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Bill Quirke, managing director of Synopsis and author of Making the Connections,started his career in consultancy, focused on change and HR. Then one day, he was appointed an internal comms expert before he really knew what it was all about. 

During the 1980s, businesses went through a behavioural shift, from a product-driven approach – employees had to shift the goods out the door – towards a customer-service mentality. What do customers want and value?
This change became real for me came when I joined PR firm Burson-Marsteller. At the time, there was a lot of literature in the US about the American spirit: engaging people, unleashing employees’ imagination and unlocking potential.
They told me there was this whole new area called internal communication and that I was going to be the firm’s expert. I said I didn’t know anything about IC, and they said I’d better learn as I was going to be speaking about it at a CBI (Confederation of British Industry) event three weeks later.
Employee comms became all about giving people information and telling them how great it is to belong. That’s a fantastic concept in stable industries and secure markets, within a command and control hierarchical pyramid. But you had markets that weren’t safe and there was competition from other industries, never mind your own.
In the frontline, employees understood the market better than the boardroom. The more senior you were, the less likely you were to know what was going on. Internal comms was formalised and top down, and that’s where the grapevine came in.

Aligning channels and comms goals

We worked with Rover in the late ’80s. They told us their workers only wanted to know what was on the menu in the canteen. When BMW took over Rover, the union started up formal internal comms, educating employees about what the company was doing and what was going on in the boardroom. Rover employees on the frontline hadn’t realised what the competition was like – for example, that BMW’s paint finishes were much better. BMW published a newsletter, but this was written for graduate-level readers, even though the functional reading age in the factory was seven. It was like setting sail with a boat you’ve always had on the shore, and discovering it’s full of holes.
At that time, organisations were starting to realise employee engagement was a whole new area, but they were struggling to get to grips with it. We had a brief from one client who wanted his people to be entrepreneurial and creative, but the main channel was the tannoy. There was a disconnect between ambitions and channels.

Bending employees to your will

Eventually, communication stopped being just about keeping employees happy. It had to turn strategy into action. We had to start engaging with people.
A client said to me: “You want to spend our money to make you feel better. You are trying to get our employees to be happier and satisfied, but you haven’t asked how we get them to achieve what we want.” I thought that was a fair cop.
Everyone knew it was politically correct to say that comms was important. I told them 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. Leaders laughed at that suggestion.
I once had a meeting with a Chief Executive, and I made my impassioned plea for comms to be taken seriously. He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, and he invited me to sit with the board and listen to the rest of the meeting. There came an impassioned plea for diversity, and then someone else came in and gave an impassioned plea for sustainability… and there was this beauty pageant of impassioned appeals. None of us had realised that leaders were just trying to get results, while everyone else was unloading on them.

Providing clarity on the business need

The problem is communicators are all very similar. We’re too nice. We’re enthusiastic. We’re people-pleasers. We don’t always want to challenge in case someone doesn’t like what we say. Instead, we need to be more assertive – probing, but not obnoxious.
We’re interested in technology and channels and vehicles. 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?”
One of the great things to move us was that big change programmes and campaigns didn’t achieve what they were meant to, as they were too abstract and not specific. Leaders didn’t get the change they wanted, because they didn’t specify the changed behaviour they wanted to see.
Leaders are used to thinking in rhetoric. If a leader wants customer service employees to answer queries more quickly, communicators might say, ‘You want them to be more proactive at the telephonic interface’, and they think that’s great because it sounds 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. Our biggest challenge is to help leaders crystallise their thinking and explain to employees what they need to achieve.

Don’t lose sight of the objective

It comes back to the importance of language and writing. Sometimes there are too many communicators and channel owners outside of the IC function – in finance, HR, operations –and they are each competing for attention without any overall consistency. Often, the thing missing from those content producers’ skill set is the ability to challenge. Internal communicators can give tips on writing, but it’s not easy to help people express messages more clearly or consider the underlying objective: what is the comms supposed to be doing?
The difficulty we’ve had for years is that communicators find comfort in channels. If you’ve got communicators or account managers who don’t provide strategic support, different parts of the organisation or a large IT project will buy in a consultant or an interim. It’s cheque-book communication, and you end up with channels that bicker for employees’ time and attention.

Often, communicators jump on the latest new-tech bandwagon, whether it’s a fax machine or satellite dish in the 1980s, or the intranet, DVDs, plasma screens. And then they have internal clients saying they’d like to tweet or a blog without really knowing what it is, and an internal communicator might say, ‘Ooh we’ve got one of these’, and roll it out, focusing on the channel without thinking about the objective.

Social media: a whole new ball game

And then we have social media. That’s completely changed the rules. Leaders have realised that trust in institutions has gone down, but trust in employees has gone up. Having employees who can hold their corner down the pub or on social media is becoming more important.
There have been instances where leaders have gathered employees in a room to deliver bad news, and someone at the back of the room has filmed it and posted it. The moment someone gets out a camera phone, everything changes. The risk for organisations is higher. Look at Starbucks. The film of two black men being arrested for doing nothing in one of its shops went viral. Starbucks had to close its stores to start training so the same mistake wouldn’t happen again. Something small had a massive impact on reputation.
That’s why internal comms will become a bigger job as life becomes more complicated.
Social media is a mixed blessing. Speed is a benefit, but it imposes conditions on you. Everyone is a journalist. Everyone can comment on your comment. You have to be much more careful about what you say and how your attitude might offend.

The next generation of career development

There have been changes in workforce too. We have gone from blue collar to gold collar. Before, leaders used to ask, do they really need to know what’s going on? We had to get people in groups and facilitate discussion. Now, millennials believe they should be consulted and are more than willing to talk.
The thing that has hit us is the changing nature of employment. Years ago, you had jobs for life and industries where you were expected to have a career. Then they started franchising jobs; you franchise milkmen, Uber drivers, Deliveroo drivers… You’re closer to a portfolio career.
The trend is towards making people more employable elsewhere. I’m shocked whenever I hear students say they plan to be in a job for 18 months and move on elsewhere. People need clarity about whether what they are doing is important. How does it link to a bigger picture? Can they trust the people leading?
Our environment today is volatile. Businesses need communicators who can explain to leaders what is going on. Leaders need to rely on communicators who are experts in the audience, rather than the channel – as if they are media handlers or political advisers. Understanding the end-to-end process is a useful skill. I think that’s what leaders want.
Having those conversations is going to be the most important thing in the future. Communicators need to be assertive. Right now, there is still a master and servant relationship. If I think of the communicators who have done a good job of getting out of that dynamic, it’s because of their knowledge of how people are going to react, which channels work well with what, and how a lack of consistency among leaders is going to undermine the message. Good communicators can keep up with those variables in world that’s constantly shifting.

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