IoIC has been keeping up with the latest trends ever since its birth on 12 March 1949. But how has internal comms shapeshifted in the past 70 years? In the first part of a three-part series, we look at how internal comms has evolved from house journals and pious lectures from leaders to effective channels that give employees a much-needed voice in their organisations.

11th March 2019

206 Marylebone Road, London. Currently being refurbished into dozens of flats, it was for 80 years the UK headquarters of the National Cash Register Company.

For all its achievements in the manufacturing of shop tills, arguably the biggest moment in the building’s history came on 12 March 1949, when it hosted the inception of the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE). The forerunner of Institute of Internal Communication, BAIE was set up to improve the standards of the house journal, more or less the only vehicle of internal comms at that time, and to better engage, inform and connect employees.

In the 70 years since, the house journal has evolved and multiplied into other channels, but, more sharply, shifts in society, culture and behaviour forced businesses and BAIE members to review and adapt how they talked to – and with – their workforces. Employees’ expectations have changed; the strategic, business-critical information once restricted to the boardroom have became need-to-know information for all staff. 

While this was initially an unsettling transformation for many CEOs, most – but not all – would come to appreciate the link between an open, honest internal culture and productivity, engagement, loyalty and reputation.

As in-house editors added strategic strings to their bow, and email and the intranet gave rise to new and exciting – and faster – ways to reach people, BAIE had to move with the times. In the mid-’90s, a new name, Communicators in Business (CiB), better summarised the broader role of members. Another 15 years later, the change to IoIC reflected the unique set of skills needed to communicate with – and, more than ever, listen to – employees.

IC at the heart of business

Few people can claim to have seen internal comms unfold over seven decades, but IoIC’s oldest member, Norman Woodhouse, comes close, having started his career in 1961.

While corporate publication editors of the swinging sixties required different skills to the modern-day IC practitioner, they were still “the heart of the comms network”, says Norman, who was BAIE chairman in 1971-72. 

“Whatever we communicated had to be credible,” he says. “It had to cover what was happening in the business – the challenges and achievements – and the whole scenario of working life.”

The house journal’s purpose was, Norman adds, to encourage business efficiency and good employee relations – goals that apply today across any channel.

“Whatever media you’re using, it must start with management clearly explaining the right policies for success through two-way communication. In 1961, many leaders were preaching. That wasn’t the best way to help mine workers or people on a motor industry shop floor get to grips with a topic. It was a bit pious.”

Enlightened leaders make effective comms

Kathie Jones, former BAIE chairman and CiB/IoIC chief executive, says the need for effective communication between bosses and the workforce, especially blue collar employees, had been a long-running theme since the second world war. “There was a paternalistic attitude. The chairman’s wife presented the most beautiful baby competition winner and that’s the kind of thing that went in the newspaper.” 

Norman launched the coal industry’s internal monthly title, sent to half a million employees. Billed as a family newspaper, Coal News covered miners’ work and the industry, as well as employees’ outside interests, “from sport to brass bands and vegetable growing”. It won multiple awards, and Norman puts its success down to an enlightened National Coal Board chairman. 

“Alf Robens was a committed communicator,” says Norman. “He agreed Coal News wasn’t to be a boss’s newspaper – it had to be the miners’ newspaper.

“The industry was constantly changing and he thought it was his job to communicate where the industry was heading. So Coal News had the same schedule as a daily newspaper. We had journalists in every coal field who would phone in their stories, and sub editors who prepared the paper. I was thankful to have the opportunity and resources to speed up the change from bosses’ propaganda sheets to meaningful two-way publications.”


Turning up employee voice

In-house teams had editorial pedigrees, but it wasn’t long before a gap in the external consultancy market was plugged. In 1964, Anthony Buckley left his job in newspaper publishing to set up the UK’s first agency dedicated to producing internal newspapers and magazines – AB was born. 

It’s still operating today, with managing director Katie Macaulay at the helm. “Back then, we were staffed with chain-smoking, ex-Fleet Street journalists and a separate team of typesetters,” she says. “Although much has changed for agencies in 55 years, an essential element of the job – giving a voice to those working on the frontline – has not.” 

By the 1970s, employee voice was getting louder, and the interest in babies, brass bands and vegetables was fading. 

“Workforces were starting to ask questions about what was going on within the company – and they expected answers,” says Kathie. “They wanted an honest view of where the company was going and how much work was on the books. In industries like construction or aircraft manufacturing, staff wanted guarantees for the next five years’ work. They didn’t want to hear about redundancies on the 6 o’clock news on TV.”

Evolving comms channels

As attitudes to communications matured, the channels got slicker. 

“We started off with black and white A4 newsletters,” says Kathie. “If you were really daring, you printed double-sided.”

By 1973, publications had gone tabloid, appealing to blue collar workers who read The Mirror and The Sun. Internal publications continued to follow consumer techniques: first, more colour; then magazine formats. Video became part of the mix.

Kathie recalls leading “one of my company’s first computer initiatives” in the 1980s. “We had a senior director who cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End for NSPCC and we wanted to highlight his progress,” she explains. “The idea was to put a map of the UK on everyone’s monitor and update how far he had reached. Every morning, we would phone him to get his comments on the previous day’s efforts. Today this doesn’t sound very taxing, but back then I had to first physically cut out a map of England and Scotland, Sellotape it to my screen and use that as a guide to create the outline of his route using ‘x’s in a document.”

Listening to readers

While many communicators cut their editorial teeth in-house, the professional standards and growing reputation of house journals started attracting journalists from the publications they were trying to emulate.

Alan Peaford joined BP in 1980 from The Sunday Times, to take charge of communicating with shipping colleagues through the staff newspaper.

He expected BP’s comms process to be well oiled. “It was actually a little more chaotic than I expected, but BP was fantastic. They took a hardened journalist and said I needed to understand business if that was going to be my job. I learned so much. I’d worked in the Middle East, I understood international business, but internally you look at things with a different eye.” 

Alan came up with a novel idea to get shipping employees on board with the publication. 

“I thought it would be a good idea to edit the paper from a different ship each issue. While I was there, I talked to the crew about what was in the paper. They’d come to my cabin or I’d go to the officers’ mess and they’d chip in to stories and choose the cover. When we did research, we found that the seafarers felt more empowered and engaged with what the company was doing than employees in other parts of the business.”

That personal touch benefits both parties. “When I worked for a construction company,” says Kathie, “if I just rang up the building sites, I wouldn’t always get the information I needed. People would tell me the facts about the project, how long it would last, who was on the team. So I always tried to make early-morning visits to sites, and over a bacon sarnie they’d tell me the really interesting stuff face-to-face.”


Internal comms as a critical aid to engagement

It wasn’t all empowerment and friendly relations. In 1984, a union strike by mineworkers was, says Norman, “the most traumatic industrial dispute of the times” – and the industry newspaper was a critical aid to both sides.

“Day after day, it was the dominating topic,” remembers Norman, who was then the National Coal Board’s deputy director of public relations. “Management had a responsibility to communicate factual information with the workforce. Coal News spelled out the clear proposals for the year ahead. The reminder was, let’s work together for a better future.”

Kathie recalls the National Coal Board being one of the first organisations to demonstrate how increased and practical interaction across all levels of the workforce can have a positive impact on culture.

“During the strike, the chairman [Alf Robens] was advised to put the trade union’s point of view in the newspaper,” she says. “He gave the union a page of Coal News to publish whatever they wanted. It didn’t change the result of the strike, but it created a better feeling.”

The strike gave rise to employee voice and something else: other channels.

“Collier managers were key in communication during the strike. They sent letters to miners’ homes,” recalls Norman. “We also had a phone-in news service, and our own TV news team produced films for monitors around collieries. The vast majority of miners welcomed what we were doing around communication. The media often picked up information from Coal News.”

Not every employer shares Alf Robens’ approach to talking to staff. Even as a publications director, Kathie couldn’t persuade her chairman to have a letters page or any response mechanism for complaints. “He thought the paper was a company vehicle. He didn’t want anyone asking, why doesn’t the company do X, Y or Z?”

IoIC memories

Communicators learn from other people’s experiences. In the late 1970s, we held BAIE seminars to put across the message of effective IC. I remember one trade union president saying managers believe their role is to bluster around making decisions, rather than dealing with the real job of communication. It’s always been important to share and learn – and long may IoIC encourage that with vigour.”
Norman Woodhouse, IoIC member and former BAIE chairman

BAIE was an important part of my life. Networking and hearing best practice from other companies was absolutely invaluable and still is. I’d like to see IoIC push further – when corporate incidents are in the spotlight, we should be getting a seat on breakfast TV and talking about how communication is the number one thing organisations should be doing.”

Alan Peaford, managing director, Aercomm, and former CiB president

Part two in this feature looks at the move away from top-down messaging, increased awareness that people are a company's most valuable asset, and bringing clarity to employees about the business aims; part three looks at how businesses embedded a culture of trust and the challenges brought to IC of the digital age.


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