Show 91 – Strategic Internal Communications – Pt. 1

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The first of two episodes recorded at PRWeek‘s Strategic Internal Communications conference, where we caught up with a number of the speakers from the event.

In Part 1, we spoke with:

1/ Stuart Williamson, Director of Communications, Nationwide Building Society
2/ Helen Willetts, Director of Internal Communications, BT
3/ John Townsend, Head of Internal Communications, Unicef UK
4/ Vanessa Unwin, Global Head of Internal Communications, Hitachi Rail
5/ Adam Clatworthy, Integrated Communications Senior Specialist, SAP UK & Ireland
6/ Phil Askham, Global Head of Employee Communications, HSBC

Produced in partnership with PRWeek UK. For more information, visit www.prweek.com/uk

Stuart Williamson

Our first guest was Stuart Williamson, Director of Communications at Nationwide Building Society, who spoke at the event on the topic of ‘How to get leadership teams to drive the internal communications agenda’.

Chatting with Nationwide’s Stuart Williamson

Stuart said that to get buy-in from senior decision makers in the organisation, they start from a place of trying to deal in facts. He explained that Nationwide is quite a rational organisation being a financial services firm, but when he started in the role, he recognised that there were many opinions.

He said that internal comms can be quite a subjective matter and that in his experience, different leaders would have many different views about what was working and what wasn’t working, and that all too often, sometimes the loudest voice would say, “no one understands this, no one understands that” and then the team would get sent off on a flurry of work to respond to a brief that would create:

  1. a quite chaotic story internally
  2. quite a lot of work from within the team

However, Stuart added that when you dug a bit further and you spoke to some of those leaders, more often than not, their point of view was based on a sample size of just one or two people.

This is why Stuart said that they recognised that they needed to start to deal in facts – to really understand where they need to point their communication efforts and show to their leaders real insight into what’s working and what parts of the story landing and which aren’t.

Nationwide therefore set up a quarterly insight tool (now half yearly) across the society and cut by divisions, which is based on three questions around understanding, belief and action:

  1. To what degree do you understand Nationwide’s strategy, in terms of where we’re trying to get to, why we’re trying to get there?
  2. Is it believable? Do you think it’s the right thing to do? Is it worth you investing your time in what we’re asking you to do?
  3. Help people understand what action they can take.

As this is broken down within teams, they are able to really work with leaders to help them understand how they can channel their communication efforts.

Stuart said that from an understanding perspective, it’s helping people understand what’s the vision is for the organisation, and for that, they developed an ‘Explainer Series’, that is made up of 30s clips, where they challenge a person in the organisation to explain a problem, part of the strategy, something that might seem a bit nebulous to everyone in 30 seconds, so that people can really understand it in a much more manageable everyday way.  He added that it’s been quite fun because in financial services they can deal with some quite technical jargon from time to time.

Stuart said to help build belief, you really need to help people understand and show them that what you’re asking them to do is working in other parts of the organisation, and so the second example he shared was where they put leaders in cars and created a mini-series called ‘Driving Conversations’ – similar to James Corden’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’, but without the singing!  Here they focus on a leader having an honest conversation with someone from the organisation to open up about how they can be more efficient and work smarter, how things are achievable and whether or not they can actually be delivered.

The final example Stuart shared was about action and he said that one of things they recognise is that they have to unlock the actions and ideas and pace and passion that their people have right across the organisation to drive greater levels of speed and agility.  They therefore created a competition called the ‘Arthur Webb Challenge Cup’.  Stuart explained that Arthur was a member of the Nationwide board for about 50 years, whose mantra was sympathy, simplicity and speed back in the time of the Second World War.

The competition is run annually, where each year, they invite anyone across the organisation to find a problem or an opportunity – a problem that either their members face day to day or that people face in their role in terms of getting things done.  Entrants are given complete accountability and empowerment to success, under a few requirements:

  • They have to create team from across the organisation – which drives collaboration. They have to get a sponsor from within the business
  • They don’t get given any budget.

The competition then culminates in a big final event at the end of the year.

In terms of impact of these case studies that Stuart shared, he said that some of them are quite incremental and through what they have measured, i.e., the understanding, belief and action scores, they have seen a growth in those measures, albeit relatively slow, although he added that they start from a relatively strong base. However, he said that what they have seen is in pockets, people feel and tell them that they feel much more empowered. For example, he believes that those who were involved in the first year’s Arthur Web Challenge Cup, for example, have saved multiple hundreds of thousands of pounds in Nationwide’s members money, as well as finding quicker and smarter ways of doing things.

Helen Willetts

Our second guest was Helen Willetts, Director of Internal Communications at BT.  Helen presented the first session of the day with her colleague, Tom Engel, Director of External Communications, where they spoke about ‘rebuilding one of the most established brands in the UK from the inside out’.

Chatting with BT’s Helen Willetts

Helen said that she faced a couple of challenges from an internal comms perspective when she arrived at BT.

Firstly, as a company, she said that when she joined in January 2018, BT was seen internally and externally as quite old fashioned, a little bit as if living in its history, and seen as a broadband landline company. However, the company was trying to modernise itself to be thought of as a modern technology company. So, there was a massive reputational perspective that needed to change, and so specifically from an internal comms point of view, Helen added that you could see how that was adding to that problem.

Helen said that the set up that she inherited was also quite old fashioned, sending out long form corporate announcements to people to tell them about what was going on, which was one way.  She felt that they were unable to create a community of advocates from the 100,000 people working across BT and Openreach, where Helen believes every single person should be an advocate of their brand. Instead, she saw a massive gap between pride, which was really high and, as Helen explained, comes from an organisation that’s been around a really long time and had done some amazing things in history, and advocacy, where people would actually recommend people to work at BT or recommend its products and services. However, Helen believes that internal comms is perfectly placed to change that.


Helen said that internal communications is best placed tightly next to external communications, although she doesn’t believe it works like that in every company, as sometimes it’s part of HR and in others, part of marketing.  However, she thinks that when you are trying to rebuild a brand from the inside out, which she added is how companies should rebuild any brand, where you have 100,000 people there ready to be your fan base, you’ve just got to equip them with the right ‘stuff’. Helen recommended making best friends of the external comms team and saying, actually, let’s break the news first internally, tell the stories first internally and find amazing stories internally and then put them external, adding that the Edelman Trust Barometer tells you that the most trusted source of any organisation is its employees. Therefore, if you can arm your employees to tell those stories, whether it’s news, strategy, etc, that’s when inside out really comes into its own. However, Helen said that this is quite a brave thing to do and so you have to have a brilliant external comms team that understand the power of internal and will work.

Crisis Comms

A recent example of crisis communications from an Inside Out perspective was when, in the lead up to the December 2019 UK General Election, the Labour party announced that they will look to part-nationalise BT, should they get into Government.

In this instance, Helen said that BT only had a couple of hours’ notice that this was going to be discussed on the ITV ‘News at Ten’ in the evening and so was a perfect opportunity to put their Inside-Out principles into practice.

Whilst they sent their Chief Executive, Philip Jansen, to record interviews on Sky and ITV, the first thing they organised was for him to record a 90s direct response video to employees, which they shared across their internal platform, Workplace by Facebook, as News at 10 played out.  She said that it was interesting to see how many people do seek out information in such a circumstance – people asking, ‘has my organisation actually bothered to say anything to me’.  As it happens, BT saw the numbers of views of the video tick up in the thousands between 10pm and midnight on the night that the story broke, and employees were extremely positive in their feedback.

Helen and Tom shared three takeaways in their talk:

  1. Story – ruthlessly own your story as corporate affairs, not just internal comms. The way you talk to your investors, your people, your customers has to be the same. There’s no point having eighty-five taglines internally and then a totally different brand externally and then you tell your investor something else. It matters that you have a story that ladders up for everybody so that it feels true, whichever audience group that you’re in
  2. Content – internal comms are doing themselves a disservice with the levels of creativity that they put into what they do. Set the bar exceptionally high for the kind of content that you give your people. Tell the truth right through to the content, which has to be really entertaining and interesting. The news has to be brilliant and the content has to be amazing and not patronising or tired.
  3. Leadership – it’s so important that when HR are running amazing leadership programs, that internal comms is there with them helping leaders be a different kind of leader from a communications point of view. Not every leader feels comfortable producing the kind of video that BT’s CEO did about re-nationalisation to everybody, really honestly and ‘off the Cuff’ with five seconds notice. We therefore have to get the leaders from behind the back of the sofa and say it’s okay to talk to your people about the truth, to get in front of the news and unite your leadership team behind a common story, telling the truth, and doing it brilliantly.

John Townsend

Our third guest was John Townsend, Head of Internal Communications at Unicef UK, who had presented a session on ‘The art of storytelling and how to engage and empower your workforce via your narrative’.

Chatting with John Townsend of Unicef UK

John said that Unicef has amazing stories, which we see in all their external comms, but that sometimes there’s a gap between people feeling either confident enough or thinking it’s the right thing to do, in terms of sharing quite emotional stories internally, and so the organisation is trying to change that.

He explained that everyone who comes to work at Unicef does so because they want to help children. But like all companies, sometimes people can get bogged down in day to day bureaucracy and processes. Unicef has therefore tried to give their people the license and platforms to share those amazing stories that really reconnects with the cause, making their lives easier by communicating more efficiently.

John wants everyone involved in the charity to be an ambassador if they can be and they try and upskill them and give them the tools to be able to do that by running an employee ambassador program. He added that everyone who joins should go on an induction course around storytelling and telling the Unicef story with impact and understanding their audience.

John subscribes to the theory: ‘if you tell people, they’ll forget. If you show them, they might understand. And if you involve them, then they will really get it’.  Therefore, to achieve this, Unicef give their ambassadors the opportunity to go out and talk about the charity and share stories. For example, they put them in front of schoolchildren at some of the 2000+ Rights Respecting schools that they work with, be that running assemblies and careers fairs.  They also provide them with lots of volunteering opportunities so they can put their knowledge and skills into practice, and John said that they find they then come back with an extra shot of adrenaline and jolt in the arm around Unicef’s story itself.  He added that when it’s done right, it catches.

John explained that the organisation uses Workplace by Facebook and so their ambassadors are encouraged to share stories through the platform – in fact, they’ve written instructions in people’s program visits, that they required to tell a story when they get back about what they visited and why and how Unicef’s work has changed children’s lives there.   He said that Workplace is a really useful tool as people don’t need to go through the internal comms official process to use it. They can just take a picture, video, or livestream and share away!  He added that Unicef works in 191 countries and so there are a lot of trips where people are seeing amazing things. However, sometimes it’s hard to translate that when they come back, or after a few weeks, it’s lost. Therefore, by using Workplace, it means that they can share stuff instantly and from the right areas. They also try and encourage that with specific groups as well, so for example, Unicef’s CEO has a specific group that he regularly updates when he’s at different interesting things that people will be keen to see.

John said that Unicef UK has officially trained about 50 percent of its workforce in storytelling, which he’d love to scale up across Unicef globally.

Vanessa Unwin

Next to join us was Vanessa Unwin, Global Head of Internal Communications at Hitachi Rail, who had presented a case study at the event on ‘Communicating through global change’.

Chatting with Vanessa Unwin of Hitachi Rail

Vanessa began by explaining that she has 14,000 colleagues at Hitachi Rail across 24 different countries and 76 nationalities altogether, which of course, is a lot of people to talk with and listen to.

The change that she presented on was a global reorganisation, which started in September 2019 and was against the backdrop of a new CEO who joined in April 2019 and the founder of the business, who joined the rail business 12 years ago in the UK, leaving to go to Japan, where their corporate headquarters is.   Vanessa said that the reorg announcements that happened were quite significant for people and showed how nobody likes change.  They also had the challenges of the different time zones, when they were communicating, as they couldn’t find one time that suited everybody to join either a video conference or phone call or even receive a message. They had to find what was the best fit for the most people and she said that they managed 18 different countries out of the 24 in terms of coinciding what they were doing.

Then, in terms of languages, whilst English is their common language, the company carried out a survey last year in preparation for the reorganisation, which showed that people are quite unconfident in what they understand. Vanessa said that there’s lots of jargon in the rail industry, and people do generally think they understand what’s being said when actually, according to their survey, they don’t. So, they now translate everything that they into Italian, French and Japanese.

Vanessa said that the new CEO had been in the role for about 10 days when they put him in front of 350 senior leaders in an online conference where he spoke about the big picture of where the company was heading. He didn’t go into details about a reorganisation or restructure as such but painted the picture of where they needed to get to. That gave the 350 people who joined an opportunity to see the bigger picture.  In fact, the week before, they had shared with them all the content of this online conference so that they could have input and ask questions. Then, after a few months, whilst those ideas settled and they took on board their input and readapted things, they started preparing for a more traditional announcement. But before the announcement was made, they spent time to work out how 14,000 people could receive the same message all at the same time. To achieve this, they put a team together of internal comms people who worked in the business already who were identified based on their skills and experience and the role that they did. They then all worked a process together, which involved union reps, who are very significant in the rail industry.

Devising the message involved asking lots of awkward questions, which Vanessa thinks is one of the main values that internal comms brings to any businesses. Ask the interesting, awkward or what seems like dumb questions to get the detailed answer that you need.

They adapted existing channels as well so that as soon as the main announcement had been made, they started showing that there was change coming.  The announcement talked about integrating teams and in their internal comms channels, they started showing teams integrated, i.e., working on projects that were all meeting the objectives of the strategy that had been announced in April and demonstrating that this change was actually taking effect now while at the same time a process of drawing out organisational structures was happening.

 Vanessa said the reactions varied by nationality.

  • In Japan, where she said they don’t do re-orgs, they were quietly curious – not really sure what was coming and really didn’t know what to expect.
  • In Italy, which is one of the other main bases, there was a lot of uncertainty – she said that a lot of overlap happens in teams in Italy from a new business that they had acquired and the existing business. So, there was a lot of suspicion towards each other, and quite a bit of grandstanding – people really trying to demonstrate that they were good at what they did, and they should be involved in everything.
  • In the UK, it was a feeling of a lot more about being something being done to them. Vanessa said that in the UK, they’d just gone through a massive period of growth for four years, having delivered a £6bn contract and people were really worried that despite working really hard and almost being a start-up business for the last four years and delivering this return on investment and bringing revenue in, that they would be impacted in a negative way by the change.

Vanessa said that the new CEO had already seen that people really didn’t understand what the touchpoints are when you’re delivering a project. There’s newly formed teams and you’ve got double reporting lines and people aren’t really sure about who is responsible for signing off certain things. So, he recognises that there’s a lot of work to do. She added that change like this can bring a lot of uncertainty, particularly because it’s about roles and responsibilities but that the CEO is starting to realise that you need to touch on those sensitive topics and that it’s okay to do that. In fact, she said that the more he does that, she is sure the more he’ll be able to win people over and the easier the reorganisation will be when it takes place in February 2020.

Vanessa finished with three best practice tips in communicating through a time of change:

  1. Establish a really waterproof process – when you’ve got a mixed group of people speaking different languages with fear of change and uncertainty about what’s going to happen to them, the one thing that they could depend on in that situation is a process. So, get a process for communicating, agree on it and make sure everybody’s clear about it.
  2. Be the people who ask the awkward questions and use what you know about human psychology to dig down deep and get people to think about the impact of decisions that they’re making.
  3. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Vanessa said that this is a famous Gandhi quote, but she thinks it really does apply in this situation. You need to demonstrate that you’re changing as well, that you’re changing your internal comms practices. So, in this case, they were talking about integration and bringing teams together. Start doing that in your channels where you didn’t do it before. Signify that change yourself by acting differently and doing things differently.

Adam Clatworthy

Following our earlier chat with Stuart Williamson of Nationwide Building Society about getting through to senior leadership teams to drive the internal comms agenda, our next guest Adam Clatworthy, Integrated Communications Senior Specialist at SAP UK & Ireland also presented at the event in that same session.

Chatting with Adam Clatworthy of SAP UK & Ireland

Adam said that he has quite a unique role at SAP as he is Integrated Communications and so as well as looking after the internal comms, he is also responsible for external communications from a PR perspective and executive communications for the organisation’s UK, MD, Jens Amail.

Within his talk, Adam demonstrated the value in building relationships to stakeholders. He said that its very important that you build them from a senior leadership perspective.

Adam sits on all the Senior Leadership team meetings on a weekly basis, where everyone on the UK board goes through all the key priorities for the week, which he said is very important to understand, not just what are the decisions being made at a board level, but why they’re being made.  He can therefore get the context that will help drive the strategy from a comms perspective. But he added that you cannot underestimate the value in building relationships at all levels, whether it’s the facilities manager, head of HR or PAs of all of the key executives across the business, because they’re the ones that can really open doors for you.  He said that he really sees his role, primarily, as a connector, connecting the dots and making sure he is arming the senior leadership team with the right information.

The example Adam talked through about having the right connections was during the 2019 terrorist attack on London Bridge, close to SAP’s office.  He explained that obviously it was a very distressing situation and at a leadership level, they needed to understand that all their staff were safe as they had employees in the building. They therefore had to get communication out very quickly to all 5,000 employees and advise them to stay away from the area, or if they were trapped in the office, give them guidance on what they should do and what they should be prepared for. They also had to be across the advice that the police were giving out on Twitter.

Adam said that one of the things that was really useful in that situation was that he’d built up a relationship with the receptionist that was working in that office and some of the staff that were working on that day. The receptionist was able to provide him with minute by minute updates on who was working in the building, which meant they could build the communications around that. They therefore went out in three stages.  Letting them know that:

  1. Something had happened and advised them to stay away from the area.
  2. If anyone was trapped in the building, what the guidance was that had been provided by the police.
  3. They’re were all safe and accounted for and just to stay safe.

Adam thinks that giving that recommendation, advice and showing empathy is very important for a business of their size.  It meant they were showing that the leadership team and everyone in the organisation cares for all of their peers and colleagues.

Adam said that the key recommendation from this case study being that it’s so important for comms professionals to build those relationships at all levels – never underestimate the value in a connection or a contact that’s made, no matter how trivial it may be.   He added that you can never plan for every eventuality, like that particular crisis. Often, things happen very quickly, which he said is why it’s so important in his role to have that map of all the key stakeholders – who do you go to in a crisis situation? Who’s going to get that information in a very timely manner so that you are armed with all the information?

Adam finished his talk by sharing one additional bit of advice, which was that it’s not just your communication skills that leadership are looking to. It’s really about being a trusted adviser. He said it’s therefore key to understand what is going on outside of the business, that will potentially have an impact on the business itself – what are the broader socio-economic implications, whether it be Brexit, trade deals, or other events that are happening.  How do you bring that into the visibility of your executives and demonstrate that you’re ahead of the curve? How can you prove that you are an adviser to them and that you’re challenging them and providing them with the right information that’s going to help them do their job better. Therefore, it’s about understanding the impact of the trends outside the organisation and how that can impact inwards. He added that sometimes you do have to battle to earn that trust. Sometimes you’ll just click with certain characters and stakeholders but everyone’s different and so it’s not a failure if you’re really fighting to earn that trust and credibility.  It just means you have to adapt and evolve and change your approach and change your mentality.

Phil Askham

Our final guest of this episode was Phil Askham, Global Head of Employee Communications at HSBC, who had taken part in a panel session looking at the future of internal communications.

Chatting with HSBC’s Phil Askham

Phil said that before we think about what internal comms will look like in five or so years’ time, we need to start thinking about how organisations will be structured.  He added that the buzz phrase of his panel session was that the future is now and that we’re now seeing the megatrends, which will define the shape of organisations in the future. He referred to the Future of Jobs report from the World Economic Forum where they named three trends in particular:

  1. Job displacement – the adoption of AI and machine learning tools takes out some human work hours, offset by new roles.
  2. Boundaryless, more porous workforce – an ecosystem of a core business served by its suppliers, serving its customers. Phil said that comms can play a really helpful role here in binding that disparate community together under a single purpose.
  3. Personalization –setting your own terms of why you join and what you want from your employer.

Phil said that there are five generations in the workforce now from the Baby Boomers through to Generation Z, and they’re all very different and want different things from work, with different expectations. However, increasingly Generation Z will become the dominant force and so we need to adjust and adapt to that expectation of work.

Phil said that since the rise of the smartphone, it’s been increasingly hard to compete for the attention of any audience and so that’s the ever-constant struggle for communicators – to capture attention, which won’t change and will just get harder. Therefore, Phil thinks that internal communicators need to work harder on more compelling content and more human stories, which compete with the best on the web. In terms of purpose, companies need to know where they are going, what they stand for and articulate that really well to their employees. However, he added that you can’t expect that to resonate equally with everyone. Increasingly, people bring their own personal purpose to work and if it resonates with the company, that’s fantastic. If it doesn’t, then maybe the ties are weaker and if something else comes up in their lives, they will leave you.

To prepare for the future, Phil said that internal communicators need to:

  1. Be curious and open to how your organisation is evolving and what the needs are of the leadership group and the frontline employees particularly.
  2. Get your digital skills in good shape because that is the future.
  3. Help HR because they’ve got a huge job to do in upskilling the workforce that you’re serving.


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