A major overhaul of the Post Office’s corporate structure required a
radical review of its communications.
When the Post Office management lobbied MPs and journalists with its
case for greater commercial freedom last year, one of the tools it used
was a booklet called The Need for Change. It set out the Post Office’s
response to the Government’s Green Paper on the future of the PO and
made clear its support for the Government’s preferred option: to sell
51 per cent of Royal Mail and Parcelforce and to keep Post Office
Counters in the public sector.
Praised even by the Financial Times for its lobbying efforts, the Post
Office management may have succeeded in setting out its reasons for the
need for change, but did not get it.
The Government’s privatisation plan was defeated and the Post Office had
to make do with an announcement in May from the then Trade and Industry
Secretary Michael Heseltine promising to limit the proportion of profits
the PO has to pay to the Treasury to 50 per cent, while also allowing it
some new commercial freedoms such as partnerships with the private
At the party conferences this month, those manning the stands and
sweltering in the heat of the exhibition halls in Brighton and Blackpool
were giving out a new booklet: Looking to the Future. It could have
been called ‘We didn’t get what we wanted from the Government and now
we’re going to get on with it on our own...’
Hardly sounds like a best seller, but it is, nonetheless, an accurate
representation of where the Post Office management finds itself now.
Given that the Labour Party is committed to keeping Postie public, the
Post Office management cannot leave the organisation’s future in the
hands of politicians.
Neither is standing still an option; the explosion of new ways to
communicate means that, while mail volumes are on the increase, the Post
Office’s overall share of the communications market is in decline.
Television shopping, for instance, poses a potential threat to mail-
order business. And, says the PO, what’s to stop other European postal
businesses, not constrained by being in the public sector, from coming
over here and getting in on the UK act?
What then is to be done? Two things: first, to keep up the pressure for
more commercial freedom of the public sector kind. Secondly, to ensure
that the existing business is structured and run in a way that allows it
to exploit the limited commercial freedom it does have.
The first evidence to the outside world that the Post Office is, indeed,
‘getting on with it’ comes in the form of a radical reorganisation of
the corporate centre, which sees all but 100 staff out of a total of
3,000 devolved to the three businesses: Royal Mail, Post Office
Counters and Parcelforce.
The goal is a slimmed down centre focused on business strategy - and
the search for the answer to the inevitable ‘what next?’ - and a number
of ‘operating companies’ which are sufficiently autonomous to get on
with doing the business.
As one insider said: ‘We were so centralised before; managers were
forever seeking the necessary approval before they could act. Now,
instead of pulling everything up to the centre, we’re saying ‘you get on
And in the middle of all this centralised chaos, on the fifth floor of
the Post Office’s headquarters in London’s Old Street, sat a department
called public relations. Its main pre-occupation was providing a round
the clock service to the press, something it did and continues to do,
In MORI’s latest survey which asked journalists to rank 20 top UK bus-
inesses on the quality of their press relations, the Post Office came
out top. Two years ago, the same department came second in the survey
and last year it led the field.
But for a business that relies so heavily on its enormous 190,000
workforce, being good at press relations was simply not enough.
Increasingly, as the future of the Post Office was readily reported in
the pages of the national press - fuelled by an aggressive and
ultimately successful anti-privatisation campaign waged by the postal
workers union, the CWU - staff were reading about their future in the
pages of the papers first, rather than hearing it from management.
Alan Williams joined the Post Office as controller of public affairs in
1986. Under the new order he has been promoted to the dizzy heights of
director of communications and corporate relations. He is candid about
the need for radical change to Post Office communications. ‘It was
around two or three years ago that we really started behaving like a
commercial organisation. Our lobbying for greater freedom was probably
the first outward show of that inward change,’ he says.
‘We were ratcheting up the Post Office but, realised that across the
piece our communications were not very good. Internal desperately lagged
behind external; while we could supply copy electronically to
newspapers, we could not do the same for staff.
‘We were effectively telling our competitors what we were up to before
we told our own people.’
With internal communications left to the individual businesses and no
group-wide policy, things, not surprisingly, were pretty hit and miss.
In April, a Post Office-wide review of communications was ordered. Not
least, it revealed overlap in the use of outside suppliers - 140 to be
precise, from PR agencies to one-man band designers and photographers.
In part, this has been addressed by the creation of what has become
dubbed the ‘agency box’. A resource of 75 staff, previously spread
around the businesses and now brought together to ‘sell’ all sorts of
communications support services, like publishing, photography and
design, to other parts of the organisation.
But the driving force behind the recent changes is staff communication.
For the first time internal and external communications strategy emanate
from the new, slimmed down centre.
In his new role, Williams is part of a five man group executive -
equivalent to a directors’ board - reporting to chief executive Bill
Cockburn and sitting alongside those responsible for finance, personnel
and business strategy.
From him will come external and internal communications strategy, to be
applied across the business.
Under the new structure, he will have three direct reports: national
newsroom manager, Nick Lillitos; a head of communications and employee
relations policy; and a head of corporate relations. The two latter
jobs are new - although elements of the corporate relations job cover
some aspects of Williams’ old post - and have yet to be advertised.
The aim is to have the jobs filled by the end of the year, but creating
fast lines of communication with 190,000 staff, when a sizeable
proportion of them are spread around 20,000 Post Office Counter outlets,
is hardly a weekend’s work. Everything from electronic to satellite
media will be considered.
And there is more work to be done on the use of outside suppliers. ‘Over
time we’ll look to see whether there is overlap,’ says Williams.
‘I think there is, but we don’t want to be dogged with constantly having
to put people through learning curves; we’ll aim for fewer, but longer
relationships.’ He does not rule out the agency roster route.
So far, all that is in place is the will to change and the raw structure
by which to make it happen. While 2,900 staff have been devolved down
to the businesses, communications policy has been centralised and will
sit at the heart of business decisions. Williams says the fact that a
quarter of the 100 staff, who now make up group centre, are
communications people reflects the priority it has been given.
‘The businesses are slightly surprised that this is a centralisation;
it’s not, it’s to ensure we have a group-wide policy on things, but
leave implementation to them.’
While those affected by the changes get to grips with just what it all
means for them, there is clearly a lot of work to be done. Williams
anticipates that the Post Office will ‘change more in the next five
years than it has since Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp in
‘Time is not on our side. The pace of change in the communications
market is phenomenal. If we’re perceived by the Government as the fuddy-
duddy old Post Office, the likes of DHL and others will get there
first,’ he says.
‘Until now our communications have been traditional, reactive and
probably little different from those of many other organisations. But we
need to make a quantum leap; if we’re going to project ourselves as a
world class business, we had better have world class communications.’