A decade ago, internal communications, in all but the largest of organisations, amounted to one writer turning out reams of staff newspapers that were swiftly consigned to the bin.
Now, the function has become so sophisticated and widespread that universities offer postgraduate diplomas in internal communications. Gone are those dog-eared newspapers, replaced by e-mail, poster and plasma TV campaigns planned by career communications specialists.
At the same time, it has become fashionable for the heads of organisations to cite in their annual reports that the business is almost entirely dependent on the spirit and motivation of its employees, and that effectively communicating with them is the key to this. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in retail and service businesses, where a large contingent of customer-facing staff effectively act as the company brand.
As the internal communications function has matured, it has grown in power and responsibility and, in the process, has been moved out of the HR department. The majority of FTSE 100 companies now have a separate internal communications department, reporting to a corporate communications director or a marketing director.
At food and personal products conglomerate Unilever, for example, internal communications used to be spread across the HR and corporate relations departments. But last May, internal communications began to report into a newly streamlined global communications department.
At mobile phone company O2, internal communications reports to corporate communications. But it works closely with the marketing department, enabling the mobile phone company to integrate what it says to its customers with the messages it sends to employees.
The fact that internal communications is no longer part of the HR function does not mean that HR can’t get stuck in. HR still has an important role in maintaining the employer brand through the way it recruits, retains and deals with staff, but communications experts are arguably better placed to gain employee buy-in for it.
Mark Beedon, group communications and engagement director at Cable & Wireless, describes his primary role as that of a “broker between the aims of the organisation and the aspirations of our people”.
He says: “It’s more subtle than just telling employees what the company’s policies are. In an organisation where HR is focused on policy issues, it is often seen by employees as the mouthpiece for management. A separate internal communications department has the advantage of being seen as a little more independent.”
One area where internal communications has grown in prominence is through its crucial role in cultural change projects. Frequently, it’s the people in marketing who plan the customer advertising and drive these messages home to employees.
The recent Barclays brand relaunch, for example, was headed by group chief executive John Varley and group brand and marketing director Jim Hytner. The duo starred in staff roadshows around the country to explain how the bank’s ‘Now there’s a thought’ advertising campaign centred on employees having good ideas for customers.
But should HR departments take charge of workplace communications, since they are closest to staff developments? Dan Bobby, managing director of brand consultancy Dave, believes not. He is critical of internal communications as an addendum to HR, because he sees this structure as encouraging a one-way style of communication.
“HR people know all about reward and recognition policies, but they’re not always the best communicators,” he says. “Internal communications should be about engaging employees in a dialogue to involve them, especially if you want to change how they think about their job, their relationship with customers, or their relationship with the company.”
Cable & Wireless attempts to pursue this ‘dialogue’ strategy by setting up ‘listening groups’ – focus groups that aim to discover how employees feel about an issue before starting to alter behaviour or opinion.
Centrica, the owner of British Gas, is another company where HR no longer controls internal communications. Its internal communications director Philip Ashley reports to the corporate affairs director, who sits on the board of directors.
Ashley believes it is crucial for internal communications to be independent for the kind of tasks he is involved in. Public controversy is at an all-time high following announcements of another 22% hike in gas prices and its 11% rise in operating profit to £1.5bn for 2005. So Ashley works closely with marketing to ensure that the messages that are going out to customers – that the prices are justified by the fact that gas costs have risen 70% in the past year – chime with what staff have been told about the same issue.
“We need to make sure that our 17,000 staff, many of whom work in customer-facing roles, are all aware of the issues and Centrica’s point of view, in case customers ask them about it,” he explains.
That is not to say HR is shut out of the process entirely. Another internal communications task at Centrica had everything to do with HR. The company closed its final salary pension scheme to new recruits to be able to fund the scheme for its existing engineers. This required careful collaboration with the pension specialists in HR and the unions to communicate the company’s strategy on the issue. The fact this led to a one-day strike shows that you can’t always win the battle even when you’ve planned a persuasive communications campaign.
The reality of internal communications, says Helen Purdey, a consultant specialising in internal communications at recruitment agency Michael Page, is that it requires a set of skills and attitudes that are closer to those used by marketing rather than HR people.
“Good internal communications people are primarily good communicators. They need to be able to write and edit well, and build strong relationships with others across an organisation,” she says.
Beedon believes that, eventually, the term ‘internal communications’ will cease to exist as a separate discipline; it will become subsumed into a general communications department which will plan to send out messages to audiences concurrently for maximum impact.
“As organisations get smarter,” he says, “we’ll all be finding ways of working together better, so that the different agendas between HR and marketing won’t matter.”
02 finds the personal approach rewarding
Mobile phone company 02 is in the early phases of rolling out a new total rewards programme. The scheme requires a substantial internal communications effort so that employees understand the individual value of holiday and other rewards, and make their choices based on the value they are allocated.
The project leader for the scheme, head of pensions Tina Stanley, believes that having an internal communications unit separate from HR only improves the effectiveness of getting her message across.
“I don’t profess to be a communications specialist. It’s fair to say that HR can sometimes be a little blinkered in that we assume everyone else will understand something just because we do,” she says.
“I’d thought, for example, that we should put up posters and send e-mails to let people know about the total rewards scheme, but our internal communications people told me that wouldn’t work. Posters get ignored and people get so many e-mails anyway because we’re a technology company.”
As a result, she decided to adopt a more personal approach to the communications, with notes on people’s desks, managers doing group briefings and roadshows, and broadcasts on the plasma TV screens around the company’s offices.
The other advantage of having an independent internal communications department, according to Stanley, is that because it is the only group sending out messages to staff, it can avoid any clashes between various departments’ agendas.
“The last thing I’d want is for another department to be making a major announcement the same day as our programme launches and take all the attention,” she says.