More and more UK companies have woken up to the value of internal
communications as a way to excite, motivate and inform staff, writes
Cathy Bond. But who should they send for?
In the US it’s called corporatism. In Japan, workers simply live and
breathe the corporate mission. Here in the UK, say the internal
communications gurus, companies should at least begin to involve their
staff, rather than treating them like rather wayward children. But who
should they send for? Management consultants? The PR team? Or an
internal communciations (IC) specialist?
Andrew Lambert, managing director of management and marketing
consultancy People in Business, is absolutely sure who is in the driving
seat when it comes to showing companies how to win the hearts and minds
of their staff.
‘PR is insignificant because initially, the mechanics of communication
are less important than management style and motivation,’ he says. That
means carrying out employee surveys to find out why the team-briefing
system is falling apart and the company newsletter ignored, and this is
where the growth in IC is coming from.’
It is a comment guaranteed to raise the hackles of the PR industry,
which has a starting point only a little further along the line, where
the recommendations of management consultants need to be put into
This could mean a relaunched staff newsletter, use of the intranet or
business TV, or a training programme to make managers more effective
communicators. PR consultancies want to expand their traditional role
and, with demand growing, they are bound to flag these skills.
‘Our ability is to challenge the jargon and management-speak and
communicate in a straightforward and effective way,’ counters Lexis
deputy managing director Bill Jones. ‘That gives us the edge.’
In fact, IC draws on the expertise and experience of both camps. It
cannot be neatly packaged, although the temptation to offer one-stop
shopping must be difficult to resist.
‘The concept of holistic communications is emerging,’ says Lambert. ‘But
the suppliers are still in separate boxes and the poor client doesn’t
know what he is buying. When PR agencies try to package the whole thing
up as internal marketing, it’s no wonder the buyer is fogged.’
These are the teething problems of an immature and still-developing
sector. ‘Demand for IC skills outstrips supply, but it’s a new concept
for many companies, so they have no experience to call on,’ says Alaric
Mostyn, head of Burson-Marsteller’s IC division.
‘Many clients are not even sure how to recruit help,’ he adds, but warns
that the advisor who claims to offer a single, unique solution is
fooling everyone - including himself.
Several of the top players claim that IC work is expanding fast, despite
a dip in the total turnover from such business among the 12 PR companies
represented in Marketing’s latest league table covering internal PR,
published in June this year.
Actions probably speak louder than words at this stage. Burson-
Marsteller, for example, has restructured operations to mirror changes
on the client side and, in the process, has set up a dedicated IC
division. Just two weeks ago, Omnicom bought Smythe Dorward Lambert
(SDL), the specialist IC consultant which has grown so fast in recent
years that its staff have to hot-desk to get a seat in the office.
SDL has moved in alongside Omnicom’s Countrywide Communications, which
last year notched up more than pounds 1m of billings in internal PR.
Managing director of SDL John Smythe insists there will be no merging of
operations - in fact, the pairing helps to explain the different skills
and resources that are the tools of IC.
‘Some areas of our work merge, but their approach is different,’
explains Countrywide’s John Orme. ‘SDL will analyse the problem and work
out a strategic solution, whereas we make the solution happen and work
with it alongside the client.’
Commitment to IC among UK companies is varied, to say the least.
Companies might call in the experts to kick-start a project, or they
could be looking for a long-term alliance. In either case, successful IC
depends upon dedicated support in-house, which might not be easy to
achieve as it has a dual allegiance to both communications and human
‘You have to be clear about why you need IC,’ says Adrian Seward, head
of corporate communications at the cable company Nynex. ‘Generally, you
need your biggest single asset, the workforce, on your side. They must
know the corporate vision and how they fit into it, and they need to be
aware of wider issues too.’
Nynex called in SDL to help set up a framework to spread information
through team briefs, an electronic magazine and audio tapes for its
staff in the field and it has just completed a pilot of the intranet.
‘We needed help in the initial stages, but I firmly believe that IC
should be owned by internal staff,’ says Seward.
This is understandable because an employee who suspects a cosmetic PR
job is inclined to switch off, whether the medium concerned is
electronic, verbal or ink and paper.
GCI was recently asked by the Wates Building Group to find out why its
glossy magazine failed to inspire either its staff or its customers.
Instead, the PR company launched a separate showpiece business title and
a news magazine for employees, with a lower print and colour
specification and with its editorial team recruited from Wates staff.
‘The feedback from Wates staff shows they feel it’s not being imposed
upon them,’ says GCI’s Penny Eglin. ‘People don’t like a company brag-
mag. It just doesn’t work. They want news reports, not purple prose.’
Whenever a company is prompted to examine how it treats its own
personnel, it is often as a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis. But for
some, simply surviving the recession and coping with constant change has
made IC a boardroom issue. If many chief executives are now more willing
to pump in the money, it is because they expect it to boost profits.
‘Management commitment is crucial. We get the resources because they see
the benefits,’ says Adrian Harkness, head of corporate communications at
Body Shop International.
When he joined the company just over two years ago, just one person
handled Body Shop’s dialogue with staff. Now the corporate
communications department is 17 strong, with 12 of those people holding
an IC brief.
Body Shop is experimenting with new technology because it has to
communicate instantly with franchisees speaking different languages and
working in different time zones. Currently, it backs up printed media
with an e-mail bulletin, regular video programmes and video-conferences.
‘The frontline shop staff are ambassadors for the brand. Participation
in company values is a new marketing strategy and they need to know
their role in it,’ says Harkness.
According to Mike Maryon, employee communications manager at Bass: ‘IC
is the glue that keeps the whole operation together.’ Last year, for
example, Bass launched an electronic billboard, which proved to be an
essential link with staff during the recent takeover by Carlsberg-
Tetley. That system is now being transferred to an intranet, so the flow
of information can go both ways.
‘Staff need easy access to business information so that they can make
their own decisions,’ Maryon explains.
‘They have to understand the corporate mission - what needs to be done
and why - to be able to devise strategies of their own and make them
happen. It’s a culture change, a completely different focus.’
The line manager, he says, has become an internal marketer, whose role
is to pass information further down the line to staff who no longer wait
to be told, but seek out what they need to know.
Mostyn describes this system as the pro-active management of internal
PR, and points out that it calls for constant vigilance. ‘One of the key
aspects of corporate change is that it’s continuous,’ he explains.
It’s a lesson that Sainsbury’s has had to learn in recent years, in the
face of a blistering attack on its retail dominance by competitors such
as Tesco. The company’s approach to IC has been revolutionised with the
launch earlier this month of a business TV channel, SMART (Sainsbury’s
Management and Retail TV), through CTN, the company co-owned by ITN and
Burson-Marsteller. The channel will narrowcast news and training-related
features, initially to 10,000 store managers and eventually to all
‘This follows the biggest research exercise we have ever done among
staff, Talkback, to find out how they felt about the level of
communication, its style and how much they actually listened,’ says Rod
Sellers, senior manager of group internal communications at Sainsbury’s.
According to Stephen Watson, managing director of CTN, the chief appeal
of business TV is its sheer visual impact. ‘It leapfrogs the traditional
cascade of information from company headquarters to the store
population,’ he says.
But despite the move into new media, Sellers insists that face-to-face
contact is still the central tenet of Sainsbury’s IC programme. This is
a view echoed by the specialists.
‘A lot of the IC work we do involves training leaders to understand
their responsibility to excite, motivate and inform. Nothing is more
effective than a person standing up and talking, just as long as it’s
handled in a positive and forthcoming way,’ says GCI chairman Adrian
‘There’s a danger in being dazzled by new techniques championed by the
IT department,’ agrees Orme. ‘No matter what the level of information
and the media that makes it available, data delivery is only one element
of the process. It’s always a person who is the trigger.’
Goodbye to the old certainties
Alaric Mostyn was recruited from an internal communications post at the
BBC when PR agency Burson-Marsteller identified the sector as the
fastest growing area in communications.
‘One of the traditional views of internal communications is that it is
in a box on its own, to do with being a good employer, whereas
ultimately it is all about competitive activity,’ says Mostyn. ‘In the
70s, it was seen as a matter for the personnel department. Now senior
marketing people are increasingly aware of how it relates to their work.
‘Over the past ten years, most companies have computerised to the hilt
and cut their staff to the bone. Broadly speaking, in many markets, most
are equally sophisticated in marketing and advertising. But relatively
few have done much in trying to make a difference to their performance
by building motivation and commitment.
‘The other thing driving the market is that the psychological contract
with clients was traditionally based on the idea of a job for life, if
you worked hard. But there is no job for life these days and bright
employers - because they can no longer offer the old certainties - have
to work much harder at motivating their staff.’