navigating internal comms? it’s plain sailing.

Remember when you didn’t work in comms? When you didn’t have access to every possible piece of information about your organisation? When you had no idea who the chief executive was and there was more chance of winning Euromillions than you ever meeting them in the flesh?

by Jo Smith

I have to go back 20 years to my graduate days to be ‘BC’ – Before Comms.  Back then people still used typewriters. Email was barely born, mobile phones were the size of suitcases and if you wanted news you read the paper.  Since then I’ve watched communications techniques evolve and have done my best to keep up with every exhausting and exciting step.

But this summer I’ve gone back to the floor and back in time.  I’ve swapped sharp suits for a life jacket and taken a job as a lock keeper on the Crinan Canal. And in the process I’ve seen internal comms from the other side for the first time in my career.

The Crinan Canal is a physical communications channel – a nine mile stretch of water linking Loch Fyne with the Sound of Jura, saving sailors the bother of battling with the notorious Mull of Kintyre.  Opened in 1801, the canal still functions according to the immovable laws of physics and has largely been unaffected by technology.

It cuts through jaw dropping scenery and is staffed by a team of lock keepers who assist boats (mostly yachts) on their passage (which could take more than one day) and also keep the canal area looking fantastic. The scenery and location make for an unforgettable experience but wreak havoc with internal comms.

 You can’t rely on mobile phones. Round here getting ‘G’ can be a challenge, never mind 4G. There are no PCs with broadband in the tiny shed-like bothys used by staff for tea breaks. Many of the team are working alone, wearing ear defenders as they cut grass and strim verges. So how do you keep a team of disparate workers engaged and informed when the geography and technology won’t help you?

I’ve been impressed by the efforts I’ve seen to keep the canal’s lock keepers informed. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1.       Don’t underestimate word of mouth

The fastest way to get information along the nine miles of the canal is using jungle drums. Or good old fashioned telephone. Nothing travels faster than word of mouth.  Messages move from lock to lock via telephone, bike, boat and van at surprising speed.

2.       A good manager is worth their weight in leaflets

Team leaders and managers aren’t just there to be ‘the boss’ – they’re a vital distribution channel . Recruit, train and nurture managers who are expert and natural communicators. Invest in their ability to extract and share information – you won’t regret it.

3.       Paper is your friend

Posters and noticeboards still play a vital comms role – especially when staff don’t have easy access to online information - but don’t overdo it. Invest in good design and razor sharp copywriting to make sure the message is eyecatching and instantly understood.  No-one wants to read 500 words on a poster.

4.       Online still counts

Lock keepers might not have easy access to online information at work but they likely do at home. Make heroic efforts to encourage staff to use online when they’re not working.  This means intranet content needs to feel  light and relaxed. No-one wants to wade through over-written corporate-speak while they’re sofa surfing and watching Eastenders. (or ever)

5.       So do newspapers and staff magazines

Where online is a challenge, print media is still king. My colleagues are daily newspaper buyers – both local and national. They all read the staff magazine from cover to cover  – even if none of them will admit it. And they all secretly love it when they see someone they know on the pages.  If you’ve still got budget for a printed staff magazine fight to keep it!

6.       Team meetings are essential – just don’t call them ‘team meetings’

The ten minute tea drinking session before work starts is the golden time for comms with a dispersed workforce. Everyone is together before they scurry off in different directions and they’re all chatting – often about work-related issues. It’s informal and it’s a great place to share information. Once you put these sessions into the diary, call them ‘team meetings’ and make them compulsory they transform into torture sessions that no-one wants to attend.

7.       Mind your language

You already know to keep your content appropriate for your audience. My colleagues don’t ‘ascertain whether or not the bindings securing the vessel are sufficiently and appropriately tensioned’. They check the ropes are tight enough.  If you are relying on paper, posters and limited on-line then make sure every word counts.

8.       Get out there

There’s no substitute for speaking to your audience. If you’re doing any type of internal comms get out and meet your audience. Looking back I wish I’d spent my less of my internal comms time in meetings and more time at the coal face. Step out of the corporate towers and find out how comms fits into the landscape of the work day at the sharp end and tailor your efforts to suit. It will be time well spent. 

It turns out you can take the girl outta the comms team but you can’t take the comms team outta the girl. And this is the most time I’ve spent in the company of my laptop for weeks. So, while you’re all living your corporate comms life on line I’m heading canal-side to live mine in real time. And if you want a daily dose of canal life you'll find me on twitter - @Geordiejo_jo #CrinanCanal

Safe sailing!