Delivering the goods

A major overhaul of the Post Office’s corporate structure required a radical review of its communications.

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

with it’.’

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,

rather well.

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.’

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