent in the public sector; 49 per cent in the private sector) felt staff understood the direction of their organisation,' he says. 'The nature of providing good internal comms has changed.
Practitioners have got used to being "postroom" staff - sending stuff out for consumption. Reports show they must communicate with more impact.'
Ghassan suggests looking less at the content of information and focusing more on delivery methods. These, he argues, have become critical in the light of Department of Trade and Industry legislation on the information and consultation of employees. The law, which comes into force this month, requires UK organisations employing more than 150 people to inform staff about all matters affecting employment. By April 2008, this will apply to organisations with as few as 50 staff.
PRWeek picked some of the major trends of the CHA and IC surveys, and asked how PROs might respond.
65% of employees think internal announcements are irrelevant (CHA, A Little More Conversation 2005)
68% of internal communicators feel comms is not linked to company objectives (The IC Survey 2006)
According to Bell Pottinger group chairman Kevin Murray, the internal communicators too often turn to the 'cascade' model - the process by which senior managers deliver information to staff across the organisation via one-way channels. He argues this model is outdated and often results in staff feeling that their concerns have been ignored. 'Internal communication is usually produced at the corporate centre, often in London,' he says. 'If you're working at a branch office in York, what is said in London isn't going to affect what you do on a daily basis. Unless comms is localised, at best it will be interesting and at worst irrelevant.'
Ghassan says: 'Half of communicators say their organisation's strategy is not even in a narrative form. Turning complicated messages into a simple, meaningful story enables communicators to better distil information. The fact that so few practise this may be a reason why so many employees cannot relate to their organisation's strategy.'
High-street bank Lloyds TSB is one company that has identified relevance of message as an issue of employee concern. Since November 2005, the bank has been involved in a pilot internal comms scheme in its Wales & West region following a major restructure of its community banking department.
It has been using Storytellers, a consultancy that simplifies company strategies into so-called 'story maps'. These provide a narrative view of how an employee's work affects the company and can help to ensure staff at all levels feel that they are personally involved with corporate strategy. Similar work for IT services provider EDS recently helped it to win PRWeek US's award for Best Employee Campaign of the Year.
Storytellers director Alison Esse says the aim is to 'connect personal stories and learnings to the company's strategy'. She explains that the 'story maps' are split into chapters and written in simple language. Teams across the company are then encouraged to build their own maps - detailing how the work they do could improve company performance.
Esse says the value of the tool lies not only in sharing best practice but also in motivating staff to take a personal stake in company performance.
Lloyds TSB Wales & West internal comms business adviser Lynne Swash says: 'Staff understood the basic message that managers had become more involved with their local markets and were being more proactive with customers. But we still needed to explain to staff how individuals can make a difference. It was not about delivering a to-do list, but about inspiring people to think differently about their roles.'
Follow-up questionnaires indicates the initiative has so far been a success. When staff were asked if the process had helped them identify business priorities for the company, 85 per cent rated it either 'excellent' or 'very good' (14 per cent rated it 'good').
Seventy-eight per cent said the exercise had been 'excellent' for stimulating ideas and new ways of working in teams, and 100 per cent said it was a good way of identifying personal priorities and team goals.
As a result, Lloyds TSB intends to extend the six-month pilot for a second phase, called 'The Living Story'. Here staff will be encouraged to move the 'story maps' idea forward from a one-off exercise to a continuous process by which staff can consider themselves stakeholders in company strategy.
Graham Lindsay, MD of the Wales & West community bank at Lloyds TSB, says: 'It is a practical and simple way to bring grandiose strategy to our people. The ability of our own people to tell their own stories is remarkable. It reminds us that the work we do is worthwhile.
He adds: 'The process of bringing their stories to life has helped engagement and ownership and the feeling that they can each make a difference.'
2. PLAIN ENGLISH
50% of employees believe the information they receive is confusing; 40 per cent say it uses too much 'corporate speak' or business jargon (CHA, A Little More Conversation 2005)
60% of communicators are not confident that their comms plans reflect their organisation's goals" (The IC Survey 2006)
One of the most common complaints about documents loaded with business jargon is the lack of time employees have to decipher what often seems to be cryptic code.
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry head of written communications Heather Atchison says: 'Clear, effective internal comms saves time as people don't have to wade through turgid documents. It also means they are more likely to read documents, and this increases the chance that the message will get across.'
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry claims that the language of most internal comms is so bad that it has specialised in providing guidelines on how best to achieve a 'tone of voice'. It also advises on how to keep writing style in line with the company's image. This can range from the language used in employee documentation and pay reviews to how staff reply - verbally or in writing - to customer enquiries.
Atchison points out that companies must recognise the value of well-thought-out internal comms. 'External communication that sends out all of the right messages is great, but if a customer speaks to a member of staff who [is off-message], the external efforts only look like a farce.'
'PROs have all the right skills to communicate their aims, but these skills are not being managed well,' argues Ghassan. 'There is huge danger that unless comms is better delivered, its credibility will be lost.'
Credibility of language has been a major concern for the internal communicators at GKN, a global engineering company employing 40,000 staff in 30 countries. In January last year, it embarked on a review of its internal comms. Stephen Thomas, managing director of internal comms consultancy CGI - which worked with GKN on the review - says even a company with few customer-facing staff can reap the benefits of meaningful staff communication.
'We began by helping GKN define what makes it desirable - the brand attributes that give it its market position,' says Thomas.
The company then came up with a motto for its internal comms initiative - 'expect more' - and compiled a company thesaurus and dictionary - intended to help staff tune in to GKN's 'tone of voice' and avoid jargon in favour of 'a conversational style'.
To ensure consistency, and to present the company's values to consumers, 'expect more' was added to the homepage of GKN's website and to internal leadership development materials. CGI has also written new call centre scripts and website copy for its client, but the focus has been on internal comms for use in situations such as staff appraisals.
While workshops and other schemes have been implemented to help 'shop-floor' employees get to grips with the review, Thomas insists leadership is the driver of internal comms change. 'Once we have established a tone of voice at a senior level, we then need to ensure those senior people use it,' he says.
Bell Pottinger's Murray adds: 'The main aim of internal comms is to get corporate managers communicating and being seen to talk the company's vision and objectives. It's great comms by managers up and down the line.'
3. TACTICAL EXCELLENCE
48% of employees believe video is the fifth-greatest motivational tool, but it is only the tenth most used (CHA, A Little More Conversation 2005)
88% of communicators do not know what kinds of publications or programmes their employees read or view outside work (The IC Survey 2006)
The range of internal comms tactics is wide, and comprises posters, intranets, text messaging, employee conferences and the humble team meeting. But choice can cause confusion. 'There are so many players with different solutions that the internal comms market has fragmented,' says Ghassan.
'Making comms channels interactive is only practised by 30 per cent of communicators,' he adds.
'The case for interactivity and relating to staff is getting much stronger,' argues Stuart Maister, managing director of video comms specialist BroadView. The firm last month held a seminar specifically assembled to debate the business case for 'internal TV'. Among others it was attended by BP director-general of comms Sarah Robinson, Serco group head of internal comms Thea Healy, and Unilever internal comms manager Stephen Golding.
One case study featured Vodafone, an early adopter of internal TV. The mobile phone firm already uses it to reach 65,000 staff worldwide via its intranet. Five per cent of staff have downloaded presentations from CEO Arun Sarin. Based on this success, Vodafone last month launched a service which allows staff to access these videos directly from their mobile phones.
Award-winning video producer Barnaby Logan, executive producer at production shop New Moon, says video is 'fantastic for emotional content and at presenting stories and employees from other parts of the company'.
Logan recently helped Friends Provident launch its internal TV service. 'Friends TV' is used every six months to complement the release of preliminary financial reports to the City - it is intended to help Friends Provident staff, dispersed over several locations, better understand the implications of the reports.
Friends Provident online comms manager Neil Barnett says: 'We have over 5,000 staff across many companies - because of our growth, [Friends TV] became necessary.'
He adds that Friends Provident had become aware of the lack of face-to-face meetings with staff, and that its intranet had become counter-productive: 'Our objective was to make the intranet the number one internal comms tool, but it worked too well - it became a replacement for meetings.'
Released immediately after its financial results, Friends TV has five stories per programme, one of which will always be about 'explaining the results in real English', says Barnett. The four other stories examine events across the company. Barnett explains that the first instalment showed a manager working in the Friends Provident call centre for a day, while another 'story' detailed how an investment with the company had improved a customer's life.
'The aim is to broaden the perspective of the company,' says Barnett. 'It's about helping staff understand our vision, strategy and the market - including what our competitors do - and giving senior managers a bit more visibility. One thing we don't want to do is get nervous about the nitty-gritty. If someone says something negative, we will leave it in.'
Logan agrees that including honest, sometimes negative, content in internal communication is the only way to achieve meaningful relationships with staff and convince them that they are respected by management.
Mori and Henley management
An Ipsos Mori white paper, entitled 'Common Sense in a Changing World', was published in January. Its data, based on its client benchmarking surveys, found that nearly half of employees do not feel informed during times of change: 47 per cent felt uninformed, while 50 per cent were happy with the information they received.
Henley Management College's study into 'The Future of PR' (PRWeek, 24 Feb), based on interviews with 14 distinguished PR practitioners, found that internal comms needs further study for market growth to continue. It said staff need to be treated as 'customers'.
iC survey 2006
The poll, conducted by creative agency Karian & Box, in association with executive search and selection company VMA Group and Communicators in Business, was conducted between 10 January and 10 February. Sent to 4,370 communicators, it had 639 responses.
Six directors of comms and heads of internal comms then took part in telephone interviews to comment on the data.
* The report finds that 65 per cent of corporate communicators have some responsibility for internal communications as well as their wider external relations activities.
* The main focus of internal communicators is explaining organisational change, with more than 50 per cent saying they spend more time on this than anything else in their remit.
* While 71 per cent of communicators say that change is a big factor in their organisation, only 29 per cent believe their organisations handle change well. Just over a third of communicators measure employee understanding of strategy and goals.
* Just over 50 per cent of organisations check employee satisfaction/
engagement through a formal survey process once a year.
*Only half of communicators admit that their communication plans do not factor in wider activity from across their organisation.
The report concludes that there are 'patchy levels of knowledge among communicators in relation to staff understanding of strategy'.