The methods you use to transport employees on a journey is just as important as the direction you’re heading in. Here are eight ideas for reassessing your channel mix to ensure your messages take the most effective route to their destination. 

16th March 2018

Internal communicators often develop or inherit a vast collection of channels, many of which are out of date or barely used. If employees aren’t sure where to go for information, the result is comms chaos. 

1. Build a Rolls-Royce

Before you make drastic changes to your comms mix, thoroughly audit and measure the appropriateness and value of your channels. Take into account the demographic of your organisation and the cultures and subcultures. Is it a dynamic enough workforce that people will be comfortable downloading apps and signing up for content, or are employees happy to read messages from the CEO and take home a printed magazine? What will your audience look like in the future?

A year ago, a new managing partner joined accounting firm BDO, which was the push the internal comms team needed to review its channels.

“Our firm had grown hugely and our comms needed to change to reflect that,” says director of communications Nicola Lally. “We could see new technologies that would better orchestrate central versus local messaging, but we needed someone from the top to acknowledge the importance of investing in comms.

"Our new managing partner asked us to use ‘slow thinking’ – he said it takes 13 hours to build a Toyota, but six days to build a Rolls-Royce. If you’re going to build the Rolls-Royce of comms, you need to do your research and planning.”

Nicola and the team spent six months getting to know the business and its audience, and deciding what channels “needed a sticking plaster, which needed surgery over months, and what needed a complete rehabilitation”.

Through this exercise, the team made better connections and established its authority.

“We have become content hunters rather than generators,” says Nicola. “Other people are becoming storytellers – through Yammer, for example. IC feels more consultancy-led, and leaders have recognised our importance.”


2. Always start in first gear

Once you’ve established the path to take, you’ll be eager to embed your channels as soon as possible. Technology isn’t always kind enough to wait for dilly-dalliers. Move too slowly and your inspiring new channel will be yesterday’s fancy. But don’t be too hasty. You can’t just flick a switch to activate everything.

Rachal McHale joined the NHS as a communications consultant six months before it entered a phase of huge transformational change, including job losses. The importance of executive visibility and the need to establish multiple channels was immediately clear. Rachal needed to coax these leaders out from behind their desks, step by step, to deliver monthly face-to-face briefings.

“There was push back that I had to overcome,” she says. “First, I convinced the chief executive to take part in business Q&As – and so he began to feel comfortable. That then became the channel for other directors to stand up and talk to people. It took a few sessions before we could introduce anonymous questions, and then another few before we filmed it.”

Eventually, the CEO and directors were delivering up to three sessions a day. “Things had genuinely changed,” says Rachal. “Some execs still felt uncomfortable, but I carefully paired presenters together so they could learn from each other.”


3. Travel in numbers

Your aspirations for a modern channel mix might not be shared by everyone. Internal communicators need to focus on what works for the majority of the workforce.

How you like to receive messages might seem archaic to others. Most people joining the employment ranks now will be more familiar with instant messaging, WhatsApp and social media than Lotus Notes, but if you’re over a certain age, you’ll have clocked up a lot of email mileage and will know its advantages.

Cassandra Lord, communications manager at media group Schibsted, says: “Email gets such a bad rap and some staff hate it. But it’s a necessary evil for making sure everyone gets the same message. In times of organisational change especially, you need consistency. At Schibsted, we rely on short emails, which may link to longer messages on the intranet, and we may reiterate it with a Slack message. It’s a bit like following a trail of breadcrumbs.”

Slack, too, has its detractors. “I don’t love it,” admits Cassandra. “I miss the days when everything I needed to know was in my inbox. I know someone told me this thing, but did they tell it to me on Slack or in an email?”


4. Explore the path that's right for you

Don’t be easily swayed by trends – a new idea might be just a fad. Decide if you want to be a trailblazer for something and can afford to fail, or if you want to wait for other organisations to test the water. A flash bit of kit might not even suit your audience – and they might not appreciate you paying for it.

On the flip side, don’t bury your head in the sand. Know what’s on the market – even if it is just to dismiss it from your mix options at that point in time. Keep in touch with old contacts, go to events, conferences and seminars, read up on new tools and technologies and invite ideas through your social networks.

At BDO, the IC team did a one-day review of new and existing channels to decide what could work for them. “We each picked a channel to research,” says Nicola Lally. “We spent a day discussing – almost pitching – our channels, looking at what was good about it and how all the channels interplayed.”


5. Be more mobile

If you aren’t looking at mobile comms yet, you need to catch up. Smartphones overtook laptops as UK internet users’ preferred device back in 2015. People happily eyeball their smartphones for around two hours a day, and more than 95 per cent of 16–24-year-olds own one. 

At SGN, channel surveys and focus groups revealed that the company’s internal digital channels were ineffective, with laborious technology, and staff being too time-pressed to look at the intranet. That’s when talk of an app began.

“People want things to be instantaneous,” says SGN internal communications manager Janet Lessells. “The younger guys are used to being on their phones.”

SGN’s app is low cost and high impact and can be downloaded to a work or personal phone. “It’s very visual, with news, blogs, job vacancies, safety information, maps, shopping promotions and discounts,” says Janet. “We took all our news and blogs off the intranet, because we didn’t want to duplicate work. That wasn’t a particularly popular decision at first, but we stuck our heels in. Once you’ve made the decision, stick to it as much as you can.”

Knowing when to be stubborn pays off. Within a year, SGN had around 3,900 employees – more than 93 per cent of its entire workforce – actively using SGNapp. This is considerably more than the 500 people who were using the intranet.


6. Map out your objectives

Effective channels need robust strategies behind them. Everyone should be aware of those channels’ guiding principles and what they have been set up to do. Otherwise you’ll forever be handed CEO messages and press releases and expected to “put them in the magazine”.

With a workforce of 18,000, most of whom were hard-to-reach hotel staff, Premier Inn developed an app. The specific intention of In Touch was to engage, with daily news stories ranging from fundraising efforts to celebrity hotel guests. Important information was sent by email to line managers, who verbally cascaded it to their teams, but reinforced via the app.

As In Touch picked up traction, the company operations newsletter – previously a hodgepodge of everything – became strictly operational. “You can’t blur the lines of what your channels are for,” says Cassandra Lord, who was then internal communications manager at Premier Inn.


7. Know which channels to keep in service

Within two weeks of joining Yorkshire Water, Rachal McHale closed down the printed newsletter, which had become a repository for anything and everything, from CEO updates to fundraising stories. Sometimes a publication just loses its way. But there are other channels that may also have a limited lifespan, depending on the company vision.

When setting up a channel, think about whether – and when – you are going to kill it off, advises Rachal. “You might be setting up something that fits now, but already know that in two years’ time the business culture will change and you might not have the same demographic. Your future strategy might be to target people used to collaboration and networking, rather than people with individual expertise.”


8. There’s more than one way to travel

Ensure your mix has enough elements to it so that you can choose the best channel for your campaign. But a multichannel comms approach doesn’t mean using every channel in your armoury; you only need those that are right for the message.

“We wanted a multichannel mix,” says Nicola Lally of BDO. “We did quick case studies for typical employees around our organisation, to see if we might be bombarding them with noise. That was a good process for checking our comms plan worked in reality.”

While you can’t scatter your message willy nilly and hope it gets picked up, you don’t need to be too reserved.

“If someone tells me, ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this again’, I take that as a positive,” says Nicola. “We know from our research that people of different generations engage with different channels, so it’s fine to share the same message in different ways. We know you don’t win people’s hearts by sending an email, but you don’t reach everyone with a Yammer post. You have to work hard to reach everyone. If we’re doing our job properly, employees should go to wherever they normally go to read about the business.”

Spare a thought for how you might need to deliver information in the future, but don’t be tempted to shove the latest bright new thing in your mix for the sake of it.

“As a comms professional, you have to keep up to date with what’s happening and decide whether your colleagues could embrace a new fantastic way of communicating,” says Rachal McHale. “If not, don’t use it. Go with your gut feel. Move and morph the channels you have to make them sing and work in conjunction with other channels, so that they deliver an effective communications chorus.”


The full version of this article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Voice magazine.

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