Improving internal communications can be a challenge in any organisation. But imagine having that as your brief on returning from maternity leave, in a new role and with a new team.
by Jude Tipper
“First priority, sort out internal comms.” I returned from mat leave to a new role, a new team and this challenge from my new boss.
As I’d been in charge of raising a tiny human for a year, this new task held no fear. (Though I did fear an equal amount of sh*t.)
Thankfully I also had a stack of fresh insight from a dedicated internal comms survey. What a gift.
So we tested and introduced new regular products, new channels, and a new tone. We found new ways to speak to our staff regularly, face-to-face, about what matters to them. We helped our managers do the same.
Our 4500 incredible staff are spread across 50+ sites in a huge patch of beautiful Yorkshire. Many are out in communities all day. Yet because we began with insight and truly understanding their challenges – and therefore ours - we were able to make rapid improvements.
We checked back on how we were doing, made tweaks and checked again.
The result? Well, overall satisfaction has shot up by 31%. This is across two main metrics: “Do you feel you are kept up to date with what’s happening across the Trust?” and “How do you feel about the way the Trust communicates and engages with you?”
This strong foundation also gave us success with dedicated internal campaigns. Our flu jab campaign saw uptake leap from just 33% to 76% - sustaining that improvement this year by once again using insight to inform fresh tactics.
We’re not the only ones saying our new approach works. Our Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection report reflected an improvement in internal comms at all levels. Our staff survey results also showed a statistically significant improvement in the number of staff reporting good communication.
So, what have we learned along the way? Here’s my top ten:
1. Clearly define your routine channels
Every Monday is The Headlines, an all-user, all-topic essentials email. On a Friday is The View, a reflection from our chief exec. Once a month is The Brief. Always on is The Intranet. And so it continues.
Our naming convention is deliberately simple and straightforward. We’re crystal clear on the different role of each product and this dictates content. And we’ll gladly stand our ground if pushed; we have the irrefutable power of insight and we’re not afraid to quote it.
2. Set your rhythm. Then don’t change the beat
Staff know that if they’re going to read just one email on a Monday, make it The Headlines. Every Friday, without fail, the weekly blog from the chief exec will drop into their inbox. And if he can’t write it that week it’ll come from another director. But it will come.
Our internal comms rhythm is now set, augmented by a scale of face-to-face opportunities. To begin with, we had to push back hard on demands outside this tempo, for the super-urgent-can’t-possibly-wait-all-user-emails. We stuck to our rhythm and now everyone merrily taps along.
3. Don’t bow to pressure
We really need a separate newsletter. We must have a dedicated section of the email. If you don’t put it in SHOUTY CAPITALS every week for the next two months we’ll fail our compliance target.
Fall back, once more, on insight: We know everyone is reading The Headlines, it’s well-liked and respected; you’re best off putting your messages in there. People could miss your info if you have a separate section; let’s put it in what we know is a popular section.
The minute you give in, you open the floodgates. You lose your familiarity and rhythm. You lose your audience. Hang tough. Use insight to say no.
4. Be consistent
Let’s face it; we all love to fiddle. But if it’s working then please: Leave. It. Alone. You may be bored with a product; your audience is not.
Consistency has been key. We have set sections in The Headlines (including the fiendishly simple ‘things you need to know’ and ‘things you need to do’). We have set slides in The Brief like ‘staffing’ and ‘finance’.
Week in, week out, it looks the same, staff know where to look.
I like to think of our information like supermarket eggs. When your local store moves stuff around you can never find the damned eggs. Let’s not frustrate busy staff, just be consistent.
5. Hold the creativity
There’s a time and a place for creativity and routine internal comms is not it. An internal campaign? Sure, knock yourself out – hey, we did an entire flu animation based on grizzly bear puns. Yet for your routine channels it’s got to be about accuracy, simplicity, and brevity.
6. Be familiar
From day one of our new visual identity we have tightly controlled internal design. We’ve developed a consistent look and feel which has become well-liked. We’ve even introduced an icon bank to dampen desire for clip art.
So, make things familiar. Put as much effort into internal rules as you do for external.
One of the first exercises I did with my new team was to develop a tone of voice. It’s well worth nailing this. Write a style guide and stick to it rigidly.
The more familiar and trusted a brand is, the more receptive your audience. Never ignore that internally.
7. Repetition repetition repetition
My favourite quote for campaign planning comes from American political pollster, Frank Luntz:
“You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again and you say it again, and then again and again and again and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”
The same goes for internal comms. Every time we gather insight we’ll hear a couple of “There’s a lot of repetition across products”. I will never apologise for this.
A topic in our weekly email will be brief and factual. In the chief exec’s blog it’s repeated with opinion or examples to drive a key message home. In the team brief it’s repeated to encourage conversations and help teams consider the implications for their situation.
Never apologise for repetition, I’d rather staff knew something several times than not at all. Just switch it up a bit.
8. Authenticity: weave in your values
Our staff, at all levels, can articulate our vision and values. This is, in part, down to internal comms. We make real efforts to knit this corporate narrative into routine comms, no matter the topic. It’s just become second nature.
One of our values – like so many public sector organisations – is to be honest. Our comms must reflect this. Authenticity matters.
Whenever possible (I know it isn’t always) avoid all-out ghost writing. If a member of your senior team blogs it must be in their voice. If they’re on social media it must really be them. This is increasingly important as the lines between internal communications and social media blur. Staff will spot a faker and then you lose their trust.
9. Court feedback
We now run annual internal comms surveys. This is in addition to other surveys and more formal regulation and inspection routes. It all creates a picture.
However, often the richest feedback comes from the quick conversation in the corridor or a remark in a meeting. Jump on any opportunity for feedback. Actively court it. Even a throwaway comment can be teased out into rich insight. It’s these snapshot moments that are often the most valuable.
10. Face-to-face remains king
Regular, rhythmic, consistent and on-brand products go a long way. Perfectly crafted written word, strong infographics, cracking videos or bold animations all play a part. But face-to-face wins. From our chief executive huddles to annual listening events, roadshows to team brief. The opportunity to connect, human to human, will never be beaten.
Yes, it’s always more effort, especially when you are geographically dispersed, but it’s always worth it. Just knowing about the opportunity generates worth. As one of our survey responders puts it: “It’s valued by staff even though we can't always attend. Just knowing that option is there does a lot for culture and availability of senior staff.”
11. Do what you say you will
I promised you ten points. So number 11 is bound to irk.
Always stick to what you said you would to avoid losing trust. If you promised an announcement on Monday and the goalposts move (as they so often do) announce, on Monday, the fact you can’t announce. Always retain trust.
So, that’s it. My top reflections.
It’s two years since that first stack of insight and now we’ve another lot to work through. Another chance to make improvements.
My tiny human is no longer that tiny. Our internal comms no longer needs “sorting out”.
Both continue to need a steady hand, constant watching and development but now they’re on their feet, it’s time to help them flourish.
Jude Tipper is Head of Communications, Marketing, Involvement and Engagement at South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.
image via Tallio Saba