For years, professional practitioners have celebrated the new world of internal communication; one where we’re a strategic enabler and a vital part of the success of an organisation. We’ve evolved…haven’t we?
They say that perception is reality, and every now and then something pops up – a conversation, an email and article
(I’m looking at you Cosmopolitan) – that makes it feel like two steps forward, one step back. Do we still have an image problem? And, how do we tackle it?
The reason I mention Cosmopolitan’s recent (albeit, tongue-in-cheek) article, and the reason it caused a stir in my Twittersphere, is because it’s an uncomfortably familiar image many of us have worked hard to move away from. Even if Cosmo doesn’t actually think we’re busy busy, jargon-fuelled comms fairies ready to sprinkle our magic dust before we hit send – there are some people that do.
Seriously, when was the last time you were asked to ‘work your magic’, ‘do a comms’ or ‘insert your own cliché here’? For me, it’s not long enough ago.
As a profession, we’ve united in the new world. The professional bodies, industry awards, networks and expert bloggers of today help us to grow, learn and evolve; they give us a platform to share our successes (and failures) and a space to acknowledge and celebrate the significant impact we can have on an organisation. We’re combined in our efforts to help facilitate communication, to create shared understanding and meaning towards a common goal that supports our business strategy. It’s a safe space.
But in the real world, no matter how often we cry ‘that’s not what I do’, there’ll always be someone looking for magic comms dust and a post box. We need to stop telling people what we do, and start showing them – at every opportunity.
Earlier this year, a project gift-wrapped in opportunity came my way. We were launching a new UK and Ireland-wide employee innovation programme to crowd-source customer-focused ideas that would support our business strategy. It was an exciting project with many strategic strings to its bow. We had a relatively new CEO, and innovation is a hot topic in the insurance industry. With fintech start-ups disrupting the market, we need to embed innovative thinking in our culture. On a more personal note, this was also my first high-profile project after being promoted into a new role in a new team; my opportunity to set the bar on what internal communication (and I) could do for the organisation. You don’t get that opportunity every day.
Like many practitioners, I’m resourcechallenged. I don’t always have the tools and budget I’d like. With 1000s of employees in over 30 offices across the UK and Ireland to inspire, I had to get creative. The Edelman Trust Barometer came to mind. It’s an annual global survey on trust – if you haven’t heard of it, look it up (after you’ve finished reading this, obviously). In 2017 ‘people like me’ came out as the most credible source of information, more trusted than experts – more trusted than CEOs. I knew there was an opportunity to translate this for internal communication.
Using influencers is something that our cousins in marketing have been doing for a while – one example: social media is littered with celebrities, reality stars and bloggers promoting products. We have an opportunity to take inspiration from this and do it in a more authentic way. No ‘#ad’ or paid participants – just real people helping to tell real stories inside our organisations.
And so, inspired by trust and marketing, I pitched my approach: “we can’t encourage people to think differently by communicating with them in the same old ways.” I asserted to the team… then I went on to outline a launch plan centred on innovation influencers across our business, supported, of course, by the other channels and activities.
It was a risky pitch – it meant relinquishing control of the message and putting the success of the programme into the hands of others, we might not physically see the output the way you do with email or blogs…
A few tough questions later, the team loved it. And the risk paid off. In the end, our influencers almost doubled the total submissions to the programme. Some of them even went on to mentor teams as they progressed through the programme.
Our influencers were a specially selected network of employees we knew would be comfortable talking about the programme, about the importance of innovation to our strategy and encouraging people to share ideas. Our number one priority was not telling them what to say but to make sure they understood what we were trying to achieve and how they could help us.
We gave them guidelines but creative freedom, they should do what they felt was right to help us achieve our goal. Using influencers has its challenges. Finding the right people, bringing them up to speed, helping them to understand what you’re trying to achieve and getting them to care about it as much as you do. It would have been easier to sit at my desk and send out stuff. But if our purpose is to facilitate communication, create shared meaning and work towards a common goal – this is the perfect example.
After the success of the approach, we looked for other opportunities to help employees tell our story in their words. We sent people behind the scenes at our new marketing campaign as employee journalists and got one of the most emotive articles that we’ve ever had on our intranet. And for the campaign launch, we asked people to host local events talking about our new marketing strategy – they didn’t have to be marketers, just comfortable talking about what the brand meant to them. By putting the proverbial pen in the hands of our employees, we’re telling an authentic story about our organisation. And telling stories that could seem contrived or boastful, or worse, be ignored, if they’d come from the corporate post box.
In some senses, I’ve spent more time over the past few months helping others to communicate than communicating myself. It’s been so
rewarding. And it’s working much better than magic dust.
1. Find the right people Not everyone can be, or wants to be an influencer – and that’s ok! And the right person for one activity might not be right for another. If you need a cheerleader, avoid wallflowers; if you’re asking people to write, make sure they can.
2. Inspire, don’t insist Using influencers is about creating shared understanding of what you’re trying to achieve and trusting and supporting them to help you get there. If you’ve found the right people – let them get on with it. If you’re too prescriptive about what you want them to say, you lose authenticity and you might as well do it yourself. We can’t meticulously manage the message. And we shouldn’t want to.
3. Measure Ok, this is a sneaky one as it’s not just about influencers. But we’re notoriously bad at it and it’s so important. By determining that around half of our submissions came from influencers, 1) made my advice on the communication approach valuable, and 2) gained support to continue to use influencers as part of our strategy. Measure business impact as well. For the innovation programme, we ran a survey before and after on perception of innovation – and there’s been a significant increase in positive perception among those involved. Now I can thank my influencers for helping to make that to happen.
Leanne joined AXA, the #1 global insurance brand, in 2014 after several years working in marketing and digital communications. Within a year, she was given responsibility for employee communications in their UK commercial direct business. Now she manages internal communication across AXA in the UK and Ireland.
To this day, she strives to take a creative approach and demonstrate the value internal communication brings to the business.
She was recognised for her endeavours at the Institute of Internal Communication’s Icon Awards 2016, where she was named Best IC Manager.
Find her on Twitter @loveleaT – she’d love to hear about conversations that have inspired your approach to communication.