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Lessons from the Internal Communications and Employee Engagement workshop

24 February 2011

A strong internal Communications (IC) or employee engagement programme can boost productivity, motivate employees and build an organisation’s cohesiveness.

However, IC and employee engagement sit in different places across different organisations, and not every charity has a dedicated team – or even person – for the task. Alongside this, there’s a problem of credibility: the challenge of having to prove the value of IC was something that many delegates struggled with.

What internal comms can bring to the table

Speakers agreed that you should grab opportunities to show the difference IC can make to your organisation. Rebranding, for example, is a complicated process, but it can provide an opportunity to let IC shine. When ABF The Soldiers’ Charity rebranded in 2009, they used IC to build and strengthen the new brand by capturing the stories of various key groups eg volunteers and staff. Using these, it became easier to demonstrate the need to rebrand, as well as ensuring that the process took the opinions of staff into account.

Another way to prove value is to show the insight internal comms staff have into what’s happening in the organisation. At Save the Children, head of internal communications Laura Pallut ensures her small team has face-to-face conversations with members of staff. It is a personal, low-cost way of getting to know how staff are feeling – and provides vital feedback to senior management.

Implementing internal comms

1. The power of people

All speakers were in agreement about the importance of line-managers in communicating within an organisation.

HarnessKennett’s director, Jane Mitchell, considers the skilling-up and equipping of line-managers to be ‘crucial’. You have to rely on others to cascade messages – so make sure you equip them to do the job. A good start is valuing strong communications skills in all your staff, not just those in certain departments. Build these skills into your recruitment and performance reviews.

When Save the Children restructured, they recognised the importance of line-managers, or ‘gatekeepers’, in communicating what was happening. By issuing bespoke briefings on the gatekeeper’s role and importance, holding workshops and responding to the gatekeeper's needs (eg knowing what questions others were raising with them, and working out responses) they were able to maximise knowledge and minimise disruption.

The behaviour of senior management should also be taken into consideration. According to David Ferrabee, Managing Director of Able and How, what leaders do, who they recognise and what they ask play a significant role in informing employees about an organisation’s values and aims. Maintaining leadership visibility is a core aspect of this: hold sessions where your CEO or senior management team can meet the staff they don’t work with on a day-to-day basis

2. Get the right channel

As with external comms, you have to be able to identify what tools will be most appropriate and effective.

This needn’t be expensive, as Dragon Rouge's Client Director Joe Hale emphasised. Look at staff behaviour – rituals, customs, conversations – and ask the right questions: how do people move around the building physically? Where do they get their information from? What is day-to-day life like?

By knowing how people in your organisation like to talk and get information, you will be much better placed to communicate effectively.

3. Say what?

Joe Hale recalled that one charity told its reception staff to ‘be courageous’. While this may be a fitting phrase for campaigners, it had little meaning in the context. While it is important to have a core narrative that unites your organisation, it should be flexible enough to respond to particular needs.

Timing, as well as content, is important. Paul Sweetman, director of Fishburn Hedges, shared a list of top ten principles of IC, which included predictability and regularity. Don’t surprise staff with sporadic messaging, as this will undermine their confidence in you.

4. Conversation, not dictation

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that communication does not just mean giving information. Dialogue is the foundation of good IC.

Make sure you give all stakeholders the opportunity to feedback their thoughts – and what’s more, act upon it. There’s no point in listening if it doesn’t affect behaviour at all.

Ellie Brown

communications officer, CharityComms

Ellie joined the CharityComms team as an intern in February 2010, and became Communications Officer in September. Her role involves promoting CharityComms services, as well as managing the content of the CharityComms website and their social media accounts. She runs, an online charity contacts book for journalists.

Before this, she studied History at the University of Cambridge. She volunteers with UK Feminista, a feminist campaigning organisation.