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Internal comms: Keeping the house in order

Late last year, NTUC fired Amy Cheong, assistant director of the membership department, following uproar by netizens after she made racial remarks on her Facebook.

The company apologised, with secretary-general Lim Swee Say saying NTUC “takes a serious view on racial harmony in Singapore”, and “we will not accept and have zero tolerance towards any words used or actions taken by (its) staff that are racially offensive”.

A few weeks before this incident, Barclays fired its Singapore-based banker Olivier Desbarres, head of foreign exchange strategy in Asia Pacific for Barclays Capital, after his vitriolic rant at construction workers, which was captured on video and later circulated online.

These are examples of incidents occurring in the private lives of individuals, but the perceived connection to the brands they work for reflects the close association a company shares with its employees, in as far as its brand image is concerned.

While no company can totally avert such a crisis from surfacing, what is the least it can do to convey and convince its employees of the values it stands for? How does a company ensure it communicates well with its employees; well enough to keep them engaged and become advocates?

The answer lies in effective employee engagement, a far more evolved face of employee communication and definitely, much deeper than just putting up a poster, sending out mass emails or mouse pads with cleverly written messages.

Time and again it has been reiterated employees are the best brand ambassadors. According to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, employees play a central role in building trust of a company, so companies need to be doing more to activate employees through ambassador programmes and connecting them with customers.

And with the war for talent heating up, firms in Asia are realising the importance of employee needs and its impact on the company’s brand as well as business.

“While employee engagement was on the periphery a few years ago, it’s now mainstream for companies and we see a request [for employee engagement programmes] in almost every brief we receive,” says Andrew Thomas, managing director of Singapore and regional director for Southeast Asia for Ogilvy PR, which also runs Ogilvy Impact, the global employee engagement and change communication consultancy.

Whose job is it anyway?

Depending on the structure of the company, the internal communications team may report into marketing or human resources, but it is not solely run by either or.

Unilever, for example, has a global employee engagement team as part of the communications function. Aware of the fact employee engagement is about driving advocacy to people in every market and every function, it does so by creating and maintaining a robust corporate intranet, alongside a calendar of proactive activity across the year that it encourages (and sometimes mandates) for markets across the globe to activate.

For example, it recently announced its first year audited report on its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (a plan to halve its environmental impact, increase positive social impact and double its business) with more than 100 markets taking part in a consistently branded but locally owned event and communications programme.

“With over 170,000 employees around the world we can put ourselves in a powerful position with employee engagement by driving brand advocacy – ensuring our people become passionate endorsers and advocates of what we make, from soup to soap to improving the quality of life for millions in many markets globally, so we drive advocacy strongly across our organisation,” says Jonathan Sanchez, vice-president of communications for Unilever Asia.

In the case of smartphone manufacturer HTC, internal communications reports into HR, however, it is closely integrated with key internal stakeholders, including marketing and PR to ensure a holistic communications approach. HTC, which also has a diverse group of global employees, both geographically as well as functionally, believes the key to effective internal communications is understanding not all audiences are the same.

“We take an audience-focused approach to our communications,” says Michele Sullivan, senior director of internal communications at HTC, adding beyond the company-wide messages from executives, HTC has developed communications channels tailored for its regional employees and provides communication support for its divisional and regional leaders.

Since the launch of HTC’s consumer-facing brand in 2006, the company has grown dramatically, making communication and employee engagement even more important.

Moving away from transactional communication to providing more clarity on what the strategic priorities are, rationale for important business decisions and context for the rapidly changing competitive environment are vital for HTC.

“In reality, employee communication is not a comms or HR or a marketing issue. In fact, it’s a leadership issue,” says Thomas adding that often there is a tussle as conversations on the matter become polarised between HR and marketing departments. Ideally, marketing and HR must unite to bring the best outcome

For the full story, read Marketing Magazine’s January issue.

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