Editorial: Lost in staff communication

Should we be concerned that the news of British Airways' new advertising agency, and the big idea that wrested the £60m account away from the brothers Saatchi after 23 years, was widely known even before the airline's staff had an inkling of what was going on?

It says a lot about the modernisation of BA that it had planned to tell its staff before telling the agency winners and losers and, lastly, the media. As if.

Yet this, or some similarly naive approach to the chain of communication, is unquestioningly presented as the right way to go about effecting any organisational change more important than what grade of toilet paper to buy. For any significant repositioning, we are told, it is imperative that staff are informed and brought onside, before any public pronouncement is made.

The assumption has added grist to the mill of critics of a handful of high-profile cases over the years - notably Abbey 'Turning banking on its head', British Gas 'Doing the right thing', Barclays 'Big bank' and Sainsbury's 'Value to shout about' - where what should have been the end result of the strategy was instead presented as its starting point.

There is little coincidence, then, that two of those brands did things very differently this time around. Senior managers from Barclays and Sainsbury's, having witnessed the collateral damage from earlier efforts, have this time gone to great lengths to be inclusive of staff, and to make sure the world knows it.

At Abbey, the positioning, corporate identity et al were thrown out almost as soon as Banco Santander got its hands on the business, the upside being that the strategy had not survived long enough to take root with staff. British Gas, meanwhile, following an annus horribilis of price rises, allegations of aggressive call centre tactics, and now fierce rulings against its advertising, would surprise no one if it were to decide that perhaps 'Doing the right thing' was not an entirely accurate message to be putting forth.

While staff at Barclays and Sainsbury's must be positively glowing inside at the invitation to a corporate love-in, you may have guessed I am about to argue that this popular view of internal communications might just be hogwash.

Had it been the case that these companies were deliberately excluding employees from the only part of the decision-making process that matters, they should have been applauded. They operate in mature, even commoditised, markets where competition is intense, differentiation minimal and the need to act quickly imperative.

Against such a backdrop, the need to gain the tacit approval of employees begins to look faintly ridiculous. This would explain why, once the sheen of bright new management ideas is wiped away, all we are left with is the difference between companies that say not 'this is what we have done' but 'this is what we are going to do'.

If a new positioning can be applied easily to an organisation that, until last month, had quite a different one, then staff could be forgiven for not raising an eyebrow - either before or after the event. On the other hand, if the positioning is so radically different that it doesn't reflect the truth of the organisation, then you have the luxury of spending years on necessary change before you have to start worrying about the strapline or how best to communicate it.

- Motivation vs manipulation, page 36.

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