Employee communication during turbulent times – reporting from the CIPR conference
On Monday (it’s been a busy old week!) I chaired the annual Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) internal communication conference in London.
Having largely designed the event and, with my CIPR Inside committee colleagues, found many of the speakers, it was a day I had been looking forward to for some time. And on the whole, it didn’t disappoint.
Nearly 100 communicators came along to hear views and case studies from leading practitioners on the challenge of communicating internally during these fast changing, unpredictable and volatile times.
When we designed the event some six months ago, we had no idea our theme would be quite as topical as it was. Indeed, one of our speakers – Pachi Lanzas of the Spanish banking giant Santander- still managed to fly into London that morning despite announcing the acquisition of a large chunk of Bradford & Bingley the evening before. Now that’s dedication.
The day was split roughly in two – with the focus in the morning being on ‘thought leadership’ and the afternoon on practical case studies.
Keynote Dr Leandro Herrero kicked off the day by introducing delegates to his compelling concept of Viral Change. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Leandro’s work. And he quickly threw down the gauntlet to communicators, challenging many of the assumptions traditional approaches to change management – and change communication – have been built around. No more big programmes – no more Powerpoint – no more broadcast messages – no more plumbing! Stop talking and start doing, he said – real change is about much more than packaging; it’s more than skin deep. It was good, passionate stuff. If you’re interested in finding out more check out Leandro’s online material – including the Disruptive Ideas open book and his Viral Change site.
Former Hill & Knowlton boss David Ferrabee, now MD of Able & How, then took to the stage. David covered a lot of ground – from the context of change (economy, business sector, performance) to the importance of language and culture. Illustrating his point with a rather amusing CEO-to-spotty-teenager translation (courtesy of website www.gotateenager.org.uk) he suggested that just because people speak English, we shouldn’t assume they speak the same English. Point made exquisitely. David also reminded us of the need to stop to think every now and again before churning out yet more content.
Alison Esse, co-founder of The Storytellers, focused on the sometimes nebulous concept of corporate storytelling. In this insightful session she highlighted how simple storytelling techniques can be used to engage employees, get beyond ‘show & tell’, promote peer-to-peer communication, recognise the heroes that exist inside every organisation and build a more emotional connection between an organisation and its people.
Pachi Lanzas, head of group internal comms at Santander, then gave us a rare and fascinating peek into his role as communicator-in-chief for this growing, thriving international bank. Rather than being hit by the global credit crunch, Santander appears to be going from strength-to-strength during these tough times. You can hear what he had to say over at www.simply-communicate.com (thanks to Marc Wright and the Simply team for the video).
Hay Group’s Stephen Welch told us to pause before pressing the panic button. He argued that there are three critical areas communicators should focus on during turbulent times – clarity of direction (answering that all important ‘where are we heading?’ question), leadership style (helping your CEO look good naked) and reward communicators (addressing the ‘what’s in it for me?’)
Mid afternoon saw Matthew Hall of GE Oil & Gas present an excellent case study on the change journey his organisation has been on in recent years. His session underlined many of the points made by previous speakers – the importance of face-to-face, the need to tackle the emotional as well as the rational, why audience segmentation matters, and how to listen to your people. He showed that change doesn’t happen overnight (people need time to adapt to the new world order) and that not everyone will want to join you for the ride (some employees just won’t fit in a newly combined organisation).
Paul Inglefield and Ashley Wilcox of Camden Council shared their experience of introducing a new vision and values following a change in political control for the first time in 30 years. They used a variety of interesting techniques, including quirky cartoon-based visuals and a funky board gamed called ‘Clued-Up Camden’.
And finally, Anne Eriksen told how the global shipping group Maersk Line approached the challenge of communicating a major change which involved the first layoffs in the company’s long history. A first class case study in how to approach change communication, Anne and her team made created a strong internal network to ensure they were close to the thinking/action and used techniques like learning maps and a computer game to get their messages across.
So what were the big take-aways for me? Here is my list of eight (my words – one key point or observation from each session…)
- No longer is our role as internal communicators about maintaining the plumbing – it’s about cooking the spaghetti! (a reference to the spaghetti-like networks that existing inside organisations and which are, if you buy the Viral Change approach, the key to driving real behaviour change)
- Context is key – take time to understand the internal and external environment in which you’re operating – the economy, the performance of the business, the sector you’re operating in, the organisational culture.
- Storytelling isn’t rocket science, but it can be as powerful as rocket fuel – focus on capturing simple ‘real world’ stories and finding a way to share them internally.
- Don’t wait until the shit hits the fan to start listening to employees – tune into the grapevine, get those feedback channels working and begin creating a genuine conversation now.
- Don’t lose sight of the basics – HR communications, in particular, become increasingly important (and increasingly scrutinised) during times of change
- Get under the skin of your audience – understand who they are, where they are and what makes them tick; profile them; segment them; identify the influencers (or, as Leandro would say, those who can infect their colleagues with your change virus..)
- Set clear, measurable objectives at the outset – and then you’ll be able to measure your progress later on
- Get the right support team in place – not just the core comms team, but the wider network of champions/supporters/coordinators/internal advocates – and consultants!
All in all, an interesting and thought-provoking day.