Employee Engagement in Turbulent Times… part one

What do you get if you put 130 professional communicators in a room? Well on Thursday I found out as I attended the 10th annual Internal Communications conference from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). It took place in London and was a full-on and fascinating day. I particularly liked the panel-rich format as it wasn’t ‘death by PowerPoint’ which conferences have a tendency to err towards.

Personal highlights were being on the expert panel in the morning alongside Comms Pro Mike Klein and Mike Grafham who runs Yammer’s Customer Success team for EMEA. We answered questions from delegates about all things social media and internal comms (IC) and I enjoyed hearing and debating the variety of queries and ideas. It was great to meet Mike K face-to-face after tweeting each other for so long and the same was true throughout the day as I met about seven people I know virtually, in “real life”.

James Harkness of HarknessKennett, John Smythe of Engage For Change, and Marc Wright from Simply Communicate, took to the stage to discuss internal comms through the ages – Bulletins to Blogs: the process of internal communication. I’ve captured the thoughts that I liked below:

Internal Comms needs to play a strategic role and add to the agenda, it’s about comms with people not to people – James Harkness

IC has now moved from egotainment and leapt towards collaboration and communication – Marc Wright 

IC pros need to stop making excuses and understand how to use the web to its best effect – Marc Wright

Internal Communication is moving from messaging made by the elite, to involvement and distributed leadership – John Smythe

The panel discussion ended with John Smythe saying that Internal Communicators have to be “more engaging and not just preach” and Chair Sean Trainor posed a question to the room. He asked delegates, through a show of hands, to say whether they think Internal Communications is a profession. Amazingly, bearing in mind it was a room full of professional communicators, only 50 per cent said they view Internal Comms as a profession. I tweeted that result and quickly got a response from Chuck Gose in Indiana, who subsequently wrote a blog post about it. I could dedicate my whole blog to debating that topic and may come back and revisit it at a later date, but for now I thought I’d share that stat and Chuck’s article.

Question Time
Next up on the stage were Yvonne O’Hara, Head of Internal Comms, DWP, Colonel Patrick Crowley, Colonel Media and Communications (Army), Ministry of Defence, Tom Crawford, Head of Internal Communications and Engagement O2 UK and Wayne Clark, Managing Partner, Best Companies Partnership.

Internal Comms people need to step up to mark rather than blame others for lack of recognition – Tom Crawford

Our challenge in the army is ensuring that hierarchy consider how they get messages out – Colonel Crowley  

Internal Comms pros need to give leaders confidence about sharing bad news – Tom Crawford  

There’s a place for comms channels and facilitiating two-way comms in the mix. I am a strong advocator of using channels – Yvonne O’Hara

The role of Internal Communications in Engagement
Co-founder of the PR Academy, Kevin Ruck, revealed the results of some research that was conducted with 353 Comms professionals and two focus groups to look at the role of Internal Communications in Engagement. The results will be shared with the Employee Engagement Task Force which is chaired by David MacLeod.

Highlights for me from Kevin’s presentation were:

Only 24 per cent of practitioners believe that the board think communication is really important

At best, only a quarter of practitioners believe that line managers have a positive attitude towards communication and 45 per cent believe that they ‘need encouragement’

Small companies are far better at changing things

Size doesn’t affect visibility, but public sector leaders are far more elusive

81 per cent want to give more attention to employee feedback and research

Kevin Ruck said: “Internal communicators want – and need – to get in the driving seat and leaders are doing themselves and their organisations a disservice if they don’t support more feedback and line manager communication. In difficult economic times, a quick way to tap into innovation and engagement is staring senior managers in the face.” Find out more about the PR Academy research here.

Employee engagement on a limited budget
Claire Barrow, Head of Comms and Nicola Moorhouse, Internal Comms Officer, from Torbay Council described how they “went back to basics and asked the experts – our staff – where are we now, where do we want to be and how do we get there”. This strategy was in response to the council’s 2009 employee survey. It showed only 11 per cent of employees had good morale and 37% knew what was happening in the council. A range of channels were introduced and every idea and comment generated by council employees was answered by the Internal Comms team as they worked to turn those figures around and ensure there was consistent communication in place. Just a year later the stats were up – staff morale went from 11 to 68 per cent and from 37 to 78 per cent knew what was happening.

Other feedback showed that more than 70 per cent of employees agreed that Internal Communication had improved over the previous six months, 85 per cent liked the new staff newsletter and 94 per cent thought the new all employee weekly email was a good idea. The unassuming presentation from Claire and Nicola demonstrated the importance of taking a measured approach and that a great comms strategy does not mean you have to spend lots of money. It was the simplest and cheapest ideas that seemed to resonate the most with their employees. For example they created a short employee video themselves using a handheld camera and described the impact it had amongst the workforce.

I’m going to write up part two of the CIPR Internal Comms conference over the next few days, but to whet your appetite, it features a play by the Big Wheel theatre company and Futurist Rohit Talwar talking about how communication may happen in a virtual world.

Thanks to all at the CIPR for organising a cracking event. The hashtag on Twitter to read back tweets is #ciprinside.

Post author: Rachel. Pics taken on iPhone (I definitely need the 4S!)


  1. Justine Stevenson says:

    Wow that stat got me thinking….. I’m proud to be an internal communicator and absolutely regard it as my profession but often end up introducing myself as a ‘communicator’ ‘in communications’ or even ‘journalist by training’. Mmmmm

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