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MAKE THE RIGHT NOISES

With the ever-increasing rise of digital channels and opportunities to post content, employees are being overwhelmed with information. How do you make sure your messages are heard in the workplace?

 

18th September 2019

“I consider effective internal communication to be like a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones,” says Stefano Hesse, global head of internal communications at digital business transformation company Publicis Sapient. 

“As you introduce more and more channels, there is sometimes frantic over-communication and lots of different content with no overarching, coherent story.”

It’s an enduring dilemma. Do you post everywhere and maximise the likelihood of your entire audience seeing the information – reinforcing the message, but risking bombarding people with the same content? Or do you take a targeted approach, segmenting your audience and being more selective about the channels you post on – and just hoping people will see it?


Giving employees greater choice

Digital tools are leading IC teams to post more content than ever before and enabling colleagues to collaborate and share information in online community groups. In giving employees the choice of how they wish to interact, we expect them to simultaneously log in to emails, a social network and the intranet, access shared documents, join streamed events, and pay attention during town halls and manager huddles just to stay informed. How do you produce content that cuts through?

One way is to choose different channels to those that employees spend most of the day interacting with. At Publicis Sapient, one significant change Stefano made in order to reduce excess noise was to cut emails the team was sending by 50 per cent, in favour of videos and podcasts. Stefano also aims to humanise leadership and has been using print in more “playful ways of communicating”, recently creating a set of playing cards to showcase the organisation’s core values.

“We also have a series of video episodes set in different parts of the world, looking at issues like mental health,” he says. “Good content is about people – it’s a case of highlighting great stories.”

His advice is to keep things simple, adding that auditing unapproved channels and making effective ones official can be a pragmatic and effective approach to avoiding saturation of the same message. 

“There are always issues around compliance to consider, but companies spend so much time worrying about Facebook or Slack without realising that their own databases are full of holes. I use WhatsApp with my team of 10. It means we are very responsive, but it’s not an official company tool.” 


Rediscover the psychology of comms

EY’s global assurance change leader, Jeraldine Neill, has been working in internal communications since 1998.

“When I started, we didn’t have email,” she says. “From my perspective, everyone chases the channel du jour and, in the process, we’ve lost the psychology of communication.”

Jeraldine’s advice is to build a trusted relationship with the workforce and, to this end, she says, you need a high degree of emotional intelligence to know how to really listen. “It’s not about the channel. It’s about what needs to happen. We need to look collectively at what we are doing and how it affects the recipient. Tell a story. That cuts down noise.

“Second, keep close to the frontline. If you’re going to interrupt someone from serving a client, make sure it’s worthwhile. Be thoughtful. Do they need to know, or are we being self-serving?

“Thirdly, it’s a case of air traffic control: have a business plan and overlay that with a cycle of work. Be relevant.”

Admin and project management skills must come to the fore. A publishing calendar gives you oversight of where you need to publish, what the gaps are and when you are being repetitive. It can help avoid duplication of low-priority messages and alert you to whether a key message is being published only on a channel that not everyone can access. Critically, share your calendar with external comms; find out what they are publishing – ensure your schedules align and that press releases don’t contain extra or conflicting information to what employees have been told.



Get people involved

Cal Monaghan, internal comms manager at the Health and Safety Executive, believes creating advocates internally can drastically reduce the risk that IC is seen as an unnecessary distraction. 

“It’s about building personal relationships and finding ways to mix corporate comms with those that are more colleague-led or people-focused,” he says, “It really helps to get people on side and bring their content through.”

Jeraldine likewise urges internal communicators to build a better understanding of those they are trying to communicate with. “Be close to the business rather than sitting in the internal communications ivory tower. You need to ask, who are the audience? What drives them?”

Genuine relationships make formal communications feel more relaxed and conversational, cutting out jargon that can go in one ear and quickly out the other. At HSE, it’s helped make communications user-led and more human-focused, which is speaking volumes.  “I want people actively involved, leading communications, so they feel like they’re part of it,” says Cal.

Key channels for HSE are a monthly leadership-led briefing or discussion; a weekly newsletter; an intranet news site that feeds into the newsletter; and senior leadership vlogs, which are around 90 seconds to two minutes long. Video has been used in this way for around a year; Cal admits there was little engagement with more standard blogs prior to this. 


Signpost content clearly

“Shorter formats and more choice have really helped to boost engagement,” he says. “Rather than posting everywhere, we pick and choose. If it needs everyone’s attention, we take a multichannel approach. When you have so many people out on the road, like we do, you need to signpost important content really clearly and make it easily accessible.”

There is sometimes a tendency to do too much or too little, Cal warns – adding, by way of example, that if something remains on the front page of the intranet for some time, it can become “wallpaper, which people become blind to”.

When must-see information needs to appear in multiple places, plan it as a campaign, so the news doesn’t become tired. Schedule updates and additions over a series of weeks, stagger the formats – for example, a news story at first, printed posters a few days later, followed by face-to-face briefings and an online community – and ensure you have a cohesive look and tone across everything, rather than a visual clash of styles.

If you are going to put most of your eggs in one channel, make sure people have a way of wading through a stream of content to find what is relevant. For example, smart use of tagging and metadata can help readers find stories about a project or campaign they are most interested in, or make content about their business area appear in a personalised feed when they log in.

 

Use data to drive decision-making

Cal’s team takes a test-and-learn approach to avoid communication overload. Comments from a monthly pulse survey give an indication of what’s working and channel reviews are generally done on a more informal basis. Listen to what the feedback is telling you, he says.

“We’ve found people are most receptive on a Thursday,” says Cal, “so we send our major weekly newsletter out then, usually not long after lunch. Our evaluation shows on average three-quarters of the organisation read it now.”

Use whatever analytics you have available to adapt how you use channels or even to ditch some completely. What was once a big new thing might be less effective just a couple of years later. For example, internal comms consultancy Gatehouse’s 2019 State of the Sector survey suggests internal social networks “have not become the centrepiece channels many thought they would”. Almost half of respondents (47 per cent) say they are not at all or not particularly effective, and more people think social channels should be killed off than believe they are the future. 

Experts agree that reducing the number of channels and personalising or segmenting where possible is a good thing. 


“Use channels that the audience prefers, and not those which are easiest for the IC department or the CEO.”

Internal communications consultant Terry Hart

 

Wander Bruijel, global marketing director at brand consultancy Elmwood, agrees. “Internal comms teams should think more about what audience expectations are, rather than simply broadcasting messages. The image and video-driven nature of new external channels such as Instagram point to effective ways of creating engaging content.” 

Terry believes that both inability and disinclination to listen present stumbling blocks to effective internal communication. 

“Facilitating employee communication should be the aim,” he reflects. “My advice is to build a platform for employees to really be involved. If leadership, management and employees are listening to each other, then the organisation is more agile and fleet of foot.

“Understanding the wider business, industry drivers and growth and profit strategies, rather than just turning out announcements, emails and intranet articles, is a key facet of a communications strategy that’s in sync with the wider company.” 

For businesses that are scaling fast, like Macclesfield-based Mojo Mortgages, there is a risk that internal communication can become overlooked during periods of growth and change.

Amy Lawson, chief marketing officer at the fintech start up, says Slack has been instrumental in ensuring teams across the business are connected and that they share ideas and best practice. 

“Introducing channels like Slack has helped break down communication barriers. It allows you to informally share ideas quickly and easily, whereas email can often act as a barrier. 

“It’s the way we take time to ‘huddle’ or come together every day that’s important,” she adds. “It’s embedded into our culture. Culture is more important than platform. Getting messages through is about two-way, not top-down, communication.” 


Look and plan ahead

Simon Wright, director at Gatehouse, suggests internal communicators’ failure to look far enough ahead is having a negative impact on the effect of communication.

“We’re poor at planning and obsessed by the short term,” he says. “Over half of IC professionals have no channel mapping and more than three in five lack a long-term strategy. We are reactive rather than a trusted adviser. This is partly a result of failing to win over senior leaders or demonstrate value, as well as failing to enable line managers, who represent a critical communications channel.”

With the number of channels growing every year, Simon stresses that those in the business of internal communication must find the channels people actually want to use, in order to avoid saturation. 

Employees shouldn’t have to reach for the headphones to block out noise and distraction. Internal comms should be aiming for employees to be eager to hear what internal comms has to say – and to feel a part of it.

 

Use your different channels wisely

Cheryl Field, senior digital engagement manager, says reducing comms noise at Unilever is down to always keeping the audience’s needs front of mind.

I have worked in both internal and external digital communications. The same principle applies: establish what you want your audience to know, feel and do.

Our approach is a mixed-channel strategy. We don’t expect everyone to look at everything, everywhere.

Too much noise comes down to the misuse of channels. You need to use different channels for different purposes.

We’re big on using digital data to inform our channel development. We don’t do anything without the numbers to back it up. But we also need to balance that with anecdotal, qualitative feedback, so we’ve just launched a quarterly audience survey to get our employees’ opinions on our channels.  

We found our “for action” global email channel had become a dumping ground for content. We stripped it right back. We slice and dice. We don’t just spam people, otherwise everyone disengages.

We are fortunate in that internal communication is very much on the radar. Our CEO has his own group on Yammer, which he updates himself. He has livestreamed globally and broadcast on video. I’ve never seen engagement with the CEO on such a visible scale.

We use platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams, which allow project teams to house everything in one place. Face-to-face is really important and email is still popular – it can cut through. The key is appropriate use of channels. Print still works in the right places – posters on the back of toilet doors can be brilliantly effective.

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