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How to focus internal communications in a downturn

How to focus internal communications in a downturn

By Claire Livesey, Managing Director, Circle.

As companies struggle to come out of the recession, internal communications budgets are taking a hammering. But cutting back on communication is not an option. In today’s climate, every word needs to count.

Internal communication is hard enough to get right in the best of circumstances. Employee satisfaction surveys in most companies tend to get poor scores - there’s too much or too little, the timing’s wrong, or it’s all one-way. Getting through takes dedication, imagination and a steady investment of both effort and cash.

That investment tends to falter when times are hard. Surveys indicate that around 80 per cent of internal communications practitioners have recently had their budgets frozen or cut. The danger is that these cuts may spell less communication all around – just when it’s needed most.

Internal communication matters, because when everything’s uncertain, people get anxious, fearful and often downright paranoid. To minimise this, it’s vital to continue to connect with employees throughout the downturn.

It’s important to acknowledge people’s fears about what’s going on and how it’s affecting morale.  Be open about the difficulties you face and what the company needs to do to stay on track.

Simple economics

But internal communications isn’t just a big gesture – its a steady drip feed. And under pressure, it’s easy to start thinking that this form of communication is a ‘nice to have’ rather than a necessity.

So while managers may be tempted to get on with the fire-fighting instead of addressing endless employee concerns, they need to bear in mind the proven value of engaging their staff. Studies show again and again that good communication in the workplace generates higher revenues and leads to better performance and quality.

Connecting with your people isn’t a soft cultural issue, it’s hard-nosed and vital to achieving your organisational aims – and even more so in the current economic climate.

Making change work

That connection is even more vital if recession is forcing you to re-evaluate what you do and how you do it. If you’re shifting your focus or introducing new initiatives, you need to get your people to buy in to the change quickly, with minimum disruption, and then to translate that into everyday practice.  Investing in good communication here will count for double if it can motivate staff to fight for the collective good.

Choosing the right channels

But when times are tough and budgets tight, how do you maintain the connection? Circle’s advice to the companies it works with is to cut down on conspicuous consumption, and make the tried and tested or cheaper channels work harder.

What that means in practice is less emphasis on top-down ‘push’ communications and more on active engagement. Though purse strings may be tighter, managers can’t afford to do less. In fact they need to communicate more than ever before.

1. Face-to-face

The more expansive channels should take a back seat. Instead, managers need to invest even more time in effective face-to-face communication. Tap into the existing channels rather than inventing new ones. Cascades, departmental and team meetings are the backbone of a communication strategy, and you should make them more effective than ever.

2. Internal publications

If a magazine is well established, it’s relatively cheap to maintain, and it’s a great way to celebrate achievement and give people the detail behind the headlines. 70 per cent of staff prefer to have their magazine available in printed form (40 per cent want it available both in printed form and online).

Intranets are useful for ‘pull’ information – but only where employees are motivated to search for it. That’s fine for today’s menu or the parental leave policy, but usually not so great for important news.

3. Social media

Many organisations fear that integrating social media into their internal communications strategy will encourage negative comments or add extra costs.  

However the forward-thinking organisations recognise that if the best employee engagement inspires people to feel part of a community and to collaborate, then the best activities give the power to the people on the ground.

Social media needs to be lead from the top and needs some informal policy or code of conduct.  Once up and running however, it is an ideal vehicle for promoting engagement, encouraging work team collaboration, the sharing of new ideas and real time problem solving.  What is the cost of not tapping into this?

4. Tactical measures

There’s no one way of talking to people – you need a mixture of approaches. And don’t forget the simple things – posters on notice boards in visible locations still have plenty of impact.

5. Celebrate achievement

No matter how difficult the climate, don’t forget to keep celebrating successes of all kinds.

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