Thought Pieces

Kathie Jones, former Communicators in Business chairman, and IoIC chief executive until 2011, recalls how employee voice and two-way dialogue rose up the IC agenda.

When British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) was making a name for itself in the 1950s and 1960s, there was still a paternalistic attitude to communication between bosses and their employees. The chairman’s wife presented the most beautiful baby competition winner and that’s the kind of thing that went in the newspaper.
Channels and strategies started to change during the 70s. Comms got slicker. We started off with black and white A4 newsletters. If you were really daring, you printed double-sided.
By 1973, advanced communicators were moving to tabloids, especially in industries where blue-collar workers were reading that type of newspaper. They were proud to take the staff publication home to their families, especially if they were in it. Comms teams started to use colour, as the nationals got into it, and magazine formats and videos followed.
I remember leading one of my company’s first computer initiatives. We had a senior director who cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End for NSPCC and we wanted to highlight his progress. The idea was to put a map of the UK on everyone’s monitor and update how far he had reached. Every morning, we would phone him to get his comments on the previous day’s efforts.
Today this doesn’t sound very taxing, but back then I had to first physically cut out a map of England and Scotland, Sellotape it to my screen and use that as a guide to create the outline of his route using ‘x’s in a document.
The desire for truth and authenticity

And workforces were starting to ask questions – and they expected answers.
They wanted to know what was going on. They wanted an honest view of where the company was going and how much work was on the books. In industries like construction or aircraft manufacturing, staff wanted guarantees for the next five years’ work or to know where they’d go after their current project. They didn’t want to hear about redundancies on the 6 o’clock news on TV. They wanted to hear that type of thing from their employers.
Leaders attempted interaction, but it took a very long time for it to become the norm.
The National Coal Board was one of the first to see the benefits of this new approach. During the miners’ strike in 1984-85, the chairman, Alf Robens, was advised to put the trade union’s point of view in the industry newspaper, Coal News. He gave the union a page of Coal News to publish whatever it wanted. It didn’t change the result of the strike, but it created a better feeling.
By the time I was editing in the mid-80s, there were still a lot of employers who had stuck-in-the-mud views about what you should say. Even when I was publications director, I still couldn’t persuade my chairman to have a letters page or any response mechanism for complaints. He thought the newspaper was a company vehicle. He didn’t want anyone asking, why doesn’t the company do X or Y?
Employees don’t want any puff in any comms – that’s always been the case. And this is where external and internal comms differ. If you just stick press releases in the staff newspaper, you might as well go home. You’re trying to sell something to an audience that knows what’s really going on.
Understand your workforce

My advice is to get out of the office and go and talk to people – get to know them and understand what they want and need to read about – what really matters to them.
When I worked for a construction company, if I just rang up the building sites, I wouldn’t always get the information I needed. People would tell me the basic facts about the project – how long it would last, who was on the team. So I always tried to make early-morning visits to sites, and over a bacon sarnie they’d tell me the really interesting stuff face-to-face – information I wouldn’t get if I had called them from the head office.
Employers who were open or bold in their communications were rewarded. I had one outstanding success by accident. During the 1980s, awareness of Aids was increasing. People were talking about how they thought you could catch it – from lavatory seats, by not washing hands – and there was a lot of concern. The government issued a comprehensive document about the transmission of the disease and how employers should talk to people internally. They asked businesses to publish as much as they could to get the message out. My chairman agreed to a full-page article.
After it had gone to print, the chairman fed back that the finance director didn’t want to run it. I said either we have to reprint the whole thing – 12,000 copies – or pull out the page and put something else in, which would have cost a lot of money. In the end, he said to go with it.
It was one of the first company newspapers to report on the government document. Months later, the chairman was still getting comments that the company had been avant garde in its approach.
Earning respect by talking straight

This century, the main change in culture has been that communication is more two-way – no more top-down.
People have always wanted to say what they thought, but, before, they were worried about losing their jobs or being 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 – daily tabloids, TV, social media – and they might get the wrong information. Or they might get the right information that management didn’t want people to know.
It was becoming impossible for managers to keep information private or secret – a trend that has gathered pace in recent years. If you look externally, 15 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a prime minister being harassed in the same way that Theresa May is over Brexit. There was more respect for people in senior roles. Employees thought they were in those roles because they knew what they were doing. We have seen some spectacular downfalls and people are suspicious – and now we question everything.
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