Benefited vs benefitted

If you work in communications, you’ll be well versed in your duty to keep everyone in your organisation on brand – but setting the standard for spelling and grammar is up there on your list of responsibilities, too. It’s no mean feat, especially if you struggle a bit on this front.
To help you along, I’ll feature some tips on common grammar and spelling mistakes from time to time, starting in this post with a tricky one: ‘benefited’ vs ‘benefitted’.

Do you need to worry about spelling and grammar?

Before we dive in, perhaps you’re asking yourself whether it’s really all that important in these digital days of Twitter speak and snappy chats. Does anyone even notice poor spelling and grammar any more?

The answer, in my experience, is yes. It’s just as important as ever and people do notice. Sending out communications that are full of mistakes will damage your credibility as a professional communicator, whether it’s an email to a colleague, a news article on your intranet or a printed leaflet. It calls your expertise and skills into question and chips away at all that hard work you’ve done to build your reputation and gain people’s trust, so that they’ll respect your recommendations.

I’ve worked with some really gifted communications managers who had buckets of marketing know-how and amazing instincts, but who couldn’t spell or put a hyphen in the right place to save their lives. If you fall into that camp, do what they did and make sure you get colleagues to proof read your work, but you can improve slowly but surely.

Right & wrong vs stylistic decisions

If your organisation has a style guide, follow it for points of usage, such as hyphenation and capitalisation. Sometimes, the rules in style guides differ from what might be considered strictly ‘correct’ in terms of grammar or spelling. The important thing is to be consistent.

Back to ‘benefited’ vs ‘benefitted’

Knowing when to double the consonants in verbs can be quite tricky, but it all becomes clearer once you know the rules. This guidance comes from Oxford Dictionaries online, which should be a bookmark on every communicator’s browser! I always default to the Oxford dictionary and style Manual unless there’s an organisational style guide in place.

So, the question here is: When you have a verb like ‘to benefit’ or ‘to travel’, do you double the ‘t’ or the ‘l’ when you add -ed or -ing? Here are the rules to follow…

Do the double when:

1. the verb ends in one vowel and a consonant, with the stress at the end
Example: admit, admitted, admitting

2. the verb ends in a vowel and ‘l’
Example: travel, travelling, travelled

3. the verb has only one syllable and ends with one vowel and a consonant
Example: stop, stopped, stopping

Stay single when:

1. the verb ends with a vowel and a consonant and the stress is not at the end of the word
Example: benefit, benefited, benefiting

2. the verb ends with two vowels and a consonant
Example: wheel, wheeled, wheeling

Simple! (Now, I hope I haven’t made any mistakes in this post!)

Should you have a staff magazine?

In these days of digital domination, is there still a place for the good old-fashioned printed staff magazine? Perhaps you don’t have one but think you should. Or maybe you’ve got one and aren’t sure whether its day has passed. In this post, I’ll take a look at a few factors to consider when making your decision.

I’ve seen in my own experience just how well a staff mag or newspaper can work for keeping your people informed, helping them get to know the organisation and their colleagues and sharing pride in achievements, among other strategic priorities. But, as an internal comms manager, I’ve also taken the tough decision not to have one in some circumstances.

To do a staff mag or newspaper well takes quite an investment – in both time and money – so it has to really earn its keep. So, is it worth it for you? The answer is: it depends.

Time, money and skillsShould you have a staff mag? Some factors to consider - Eden Lighthouse Internal Communications

Your decision should start with your internal comms strategy (more on that below), but a lack of budget and time could mean that producing a staff magazine simply isn’t an option.

To produce a staff mag or newspaper frequently enough to be worth doing will take up a lot of your time and demands the right skills. Even if you outsource it to an agency, you’ll still have to dedicate more time than you might think to liaising with the agency to agree story lists, arrange interviews with staff members and check proofs, among other things. On top of the cost of your time (and agency fees), there’s the expense of printing and distribution.

The key here is to prioritise. If you have the time and money, you’ll have to make a choice about where you direct those resources to make the most impact with your communications. Again, it’s back to your IC strategy. What does your organisation need from you for the next two years? If there are lots of changes coming up that will affect staff deeply, are you better putting more time into supporting those changes by enhancing face-to-face communications? If you prioritise a staff mag, will it mean you’ll have to go a bit lighter than you’d like to on other methods, like staff conferences, back-to-the-floor visits by senior leaders or improving communications within teams?

Your comms goals

Assuming you have the budget, skills and capacity to produce a staff magazine, your decision then should start with your IC strategy… what you’re trying to achieve for your organisation and what tools you need to achieve it. You must be clear on exactly what your staff mag or newspaper needs to deliver for you, as part of your IC toolbox. If your other tools are covering all the bases, then perhaps you don’t need one.

You should also consider whether your organisation already has what I’d consider to be essential and fundamental IC mechanisms in place and working well. In most cases, the first priority should be to have an effective framework for face-to-face communication – a good flow of communication within teams and a solid framework for face-to-face communications among employees and leaders. I’ve previously had to justify not creating a staff mag in order to focus on getting the basics in place first. Unless you’re extremely well resourced, you just can’t do it all.

Your audience

When you’re deciding on the right tools to help you fulfil your strategy, you must start by knowing your audience. Do your employees read magazines or newspapers at home? If not, printed publications are unlikely to be their first choice for finding out things when they come to work. Remember that people don’t leave their natural preferences at home.

When you’re analysing your audience’s communications preferences, look out for different trends in parts of the organisation. You might find that staff in one department are avid newspaper readers while others are digital junkies. One organisation I worked for produced a printed newspaper for staff in a directorate who tended to be out and around all day. Don’t assume that people are newspaper readers just because they don’t have much access to a computer, though.

In conclusion…

I’ve outlined what I feel are the main factors you’ll want to weigh up when making your decision on whether to have a printed staff magazine. You may also have others that you have to take into account, but in summary…

If you don’t have the resources, then there is no decision to make. If you could feasibly do it within your resources, is it right for your audience? If not, decision made.

If it could potentially be popular and well read, then it’s about priorities. Few IC teams or practitioners have unlimited resources, so what will you have to sacrifice to have the magazine? Do you already have the basics in place? If not, I’d recommend putting your effort into those first.

If you’ve got the resources, your staff are avid mag readers and you’ve got the IC fundamentals up and running, then you’re in business – a staff mag that’s done well should help you create an environment where your people know what’s going on and bring you all those other benefits of effective internal comms.

New network for internal communicators in Cumbria

For those of us working in internal comms in Cumbria, chances to meet up with others in our profession can be few and far between. Would you be interested in joining a new network to support Cumbrians involved in communications with colleagues inside their organisation?

I’m working on setting up an informal network as a way to get advice and share ideas and best practice on internal communications, for those who do it as part of their role or full time.

Most of the networking groups and events for employee communications tend to be in London so it’s difficult for those of us in Cumbria to take part regularly, if at all, especially considering that the majority of people doing internal comms in small to medium organisations do it in addition to their main job.

Often, it’s department heads, personal assistants and project managers who find themselves organising staff briefings, conferences and ‘back to the floor’ sessions for the boss or sending out e-newsletters and messages from the management team. If that sounds like you, you probably don’t have a background in communications, so the chance to pick up tips and learn from others could be very helpful, as well as for dedicated internal comms professionals.

I envisage the network having get-togethers several times a year, possibly combined with an online forum where members can ask each other for advice at any time.

If there is enough interest, I’d like to hold an initial meet-up in the early summer, possibly with a speaker or a workshop on a specific topic, as well as a chance for people to get to know each other and discuss how they’d like the network to work.

The network also has the potential to raise the profile of internal communications in the county’s businesses and charity sector, helping them to reap the benefits of better engagement with their employees and volunteers.

Smaller organisations tend to put most of their communications effort into PR and marketing, but industry research repeatedly shows that very few organisations can reach their full potential without good communication with their employees. If you think about companies like Google, they couldn’t survive if they didn’t create an environment where their employees could innovate and use all their talents, and the way they keep their employees informed and stimulate discussion inside the organisation is a big part of achieving that. Why would Cumbria’s small-to-medium businesses or charities want any less?

If you’d like to take part in the network, please get in touch. You can email me or call 01768 88266.

Mission leak… how internal comms can improve your bottom line

I needed some bath taps recently, but my quest soon ground to a halt and I fear that poor internal communications might have been to blame. (You’ll have to bear with me on this one… I promise there’s an internal comms lesson in here!)

Mission leak - how internal comms can improve your bottom line - Eden LighthouseSo, I found some taps very close to what I wanted on a national plumbing supplier’s website. But I had a simple question that needed an answer before I could take the plunge and buy. So I phoned up and the sales rep called the tap manufacturer to try to get the answer, but it was Friday afternoon and he concluded the customer service team had all gone home. He advised me to email my question via their website and his team would look into it.

I duly submitted my question and waited for the answer to come. And waited. And waited. Days turned to weeks. Radio silence.

Now, as far as I know, that company probably has a fairly straightforward mission. It really only exists for one purpose, and that’s surely to sell as much stuff as possible. It got me thinking about how something has gone badly wrong with this firm’s mission.

Cogs in the chain

Let’s think about a few of the cogs in the process leading to making a sale. The product buyers went out and did a good job, sourcing a product that’s pretty much what I want. The marketing and website people have equally excelled themselves, making sure I found my way to their site when I did a Google search and was able to easily browse around and find what I wanted.

All those cogs were whirring away in the company’s machine to get us to this crucial point. But then, it all fell apart. That final cog in the process, the sales and customer relations department, lost sight of the mission. Assuming that my message reached them, there’s only one conclusion: they prioritised something else other than helping me buy these taps, which, as we’ve already established, is pretty much the whole raison d’etre of the company. What is it, I wonder, that’s been occupying them all this time? What could be so important that it overrides the entire company mission? Staff meetings, training on using the new photocopier, moving offices?

Mission impossible?

Herein lies the absolute essence of internal communications: to make sure that everyone up, down and across the organisation knows exactly what you’re all collectively there to achieve, and the part they must play to make it happen. And, crucially, giving people a way to raise any issues preventing them from playing their part, so that they can be resolved.

Let’s think of this company (or your company) as a car for a moment. The main purpose of a car is to go places, to take its inhabitants to where they want to be. Each component must play its part to the best of its ability and no single component can do it on its own.

Take the engine, for example. It knows that its role is to provide the power that will ultimately turn the wheels as effectively and efficiently as possible. We’ll say that the engine represents the product buyers at the plumbing supplier. Let’s not forget that the engine’s only able to do its job well because of components like the fuel and starter motor (the HR, finance and IT teams, for example).

So, we’ve got power. The clutch and gearbox know that their role is to harness that power and send it to the wheels. Let’s say they’re the website and marketing teams. Great. All that power has been transferred to the wheels (the sales/customer relations team). It’s the moment when the mission becomes a reality – we can go places. Imagine that instead of taking all that hard work and effort and using it to fulfil the final mission, the wheels come off. Every other component in the car has done its job but without the wheels none of it matters.

Something clearly went wrong with internal communications to and within the sales team about what the company’s mission is and their critical part in it. You may rightly point out that perhaps the problem isn’t directly about their communications – perhaps their processes are poor or they’re understaffed.

But these are signs that the mission has gone out the window. If the sales team’s managers were clear on their mission, the cogs within their team that are critical to the sales process would get prioritised. The cog that channels sales enquiries from the website would feed seamlessly to the ‘answering questions and communicating with customers’ cog. Decision-makers in the company would make sure there are enough staff and other resources to enable the sales team to complete their mission.

To conclude…

I read today on the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) website that “the United Kingdom would be up to £50 billion a year better off if organisations made a greater effort to communicate with their employees”. I think my experience with the plumbing supplier illustrates the point. I wanted to hit ‘buy’ and they effectively said ‘bye’.

It can be hard sometimes to explain to a non-believer at the head of a company why really good internal communications can make all the difference to their bottom line. My tap quest unexpectedly illustrated why it’s mission critical to ensure that everyone in your organisation knows exactly what your mission is and how their cog contributes to making it happen. Quite simply, it empowers them to see how they can get their cog working as well as it can.

If you do nothing else with your employee communications, then do that. It’s a huge step towards helping people focus for themselves on what’s important and cut out what isn’t.

If you find you have some mission leak in your organisation and would like a chat about how it could be plugged, I’ll be very happy to fit in a chat around my ongoing tap quest!

What to do if your CEO struggles on the comms front

Lessons on internal communications often pop up in the most unexpected places. I was watching the BBC’s excellent War and Peace series the other week, when I was treated to a fascinating example of great leadership communication by Napoleon. (I’ll come back to that in a minute!)

It got me thinking about some of the leaders I’ve worked with in the past, and how not all were as gifted as Napoleon when it comes to rousing the troops. In this post, I’ll share a few of my experiences and pass on some tactics you can try if your leader is more likely to annoy the battalions than inspire them!

I’m also happy to be able to pass on some tips from guest contributor Liam FitzPatrick, director of Working Communication and co-author of the excellent CIPR book Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners.

Back to Napoleon…

So, there he was, about to go into battle with the Russians. Readying himself in his tent, he dictated a rousing speech that was swiftly printed onto sheets on a press right there in his encampment and dispatched to the heads of his various battalions, to be read out to the troops.

Whether this kind of thing actually went on I’ve no idea. (If there are any experts on the history of internal communication, perhaps you could let us know in the comments below!) With all the logistics involved in heading off to war, how interesting that our televised Napoleon made sure to pack a printing press. It tells you all you need to know about the importance he attached to reinforcing the mission for his troops at the critical point of heading into the fray.

But what do you do if your leader isn’t quite Napoleonic in his or her ability to engage with the troops? Whatever type of organisation you’re in, your people need to hear from the leader about the most important things affecting you all, and the direction you need to go in. I once worked with the head of an organisation who was well respected for his executive capabilities, intellect and fantastic, dry sense of humour. Unfortunately, he lacked the ‘common touch’ and made employees feel like they were in front of the headmaster.

If you’re involved in communications inside your organisation and you’ve a CEO who turns staff conferences into school assemblies, what do you do? Firstly, let’s be honest… it’s difficult. Very few people will be comfortable passing on advice to the boss about something so personal as how they communicate. Giving your professional opinion about the strategy for selling Widget X is one thing, but touching on his or her personality and style is a whole different matter.

The first question to ask is whether you should do it at all. If you’ve got a leader like the one I’ve mentioned, there’s no doubt that something needs to be done, but should it be you? That really depends on your role in the organisation and, importantly, your standing.

If you work in internal communications and you’ve gained the trust of the CEO, then perhaps you are well placed. If you’ve got the role but not the standing, then you’ll need to work through others who are in a position of trust. (I’ll touch on offering advice to a senior leader shortly.)

Here are a few tactics you can try:

1. Play to strengths – for now

Identify the types of communication the CEO does well and focus on those – until you can start to address weaker areas. If, for example, your CEO isn’t great at meeting the masses, how about these options:

  • video interviews
  • less formal engagement with smaller groups (some advice from Liam on this, below)
  • online Q&A sessions (The CEO I’ve mentioned was extremely good at these – a quick, clear thinker.)
  • written updates, such as an all-staff email, blog and articles in the staff magazine on important issues

Liam explains how he’s managed this with the many CEOs he’s worked with throughout his career:

“I’ve always tried to have a range of tactics up my sleeve for different people or different scenarios. I had one CEO who needed to answer questions about his outrageous bonus structure so we developed a “back to the floor” programme, where he would do a day of purposeful work.

“Over the course of a day he’d get into conversation and his real personality would come out, with positive results. Word soon got around about what he was saying on these days. We never did loads of internal publicity about them. The word of mouth element added to the authenticity of the exercise. Best of all, he got valuable feedback about the challenges of doing the job on the front line and it raised questions about quality among other things.”

Sometimes it’s not just communication skills that will make you choose one type of comms over another for your leader. Liam recalls working with one senior director whose health issues preventing him from doing anything too physical.

“We developed a focus group session, when a member of the comms team facilitated a conversation about a business problem and ensured suggestions got followed up. We also came up with a coffee break session, when people were invited in small groups to come for cake with a member of the executive team.”

I think there is a danger that senior leaders assume that they have to be good at doing big events and so keep doing them. You don’t need to speak to lots of people at once. Just a few gets the message out. – Liam FitzPatrick

2. Prepare ye well

Notwithstanding the points made above, employee conferences are part of the internal comms mix in most organisations. Done well, there’s no doubt they can offer a large number of employees the chance for real face-to-face discussions on the big stuff. You can help your CEO with some advance preparation:

  • If your CEO isn’t a great speaker, try to influence their presentation. Can you help them produce interesting slides with lots of photos and short quotations rather than bullet points, for example? How about including a short video? Maybe their speech could include a few minutes from guest speakers – members of staff who are experts on a particular point the CEO’s addressing.
  • Prepare the CEO well for the questions they’re likely to get from employees. If you’re involved in internal communications, you should know the workforce better than anyone. You should know what’s troubling people and topics that employees are particularly interested in talking about. Share your workforce intelligence with the CEO, so that he/she has an opportunity to think in advance about the answers they’ll give, rather than being caught on the hop.

3. Gather and pass on feedback

Some CEOs I’ve worked with eagerly awaited the results of evaluation after events like employee conferences. It makes life a lot easier for an internal communicator if your leader actively wants to know how their performance was viewed and is keen to work with you to improve aspects of it.

“The big challenge,” Liam says, “is that comms people don’t always feel that they have the ability to provide advice.”

It’s a topic he addresses in his book, noting that providing the CEO with data such as audience feedback after an employee event could lead them to ask for your opinion, giving you an opportunity to make suggestions. He also points out that if the boss has asked for your advice, they are more likely to listen to it. That’s certainly been true in my experience. While building up a working relationship with the CEO, passing on quantitative stats like this has helped open the door to a wider discussion.

If you’ve arranged for the CEO to visit a team or you’ve held an employee conference, ask employees for feedback afterwards. I gave out feedback forms at employee events, asking them to rate each speaker (including the CEO) as well as other aspects of the session. Phone up or drop in with teams the CEO has visited, to ask how it went.

If the CEO asks you for suggestions, make sure you’ve got your thoughts ready. To quote Liam’s book again: “One of the first rules of giving advice is to be invited to do so. When you are about to touch on someone’s performance as a communicator, it is a sensitive area that should be handled carefully.”

Offering advice to a leader is a discipline in itself. Liam recommends the book Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows by Richard Hytner, which explores what it takes to be trusted advisor.

4. Initiate coaching

Lots of leaders have coaching to help them improve their presentation and engagement skills. In my experience, it’s rare for this to come from within the organisation, despite the fact you might have an in-house learning and development team with very skilled trainers. Some CEOs might appreciate you supplying a selection of coaches in your area to use as a starting point.

5. Cast the net wider

If you don’t think your CEO will be receptive to private coaching, consider whether development for the management team as a whole could be a possibility. I’ve seen this type of group development work well in one organisation that was introducing a new employee engagement methodology.
The chosen approach to improving engagement focused heavily on management style and began with the top team. An outside consultant led a programme of peer review followed by private feedback to help the directors understand how they were perceived and to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

In conclusion…

CEOs (like everyone) come with their individual strengths and weaknesses in engaging with employees. Get to know your CEO and you’ll soon get a sense of what they’re best at and what they struggle with on the comms front. This isn’t about trying to change their personality – your job is to make sound judgements on the best forms of communications for them, and finding ways to help them develop over time.

Remember what you’re trying to achieve with leadership communications… it’s about giving your CEO ways to inspire employees to want to come to work and do the best job they can, and giving the leader a means of understanding what’s happening at the coal face by hearing from employees.

A few helpful resources

You’ll find lots of books and online resources on leadership communications, but I’ll just highlight two here for now:

Liam FitzPatrick and Klavs Valskov’s CIPR book, Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners, includes an excellent chapter on working with senior leaders, with very helpful, practical advice.

Rachel Miller of All Things IC recently published a great blog post with lots of tips on CEO comms in general: http://www.allthingsic.com/king/

Last, but not least…

A very big thank you to Liam FitzPatrick for sharing his insights. You can reach Liam through Working Communication.

 

Two predictions for staff comms in 2016 – what they mean for your business

Welcome to the second of two posts about predictions for employee communications for 2016 made by UK practitioners. In the first post, I looked at what the commentators had to say about CEO communications and horizontal communications among staff. This time, it’s the turn of projects communications and the use of video for engaging employees.

Internal communications predictions 2016 - Jaki Bell Eden Lighthouse Internal CommunicationsDecisions, decisions…

Intranet specialist Wedge says this must be a year of change for the way projects are communicated within organisations. He notes that central internal communications staff are becoming ever-more strategic in their approach but that project communicators are still stuck in the days of churning out decisions and results rather than engaging people in the process.

“It would be better to share progress, rather than only decisions, and discuss plans and ideas, rather than only informing people of results,” Wedge notes. (You can read more of Wedge’s article in the e-book Where’s Internal Communication Headed?, released last month by the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC).

Are you introducing big changes in your organisation this year? The way you involve and communicate with your staff ahead of the project and as you go along can make the difference between success and failure. There’s no shortage of examples of new IT systems, HR databases and the like that just don’t deliver the benefits the organisation hoped for. Not because there was anything wrong with the systems per se, but because staff simply didn’t buy into them, resisted them.

Communicating change is a huge topic in itself, and one I’ll be coming back to regularly in this blog, but for now here are five reminders:

  1. If you’ve started planning your project, you should already have begun planning how you’ll engage with staff about it. Once you start thinking about how you’ll inform and involve your staff, you’ll probably find you’ll want to change a few things about your project plan, like timings.
  2. Break your staff into groups when you’re considering how and when to communicate with them (audience segmentation, to use some comms jargon)… those who’ll be most directly affected by the project, those you need input from, those who just need a vague awareness the project’s going on.
  3. Think about the information that needs to flow between the project team and these groups of staff… what input do you need from employees? What information will they need from you?
  4. Plan out how will you reach staff in each of these groups. Think about what communications channels can they access and also think about their preferences… how do people in these groups like to receive information?
  5. Think about what information people will need from you at various stages in the project. Timing is everything.
  6. Remember that change at work is very personal to people and recognise that some people hate change. You must make sure that your communications plan gives people opportunities to ask questions and get proper answers. Sometimes face to face is the only way. Don’t forget that if you’re making changes that affect people’s jobs, you have legal responsibilities, too.

The rise and rise of video

More than 90% of internet traffic nowadays is video. People want to watch videos to learn how to do things and to keep informed, as well as to be entertained. Why should they expect any less when they come to work?

For the past few years, commentators on internal communications have predicted that use of video to communicate with staff will rise… and it has. In a recent blog post, Jane Revell from communications agency Headlines looked back over the challenges that internal communicators grappled with in 2015, which she said included “using video more effectively for internal communications including animation, vox pops, vlogging and mobile to add extra depth to online content”.

It’s a dead cert that video will continue to be a focus for internal comms in 2016. Leaving aside the fact that people like to receive information by video, it’s a format that has great potential to help you. And you can do it yourself – most modern compact cameras and smartphones can record adequate quality video and there’s editing software free with most computers and devices, from iMovie to Windows Movie Maker.

Here are just 3 ideas for how you could use video:

  • Short, regular videos by the head of the organisation are a great way to keep staff informed about the really important things that affect everybody, like how the company’s doing against its goals and any big changes coming up.
  • ‘How to’ guides aren’t just for YouTube… record a short video to show your staff how to do something like reset their password or submit expenses online.
  • Help staff get to know more about the company and their colleagues with short videos about the work of different people and departments

In conclusion

I hope this short series of blog posts has got you thinking about some ways to improve communications with your employees in 2016. Feel free to share this post with anyone you think might find it useful. If you’d like some help with your employee communications, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line or call for an informal chat.

Predictions for staff communications in 2016 – what they mean for your business

The social media feeds at the turn of the year brought some great predictions about communications with staff. I’m going to explore four that stood out for me – two in this post and two in the next – and what they might mean for your business or organisation.

Internal communications predictions 2016 - Jaki Bell Eden Lighthouse Internal CommunicationsCEO who?

Nearly a quarter of UK employees don’t know who their CEO is. It’s a statistic that Scott McKenzie from Lansons explored in the e-book Where’s Internal Communication Headed?, released last month by the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC).

I agree with Scott that it’s a staggering figure. A leader’s main job is to create an environment where employees can work to their full potential, where they know what the organisation’s trying to achieve and understand their role in it. How can the CEO be so completely invisible and absent from the working lives of such a large chunk of the workforce? If they’re not out leading their people, what are they doing?

It’s probably also a sad indication that many employees take little interest in their organisation, not taking the trouble to find out who their ultimate boss is, let alone learn about the bigger picture in their company. In my view, employees have a responsibility to pay attention to important communications from their leadership, and the organisation has a responsibility to provide that information and engagement opportunities.

If I were to ask a random selection of your staff who your chief officer is, could they tell me? Does your organisation have a plan for how your CEO will engage with staff this year? Whether you have one member of staff or 10,000, they need opportunities to hear from the people at the top of the organisation and have their voices heard. Watch out for a blog post coming up soon that will help you with this, but for now here are a few things your CEO should be talking to staff about:

  • What the organisation’s trying to achieve
  • How it’s doing and what it needs to do better
  • The challenges the organisation is facing
  • How staff can contribute to overcoming those challenges

Go horizontal

Communication with staff has traditionally been top down, driven by messages from the senior team. But there’s a new trend towards the horizontal, says internal comms practitioner Rachel Miller, from All Things IC.

Rachel, also writing in the IoIC’s new year e-book, notes that staff want to talk directly to and hear from their peers, as well as their leaders. The challenge for organisations is how to allow those sideways conversations to happen.

I saw this in action at Christmas during a chat with a friend who’s a front-line manager in a café that’s part of a major retail chain. She pulled out her phone and opened up the Yammer app, which her company uses to connect employees with each other. She has joined various groups on Yammer: one keeps her up to date with company news, one for her region where staff talk about issues affecting them locally, and a group for café employees to share knowledge across the UK.

She gave me an example of using Yammer to troubleshoot a problem with the coding on a new product introduced into the cafes, which wouldn’t ring up on their electronic tills. A colleague posted about it on Yammer and someone who’d figured it out posted the answer for everyone to use.

When you begin to establish horizontal communication like internal social media rather than just top-down communication, it doesn’t mean that ‘the top’ is no longer part of the conversation. Quite the opposite. In my friend’s case, ‘the top’ were actively taking part in the discussions, essentially providing customer service for staff. Central teams monitor the various feeds and post answers to operational queries raised by staff – if staff haven’t figured out the answer among themselves first.

The productivity gains are obvious. Instead of the old way of having to ring round in the case of the till code question, the answer was there in minutes, saving staff lots of time and frustration. Meanwhile, ‘the top’ have a clear picture of what’s taxing their employees, can support them quickly, and spend less of their time finding out all the answers as staff can help each other.

How about trialling a system like Yammer in your organisation? Owned by Microsoft, it’s free for the basic version. You can access it via your web browser or via a mobile app and there’s also Yammer Notifier for your desktop. Don’t forget to set a policy for how it’ll be used before you get started.

Setting up an internal social media system is only half the battle, though. Showing staff how to use it well and convincing them of how powerful it can be is the biggest challenge. I’d previously seen Yammer ignored by front-line staff in another huge organisation, dismissing it as: “just used by a bunch of central specialists to talk to each other”. Ironically, these front-line staff really needed a way to support each other, frustrated and beaten down by a raft of new HR and IT systems brought in (not terribly well) over the past few years.

If you’re not quite ready for Yammer, you could consider other ways to help staff share knowledge using the channels you already have – from forums on your intranet, face-to-face networks for staff doing similar roles or a new column in your staff newsletter for your staff’s top tips and questions.

Conclusion

So, there are a few suggestions for things your organisation could focus on in 2016 to improve communications with and among employees. The next post coming along shortly looks at two other big topics in the world of staff communications: bringing in changes and the use of video for internal communications.

8 ways to reach your staff in a crisis

When flooding first struck Cumbria this winter, I noticed something very interesting amongst the early social media posts: organisations were using Facebook and Twitter to reach their staff. Turning to public-facing social media to get hold of your staff in an emergency may be a pragmatic, belt-and-braces approach in the digital age, but it could also be a sign that your crisis communications plan is somewhat lacking.

In this post, I’ll share some straightforward internal tools that you could put in place now to make it easier for you to reach your staff urgently. Before we get started, though, a brief word about the bigger picture. The flooding in Cumbria will have served as a harsh reminder that every organisation should have an emergency plan, along with a business continuity plan for dealing with the aftermath of an incident. Depending on your business, they don’t have to be complicated to write. I’ve put a few good sources of information at the end of this post. If you don’t already have these plans in place, it would make a good New Year’s Resolution!

8 ways to reach your staff in a crisis, by Eden Lighthouse Internal CommunicationsNo matter how good your emergency plan is, though, you won’t be able to put it into action unless you can contact, brief and coordinate with your staff. It’s a challenge that was brought home to me during the London Tube and bus bombings in 2005, as an internal comms officer at Camden Council. Later, I would get the chance to work on emergency plans for some of the large public-sector organisations I’ve worked with during my career – from planning for strike action to situations like a flu pandemic.

Your emergency plan will consider the most likely risks to your business and how you’ll respond to them. The way you’ll communicate with your staff in an emergency will depend on lots of factors, such as:

  • the nature of the emergency
  • how many staff you have
  • where they work (one building or several sites)
  • what shifts they work
  • when the emergency happens (during or outside your normal working hours)
  • what communication channels are available (whether you can access your normal IT network; what channels your staff have access to)

Once you’ve weighed up all these factors and have your messages ready to go out, you’ll need to have communication mechanisms ready to go. So, here my recommendations for tools you should have in place as a minimum:

1. Phone call cascade
A phone call cascade is often the starting point for communicating with staff urgently – particularly if it happens outside normal working hours. It works by one person being responsible for kicking off the cascade by calling one or two specified colleagues. They will then call several others, and so on until you’ve reached relevant members of staff. In a medium-sized or large business, for example, the chief executive might initiate the cascade by calling members of the management team, who then alert their department heads, and they in turn call their senior managers.

Cascades are particularly good for getting an early indication of which staff are available to respond to the emergency, flagging up any major gaps in your staff cover, so that you can address them quickly.

As part of your emergency plan, decide how your cascade will work and distribute a list of phone numbers to relevant staff, ensuring that they also keep paper copies at home and on mobile devices in case the emergency happens out of hours or your IT infrastructure is affected. Don’t forget that mobile phones might be out of use in certain types of emergencies, such as a major terrorism incident.

2. Text alert system
Larger organisations in particular might find it helpful to sign up to an external texting service for emergency use. This allows you to send out SMS messages to a large number of people at once. Your emergency plan might, for example, dictate that for certain types of situations you’ll alert staff initially with a text message. The text could advise staff to check a secure page on your internet site, or give a phone number staff could call for more information. More on these below.

3. Recorded message line
Giving staff a phone number to call for regular recorded updates can be a simple way to keep them informed. This could be a number on your normal phone network with a recorded message facility, but make sure it can cope with the call volume you might expect and that the message can be changed remotely, securely, and by more than one person. Crucially, don’t forget to tell your staff about it now and remind them regularly as part of your communications about emergency response, so that they know to use it when the time comes.

4. Password-protected web page
It may be possible to create a section on your public website that staff can log into with a password. You’ll need to make sure the page can be updated quickly and remotely – with ideally more than one member of staff able to do it, for resilience.

5. All-staff email
Create and maintain reliable lists of email addresses for each department or team. Think about how you’d access those lists if you couldn’t use your normal IT network (or your building) due to the emergency. Put in place procedures for keeping the lists updated with leavers and joiners.

6. Internal social media
If you have a system like Yammer, you can use it to keep staff informed and enable them to share information and even help coordinate effort.

7. Public address or screens
If you have these in your buildings, you can use them to give staff instructions or keep them informed about an unfolding situation. Make sure you designate several people who can update them, and test them regularly.

8. Signage
If you’ve had to close your premises because of the emergency, think about how you’d display notices outside to give information to employees arriving at your staff entrances. It could be as simple as some A boards. Designate people in advance who’ll be responsible for putting them out.

To conclude…
Reaching your staff quickly in an emergency and keeping them informed doesn’t have to involve expensive or complicated systems. If you put some of these straightforward tools in place in advance, they’ll pay you dividends in terms of staff safety, protection of your premises and reduced downtime, preserving your customer service levels and your reputation.

Your experiences

Was your organisation affected by the flooding in Cumbria this winter? It’d be great to hear your experiences of reaching and coordinating with your staff. In particular, please share any tips that might help others.

Support with emergency planning

UK Government advice for businesses
Guidance for businesses by the US Government

5 signs of poor communication inside an organisation

Last weekend, I was chatting to a friend about his work. The conversation came around to internal communications (OK, I admit I’m always fascinated to hear employees’ experiences in different organisations), and unfortunately it sounded like his company had quite a few of the signs that communications aren’t quite what they should be.

So, I decided to share 5 symptoms of poor internal communication in an organisation – see if you recognise any of these in your workplace.

5 signs of poor internal commsBut first, back to my friend Ady…

“So do you get a newsletter or something at work then, Ady, or how do you find out what’s going on in your company?” I asked him.

“We get nothing,” he said, somewhat glumly. “My company never tells you what’s going on.”

He told me about arriving into work one morning to find a new employee on the factory floor. Despite Ady being a relatively senior member of his team, no one had told him a new apprentice was starting.

“It’s the same when people leave,” he went on. “One day you come in and they’re not there. You ask around and you finally find out they left but nobody thinks to let other people know.”

It doesn’t exactly make Ady feel like a trusted member of the company – someone in the know, clued up and abreast of all the facts he needs to do the best job he possibly can. He is, in fact, doing his very best while the company keeps him on crutches.

If I got chatting to someone in your organisation one evening over a glass of wine, what would they say about the way you communicate with them? If you want to get a sense of how your organisation measures up, here are five signs that things aren’t what they should be in the employee comms department.

1. Your staff find out more about what’s happening in your organisation from the local paper than they do from you

So, you’ve launched a new product or service, picked up a big contract or won an award. Great! You waste no time in getting that press release out there… what a great opportunity to raise your profile. Then, one of your employees is down the pub on Saturday night and a mate says:

“I see your place got a big contract the other day, Harry. You’ll be keeping busy!”

Harry has no idea what his friend’s talking about. That’s because you forgot to tell your most important group of people first: your staff. It might be fantastic news, but for Harry some of the shine has gone off it by hearing about it second hand. Maybe he feels a bit stupid that his mates knew before he did. Maybe he starts to worry because he doesn’t know what impact it’ll have on him. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely to have him bouncing into work raring to go on Monday morning.

2. Your staff aren’t too positive about you in the pub

Like Ady, who didn’t paint a very positive picture of his company when we were chatting over a glass of wine, if your staff don’t feel informed about what’s happening in your organisation, they’re unable to be good ambassadors for you. Your employees have the potential to be one of your best sources of good publicity – people who help shape opinion about your company in their community. Word of mouth, and all that.

Imagine you’ve had a bad headline after a complaint against your organisation. If you inform your staff and give them the facts, they’ll be able to sit on the bar stool and tell the real story.

“Yes, it’s true that the company was in court, but here’s what really happened…”

Gold dust. Don’t miss out on it.

3. Your staff don’t know what your organisation’s trying to achieve

If you asked 10 members of staff how well the organisation did last year against its goals, what would they say? If they tell you they don’t know what the organisation’s goals are let alone how you collectively did in delivering on them, you have a huge disconnect between the top of your organisation and the people on the front line.

Why does it matter whether your staff know? Let’s pretend you’re selling the same products as a lot of other people, at roughly the same price. You’ve concluded that giving amazing service is your main strategy to win customers over to you. If you help your staff understand that your mission is to offer widgets with service that knocks customers’ socks off, then they’ll know how critical it is to make sure every customer has a great experience. You won’t find them stacking shelves when there’s a long queue at the tills.

4. Staff have been doing things the same way for years – yet there must be more efficient ways

If you tell people to do a very specific job and don’t share the bigger picture, it’s very difficult for them to bring any innovation to the table. You might have a very clear vision for where you want the company to get to, but do the staff know? Your vision might be to be the best pie restaurant in your town by the middle of next year, and you might feel your staff are constantly pulling against you by increasing the range of sausage rolls instead.

No manager has all the answers and if you don’t ask your staff, you’ll never harness their experience, knowledge and skills. You go to all the trouble of recruiting the best people, the thoroughbreds, and you pay top dollar. But then you stop them from running to their full potential because they’re starved – of information.

Let’s pretend you want to get a certain task done, like moving from one corner of a room to the one diagonally opposite. You think you know the best route, and you shuffle your staff round the walls, step by step, micromanaging and issuing specific instructions. Finally, you reach your destination. It’s taken several days, but you’re happy. You celebrate and congratulate your staff. They look at each other puzzled.

“But if that’s what you wanted, why didn’t you just say? I’ve done this before and I know a quicker way, straight through the centre of the room.”

Your staff are frustrated because they’re kept in the dark and their skills aren’t used to their fullest. They’re not being as productive as they could be because you’re not sharing the bigger picture.

5. Your staff turnover is very high

OK, there can be lots of reasons for people leaving and some industries are more prone to it than others. But check that poor communication isn’t playing a role. One of the reasons why the world’s most successful companies invest in internal communication is they understand the role it plays in retaining their best people. And they want to do that because recruiting and training people costs money and decreases productivity. You want to get people to the point of working at their full potential and then keep them there.

Who wouldn’t want to work in an organisation where you really understand what the firm’s trying to achieve, you know your part in it, you know how the firm’s doing and what you can do to keep things going in the right direction. When there are changes coming, you know about them and how they’ll affect you, and you have the chance to talk to managers and leaders in the organisation about the things that matter. A place where people don’t work in silos but ferociously share experience and best practice around the organisation, rather than duplicating effort. Wow! Who’d leave a place like that? Is that your workplace?

In conclusion, these are just a few of the symptoms of poor internal communication, and many of the things that go wrong in organisations can be traced back to it. Of course, there are lots of factors at play in the workplace and they can all affect the golden ideal of ‘engaged’ workforce – things like reward, recognition, development opportunities and management style. Internal communication may be just one of those factors, but it’s a hugely important one.

If you’ve got some sore spots in your organisation that might be symptoms of poor communication and would like an informal chat, feel free to contact me or browse my services that could help.

A love affair with internal comms!

Internal comms and I have been together for most of my career. It was love at first sight. A journey of communications brought us together. Journalism had been my first love, but, what can I say… we grew apart. I was tempted by the lure of corporate communications and struck up a relationship with a job as a media relations officer at City of London Police. That was when internal comms and I first met.

“Jaki, could you write some articles for the staff mag, please?”

It was a can of worms opened – and I loved what I saw inside… a swirling mass of changes to communicate, priorities and progress to report and intrigue people with, projects to help steer. I was hooked. I knew this fascinating stranger was for me, and so I sought out my first fully internal comms role, with Camden Council.

City Police drew me back before long, though, enticed by a new role as internal comms manager. I had arrived! Here I was at the beating heart of the organisation, with my communications as its lifeblood. I was at the centre of all that was going on, helping drive change and progress with my campaigns and channels.

After several happy years, it was time to have a family – my very own internal comms team at the Metropolitan Police Service. We had big challenges to tackle together, but I was enthralled by helping them develop in their roles.

Then, the time came to leave London behind. The north was calling. I adopted a newly formed family at Lancashire County Council and spent two happy years engrossed in the biggest employee engagement programme they’d ever had, along with the biggest budget cuts they’d ever faced.

I followed a dashing film-maker (you’ll read more about him below!). Eden Lighthouse was born, helping organisations in the Eden Valley with their communications. Many of our challenges have been on the external side, from marketing Eden’s food and farming festival for three years running, to chatting to the public about some fantastic local charities. How fantastic it’s been to gain two years of experience in external marketing, discovering the power of social media, websites and all those fantastic tools. But it hasn’t wooed me away from my first love and internal comms remains my passion.