Internal communications – art or science?

Some posts I’ve been reading in recent days have got me thinking about an age-old question for internal communicators – is what we do art or science?

At the risk of getting splinters in an uncomfortable place, I’m going to say both – but not necessarily in equal measure.

The ‘science’ is important. I strongly believe that what we do has to be grounded in various degrees of process and theory. The models vary, but it’s vital to understand what your organisation is trying to achieve and how internal communications can support that. Who needs to know what, when and how, with a clear sense of why that’s important and the desired outcomes you’re looking for.

Measurement continues to be an essential element of the science side of our world. It’s gained weight with the wealth of metrics relating to digital data and that’s a good thing. But in all truth, any and all measurement is good and this is where theory and established practice helps, be it a particular engagement model, a sound way to structure a survey, or simply taking time to visit and talk to people in a factory, office, call centre or out in the field. You can’t beat front-line feedback.

Best of all, measurement is often how you can influence business leaders, many of whom think in numbers – be that financials, products sold and produced, or customer service levels. Connecting what you do to their metrics, and showing them the difference you make in language they understand, is critical for the credibility of communicators.

So what about the ‘art’ side of our profession? Ignore it at your peril. If your strategies and plans stay in your head or on a page, or have no life or energy, you’re not going to move off first base. I passionately believe that internal communications makes a real difference, and is at its best, when it creates an emotional connection with people.

Recently, I was leading a training session for our commercial teams and it closed with a video that my team had produced to summarise the course content. It made one participant cry and five or six more applauded when it ended. That meant more than the comments and scores on the feedback forms at the end of the course.

Creativity is key – be that ideas, campaigns, words or pictures. The art of internal communications is about making what you want or need to achieve compelling and engaging for the people you need to reach. With that, your theory becomes practice and your measurement will have meaning. The art brings the science to life. Without it, internal communications is, well, lifeless. There, I’ve jumped off the fence…

In truth, the best internal communications leaders, teams and people appreciate why the art and the science are important – and have the skills to deliver both for their organisations. That’s what makes our profession attractive, interesting and effective.

So are you more artist or scientist? Let me know what you think…

Is your employee content fit for a king?

I’m at the annual European Communication Summit in Brussels – my second visit and a conference worth attending if you can. Speakers and delegates are from across the continent, giving a fresh perspective if you have a pan-European role like me, and the event covers the full range of corporate communications – meaning there’s always something new to learn from other disciplines.

A big attraction this year is the focus on digital – and day one didn’t disappoint. A cracking keynote from Jimmy Maymann, CEO of The Huffington Post; smart social media insights from Lego; and, closer to home, how The Coca-Cola Company has brought Coca-Cola Journey, its ground-breaking media platform, to Germany.

What’s clear is that content is king and conversations are fast becoming the heir to the throne – driven by technology, informed by data and powered by mobile. But in this digital realm, does internal communications content treat employees like princes or paupers?

I tweeted (with some reaction) that my biggest learning from the first day was that we must deliver employee content to the same standards that they’d expect to receive as consumers. We’ve been talking digital here but that goes for employee magazines as much as e-zines or intranets. Our job is to bring alive the vision, strategies and goals of our organisations for employees through great stories, slick writing and creative thinking coupled with meaningful dialogue – first so they actually notice; then so they engage with it; and then so they care.

Before long, organisations that don’t appreciate the reality of the digital world their people live in are likely to get left behind. Rely on the cascade and ignore the conversations at your peril. And if you think this is solely the preserve of the tech companies or the big-budget super-brands, think again. I heard at least two examples here of manufacturing and financial organisations who are embracing this approach.

Why? Because increasingly, employees are the barometer of how trustworthy your organisation is. They’re now a more credible source of information than the CEO. Nurture and cultivate them and they’ll be your best ambassadors, telling your company’s story as well as driving engagement, reputation and trust.

Consumerising your employee content – whether that’s a simpler tone of voice, a shorter, sharper word count or tackling some challenging subjects in a different way – means taking a few risks. You’ll have some great ideas. Some will be too expensive, some will take off and some will be duds – but it’s OK to fail fast. One speaker here said rightly that speed now trumps perfection.

You’ll also have a few sceptical leaders to convince that it’s the right thing to do, but most are alive to the fact that corporate reputations grow through transparency and authenticity. Who better to build that than your employees, supported by great content that’s created and curated by you?

The power of plaudits

The Coca-Cola Enterprises team were out in force last night at the CIPR Inside Story Awards, and we were thrilled to go home with a win and a few highly commended gongs to our name.

It was a wonderful occasion – hats off to the CIPR organisers for putting on a night to remember. As someone who turns 40 today, there are few better places to spend the last day of your 30s than at the top of the Gherkin, with London twinkling below and good company and conversation all around.

It’s great that we now have several high-calibre awards dedicated to internal communications. You cannot underestimate the power of recognition for your efforts by your peers. All of us work hard and we’re often our most vocal critic. We want to do better. We know we can do better.

But sometimes, in the break-neck world we work in, it’s good to pause and take stock of the work we do and what others think of it. Award nights give us that chance. Internal communications often works in the wings but deserves its moment on centre stage. Grab it when it comes along.

So congratulations to everyone whose name was up in lights at the Gherkin last night, or on previous awards occasions. You rock. Be proud.

“Make me care” – the start of storytelling

Last Friday our team spent valuable time out of the office, away from the day-to-day, to talk about storytelling.

I’ll freely admit that come the end of most weeks, I feel knackered more than anything else. But on Friday I felt inspired – to see what we’d planned for a few weeks come to life, and the appetite our people have for using storytelling more in our communications, internal and external.

We talked a lot about the principles of storytelling – and you can read chapter and verse about them elsewhere. The line that will stay with me the longest from our work on Friday is this: “Make me care.” It’s from Andrew Stanton’s excellent TED talk on storytelling – and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you take 20 minutes of your time, because it’s worth every second. (But maybe not if you’re Scottish and your name’s McGregor…)

How much do your employees care about what they read or watch at work? Internal communications has to fight tooth and nail for their attention – so when you catch it, are you doing enough to keep it? I’ve long believed that the internal materials we produce compete most with what people read or watch in the outside world. So what can we learn from the papers, books and magazines on the news stand, the films we watch or the writing on the web? What is it that they do well, better or best?

I believe good storytelling is part of the answer. And there are opportunities in every organisation to find good stories. Inspirational leaders, great managers, passionate people on the front line, things that go right, things that go wrong. The challenge for communicators is to find the best way and moment to tell them. And in our organisation, there’s no doubt we can do more of it.

The other thing that will stay with me from Friday’s session is this: it isn’t easy. In a lot of cases, it requires courage and a cultural shift for some people to open up in the way you want. It’s one thing to say it’s time to take a different approach but another to actually do it. But when trust in organisations, industries and leaders is under more scrutiny, surely now’s the time to act.

We’ve set ourselves a few simple goals. We’re going to keep sharing great examples of storytelling as inspiration. We started our away day with these and it really set the tone. And we’re going to start, without fanfare, applying what we learned to what we can control – like using less jargon and reviewing our work against some simple guidelines that we’ll build from our discussion. It’s important to turn words into deeds.

So lots more to do, but the best thing is that we’re under way – and no-one needs to make our team care. They do. The prologue’s written and chapter one’s about to begin.

Digital communications – some secret ingredients

I was chatting to some fellow internal communicators recently about our digital work at Coca-Cola Enterprises, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realised what a frantic – and fantastic – few years it’s been.

In that time we’ve launched an internal social network now used by 70 per cent of our employees, re-launched our intranet (front end once, back end twice), introduced a mobile version of it and revamped our digital signage system. We’ve won a few awards along the way, learned from other organisations who’ve been interested in what we’ve done and shared our story at conferences and seminars across Europe.

The journey never ends – we have more ambitious plans for the year ahead – but it feels like the right time to reflect on how we’ve achieved what’s happened so far. And believe it or not, it’s not down to bundles of budget. So here are some of our secret ingredients…

Have a clear purpose and goals
Almost everything we’ve done is with the main aim of improving employee productivity – which supports business goals about efficiency and effectiveness. We’ve set out to make things easier, faster and better for people to read, find or do. Everything we’ve delivered gets marked against that mantra. Better communications is a healthy by-product, but it wasn’t what we’d chiefly set out to achieve. As with all good strategies and plans, know what it is you need to achieve – and stick to it.

Governance is golden
Building on the earlier point, you can have the best-looking intranet in the world but it’s not much use if it’s not doing what your organisation wants. So who’s holding the experts and enthusiasts to account? Each quarter, commercial and operational leaders meet with the communications, IT and HR teams who manage our digital tools and channels. They act as challenger and champion, ensuring there’s a common understanding around the table of what’s needed and what’s being delivered, and then sharing that story back in the business. Without them, we wouldn’t have made so much progress – not least because this governance group has C-suite sponsors. Three of our CEO’s team, including our CIO, attend almost every meeting and the top man himself joins at least once a year. If you have leaders who you know will recognise the value that digital can add to your organisation, get them together to support and drive your agenda.

Listen to your employees
It’s a no-brainer, right? You’re clear on your goals, you know what your organisation needs, you have the support of its leaders – but what about the people on the receiving end? Ask, listen, respond, repeat. Survey, quick poll, show of hands, focus group – it all counts. Clock up the road, rail and air miles to go and hear what they have to say, and feed it into your decision-making. What’s slowing their job down? What’s stopping them from spending more time with customers, or going home on time? How can digital communications make that better? It’s worth the effort, because I guarantee you’ll be enlightened every time, you’ll be even clearer on your purpose – and you’ll be appreciated for taking the time to listen.

Have your eyes on the horizon
Technology moves fast – so do you know enough about what’s ahead to anticipate how it may help or hinder your organisation? One of things I like most about digital communications is the pace of change. But that means you need to be on your toes. So absorb as much as you can from your colleagues, peers and other organisations. Get out there, physically or virtually, and understand new ideas, ways of working and how things are done elsewhere. There have never been so many ways to learn from others, so take advantage. It will add value to your organisation by the bucket-load.

So that’s our story – what’s yours? Anything missing? Really interested to hear how you’ve made digital communications work in your organisation, or the challenges you face.

Make it a thriller, not vanilla

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to Richard Reed, one of the co-founders of Innocent Drinks, speak about his approach to business.

Innocent has been one of my favourite brands for some time. I think the tone of its communications is spot on, whether that’s its website, advertising, Twitter feed or product packaging. Next time you’re in your local supermarket, I dare you not to pick up an Innocent smoothie and smile at how basic details like ingredients and consumer contact information are described on the label. Down to earth and not too fussy, and it’s probably no coincidence that Richard Reed comes across the same way when he speaks.

But you don’t become a multi-millionaire entrepreneur on appearances alone. Richard’s talk last week was built around 10 ways to succeed in business, and there’s far more to his and the Innocent story than saying or writing things in a nice way. I’m not going to recount all 10 here, but there was one that struck me in particular – not least because it chimed with something else that inspired me a few days earlier.

“Chase beauty,” he said. In other words, don’t underestimate the power of making things beautiful in business. Take pride in the things you make and do. A very similar sentiment to one expressed by Tim Colman in his excellent guest blog post earlier this month, which I only caught up with last week: “Be brave – be better than alright.”

I don’t think many people set out to produce work that’s just OK – but if we’re honest, we’ve probably all had to settle for that more often than we’d like. Sometimes there’s no question that you need to be pragmatic in the circumstances you face. Deadline pressure, competing priorities, having to achieve consensus – all different ways that what we wanted to look, read or go to plan so brilliantly can end up being watered down.

I doubt Innocent would be the success story it is – the brand may not even have existed – if Richard Reed and his fellow founders had allowed the beauty of what they wanted to achieve to be eroded at the outset. For me, it’s a timely reminder not just to set the bar high when it comes to quality and creativity, but to keep the faith when the questions and challenges start coming or the clock is ticking.

So thanks to the wise words of Richard and Tim, I for one will be on my guard the next time that threatening streak of vanilla appears on the horizon.

A lesson in compassionate communications

Chances to look and learn about the work we do sometimes come from unexpected places and in unwelcome circumstances.

Earlier this week, my kids returned to devastating news at their school – a popular and long-serving teacher had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly during the Christmas holidays.

Nothing we do as communicators has to be handled with more care than the death of an employee. Those of you who’ve had the responsibility for communicating such dreadful news will know how heavily it weighs. And the school’s headteacher – whose list of people within its community to inform included staff, parents and children as young as four years old – hasn’t put a foot wrong.

Classes were told one by one during the course of the day, with special attention paid to those taught by the teacher who had passed away. Parents who had signed up to the school’s SMS alert system received a text message saying there was an important letter coming home with their children. At the final bell, the headteacher and staff were in the playground as their pupils emerged, many upset, to answer questions and help comfort people.

The headteacher’s letter to parents was word-perfect – the right balance of facts and compassion, including information about how the children will be supported professionally and psychologically at school and advice for parents on how to handle the circumstances at home. Subsequent letters have explained staffing arrangements, how the school is supporting the teacher’s family and how it will involve pupils in its plans to remember him. Getting technical for a moment, they have used the right communication channels in the right way at the right time.

I have a great deal of respect for good teachers at the best of times, but none more so than this week. Speaking as a parent and a professional, the way they are managing an extremely difficult situation is a lesson to behold.