When I was first "given" internal comms as a brief when returning from maternity leave to a comms officer role I held at a unitary authority around eight years ago, I have to admit my heart sank.
As someone who had prided myself as bringing a great deal of insight and creativity to a communications brief I was more interested in the "sexy stuff"…working with the media and the senior management team on a range of high profile campaigns that made up the regeneration portfolio. I got a real buzz out my job and seeing stories I had shaped in the media, helping and advising elected members and senior officers on their key messages for broadcast interviews and of course creating the fabulous publications and marketing collateral that went with the brief.
So internal communications did seem a bit of a sop to me…ok so I had thrown together a staff newsletter from time to time, but it really wasn’t that strategic …was it?
Different levels of importance have been placed on internal communications and perhaps more importantly staff engagement in the four local authorities I have had the privilege to work for, so what I can say with some authority is that those who engage their workforce effectively are more likely to deliver significant change well and retain the best staff – a priority for many local authorities.
As communicators it is our role to make sure that engagement with staff is always on the top table’s agenda. A well informed and engaged workforce will be the best ambassadors for our work in our local community as many authorities boast a very local workforce their voice is very important among the people we serve.
I recall working for an award winning Council that had always punched above its weight in local government circles, but on my way home one night I stopped at a late night store to pick up some groceries. On seeing the branded lanyard worn proudly a round my neck (brand box ticked) the woman serving me made some less than flattering remarks about my employer - and me - which while I felt able to challenge positively as a well-informed member of the comms team, I was not sure that colleagues from our street scene team would feel confident enough to do the same.
It was then I had my real lightbulb moment …if the woman spoke to another employee like that and they didn’t know who we were or what we stood for then how would they have reacted?
Would they have agreed with her? Worse could they have added to the negativity taking a cheap shot at the Council - their employer? Was our reputation being damaged within our local community by the very people we paid to work for us and deliver our life-changing services?
Communicating with staff – listening as well as informing – almost overnight became my raison d’être and my epitaph is likely to read "don’t forget the staff".
From that first negative comment from a member of the public my organisation sought to serve, my role as a strategic communicator became very clear. My team had to embrace the real challenge we faced in improving our reputation. You see despite the fact the store was an area that has seen massive public sector investment, the war on Councils declared by the likes of the Daily Mail and similar news establishments was believed without question.
The first rate bin collections, street cleaning, housing improvements, transformed schools and fantastic multi-million pound regeneration schemes didn’t mean a thing because our story wasn’t right. The national newspaper headlines that said Town Hall staff were on fat cat salaries or making her have six bins for her recycling were all she had understood about her local council. Unless we made sure all our staff could challenge and champion our organisation’s efforts for her through word of mouth she would go on holding a very negative opinion.
My career in internal communications and more importantly staff engagement is still my "sexy" discipline today.
In the age of austerity we need to make sure that our comms officers understand the key significance of the internal audience – dedicated internal comms resource are something of a luxury many of us can not afford so we need to make sure our teams think of ways to engage employees on key initiatives …if we want to engage the public, then surely we want to engage the staff!
Investing in channels that reach our employees should be seen as a "must have" not a "nice to have" and actually I would advocate an even greater need for these now as we continue to streamline our organisations to deliver essential services as we seek to harness our internal expertise and encourage staff to do more with less resource.
At Blackpool we recently took time out to make sure all employees were given the opportunity to have a face to face briefing with the Leader and Chief Executive on our priorities and budget pressures. More than 1,000 – around a third of our workforce – took up on the offer. And when one employee turned to me afterwards and said how inspired it had made her feel then the time, energy and effort had all been worth it.
We still face tough times and the reality that many of our colleagues will be leaving us in the near future due to the pressure of our severely reduced budgets, but as they now have a clear understanding of the reality we are facing from the horse’s mouth, then I can safely say our staff are more likely to respond like me, and tell the lady in the shop: "Thank you for your comments. our customers views are very important to us and we will do our best to improve."