COVID COMMS #12: Why going back to brass tacks is needed for better internal comms in the public sector


There was a sports shop in Keswick where my Dad was born that was the last word in internal comms.

Sports teams would pick their 1st and 2nd teams and write them out before they were pinned-up in the window of the shop. Before the internet, and before phones were common this was how the town found out who was playing. It was internal comms for the rugby, hockey cricket and football teams.

Charming as it was the world has moved on. But there is still the lazy attitude from the centre that everything is fine because a poster has been pinned-up on a noticeboard. If people haven’t read it, it’s their own fault. This is, of course, cobblers and the price of this is a team who don’t know where they’re going or often what they’re really doing.

Ahead of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Zoom session on internal comms I went back to brass tacks on the topic. I re-read ‘Engage For Success.’ This whitepaper from 2019 is based in research and shows the importance of good internal comms. Before reading the ‘Engage For Success’ whitepaper I used to look down on internal comms. After reading it, I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In a nutshell, if you don’t communicate with your staff and tell them what direction you’re going in you’ve no chance of getting there.

The Government Communications Service has a good internal comms resource and there’s plenty of good stuff there but for me the basic principles go back to that seminal whitepaper.

Engage For Success’ four enablers

At a time of COVID-19, it’s worth going back to brass tacks and looking at ‘Engage For Success’ to see what compass points it can provide.

Decent internal comms needs four things, the report says. These four enablers are ingredients you’ll need. A strategic narrative, engaging managers, engaged employees and integrity.

#1 Have you got a strategic narrative? 

The NHS didn’t need to sit down and work out what it was about. It knew instinctively that it was about all hands to the pump to stop waves of people dying. Everything it did pointed to this.

We’ve gone past the first phase of shock. We’re not really in recovery as we know it after a big fire. So what are we? We’re in a weird hinterland where some people want to crack on and other’s don’t.

The LGA have a toolkit for writing a strategic narrative that’s worth taking a look at. You don’t need something big and clunky but you do need to pay attention to it. You need something everyone can get behind.

#2 Have you got engaging managers?

Some things you can control and others you can’t. How engaging your managers are is a huge variable. When I worked in local government I was deeply unimpressed at the effectiveness of what is known as ‘cascading’ information. The idea is simple. Executive directors send out bulletins and they’re passed on down the chain by management. In my bitter experience it was only ever a third successful but it gave a false sense of having communicated.

If you’ve got managers who want to communicate that’s great. The chances are you probably won’t have lots of them. But that’s a problem for the organisation.

#3 Have you got engaged employees?

Now, this is where you can have most influence. You can find ways to reach staff and listen to what they have to say. At a time when some staff are happy to return and others aren’t this is really important.

I’m hearing glorious examples of people throwing the rule book out of the window and trying new tactics.  Closed Facebook groups have come to the fore and there are some tremendous examples of them being used with high levels of engagement. Right now, the window to be able to try this stuff out without too much sanction is open but its closing fast. The blockers haven’t gone away. They’re just working in the box bedroom. Do it.  Do it now.

There have been some great examples of human comms in internal comms with staff. The chief executive who has written to the children of staff to thank them for their patience and to tell them what great work their Mum or Dad is doing stands out in any era. So does the recorded Zoom call interrupted by music practice but sent out anyway because it makes the chief executive look more human.

All of a sudden, we’re discovering that staff are human and it’s glorious. Communications in essence is really simple. Humans connect to other humans. The hard part is making that happen.

Bit to be really engaged you have to actually listen as an organisation.

The Zoom chat came up with some cracking examples of online snap polling that help to take the temperature.

#4 Have you got integrity?

In the Zoom chat we skirted around integrity. Of course you’ve got integrity, you’re the public sector. But really, is that what the public think? The NHS are fine. They’re on a pedestal until the next round of pay freezes. But what about local government? What do the public think of them? Are they heroes to be clapped or are they work-shy skivers? And what does your staff think of management?

All this stuff has to be earned and I’m not sure if we’ve all neglected this.

Now you’ve got all that, have you got the right channels?

What has been clear for some years is that the one size fits all way of internal comms if it ever was alive is dead. Even the sports shop in Keswick doesn’t happen anymore.

So, the people with laptops may pick-up the emails and may even get the tailored home screen messages with ‘Thank you for what you’re doing’. But what about the bin crews? Teachers? Or countryside staff? The mix that your organisation needs is going to be specific to your organisation but what is clear is the need to do lots of it. Times is hard and staff are stressed.

Sometimes, people can pay too much attention to the channels. They can be magic snake oil. If only you had X then everything would be great. Be careful of that. You probably need X, Y and Z to reach everyone. But most importantly of all, without the four elements you can have the most amazing channels but you’ll fail.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr.

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