Internal comms: lessons from the ad industry

Old style typewriter
PhilippaBerch/iStock
Charlotte Dahl
Creative Planning Director
Woodreed
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Muse is a new online service from Woodreed designed to solve the business challenges HR, engagement and internal communications professionals tell us they face. Accessed online via PC, mobile or tablet, it's a combination of three services designed to improve the quality and effectiveness of internal communication. Click here to find out more.

Would you let your IT department loose on your customer comms? Didn’t think so. Then why are they writing employee comms?

Willis Towers Watson estimates that a business of 100 employees wastes on average 17 hours every week just clarifying internal comms. That’s £400,000 a year. Enough to make a grown CFO weep.

Compare this to companies with highly effective IC who report shareholder returns 47% higher than those with the least effective.

You don’t have to Google far to find a raft of evidence that backs this up.

Companies with effective internal communication report positive impacts across the range of employee engagement KPIs. Turnover, retention, absenteeism. All have direct correlations to the quality of IC.

All mouth, no trousers?

None of this comes as much of a surprise, right? Of course, we’re all busy busy busy sharing the proof, telling the world how much effective internal comms matter, offering ideas, insights, recommendations.

This is part of the problem though. Isn’t there just too much talk about internal communications and not enough effective change? All mouth no trousers, rabbit rabbit rabbit.

Sure, there are some “islands of sheer brilliance”, as Drew McMillan, Head of Internal Communication & Engagement at Virgin Trains puts it. Mostly though, it is, as he goes on to say, “a sea of mediocrity”. 

It’s tough on the inside

Having worked the first part of my career in consumer advertising and the second in internal communications, I’ve got a unique perspective on both worlds.

Personally, I think the latter is the harder job. A critical audience right up close and personal, no slick ad agency on tap making you look good. Multiple creators from multiple departments ‘banging out’ comms, too much to do, not enough people to do it. Feel familiar?

While understanding the different dynamics and constraints on both sides of the fence, there are undoubtedly lessons the IC and HR community can learn from consumer marketers.

The behavioural insights the advertising industry, in particular, has gathered over the years can be learnt and adapted as a model for employee comms too.

We should look at taking the best and most effective techniques from adland and making them our own.

Let’s get emotional

Consumer marketers got the memo way back. Neuroscience tells us the brain uses four filters when receiving communication.

  • Emotional: People pay attention and respond to communications based on their emotions, values, and experience.
  • Historical: Based on their past experiences and memories.
  • Future: Based on their expectations, goals and hopes for the future.
  • Social: Based on their situation, including economic status, family, trends, and traditions.

Think about the John Lewis Christmas ads in this context; they’re the masters. People are still the same people when they walk into their workplaces. Our brains don’t switch to rational robot mode the second we step over the threshold.

You don’t have to go as far as Buster the Boxer bouncing off your office walls, but we do need to plug the emotional benefits into the thought process for internal comms too.

Make it personal, make it reciprocal, make it simple. Make it memorable. It’s not rocket science but it’s all too easy to forget day-in, day-out.

“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead“ (Mark Twain)

Good comms are punchy, precise and benefit-led. You’re not going to cut through by including everything and the kitchen sink - your audience won’t get past the first three lines.

Our brains are wired to only remember lists of three things anyway. Less is always more.

Ditch the corporate dictionary

Back to our rational robots.

Resist the urge to hide behind the employee comms default of the toneless, the cold, the rational.

OK so your audience is at close range, sitting there at the lunch table, standing behind you in the queue for coffee, but don’t write employee comms like you’ve swallowed the corporate dictionary.

A well-developed tone of voice used consistently not only engages through its personality, it drives trust in the brand. With organisational trust at an all-time low, internal communicators have an obligation to play their part to rebuild it.

Too many cooks

Multiple departments with multiple creators inevitably mean pockets of quality but a whole bag of meh. You leave your internal communication experts to write the big pieces – the CEO’s keynote, the employee mag, but they’re just the tip of the comms iceberg.

It’s all the other stuff that’s being churned out every day that’s the problem. 

Everyone’s an expert in their own field, they’re not experts in writing effective comms. Why should they be? Yet they’re expected to write them.

The IT department generating comms about an organisation’s transformation programme, finance telling employees about changes to pensions, facilities writing notices about the photocopiers, and so on.

The cumulative impact of the varying quality of the day-to-day is leaving the biggest impression on your employee audience...unless they’ve stopped reading them altogether. 

Tell me what you want, what you really really want

Don’t lump your employee audience together in one homogenous whole. Audience insight is the lifeblood of consumer marketers.

Do you really understand your employee audience? What they think? What they need? I suspect sometimes you don’t really want to know. Opening that hornet’s nest of the inconvenient truth. What if it’s not what we think it is? We know we should all be listening.

After all, creating a listening culture is one of the traits high-performing companies, but do we really want to hear it?

It’s not what you want your employee audience to know, it’s what they need to know. It’s about understanding the objective of the comms, what you want people to think, feel and do?

Talking to an HR contact recently, they had a lightbulb moment and conceded that, yes, they often created the comms piece first then thought about who it should be sent to. Time to rethink.

The move from tactical to strategic

Too tactical, too short term. It’s often the accusation levelled against internal communications. Gathering and understanding data is the way to moving from tactical to strategic, getting better insights into our audiences and making better communication decisions as a result.

Moving from “I’ve written and sent the comms, so well done me, job done”, to one where the comms is measured on effectiveness.

A final word from the king

I’m not expecting everyone to turn into the Saatchi brothers overnight.

But in the words of Elvis, what we need is a little less conversation, a little more action please. Because nothing will change while we all just carry on talking.

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