Lets talk about communication

Posted on 5 May 2009 by The Manufacturer

In a digital age, with the reality of instant communications bringing even police procedure under immediate and intense scrutiny, how does a modern company control its internal and external messages? Ruari McCallion plugs himself in.

It ain’t what you say, it’s the way you decide to say it, to paraphrase the song. Corporate communications are instant and their audience is vast, voracious and demanding, whether press and media, shareholders or consumers and the public at large. Messages do not just come from official channels either. Newspapers and broadcast media are forever looking for bad news stories, that disgruntled employees or other sources may be willing to give them, even if their motives are not strictly malicious.

It looks like it must be impossible to control communications, so should one invest valuable time and resources even trying? The consensus is probably yes, even if it may seem like a Canute exercise.

“Internal communications are becoming more important, particularly as people form opinions of organisations by the vibes they get from those they meet who work there,” says Annie Noble, founder and principal of Noble Ink, which specialises in B2B communications. “Getting your staff ‘on message’ is key. And in a recession, when people are worried about their jobs, clear communication about the company’s future is vital to ensure that staff buy in and stick with you.”

Comms boost Bentley’s output
That last point has often been made by companies that have successfully implemented Lean transformations, effectively managed change and otherwise delivered business improvement. Bentley Motors, in Crewe, invested a lot of time in preparing the ground for the implementation of the Bentley Production System (BPS), within which continuous improvement is integral. The associates, i.e. employees, are involved in generating ideas for improvement — the final layout of the assembly hall wasn’t exactly what the BPS steering team had in mind but if it had ignored every one of the 4,000 suggestions that emerged in the first 18 months of the process, enthusiasm would soon have waned. As it is, Bentley employees continue to exude passion and zeal for their work, according to the company. And the result of the improvement drive was an increase in output from fewer than 1,000 cars a year to over 9,000. It could be more but the company uses the additional time available to look for and implement further improvement opportunities.

Communication is a two-way process and people appreciate being listened to. The converse is also the case: if they are not listened to, then suggestions will dry up and opportunities for improvement will wane.

How, then, to best communicate internally?
There are two considerations: ongoing activities and management of big changes. The classic method is by e-newsletter and, broadly speaking, this can be quite effective. News like which employee has done something special, a significant contract, achievements within particular divisions or product lines. Employees like reading about themselves and hearing about colleagues’ successes. But this can be overdone: a weekly company newsletter can quickly find its way into the ‘round file’, unless the company’s activities are so diverse and inspiring there is enough to fill a news issue every week. The message is: let people know when there is something of interest, rather than the ‘same old, same old’. A good example of overkill is the Daily Mirror, when Robert Maxwell owned it; the more exposure given to him, the more the sales figures fell.

Get it on the board
One contract catering organisation issued a newsletter every time it opened one of its new-style workplace restaurants. It featured interviews and profiles of key staff, including their successes in competitions, and background on the client company. It helped to build a momentum that the change in business — and it was big, from running purely functional canteens to ‘food court’ offers — was happening, that it was successful and was helping to attract custom. Similar campaigns have worked with Lean projects and ERP implementation.

Information about change is a relatively easy sell but how important are communications in the day-to-day humdrum round of work? Vital, some companies would claim. Boards, visible data display, team targets and planned progress are all part of the information menu. They help people know and understand where they are and how they are performing. Management can see in a moment if there is a problem and the workforce can see quickly what is being done about it. That raises the other side – if nobody can be bothered to respond, the reporting will fall into disrepute. BAE Systems Submarine Solutions achieved some remarkable results, in terms of cutting work times, through discussing new ideas, implementing them and using visual management boards to both manage and to communicate. British Gypsum too have had measurable success by providing more key information on the factory floor, as East Leake site manager, Darren Wilson, explains:

“Visualisation forms a massive part of the World Class Manufacturing programme at British Gypsum. From Policy Deployment to the use of images and symbols on machinery to aid autonomous maintenance, it encompasses everything we do and has proved to be highly effective in terms of ensuring British Gypsum and Saint-Gobain Gypsum strategic objectives are understood and successfully met.”

“In terms of Continuous Improvement projects, performance data from across the business is analysed to provide graphical representation illustrating the biggest opportunities for improvement,” he adds. “The correct tools for tackling losses are identified and action plans are transferred to activity boards in relevant areas across the site. These boards provide clear reference points to ensure everyone involved, from director to shop floor operator, knows exactly what is required of them at all times.”

Effective communications turn your own employees into valuable evangelists for the organisation, whether it is simply to endorse ‘a good place to work’ or putting over the company’s side in a crisis, for example. This is where internal and external communications structures overlap, and where the decision on whether to use internal or third-party communications organisations is focused.

Going public
“PR is both a conduit and a damp blanket,” says Noble at Noble Ink. “It’s a great channel to get your key messages across if you get your strategy and tactics right but it’s also a vital channel to use in a crisis, as long as you communicate carefully.” However, for too many companies, careful can equate to ‘deny everything’, which is a foolish strategy in a crisis. Before, during and after sorting out the actual problem, communicating your solution and progress effectively to staff, customers and the outside world is vital.

“PR is one of the things good crisis managers cater for,” Andrew Masterson, of commercial lawyers Pinsent Masons LLP says, when discussing crises. “They will
identify what will be said in certain circumstances, and what to say.” Communication may be necessary to fulfil legal obligations and it will help to reassure the wider community that the problem is under control. Perception of failure to manage a crisis effectively is a quick way of losing trust and confidence and effective communications are, to the outside world, how you are managing the situation: the medium becomes the message. For an example of good and bad, look no further than drinks company Perrier, when the benzene problem was initially denied and then followed with the brilliant ‘Helleau’ advertising campaign.

But public relations is not just about crisis management. It has a vital role to play in communicating the company’s message, managing information and determining reaction. Journalists (like your author) can find PR agencies both invaluable sources of information and infuriating obstructions when they want to get probing questions answered quickly and accurately. Some companies (including, perhaps especially, the big names) are so much into control of their communications that they don’t want to be mentioned in the media at all, without their permission. Even quoting publicly available information has been known to raise objections. That is plain daft and gives the impression of paranoia, which surely should not be the intention. Wanting to manage the message is one thing and acceptable as part of ‘the game’ of communications, but total control is neither feasible nor desirable. Not feasible because journalists will, in the end, write what they wish, and even quote ‘no comment’ or ‘they were unavailable for comment’, if that is appropriate. A few such references in an article, or a history of this, and the company concerned can begin to look foolish — as did the Government, when the BBC’s Newsnight programme tried to get a response to an ongoing issue and showed an empty chair, night after night, until someone came along to fill it. Failure to respond does not show control, it demonstrates a lack of it.

In-house or external?
Which works better, external PR agencies or internal departments? The internal department is part of the company and can be trusted explicitly to transmit the message their senior management desire. An external agency is not part of the organisation. At its most base, their loyalty is for hire but it is more fair to perceive it as dispassionate and more able to give a lateral view – even, if they have the freedom or courage, to provide advice and direction that is against the prevailing thinking. That advice can be invaluable and can give a refreshing dose of reality.

“My approach with any new client is this: what are you trying to say, who are you trying to say it to and what are the best ways of reaching these people, with those messages, within the budget you have available,” Noble says. “Then you need to think about whether the message you are trying to get across is actually viably communicated by whichever method you’re thinking about. For example, these days straight product launches aren’t as easy to communicate via the press, particularly in the b2b world.”

This is a valid point. PR is not advertising and journals are rarely going to be as excited about a new widget as the company will be – it has to be newsworthy. The relationship between publications and companies is symbiotic: both need each other. But neither is the master. The more that is understood, the better the relationship will be and the more effective the company’s communications strategy becomes.