What I heard at the National Housing Federation Comms Event 2018

Yesterday I was invited to speak at the National Housing Federation Comms Event in London to talk about how you can demonstrate impact and value in internal communications. I hadn’t attended a specific housing event before and it was great to see over 250 people together to learn, discuss and network about challenges and share successes.

Interestingly all the speakers were from outside the housing sector so I was lucky enough to hear how behavioural insights can impact bottom line, what Macmillan Cancer Support is doing to engage a workforce spread across the office and the road and some truly inspiring case studies highlighting what to do in a crisis.

These were my highlights:

EAST Framework: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights

I have always believed in the power of personalisation so I loved listening to Ed Fitzhugh talking about how it made a measurable impact in changing behaviour. We don’t do much of this internally but the best social intranet I built was personalised as people could subscribe to content relevant to them – it made cutting through the noise much easier!

The framework he covered can be found here. EAST stands for Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

The examples shared included simple changes like directing people to the form online rather than a website – removing a click to make it easier for people to get to the information we want them to get to.  Using personalised content that is more attractive by referencing details about your car or your registration to pay tax in time. I enjoyed the reference to nudge theory (especially as the #icbookclub choice for this month is Inside the Nudge Unit) and how using social norms can drive change – using phrases like nine out of ten people pay on time. Using texts with a combination of the personalisation and social norms at times that will generate the best responses was a good reminder of the importance of different mediums.

Pledge to Polly and Yambassadors!

The campaign examples from Macmillan Cancer Research were a good reminder of the use of creativity and humour in the workplace. The pledge to Polly campaign was all about encouraging people to read and follow policies – with a video, poster campaigns and a bit of humour they engaged employees across the business.

Having introduced O365 in the business they embarked on an engagement and adoption campaign around Yammer – there were some great examples shared about how they did this and some top tips to get the basics right (remove technical barriers, integrate, tailor training and support, recruit yambassadors and have a strong internal comms presence).

When it’s a crisis, it’s always about people

This whistle-stop tour of crisis comms included Amanda Coleman from Greater Manchester Police, Alicia Custis from Stockport NHS Foundation Trust and Nicola King from Teneo Blue Rubicon. I would have loved to have spent more time on these sessions as what they had to share was incredibly helpful and relevant for every comms professional.

There were so many takeaways from this session but here the list I captured from the sessions:

  • Put people, victims and families at the heart and ensure they remain the priority
  • There were five elements to reputation management: Media, Social Media, Stakeholders, Police, Victims and Families
  • Be prepared
  • Ensure people are media trained – I know a great trainer for this if you’re looking!
  • Have good relationships with the media
  • The communications strategy needs to be integrated across social media, digital and your channels
  • Credibility is key

Be strategic with the tactical

During my session on internal communication I shared my model for internal communication – a model I always used when in-house – and I shared five top tips to help you demonstrate value and create impact:

  1. Have data to support your business case and to measure success
  2. Invest in yourself – your opinion is not good enough in the boardroom
  3. Have a conversation – don’t be afraid to ask what value looks like to them
  4. Be strategic with the tactical
  5. Solve business problems with better communication

Thank you to the National Housing Federation communications team for organising a great day with some fantastic speakers. You can follow all the updates on Twitter under #nfhcomms18

Four things I heard at the Employee Engagement Awards Conference

Last week I attended my first Employee Engagement Awards Conference – hosted by Ruth Dance and organised by Matt Manners and the team behind the global employee engagement awards.

I was excited to attend a conference dedicated to employee engagement as it’s been a while since I attended something that wasn’t focussed purely on communication.

There were some great case studies and as I was only there for the morning, it gave me time to reflect on some of the themes in the case studies:

1. Employee experience is the new employee engagement
Although the two are different, we seem to be talking more about the whole employee experience than ever before. I have always talked about the difference between employee engagement and internal communication and I believe that the employee experience is the term that could join us together to support organisations empower the workforce.

2. Leadership style makes all the difference
It was brilliant to hear some fantastic case studies from Southampton FC and HomeServe and as I listened to the campaigns and the leadership styles that engaged the workforce it struck me that not everyone is that lucky. Not all leaders feel the same about internal communication or the employee experience – I have been lucky enough to work with both but I think the most rewarding work has been when you are challenged to really demonstrate how what you do can add value and make an impact.

3. Customer service and the employee experience need to have the same focus
Save the shoes! I loved the story from Temkin Group about how a focus on loss prevention can make the job for the employee incredibly difficult which in turn can lead to a bad customer experience. The other day I was discussing exactly this in a workshop where we talked about creating policies for the few rather than the many – sadly it does seem to be the norm, often going against the purpose of the organisation.

Hearing from M&S about their campaign to engage sector managers from their head of customer experience just reinforced the point that what goes on on the inside shows up on the outside (a phrase I heard first at the CIPR Inside conference in November and something I know Rachel Miller is presenting on at the IOIC conference in May).

4. Think strategically about your communication model
It’s easy to find a communication fix to one business problem – it’s harder to review it alongside others and create a strategy and plan that joins the dots. I heard some great case studies and great examples of campaigns to engage managers but worryingly some were in isolation to the broader communication strategy. In my experience this has a good quick win but without the thinking behind it and the overarching strategy it is unlikely to succeed long term. We know from the latest research from Gatehouse that there are still few internal comms teams with a strategy in place and I think a lot of this is down to the immediacy we live in today. Always take the time to think about how you’re going to engage and communicate with your workforce, manage stakeholders and align the timescales and it will create lasting change rather than a quick fix.

Thank you to Matt and the team – I left the morning with some great ideas for clients and a reinforcement that data and customer engagement go hand in hand with internal communications .

What is the state of the sector?

Last week I attended the Gatehouse (Gallagher Communications) State of the Sector research*. It was an insightful morning with some good debate in the room and a clear desire to further understand some of the data points.

The research shows the results from over 650 communication professionals representing more than 400 organisations and based all over the world. 57% said their remit was purely internal communications.

Our focus for the next 12 months:

  1. Communicating strategy, values and purpose
  2. Improving digital channels
  3. Enhancing leadership communications
  4. Supporting a change and/or transformation programme
  5. Developing/refreshing an internal comms strategy

How has this changed to previous years? Interestingly the top one has seen a drop by 5% taking it back to the level in 2016, although still top of the list, and the fourth point about supporting a change/transformation programme has seen a significant drop – 8% – the lowest it has been for several years.

The barriers to success:

  1. Poor line manager communication skills
  2. Internal technology not fit for purpose /legacy systems
  3. Hard to reach employees
  4. Volume of communication too high/lack of time for employees to read communications
  5. Lack of resource/budget/investment

The issue of technology and the hard to reach employees have both seen a significant rise in 2018 at 6% for both. Interestingly in the table you can see that the barrier of the hard to reach employee has risen up the list and in 2017 would have been at the bottom of the top five.

What I find interesting about these two points is the lack of correlation between the barriers and the focus for the next 12 months. The barrier of line manager communication has been on the list for a number of years, yet it never seems to make it into the focus list – what’s stopping us from investing the time and resource into getting this right?

The channel mix is shifting, and we aren’t seeing much change in the use of social channels

We still use email the most and regardless of effectiveness it comes out as the main channel for most audiences – leaders, line managers.  There is a rise in printed newsletters – and it’s not a small rise either with a 40% gap between the 2017 and 2018 data. I would suggest that we need to define a newsletter as to how it differs from a magazine, but I wonder if the rise is due to the difficulty in communicating with hard to reach employees.

The social channels piece was startling. Since 2014 our use of social channels is at best limited, followed by embryonic, non-existent and then advanced. At every event I have been to social media inside organisations comes up and yet we are still seeing little movement to the advanced stages. Is there an average time for the changes to take place? Is it a five-year journey and next year we will see some of these numbers really shift? I’m not sure. 

The research also shows that in 2017 75% of respondents were planning to invest in their digital channels and this year this has dropped by 5%. Is this because we are tired of trying to invest in systems that aren’t fit for purpose? Or because we need to focus on other things? Either way, improving digital channels was in the list for the focus for the next 12 months so I’m intrigued to know what this looks like, if it isn’t investment in either the platform, the training or the engagement.

There is an alignment issue

There is an 11% drop on the point that leaders and the internal communications team agree on the role and purpose of internal communications. There is a 6% drop in the internal comms function having a clearly articulated purpose and there is a 5% increase in the lack of clarity around the organisational strategy.

The research published by CIPR Inside in November 2017 highlighted the importance of aligning the function’s role with leadership – without it, success will be hard to reach. We know that defining internal communication is difficult given the broadness of the role and alignment inside your organisation is paramount to success. Seeing such a shift in these numbers is still a surprise and a trend I hope we can reverse in 2018.

Overall, I left the session thinking we have yet to drill into the content side of communications. We don’t talk about the messages or what we are talking about – it’s just the channels, leadership and team information. I wrote the word content down about six times during the 70-minute session because for me, all the points above suggest a need to take a look at the content strategy, alongside the channel strategy and ensuring all of it is working behind a common strategy and purpose.

* Caveat from the team: The results are a little different from previous years as they had many more responses from the US than they usually do

The future of marcomms

Last week I was part of the panel discussion around the future of marketing communications at the CIPR Marketing Communications group event in London. It was a great evening with a few of us talking about the journey of PR as a profession, the use of digital and video and the fundamentals of PR. I was talking internal communications – looking forward and back.

For the 10-minute talk I took five themes that I think are important today and will be in the future so I thought I would share my thinking here:

Specifically trust in leadership which we know from the latest Edelman survey is on the rise. What we saw this year for the first time was a drop in the trust of peers to an all-time low. This brings us to fake news which for me is just a new phrase for the rumour mill inside organisations. Overall the trust piece is about authenticity. Our profession is so much more than ghost writing for the CEO as it used to be and I can see this trend of leaders taking ownership and accountability for their own communication continuing into 2018 and beyond.

Verification and Governance
As we see the rise of fake news we also see the importance of verification and governance. How often do we still hear “it’s ok, it’s only internal”? It’s not ok. Firstly, your employees deserve the same rigour to the story you’re writing as any external stakeholder and secondly, there is no such thing as truly internal content. Running a global comms team after an IPO was my first experience of the importance of verification and governance and using the same thoroughness through all our communication channels only improved our internal reputation. With the rise of Glassdoor and employee reviews online, verifying and having governance across channels has never been more important.

Corporate reputation
Glassdoor raises further questions or statements for organisations – what happens on the inside shows up on the outside. We can no longer create a consumer brand that doesn’t reflect the same values internally. The number of emails that are leaked to the press during times of crisis, or videos of customer experiences that are shared online – the risk with our current technology is huge. Let’s avoid the risk and ensure that when we talk about corporate reputation, the internal communicator is at the heart of that conversation.

I have recently been catching up Black Mirror – the 2014 episode ‘White Christmas’ is almost a reality today as we introduce Voice into our homes and are able to control the lighting, temperature and more from afar. AI is the big trend we seem to come back to – through fear of the unknown and curiosity – and the trend I think we will start to get underneath this year. For internal communicators, the rise of the chatbot seems to be high on the list of technology to explore.

We are seeing the conversations around ESN move to a discussion on the integration of a variety of digital channels – there is no one size fits all and we need to talk about content alongside the channels to make them work for our organisations – it’s time to move away from talking channels independently of content.

Data is something I’m talking about more and more. How we do we follow the same approach as Marketing to build data profiles for audience segmentation, content mapping and measuring what we do.

Basic skills
As we get caught up in the newest tech and shiny new toys to play with our basic skills as communicators are the fundamental elements that leaders are looking for. We should be confident in writing stories, constructing messages based on the content we are given and knowing how to use the right channel to reach the right audience. We talk a lot about being strategic but we shouldn’t forget the absolute basics. The importance of line manager communications is still a big topic on the barrier list to success and it has been there for at least 10 years – maybe it’s time to look at some of these less strategic challenges and get them right before we run to try and sit in the Boardroom.

You can see more about the event on Twitter using #futureofmarcomms and there are some great takeaways from the other presenters on there as well – including a list of tools mentioned by @wadds during his talk about how technology is enhancing insights into audiences and how PRs are harnessing that power to develop strategic communications.


Should we view change as a specialist skill or is it the norm?

When I think about specialisms within our profession PR, media relations, Public Affairs, Internal Communications etc. come to mind – but not Change. This thought came to mind as I was looking at research which specified change management as a discipline and when I was looking at a job spec for a permanent role which was a change specialist.

The question that came to mind was around whether anyone permanent would consider change a separate skill and whether it is only interim consultants that cover the change programmes today.

I have worked in-house in communications for 13 years and I would never consider change a specific skill. However, I have managed communications around new CEO’s, COO’s and CFO’s, a company going through an IPO and another being acquired as well as large IT programmes like adoption of enterprise social networks or a new email provider – yet I don’t think about change as anything different to the day job.

So is there a disconnect between what employers are asking for and what communicators see as a distinction within the internal comms specialism? And does anyone in-house consider themselves a change specialist?

I took to LinkedIn to ask the question and was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in my thinking that change is business as usual but also surprised to see change as a specific role within the communications function with many people commenting ‘I’m in-house and I specialise in change’.

Thank you to those that took the time to answer – here are some of those comments:

  • I would agree with you because ‘change’ is often viewed as a finite project. But transformation is becoming BAU for many organisations, so perhaps change comms roles might become a more permanent feature. (Philippa Melaniphy)
  • Change is BAU. Does anyone know any in-house practitioners not working on change? But when PMOs are set up to manage a change programme, IC functions are normally stretched to their limits and have no capacity/capability. So they go to the interim market. This is the product of underinvestment and downsizing. IC functions that are set up in a project-based structure are always more effective than those that follow the Ulrich model. That’s my experience anyway. Hope that helps. (Sean Trainor)
  • I handled change comms in house, along with a team, we handled all internal comms but it included big and small scale change as part of an ongoing transformation programme. (Jennifer Hayward)
  • I did this and it was highly effective. Though to what Sean Trainor said, all leaders must be skilled in managing change. What I found was often, leaders and managers believed change management was all communications. It is not. Communication is crucial, but Comms can’t be solely responsible for managing change within the organization. Leaders have to be willing to buy in, articulate the why and be willing to have the hard conversations around the decisions that have or are being made. (Kelli Holland, JD, MBA, CBP )
  • I think most comms people I talk to are involved in communicating change. It may not be the bulk of what they do, and every organisation/situation is different, but it’s there to some extent. That said, there’s a good market for experienced change comms interims because a) they can bring specific experience to the table and b) change comms is often linked to (and paid for by) the programme team, so it’s seen as a short term need, hence not perm. (Mark Muscroft)

Interestingly the 2017 Inside Insight report from VMA Group shows that 61% of interim contracts are linked to change programmes and change management is in the top 5 important skills for IC professionals in the future – so clearly not just an interim role in today’s communication function.

On Twitter @wetfootprints replied to the question to say that “The company environment has to be open enough to have a continuous improvement/change culture otherwise will always be seen as temp fix.” And I’m left wondering if company culture needs to shift into this mindset, using the skills of change management and change communication to continually evolve in today’s climate.

Is internal social media a danger to mental health?

Earlier this year I started following Matt Haig on Twitter. This was partly because I was taking part in the charity ride to Hull which was linked to men’s mental health and suicide prevention. A few weeks ago, Matt shared an article he had written about social media and the links it has to depression and overall mental health. For many this isn’t news. We know that the likes and comments on social media release dopamine in our systems – the same chemical we release when we drink, take drugs or gamble. The dangers are easy to see when you look at the science and when you see more and more people putting their highlight reel online for all to see and compare to.

I started a brief Twitter conversation on how this translates to social media inside the workplace and realised quickly that 140 characters wasn’t going to be enough to get my thinking across (even the new 280 won’t cut it).

What is the potential damage of social media inside organisations? No one thought social media could be linked to the likes of drink and drugs when it started but the parallels are frighteningly real.

I’m not comparing like for like here. Internal social media isn’t necessarily about sharing your photos from your holiday and projecting a perfect life. But, as a manager of a retail store, how do I feel when someone smashes their target and posts it online for all employees to like and share? Am I left feeling deflated and depressed that I haven’t done so well without knowing all the facts about how they achieved it?

Are we mature enough, cultural, for the manager without the great sales to comment with a question asking how did you do it? Any tips? Or are we still fostering competitive environments inside the workplace that go against every grain of collaboration you can imagine? I fear the latter.

Being ok with failure, being ok with saying I don’t know is not easy. We don’t live in a world where making a u-turn is ok. We are under huge pressure to know everything and to just get on with it. But not all of us can, and we shouldn’t have to.

The buzz around wellbeing has been on the corporate agenda for a number of years but what is this really? As we introduce these new channels to the workplace are we considering the mental health aspects? Are we considering the introverts, the late adopters, the people who want to come and do a great job and go home?

Can our wellbeing plans catch up with the pace of society and the reality that a charity bake sale and football match won’t cut it? Can the workplace start to explore its role in our now dopamine filled lives and help us get back to some of the basics of human behaviour? Can we have time in meetings to chat about our weekends, rules to put the phones away and regular breaks on the agenda to check in on things outside the room?

We are not too busy to take this seriously. We are not mindless enough to rush from meeting to meeting, task to task without considering the impact of it all. And social media inside organisations needs to come with a little warning – think about the impact on people and think about the culture you are trying to create. It’s not just a channel, for many it is the only way they know how to communicate.