You may be asking: What business does an external supplier have curating another company’s internal communications? How can one report from the front lines of a factory, office or call centre without actually being there? I can – and have for years. It’s my business and my specialisation. Like a pigeon on the pristine glass beacon of success, I’ve been on the outside looking in. And that bird’s eye view is an invaluable position.
From my perch on the periphery of major organisations, I’ve taken time to understand who the people within the branded walls are and what they do exactly. I’ve spoken their languages, anticipated their challenges, celebrated their achievements and asked the hard questions they’re too intimidated to ask leadership.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Lesson 1: People don’t usually know what other people do all day – but they want to
One of our clever clients is obsessed with ‘the value chain’ and we were tasked with finding creative ways to communicate how every cog in the machine of the company turned. The result? What she called ‘driving efficiencies’, we called ‘everybody knowing enough about their colleagues’ jobs in order not to duplicate work’. This strategic internal communication came to employees in the form of infographics, videos and team profiles that essentially explained why everyone was worth their salt – and salary.
Lesson 2: People like people and trust what they say more than faceless messages
Internal comms has, at last, cottoned on to advertising’s artful way of personalising messages. If you want to tell employees something about IT security, get the head of IT (or anyone in IT) to tell them. It’s very simple. Employee-as-expert features give people authority. And people tend to listen to authority. The problem is a speech on IT security is likely to be a snooze fest of technical jargon. But what if your head of IT is also an avid baker of cakes? Everyone loves cake. And so employees will eat up IT security messages sliced into the story of how their colleague bakes a mean cheesecake every Sunday. Why? Because there may be leftovers on Monday and you want to get to know that guy.
Lesson 3: Employees want to be engaged but don’t know how
Engagement is an internal comms buzzword we let slip a while back and employees can’t unhear it. (Partly because it comes up a lot.) They know it’s what their C-suite colleagues expect and, unless completely disillusioned with the organisation, they aim to please. So be clear about what surveys they need to take part in or campaigns they need to support. Make it easy. Give them a deadline. And a few reminders for good measure.
Lesson 4: Company history can help shape the future in the minds of its employees
Where we’re going has much to do with where we’ve been. But not all employees have been around long enough to remember how it all started. The life cycle of a company is a well-documented phenomenon and the four phases – startup, growth, maturity and rebirth (or decline) – are worth acknowledging in internal comms. Coupling current vision and mission statements with subtle references to past successes can make employees feel part of the rebirth and actively avoid the alternative.
Lesson 5: We don’t save lives, we improve them
There is no such thing as an internal comms emergency. A solid strategy anticipates crises and a transparent company culture should weather the storm. An employee’s behaviour is a reflection of the brand. Identify possible negative behaviours such as the disclosure of sensitive company information online or publicly questioning a product’s validity. Then give employees the practical tools, down to exact phrases, to deal with sticky situations. But remember that preaching is for Sundays and not for 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. A conversational tone to suit the adults you’re speaking to works best. There are definitely no-go topics of conversation in internal comms – religion, politics, crime, sex and so on – but they can, in fact, be named when relevant. Sensitive, grownup comms should come from the company first – beating any misguided employee behaviour to it.
Lesson 6: Change is as good as a holiday you don’t have to take annual leave for
Any change, from a desk move to a new password protocol, is disruptive for employees who don’t see it coming. But with fair warning and a clear communication explaining why, change can be refreshing – exciting even. Your internal comms strategy cannot exist in a vacuum. It must take everything from roadworks around the building to canteen menu changes into account. Employees should be informed of every eventuality that might eff up their day or make it. HR, Finance, Marketing and every department will have vastly different approaches to communication, so the ideal is to have everything filtered through a switched-on internal comms team. This is the Holy Grail and takes a lifetime to get right. Start with the obvious. Internal comms can work with HR when it comes to onboarding new employees, for example. Or with finance around communicating company benefits and salary increases. Or with marketing that sponsors prizes for competitions exclusive to employees.
As much as I try to take all the lessons I’ve learnt over the years and find a formula for internal comms, we’re dealing with humans here and human behaviour is an unpredictable science. Just when you think you’ve got it all covered, a workplace post hashtagged #cuddlingcolleagues pops up. Only Freud could’ve seen that one coming.
For more insight into the State of Internal Communications in South Africa, download New Media’s first-of-its-kind report investigating how South African employees experience communication in the workplace.
With more than six years of internal comms experience, Andrea Melidonis has become a specialist in the field of creating strategic content that adds value to and unites some of Africa’s largest corporate audiences. A former New Media editor, she currently works closely with the New Media internal communications team on internal comms products in her capacity as content producer and consultant.
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