Analysis

Seven Internal Communications Ideas to Support Your Recovery Plan

James Midmer

Strategic internal communications will be vital in supporting successful businesses plan for the recovery phase of COVID-19. Structural announcements and ‘call to arms’ letters will soon need to be replaced with steadier communications plans that bring recovery missions alive, build up a wider management team and empower staff to make the right decisions.

Success will also have a direct impact on wider stakeholder sentiment, especially customers. Engaged employees can be the best promoters, whilst unhappy employees are potentially among your worst detractors and a reputational threat to any organisation.

Shaping actions with reputational considerations in mind

The starting point, as with good external communications, is shaping actions with reputational considerations in mind, then communicating them in the most effective way for each specific organisation. This is especially true now.

Stakeholders will be keen for management to take the best of the measures being enacted in this crisis; around executive pay, flexibility, welfare, operational culture and CSR programmes; and continue them into everyday life. There are sceptics already out there in the media and you can be sure they are present up and down organisations too:

“For now, though, I have a sense boards are doing the minimum necessary to shield themselves from reputational damage. The real proof of chief executives’ appetite for sacrifice and solidarity will come as they emerge from the acute phase of the pandemic.” (Andrew Hill, Financial Times)

External stakeholders will want this crisis to be a catalyst for cultural change and a more conscious form of capitalism. Employees may want to reset the core values of an organisation, potentially even its strategy, and feel recognition for supporting a business through the crisis.

The best companies will ultimately adapt the best of the current extraordinary commercial and operational measures into long-term plans that demonstrate real care for customers, colleagues and the wider community. And then communicate these plans in the most effective way…

First class internal communications to bring recovery missions alive

There are several factors for businesses to weigh up in their internal communications including the style and frequency of contact within their current culture, the channels available throughout the organisation, the skillset of their management teams and the amount of operational detail they can share within their reporting requirements.

All of these vary by business, but there are some good principles to follow:

1. Now is the time for the Chief in CEO

Situations like this cry out for leadership and can be an opportunity to sharpen a CEO’s communications approach. How often does she / he communicate now? What are their most effective characteristics to use? Through what channels are they comfortable operating?

Whilst most companies will have this covered, it doesn’t hurt to check and establish a ‘personal’ support network, either client or agency side, to check whether a format is appropriate and if messages will resonate.

For those needing to increase visibility, it’s best to keep it short, informal and regular; a Monday look at the week’s agenda, a ‘live chat’ Friday Q&A via Slack or Skype (rather than ‘Ask the CEO’ inboxes, which often feel static and staffed by others), or more regular intranet shout-outs recognising excellent work.

The key is sharing personal content in a lively format and, crucially, using an authentic medium. There’s nothing better than a CEO being genuinely present in an everyday forum. There’s nothing worse than appearing overly scripted on a channel that isn’t regularly used.

The CEO also has the greatest power to reach people outside the organisation; this could now include furloughed staff and part-time workers. So it’s worth thinking how they can use their own channels to keep those colleagues feeling connected.

2. Plan for the internal to go external

Now more than ever it’s essential to draft all internal communications with the assumption they will go external. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.

That means strategically aligning your internal and external communications for every key development. Whilst this can seem intimidating, it can also be empowering: internal updates are often a reliable way of highlighting new initiatives to other stakeholders, and managers can play a key role.

To support this, it’s important to have a full line of sight over messages being distributed in your business; ensuring managers understand the impact of what they are saying, and where to go if they need support. It’s never too late to review policies to make sure they are clear and supportive.

3. Share the load across your senior team

This will be a marathon, not a sprint. Just as No.10 have ‘the Grid’ to share key announcements across Cabinet, think about your internal communications as a team effort and select the most relevant person in the senior team to convey each piece of key news.

No one wants to hear everything from the same source; it’s a real switch off. You may also want to keep the CEO back for the major announcements and townhalls.

This is a real chance to raise the profile of your senior team; think ahead to the key developments that will need to be communicated and how to play each senior team member in. If they don’t feel comfortable, or want some training, now’s the time to find out.

4. Feedback! Consult, collaborate and empower your teams

It’s generally accepted that you stand more chance of getting someone to do something you want them to do if it becomes their idea. Within reason, can you widen the number of colleagues participating directly in decision-making?

Scheduling a regular COO call for middle managers and selected ‘influencers’ can be a chance to shape policy with views from teams on the ground. Some companies have successfully introduced a Junior Board with a specific remit, meeting regularly with the main Board.

These groups can then be supported with key messages to deliver directly to colleagues, and even indirectly to wider stakeholders via their social media channels.

Ensuring superb C-Level communications is pointless if colleagues can’t get regular answers from their managers and people they trust, and views from the front-line aren’t relayed up the chain. It’s also vital to give your wider management team a stake in the recovery. And it never hurts to have the ‘master list’ of the most influential people in your business, even if they aren’t directly within the hierarchy.

5. Know your business

All businesses have their own structure, rhythm and expectations around internal communications, but are these formally known and written down?

As a rule, people typically prefer to receive messages in a way they are used to seeing them, so having a clear idea on existing channels, whether that’s Slack, Workplace, Zoom, SMS or Newsletters, is likely to support your activity better than launching another new channel or initiative.

If you haven’t already done so; a quick audit of which communications forums are currently in place, who controls them, what their audience figures are, and how often corporate information is currently shared on them, can be very useful to factor into fast-moving situations.

Judging how frequently you should update could also be a useful exercise. COVID-19 recovery will be a separate issue on the agenda and staff will expect more; but how much more before interest starts to wane and messages stop landing?

There’s no perfect answer but creating either a regular pulse survey, or an informal forum of staff (at all levels) could be a good way to gauge views on the current level of contact, the areas colleagues want to know about and who they want to hear from. It’s not always the obvious people…

6. Keep the content relevant and the tone compassionate (and hopeful)

Before communicating anything there are two key rules that are useful to apply; 1. Is it saying something new? 2. Does it sound like it’s coming from a human being?

Should any communications fail the first test, throw it out. Whilst it’s tempting to over-communicate, staff will quickly switch off if there’s no new information, or anything to act upon. Would they tell their partner or closest friends about the update that’s coming, or the charitable initiative you’re joining?

The second test is a useful lens, especially when the news is difficult. Colleagues tend to hear of everything that’s in the works and like to be the first to know the detail. If they can’t be the first to know, everyone appreciates an honest appraisal of the reason why and a timeline for when they can.

If significant structural changes are being planned in your organisation, or are likely to appear in the media, is your first port of call the internal message, and the sequencing of who will be contacted and when? If it’s not, it needs to be.

7. Use your communications advisors effectively

Finally, make sure you use your team. The more people you can ask, “if you saw this, what would you think”, the more prepared you will be for the reaction and the greater the opportunity to tailor messaging.

Speak to your advisors, test the messaging on them, and make sure you leave enough time to redraft and rehearse. It’s almost always worth the extra effort.

We can help.

We have significant experience in advising clients on their employee engagement programmes and can bring unique experience and insights to support you in executing yours.

In the weeks and months to come, we will share examples of emerging internal communications trends, best practice in messaging, and ideas that bring recovery missions alive.

We know your stories and we know your team, so if you need more structured support in this area; please get in touch.