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Managing comms in times of change

15 January 2021

You’d be hard pushed to find a charity that hasn’t had to make changes as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. But some of us already had significant changes planned, long before the pandemic hit.

That was the case at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), A medium-sized charity, we help 1,000+ people a year develop the skills, strengths and networks they need to tackle society’s biggest problems.

In 2020, we merged four regional teams in England with SSE, our main charity. The directors running each of these independent organisations – all awesome social entrepreneurs themselves- had set them up from scratch. This meant it was a big shift for everyone, especially them and their teams.

My role, as head of comms, was to help us figure out how to best communicate internally and externally as things developed. Here’s what I learnt…

Seek out learning

I am no expert in change communications or internal comms. In fact, I was coming in cold and completely clueless – but committed to the steep learning curve!

I completed a brilliant one-day CIPR training on change communications. I sought out mentoring, through Charity Comms’ scheme and my LinkedIn contacts. And I also found other comms folk have kindly been open to chats.

Plenty of online reading helped too, such as Prosci’s 10-question checklist on change management communication and Axero’s blog on how people respond to organisational change.

Understand the emotional side of change

If you don’t have time for everything, there is one resource I would recommend above all others: the Change Curve, developed by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

This explains the emotional stages people move through when experiencing change – and what you need to communicate, to ensure they don’t get stuck in “denial” or “anger”. After all, the make or break for a change process is whether people ultimately get on board with it.

It’s explained well in this Mindtools article and video:

Think ‘Key principles’

I shared learning back with our project team and regional directors, and we agreed key comms principles to keep us on track:

  1. Consistency is key: establish key messages and reiterate them often, to provide reassurance and clarity; agree on language and terminology.
  2. Updates from only two sources: staff hear updates from either their team director or the group MD, to keep lines of communication clear.
  3. Integrity through transparency: be honest, and ensure people are kept up to date. Rumours will undermine trust.
  4. Togetherness and feedback: ensure comms is two-way, so people can ask questions or raise concerns. Change should happen with people, not to people.
  5. Look ahead, be prepared: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. (Even though we were confident these changes were the right thing to do, scenario-planning worst-case outcomes helped us mitigate comms risks.)

Get-togethers with regional directors meant we could co-create communications for national and regional levels. This ensured everyone had a sense of ownership, increasing the likelihood of us all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Remember that trusty friend: Stakeholder mapping

We all love a bit of stakeholder mapping in comms land, don’t we? Change comms is no exception. We mapped internal and external stakeholders, plotting them on a grid of:

  • Groups impacted by the changes (high/low)
  • Groups with impact on the changes (high/low)

This helped us prioritise. We could look at who needed to know what, when, and in how much detail.

Proportionality was vital. This was a major change for a lot of staff, but frankly not that exciting outside of SSE. Most external stakeholders wouldn’t need more than an email or blog.

Develop the narrative

In times of change, consistent messages feel more important than ever. No one needs more uncertainty or confusion.

It can be tempting to dive straight into the “what” of changes, especially with staff, but people need the bigger picture. I always come back to Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”.

This helped me structure all the great thinking from colleagues into a narrative framework:

  • Where we’re coming from: taking pride in where we’ve got to, recognising our key strengths
  • Our vision for the future
  • Why we need to change to get there
  • How we will change: headlines
  • What this means: in practical terms (varying by stakeholder group, including benefits of the change where appropriate)
  • Next steps (varying by stakeholder group)

You can see how this took shape in our announcement blog.

Use visual metaphors

Visual metaphors simplify complexity and bring things to life.

In previous branding exercises, trees popped up often to describe SSE. So, unabashed tree-hugger that I am, I used this to make our structural changes appeal visually:

We picked up tree-related language to summarise headline reasons for the change, bundled into a good old alliterative triplet:

We are committed to becoming more:

  • Rooted: deepening local and regional presence.
  • Robust: a stronger, more resilient organisation.
  • Responsive: agile and ready to seize new opportunities.

I knew this was working when people started using these phrases in conversation.

Anticipate reactions

Before each announcement to any stakeholder group, we tried to anticipate responses and questions.

We even developed FAQs sheets. In times of change, staff will always be concerned about jobs – even more so during a recession. Be as honest as you can. (Saying “we don’t know yet, but hope to update you soon” is better than saying nothing at all.) We also highlighted the positives and opportunities created by changes.

We have worked with many of our regional and national funders for years, so it was important they didn’t hear news on the grapevine. So we carefully coordinated, making sure anyone within an organisation heard direct from their main relationship-holder on the same day as anyone else.

Evaluate success

When the mergers finally happened in October, the mood was buoyant among staff.

One of our directors went from not wanting to inform anyone, to feeling the final external messaging was “very positive and upbeat”, deciding to share the news with everyone!

And we maintained our relationships with all the 60+ regional and national funders and partners we contacted, receiving congratulations from a fair few.

Change processes inevitably feel complicated, difficult and emotional. Comms is just one part of the puzzle, but it can help people stay focused on the big picture: the future and impact of your charity.

Get in touch with me at @sophiehobson on Twitter or over LinkedIn if you want to talk it over.

Image: Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Sophie Hobson

head of communications, School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE)

Sophie Hobson is head of communications at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE). SSE helps 1,000+ people a year develop the skills, strengths and networks they need to tackle society’s biggest problems.