Communicate Influence

What is the role of corp comms in employee engagement?

employee engagement corporate communications
employee engagment
Damian McAlonan

In part two of our series on employee engagement, thought leader Damian McAlonan talks about the vital role corporate communications plays in engagement. He also explains the part leaders and board members play in engagment.

Damian then provides actionable steps that comms professionals can take to improve engagement. See part one for Damian’s views on what authentic employee engagement really is.

Next week, James Murphy, founder of Engage International, will conclude our series by talking about corporate culture and how sharing ideas and initiatives about engagement can increase employee engagement.

Good internal comms to strengthen engagement

Damian, many surveys and employee engagement specialists confirm that internal communication has a huge impact on employee engagement. It can show leadership, boost morale, and inspire success. What are some of the key things organizations can do to implement and sustain good internal comms to strengthen employee engagement?

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The role of corporate communications has evolved quickly and increased its remit (rightly) to company culture and values. 

However, it now shares a difficult balancing act that involves what information to release, including when and how to release it.

I say this because a key element of any engaged workplace is trust, transparency and open dialogue within all communications between employer and employee.

It’s recommended with their skill set the communications department should take an active role in consulting leaders on what should be announced as well as how best to deliver it. Simple things make the difference.

We have discovered that companies have previously conducted surveys and then not fed back any of the results. By simply closing this loop with open communication you can instantly improve transparency and trust, which leads to better advocacy with your people. You can also empower people to recognize the issues and enable them to provide ways they can be resolved.

As part of our engagement process, we visit all the clients’ departments to learn what their expectations and needs are. We then work with the communications department on building a variety of (two-way) touch points to relay company intentions, including why it’s carrying out the work, what’s been learnt, what’s been prioritized, and finally when it will happen.

This annual schedule of communications range from a program of interactive TED talk-style events to lunchtime learnings, leadership Q&A webcasts, video announcements, infographics, interviews and much more. Its designed to open up a dialogue where people can involve themselves in the process to create a great workplace.

Another way to strengthen engagement is to make communication light, fun and human whilst paying attention to language. In my life in advertising I learnt that the channel of delivery was just as important as the message, the same is true for engagement. It still amazes me that with so many social channels, some businesses still default to the dullest (and most expensive) ways to make contact.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you communicated with work colleagues on Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat? Why not? I’m not advocating exchanging your personal pages with colleagues, but rather discover if communication is easier and flows better when you have social environments for either teams or departmental groups allowing employees to create the tone and content.

When I’ve suggested this method of communication in the past most HR Directors faces drain white. In this case I often explain that communication is not the issue, as at the very least the company must be in a position to trust its people to act as adults.

Leaders must act to ensure engagement success

Some leaders still think that employee engagement belongs to HR or the communications department. Clearly, this is going to have a negative longer-term impact on engagement. How can individuals in communications/PR, and employees as a group, work towards changing this? And what kind of approach do you take with clients when you encounter this kind of internal culture?

The fish rots from the head down’ is an ancient Japanese phrase that simply means when an organization fails, it’s because the leadership is the root cause.

It’s fair to say this is also true for engagement.

Ultimately engagement is everyone’s responsibility, despite wrongly being associated as a HR initiative. However, for engagement to flourish it requires a responsive culture which is primarily determined by the actions and behaviours of its leaders.

I say this because culture is reflected in what leaders pay attention to, what gets rewarded and punished, and where they choose to allocate resource and attention. All these factors determine the type of culture and engagement you will receive.

Unfortunately, most leaders are unaware of the real impact they have on people and culture in either a negative and positive way.

To tackle this, The Boost Partnership has created its own experiential course with a well-known international charity. The course takes leaders out of their comfort zone and enables them to assess their impact in terms of their positional power and their personal power. The results of the course have raised individual awareness and help to start developed the ‘soft skills’ leaders need to develop a more engaging culture.

The point being that leaders need to start exploring different ways to gain feedback, not just about their business, but also themselves.

My experience of getting leaders on-board with engagement has been to focus on first results and the importance of people. To do this I’ve implemented approaches that are tailored for the character of the leader.  Below are just two routes that might help when you’re getting a leader to take responsibility for engagement.

The first route is what I call the informed route. This is about dropping-in (during meetings, projects or reporting) and case studies about leading executives (in or out of your sector) who have tapped into their culture, took the lead, got everyone involved and created major positive results through engagement.

This is a campaign approach that over time involves sending articles, interviews and data of companies who’ve had leaders place engagement at the top of the agenda.

Another angle, using the same theme, is to identify a specific issue your organization has and then connect it with an engaged leader who has tackled the problem using their people and engagement.

There are lots of role-model examples to use such as, CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. The idea is to inspire others to do the same, but, before you do this make sure you’ve plotted the route you want your leaders to take, alongside expectant results from doing it. With the example and also plan in place, why wouldn’t they do it? The results of the exercise (being favourable) furthers the belief that their involvement in engagement is important.

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The second route is what I call the uninformed route. Leaders have a paranoia about not knowing all the things they think they should.

A story I often relay to leaders involved a time I was a negotiator in FTSE 100 acquisitions and mergers. I was the guy they’d wheel-in as the last person to negotiate and reach a final settlement. During my time, I worked out a way that could reduce the business’ asking price significantly by asking three simple questions.

After entering the room and greeting everyone, I’d settle down and address the CEO and CFO asking if (after due diligence of the accounts) I was correct in stating that the most expensive cost to buying the business was people? After agreement, I’d follow up saying that the reason for this must be that they’re the biggest asset of the company. Once that received agreement I’d ask my final question which was: “We’ve seen the sales, product and market strategy, can you show me your people strategy”.

This is always greeted with silence.

I’d then ask the CEO, and his team, if I was right in suggesting that they had made absolutely no provision or strategy for the biggest asset and cost on the table?

I won’t continue, safe to say that not being able to answer that has cost company shareholders up to £30 million on their company valuation. Obviously, that information isn’t disclosed because it makes the CEO and their board culpable.

Once sharing that story its difficult for leaders to ignore the importance of their people the engagement strategy what involvement they need to have.

Corporate communications: custodians of engagement

Despite our discussion above, it is true though that corporate communications practitioners and HR professionals do have an important role to play in employee engagement. How do you define that role, and what kind of skills should managers look for in PR/comms staff who are going to be working in employee engagement?

Corporate communications is most certainly, as previously stated, a very important to the role for engagement, although its worth reiterating that engagement shouldn’t be seen as anyone’s sole responsibility.

However, as skilled experts in connecting people with information and the brand, I’d actually recommend the communications department do everything they can to become custodians of people engagement and proactively provide content and different ways for the senior team to engage with their people.

Studies demonstrate that the closer people feel to the CEO and executive board the greater the level of employee engagement. In the same instance, I’d also recommend they coach leaders on a more personal approach to the content to enhance the connection.

Thus, the skill set managers should look out for is a high level of interpersonal skills similar to HR, as the Communication team must be adept at handling people from all areas of the business. They’ll need to be persuasive, likeable, enthusiastic and engaging.

There is a silent rule for engagement which says, ‘nothing about me, without me’. It’s the idea that no initiative should be decided by anyone without the full participation of whomever it effects.

Therefore, to have a communication skill set that relates to both C-suite and front-line people equally is also incredibly important.

Interestingly, the role of HR and communications are intrinsically linked in, for example, how well HR does its job in recruiting can affect the perception of a company; similarly, if the company maintains a positive image internally and externally, HR is likely to have greater success in recruiting top talent. Therefore, both departments have a vested interest in employee relations, engagement and communication.

So, while the technical skills are different, similar interpersonal skill sets are the most important for PR/comms people entering engagement.

Actionable steps to improve employee engagement

To give our readers some actionable steps, let’s say that you’ve been hired as a Communications Director with a large company that has low employee engagement. What are the top three things you and your team will do in the next three months to increase employee engagement? 

On my communication and business development workshops I start with the phrase ‘Prescription before diagnosis is malpractice’. I do this because there’s a real temptation to jump straight into action and hit a ‘target’ rather than get to the root of the cause.

I believe the ‘hard yards’ of any communication or engagement strategy are research, evaluation, and board room buy-in. These top three factors will shape your strategy and future comms success and would be my top priority in the first three months.

I was recently on an engagement pitch where the Board Director explained they’d seen four companies (ours included) and been presented with four different ways of measuring peoples engagement. In my own experience specializing in engagement, I’ve witnessed very different reporting methods.  

The point is, you can’t always trust the numbers, so do your own research, look at what is being asked, look at how it’s being asked, look at when and how often it was asked. Is it consistent and what qualitative or quantitative information do you have to support it?

Check the facts and identify why the company has a low engagement score, this is crucial to prioritize and develop both your tone and content when planning the communication strategy.  

The second priority is evaluation; what do you understand about the current company culture? What are the company’s values, what’s its vision or purpose (above just making money) and how do people’s behaviours reflect this?

For the majority of companies, especially large ones, defining purpose and values is incredibly important. The purpose is simply communicating why your employee should get out of bed each morning for you. The perfect communication example given is when Kennedy asked the janitor at NASA what he did, and the janitor replied; “I’m helping put a man on the moon”.  To engage people you need to help them understand what they’re a part of, and why they are important to it.

After being able to articulate the purpose (in a sentence), you next need to define the values. Values determine people’s behaviours in everything they do. We recommend to clients that values are no more than five in total, and that they communicate them through a delivery method we call ‘flexibility within a framework’.

The ‘flexibility within a framework’ model allows for communication to cross cultural divide and for personality to enter the workplace. First, you produce a framework of agreed values and communicate these clearly. Then you allow everyone to tell you what they believe the value means to them. This creates brilliant interactive content and enables the individual to remember and buy-into the company values. To make this communication really effective, you need to praise and recognize people for upholding the company values in their everyday working life.

Thirdly, you’ll need board-buy in. Why? Well, we all know that actions speak louder than words, so if your leaders can’t demonstrate the values then you are, in effect, putting lipstick on a pig.

Make sure the board want to do it, that they are a part of it, that they agree with it, and that they are willing to openly demonstrate the values in all their dealings. Get them to commit to a communication plan and discuss who they are, what they’re doing and how important their people are. Make these personal so that the company gets closer to the boardroom, in my experience video is the best method of delivery to do this.

There are lots more tips and advice but my best advice is be visible, engage, get out and about, be the person you’d want to know. The closer you connect with the people, the easier the communication becomes, and the higher the engagement score will go.

Employee Engagement expert Damian McAlonan

Damian McAlonan is Managing Partner with The Boost Partnership. His philosophy in creating effective change is to keep things simple, share with honest communication, and trust people to get on with it.

Damian is based in London, U.K., and has held senior managerial and board executive roles at Express Newspapers, United News & Media, WFCA Plc, EMAP and AOL Time Warner. He has a Marketing Diploma from the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Marketing and Advertising, and a BA in English Literature from Lancaster University, England.

Find out more about Damian on Linkedin, and follow him on Twitter.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. Based in Toronto, Sheelagh has worked for media outlets including The Edmonton Journal and The Northern Echo, as well as the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

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