Getting the basics right, wherever you are in the world

I’m not saying for one second that we get the basics right at our company, but we’re on the right track.  However, I do see examples of where the basics in Internal Communications are being missed.  One of those companies is RundFunk, a German company who will remain anonymous.

ABC blocks

To give you a bit of background, RundFunk operates in a difficult industry in Germany, where there is some stiff, cheaper competition, and they haven’t made a profit in a couple of decades.  In fact, the losses are in the hundreds of millions of Euro.  People who work for RundFunk are largely pessimistic about the company’s future and after some considerable bail-outs, there is some complacency about the reality of the situation.  The most recent bail-out from a large venture capitalist conglomerate has signalled make-or-break time for the senior execs at the company and they need people to be forward-thinking instead of backward-lamenting.

Next week, I’m starting a 6-week secondment with their Internal Communications team to help them start getting the basics right.  They aren’t doing a bad job of internal comms, but their messages – through no fault of their own – don’t relate to the strategy of the business at all.  This has resulted in communications which are completely separate from the business performance, goals, strategy and so on.  The existing internal comms are essentially ‘people communications’, e.g. “we had a party to celebrate moving into the new building and family came along – wasn’t it nice.”  The missing piece would have been along the lines of “and this new working environment means we’ve got better kit and better conditions in which we can be more collaborative, because of the open-plan arrangement, and more creative in newer, funkier surroundings.  We need to work on our product innovation and that means EVERYONE getting involved and being part of the company” and so on.

It’s not rocket science, but the incumbent IC team have lost their way a little.  After years of losses, a management structure which has evolved for the last three years and more change than they can handle (coupled with a lack of visible direction and support from the top), they have retreated back to the ‘easy’ messages of “aren’t we all having fun (even though the company is doing REALLY badly at the moment, but shhhh, don’t tell anyone.)”

The channels they are using are sophisticated enough: newish intranet, streaming, high quality video (high quality both in content and production) and consistent templates for emails.  The visual quality of their e-communications is actually better than ours, but there are very few face-to-face and two-way communication events, an area in which we have improved significantly over the past 18 months or so.

Throwing another interesting flavour into the mix, the CEO and many of the senior team don’t speak German, so face-to-face communications from these people are invariably in English.  That’s a sticking point, as I’m not going to be able to “do a Fabio Capello” with them and get them to speak the local language within a few months – we’ll have to work around that issue, topping and tailing CEO stand-up events with a German intro and outro, and chairing a Q&A session in both languages, using local people to translate as applicable.

I’m not going to go out there with an all-singing, all-dancing Communications Plan and Strategy, which gives them a ton of work to do in an unrealistic time-frame, as this will achieve nothing; arriving in a totally different company in a different company and culture and imposing my ideas on them – regardless of whether I speak German or not – will only get me resentment from those I’m trying to help.  After all, I’m going to need these guys to be my people on the inside, to give me the People View, instead of the Exco View – without knowing what people are really thinking, we’re never going to work out which communications are most suitable for them.

(As a quick aside, Wedge recently wrote a great piece about choosing between stakeholders and audiences when it comes to what to communicate – have a read.)

I want to help them develop their own Comms Plan after we’ve got a better idea of the strategy of the company (it’s there – it just hasn’t been articulated clearly yet), but in the first 2 weeks or so, I want to get them thinking about key messages to weave into their existing communications – key messages which reinforce what the company is trying to achieve.  In plain German.  Not in Anglicised/Americanised Business German – yes, it exists: sitting in meetings a few weeks ago, I noticed a peppering of business terms throughout the German conversations, which, on the plus side helps non-native speakers like me keep track of the meeting, but which also can alienate the Germans in equal measure.

It’s the same in any country and language – if you communicate in real language instead of business terms, people understand what you’re talking about and realise that you don’t need a Harvard MBA to know what business goals and strategy are.

The basics, in this case, will be making sure that there is a clear communication from the CEO and senior leaders of the organisation, in ‘normal’ language, to let people a) know what’s going on, b) understand what the company is aiming to achieve, and c) give them the opportunity to speak up and question things.  I’m also going in there looking for quick wins which make the current IC team feel comfortable and empowered to make these simple changes themselves.

I’ll report on how I get on at a later date, but would be interested to hear from anyone who has experience of working in another country and language, and to hear what your biggest challenges and successes were.

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2 Responses to Getting the basics right, wherever you are in the world

  1. Wedge says:

    Thanks for coming over to my little comms blog!

    To add my comment to your article, I would agree for various reasons. I’m struggling to maintain quality when my stakeholders are demanding quantity. We’re pumping out a great many messages, but we’ve given up measuring impact and we rarely reflect on how the message will land with the audience.

    It’s all fire-fighting at the moment, which means we don’t take the time to get the basics right.

    We are very good in a crisis. Our crisis communications are timely, relevant and even interesting. It’s the day to day stuff that we seem to have given up on – no time! We need more resources (people!).

  2. DR says:

    Wedge, nail, head, etc.
    There’s an obsession in Internal Communications with measuring effectiveness and impact (which I agree with, to a certain extent), but without large budgets and teams, it’s quite a difficult part of IC to focus on, especially while the demand for communication is high.

    I did a VERY quick and dirty analysis of internal communication channels recently using a Effort vs Impact matrix: Effort on the X-axis and Impact on the Y-axis. The idea, of course, is that you move your communications channels towards, or select those that are already in, the top left-hand quadrant, i.e. minimal effort but high impact. Sadly, there are very few comms activities which are truly low effort for high return in terms of effectiveness.

    It would be great to get THOSE basics right, taking time after communications events and activities to measure how they’ve been received, evaluate the engagement *sharp intake of breath* impact, and write it all up in a nice report.

    I share your time-constraint woes!

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