Engagement
WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

A CULTURAL TRANSITION: HOW BUSINESSES EMBRACED TWO-WAY DIALOGUE

In the second part of our feature celebrating 70 years of IoIC and looking at what matters to people in the workplace, we look at how leaders realised that people were their greatest asset and the value of empowering their workforce.

15th March 2019

In the 1980s, political unrest, economic challenges and shifting societal values swept businesses and agencies into a new wave of corporate communication that was more than just telling people news.

The more inspiring business leaders were cultivating a spirit that engaged people to unleash their imagination and unlock potential.

When Bill Quirke, now managing director of consultancy Synopsis, joined PR firm Burson-Marsteller, he was appointed the agency expert in this new crusade.

“Making people feel great to belong goes hand in hand with employee communications,” says Bill. “And that’s great in stable industries, within a command and control hierarchical pyramid. But you had markets that weren’t safe and competition from other industries, never mind your own.

In the frontline, employees understood the market better than the boardroom. Internal comms was formalised and top down then, and that’s where the grapevine came in.”


A disconnect between ambition and IC channels

Organisations strived for more thoughtful comms – but the pieces weren’t fitting together. 

“We had a brief from one company to be entrepreneurial and creative, but its main channel was a tannoy,” says Bill.

“We worked with Rover, and one of its newsletters was written for graduate-level readers, but the functional reading age in the factory was seven. There was a disconnect between ambitions and channels.”

Suzanne Peck, managing director of Sequel and IoIC president, discovered internal comms when she joined Marks & Spencer’s press office more than 30 years ago, working with a team of journalists to produce the staff newspaper.

“It was called ‘staff information’,” she says. “It was pretty sanitised, happy information about new products and stores, and people news. There was little about company strategy or objectives.

The biggest change for me has been seeing the evolution from top-down company messaging to useful, business-oriented communication that engages people and helps them do their best at work.”

 

Caring more about employees

In the early 1990s, many businesses still saw their people as dispensable. Russell Grossman was a senior comms executive for the London Docklands Development Corporation project and was briefed to persuade staff to move to East London. 

“I was struck that a lot of companies, especially in industries like manufacturing, regarded people like the desks and furniture,” he reflects. “If those employees moved to Docklands, fine. If they didn’t, they’d get someone else. 

“Then there was the 1992 recession, which was a wake-up call that constant growth in business isn’t guaranteed. Society started shifting in how it cares about people.” 

Businesses began recognising that employees, as well as machines, could deliver. IC’s role broadened to explain to staff the value they bring and what they would get in return. 

“Internal comms isn’t there to make staff happy,” says Russell, now director of communications at Office of Rail and Road and head of profession for internal communications across government. “It’s there to provide maximum productivity to the business – and that doesn’t come from simply saying, ‘Please do this’.

People expected to know why they needed to do something so they could make rational decisions.” 


A valuable asset: your people

Nita Clarke, co-chair at Employee Engagement Task Force, cites pioneers like former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher. 

“He put employees first. Leaders began to understand it’s people you need to focus on. They are not just your key asset, but your only asset. You may have capital assets, but they’re wasted if the people who work for you don’t care about the business. 

“’Productivity’ isn’t exactly a people word, but it was clear that people weren’t being pushed to their full potential and they were dissatisfied. There was a lack of understanding among employees around the purpose of the work they were doing.” 

A review of employee engagement was needed to shed light on the issue. Having previously worked for the Labour party as Tony Blair’s assistant political secretary, Nita joined up with David Macleod, co-chair of Engage for Success, to write a report for government: Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement.

Nita says that before she and David wrote the report in 2009, “employee engagement was seen as soft and fluffy. We’ve moved on. Now many boards want to know about their people issues.”


Starting up a conversation

Finding out what employees really thought involved a cultural transition that wasn’t easy for dyed-in-the-wool top-down leaders.

“It requires a culture of respect and empowerment,” says Nita. “You get engagement with empowerment and understanding. It involves leading and managing in a different way, and moving away from a command-and-control operation. It’s hard to go from trusting your hierarchy to trusting your people.”

The desire for more open, two-way communication had been bubbling under for some time and eventually leaders had no choice but to embrace it.

“People had always wanted to say what they thought,” says Kathie Jones, former BAIE chairman and CiB/IoIC chief executive, “but didn’t want to lose their jobs or be seen as a troublemaker or whistleblower.

Management realised that if they didn’t start talking to people in a straight way, they would get their information from other sources – the press, TV and, later, social media – and might get the wrong information. Or they might get the right information that management didn’t want them to know.”

 

Keeping employees and employers happy

Leaders started realising communication wasn’t just about keeping employees happy and telling them what they wanted to know, but about turning strategy into productive, turnover-increasing action – keeping employers happy. 

Bill Quirke started telling clients not to try and achieve employee satisfaction with comms.

“We said focus your people on the task. Ask not what you can do for your employees, rather what they can do for you. Bend them to your will.

“As communicators, we’re interested in tech and channels and vehicles. We’re too nice. We’re people-pleasers. We don’t always want to challenge in case someone doesn’t like what we say. We tend not to ask about the destination.

If communication is a means to an end, start at the end. Leaders complain – they want scrap down or product development increased. So ask them what’s getting in the way. What do they need people to do?”

The biggest challenge, says Bill, is helping leaders crystallise their thinking and articulate what they want to achieve. This is where internal communicators make their mark – or “commit huge crimes against comms”.

“Leaders are used to thinking in abstract rhetoric. If a leader wants customer service employees to answer queries more quickly, communicators say, ‘You want them to be more proactive at the telephonic interface’, and they think that’s posher, so we talk about ‘shifting the paradigm’ and they nod. You put it on a laminate card and send it out, employees mock the bullshit and use the card to wipe frost off their windscreen.

“If you tell employees instead, I want you to pick up the phone within four rings, people will say, great, we can do that. They are motivated by clarity.”

 

The need for openness and courage

Leaders continued to fear that surveys and open conversations would expose weaknesses and damage their reputation internally and externally.

Alan Peaford, managing director, Aercomm, and former CiB president, says: “The CEO of one company I worked for said to me, ‘We know we’re shit, but do you have to tell everyone?’ Leaders were worried about the competition finding out, but we wanted to terrify the competitors by getting the entire workforce on board with what we were doing. 

“If a company is doing a bad job, people will find out. Internal communication has got to be honest and work that back up the line, demanding the leadership be frank in what they say. It took courageous leaders in organisations to buy in to that.”


Increased visibility of leaders

Alan used to exhort about the value of leaders and communicators spending any spare moment out among employees to find out how they were doing.

“When I worked at BP in the 1980s, I saw that leaders who got out there made a big difference. It was appreciated. Later, when I worked at Trident Communications with our client, the Department of Health, we got Tony Blair to talk to comms civil servants. Whatever you think of him, he was a phenomenal communicator. The people producing the department newsletter felt valued because he took time out. There’s nothing more important than that.”

Leaders stepping out from behind the closed doors of their offices helped employees put the pieces of the corporate vision together, and when the human barriers came down, people had a greater emotional connection with their workplaces.

AB’s managing director, Katie Macaulay, remembers a client who asked two directors to share their personal struggles with mental illness in the employee magazine.

“Their stories were extremely candid and moving. The publication almost didn’t go to print. Senior stakeholders were nervous. Would such openness backfire? Thankfully, the edition did go to print and the response from the workforce was overwhelmingly positive. Years later, employees still talk about that feature. The client went on to do similar in-depth interviews on important, rarely discussed topics, like bereavement. Readers started giving the magazine to clients saying it was the best way of getting to know the ‘real’ firm.”


IoIC memories

IoIC plays a vital role in building the credibility of our profession. I’ve been to almost every IoIC conference for the last 20 years and can honestly say that at every event there’s been a lightbulb moment – I’ve rushed back to the office with a new idea. Meeting others in IC is always a reminder of how generous, sincere and caring we are as a community.”
Katie Macaulay, managing director, AB

IoIC provides an important hook for people in internal comms, and has championed its rising significance. In the future, I think it will have an important role to play in encouraging people in other comms disciplines to move to internal communication and enhance the diversity of experience across the profession.”
Russell Grossman, head of profession for internal communciations across government


Read part one of this feature, which looks at the birth of IoIC and how house journals evolved from top-down managemenet mouthpieces in the 1940s to key internal engagement tools; part three looks at how businesses embedded a culture of trust and the needs of a digital-savvy workforce.

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