Authenticity at the core: how to optimise internal communications

Interview with Siobhan Newmarch, Portland Communications

We were delighted to welcome communications expert Siobhan Newmarch, Director at Portland Communications as part of our ‘HR Leadership’ breakfast series. Siobhan has a significant communications pedigree, having worked previously for the BBC and Barclays before joining globally-recognised consultancy Portland Communications in 2015. With a particular focus on internal communications, Siobhan shared her insights and experiences with our guests to demonstrate the importance of cultivating and encouraging a strong relationship between HR and internal communications teams to better serve employees and allow them and the organisation to prosper.

‘Internal communications has always been strategically important, however more recently it has become increasingly recognised as so.’

‘People are at the heart of our organisation’ is a statement you would hope to hear from every CEO, no matter how large or small the organisation is. In reality, however, this is not always a self-fulfilling prophecy and can only be truly exemplified through a commitment to two-way dialogue with colleagues, according to Siobhan. “It is not just broadcasting at your employees. It is really understanding how they think and feel, and recognising what you want your employees to think, feel and do as a consequence. That helps inform the best internal communications strategy, but also conversely gives internal communications a seat at the ‘top table’.” It is this conversational dialogue that truly adds value and provides the strategic relevance for internal communications at an executive and board level.

The trap to avoid, suggests Siobhan, is becoming entirely fixated on making every piece of internal communications strategically important. At least 50 per cent of the role of internal communications should be focused on the operational needs of an organisation and maintaining the business as usual approach. As such, it naturally has a very substantial role to play, but not every part of this communication could, or even should, be considered strategic. Siobhan notes that one of the biggest challenges of working across internal communications is that employees can be the most cynical audience to communicate with. This isn’t necessarily because they don’t trust their organisation, but rather is an acknowledgement that a lot of internal communications can become very formal and slightly fudge the overall message. It can be a real challenge to consider how something is explained to the team, what level of engagement is needed and which channel is most appropriate. According to Siobhan, it most definitely needs to be approached from the bottom up, as well as top down.

The dialogue can take many forms, but the approach and integrity of the leadership is essential. Siobhan highlights that “It is much more important that a leader is authentic. Everyone knows and understands the importance of empathy for leaders – and to resonate with staff they need to be themselves when it comes to communications. In reality, this means different ways of communicating work better for different leaders; and they should play to their strengths and where they’re most comfortable.”


HR and Internal communications – better together or apart?

The relationship between HR and internal communications is a pivotal one. The internal communications team should, at its best, moonlight for both the HR and the communications departments. In Siobhan’s experience, the more closely an internal communications team can work with the HR function, the better oversight there will be of the broader picture. However, she warns that when internal communications reports directly into HR, the challenge can be that content becomes driven by HR’s requirements. This can make it difficult to strike a balance between the corporate culture and story-telling versus the necessary HR leaders’ communication. The very best examples in Siobhan’s experience are where there is open dialogue between those two functions, with a mutual respect and understanding of the expertise of each other’s specialisms and roles. They won’t always see eye to eye or have the same priorities but ultimately they have the same end goal of attracting and retaining the very best employees.


Channels galore – where to truly add value

In order to deliver messages across an organisation, it is essential that the correct approach is taken through the most effective and relevant channels. With mass digitalisation and the increase in personalisation of data and communications, access to different technologies and tools has grown consistently. However, this is where challenges arise, Siobhan notes: “It is hard to tell a corporate message across multiple channels, and hard to maintain all of these channels to a high standard and use them effectively.” One of the best ways to understand which channels are most effective and necessary is to undertake an internal communications audit. This involves putting legacy systems or new apps and other tools to the test through focus groups to see if they are worth the investment and if they are being effectively used, or indeed even used at all. Siobhan highlights the importance of “technology and the new channels it facilitates, especially for disparate work forces or those based in large areas like shops, warehouses or factories.” This is particularly important for employees to access the ‘need-to-know’ stuff on the go, wherever they are working from, e.g. where is my pay slip, the company Q&A or company news. However, rationalisation is essential and consideration of the following points: what do we need that channel for, who does it reach and how successful is it?

For Siobhan, “face to face contact is still one of the best means of communication”, and this is therefore something that is absolutely key when it comes to gathering insight. A ‘back to the floor’ exercise is “one of the of the most valuable things anyone can do at any level at any organisation”, she believes. For functions such as HR and communications, the importance of understanding what people are going through day-to-day and how they are feeling is essential. In her experience, she highlighted that when CEOs, COOs or other senior leadership do this form of insight gathering they really get something from it. While it can often require a significant time commitment, the human interaction is invaluable and often it provides the most straightforward opportunity to deliver outcomes. Siobhan suggests that the best leadership teams, at many different levels, should try to do this once a year, and it will really help them empathise with staff – making people and leaders better at their jobs.

Other ways to gain insight are through employee forums and surveys such as larger annual opinion surveys and shorter ‘quick and dirty’ pulse checks. Siobhan notes that in her experience all of these mechanisms are best operated and delivered by HR teams, since they are able to offer the expertise and resources, with close involvement from the internal communications team or representative from the outset. It is important to avoid working in siloes and subsequently considering the communications element as an afterthought: it must be woven throughout.

With opinion surveys, the two options offer a very different insight due to the fact that they deliver varying levels of data, Siobhan notes. The annual opinion survey that traditionally would consist of about 40 -80 questions has been reduced in many companies partly due to the significant costs involved, but also due to the significant levels of data it creates. For many organisations, this has been replaced by the quicker, more readily available pulse check surveys. There has been a switch to pulse surveys as it is an efficient way to take an immediate temperature check across an organisation. By utilising available technology, it is also very quick and easy to do through something like net promoter score. A pulse check typically requires just two or three questions. In Siobhan’s opinion, both are needed: “the shorter ones give a good sense at a point in time, e.g. bonuses etc, and a deeper dive once a year gives a better idea of how everyone is feeling.” She notes that both of those measures tend to be lag, rather than predictors however. In the same way as looking at attrition, organisations are always looking back rather than pre-empting or trying to see what is coming.

The bigger a company becomes, the greater number of employee forums it naturally encompasses. Sometimes they are split by grade or role and sometimes by location. The key for forums to be able to gain and indeed sustain momentum is to serve a clearly defined purpose. It is important to identify at the beginning what the forum wants to do, who it wants to speak to and what do they want to be telling them. Siobhan believes that the best forums are set up and established with a defined remit, and each meeting cover a certain area. She suggests that asking people what they think without a structured conversation often leads them straight to the negative. The more prescriptive you can be about content and purpose for the forums the better, she recommends.

However, Siobhan urges caution in approaching these forums – “don’t overpromise, that will never work.”  With so much information, and a mix of great ideas and people complaining, it is really hard not to make a forum a full-time job. Managing the expectations of attendees is vitally important and also minimises the amount of work that comes out of forums. They should be used as a testing ground for ideas and the benefits to those attending, chairing and facilitating must be made clear from the outset.

When considering insight gathering, it is also important to consider data analysts who are able to move beyond the immediate insights to consider what is driving those findings, what can be changed, how those points raised are subsequently followed up with focus groups, and the detail behind these statistics. Often, Siobhan notes, without this objective analysis there can be some overly simplistic metrics extracted which don’t always answer the right questions.


Internal vs external – working together makes greater sense

The internal communications function is strategically important, there can be no denying that. However, external communications often has a shinier image as the potential to deliver positive national press coverage is something that virtually every C-level executive wants. The external communications piece can be harder to deliver and requires a significant investment of time, networking, brain power and contacts. Siobhan’s experience leads her to conclude that “because you have to work harder for external coverage it is given a greater prominence. At its worst internal communications is seen as internal propaganda, at its best it is inspiring and engaging content for colleagues.”

The best communications teams work alongside each other so that they can share the external piece internally and make sure that it is aligned, and everyone is proud of the story. If there is the ability to leverage the external coverage so it lands better internally, that is when the profession and the expertise of the internal communications team is given the recognition it deserves. Furthermore – the best stories from an organisation come from within, and the internal communications team often has great case studies for the media that can be shared with the external affairs team – to make the most of the corporate narrative, both internally and externally.


Communications in leadership – not up for debate

Finally, when considering the importance of good communication skills in today’s leaders, Siobhan states clearly that it is “non-negotiable. The failure of communications can be the difference between a successful organisation or leadership team and not. Leaders need to finesse their approaches and responses as a priority for any organisation and at every level. All organisations want empathy and emotional intelligence in their leaders. That is a lot harder to teach, but you can finesse their communication skills.”

In a world dominated by technology, people-oriented, authentic communication has arguably never been more necessary – both internally and externally. As ‘fake news’ becomes ever more synonymous with many areas of media and communications, whether rightly or wrongly, those leaders capable of investing in clear and open communications are the ones who will have the greatest success in driving forward their organisations.

Siobhan Newmarch is a Director at Portland Communications. For more information about Portland’s work, you can contact the team by email.


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