Marketing podcast: How do you give your internal communications a face-lift?

The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted internal communications into the front seat, propelling companies to step up their efforts to maintain employees' well-being and ensure they are safe and sound during uncertain times. Working from home has also become a norm recently and companies have used different ways to engage employees and maintain high spirits.

In a recent panel at PR Asia 2020, industry experts discuss how they have adapted their internal communications strategy to fit the changing times. Moderated by Justin Low, chief communications officer, Omnicom Media Group, APAC, the panel features Alistair Marshall, head of communications at Coles Australia; Laura de Kreji, internal communications director at Kerry APMEA; and Panchanit Snape, head of communications at Sanofi, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar and Brunei. Listen to the episode here.

Low: Laura, you have employees who are offline in the industry that you're in. How did you maintain communication and engagement with them because it’s so hard to reach them?

De Kreji: Kerry is we’re a food and nutrition company and many of our employees were considered essential workers. Both in our food and research development labs, but also in our 25 manufacturing sites across the region. Our employees needed to get to work everyday to continue to produce food for our communities around the region.

They were obviously facing different stages of lockdowns, curfews, different government restrictions and transportation shutdowns. Our operations team already had a safety-first quality always ethos and so what we did was very quickly we built a COVID-19 playbook. That COVID-19 playbook outlined everything from how to sanitise the canteen, what processes and procedures to follow at every single Kerry site. We made the playbook very transparent so everybody understood what rules we were all following. That extra content was provided to leaders so that if they had questions, they knew what to say, they knew how to communicate to their teams and we kept updating it.

What was interesting was that we shared it with a number of our customers. Our customers said: "This is really great, this is best practice, can you give us a copy so we can replicate it?". What the leaders did was that they integrated a lot of this content into the face to face daily briefings at our manufacturing sites. So while socially distanced, they were able to deliver information to the teams everyday, beginning or at the end of the shift. And they could also gauge people’s moods, people had an opportunity to ask questions. We created a very open environment.

How did all of that actually work? Just last week we got our results from our last employee opinion survey that we administer globally. I looked at the results just for our region, just for our non-wired employees and engagement went up six points over last year to 78%. So I think that it worked.

Low: I think these opinion polls are some times very important to have a gauge of how our employees are actually feeling. Prerna, you mentioned that coming from a technology company, technology certainly played a key role in communications. How has your company leveraged tech to effectively communicate with your employees?

Suri: At Cisco we have a whole host of tech offerings. One of them is our collaboration offering called Webex and I think we effectively used Webex when the lockdowns hit us January onwards in the different parts of the world. We focused on internal communication campaigns where our employees were the spotlight, it wasn’t the leaders. One example was where we had a "Great place to work" video campaign where we took shots of our empty office during the lockdown and we put that out on Teams also.

We added a question: "Is your place a place where you go to work? Is your work a place where you go to work? Or is it the people that you work with?". We asked employees to post a video everyday about what they like working from home or the challenges that work from home has. For example, children photobombing or video bombing, we had pets, we had lots of virtual happy hours with our leaders especially our global communications team.

I’ve worked across sectors and careers, I’ve been a former journalist but the kind of team camaraderie and the spirit that I saw through these little campaigns that we developed, I personally felt a lot more included in my organisation as an employee myself. So I thought it was just getting that voice out there because all of us were facing similar challenges. We were burnt out, stressed out, video fatigue was rising, and some had family responsibilities. So it just gave an opportunity for people to come out there just to show themselves.

I think authenticity then became a key corner stone for many of our communication campaigns where we just used authentic voices. We use our people and included them in team and culture week where we had a five-day curated session for them including some of our leaders, talking about deep personal insights where we really wouldn’t have an opportunity to share otherwise. It just brought out a lot of vulnerability and authenticity through these small campaigns we did.

Low: A lot of agencies and companies certainly saw a lot of that coming through during COVID-19. Alistair, supermarkets this year have certainly faced huge pressures. How did you keep your 120,000 Coles employees informed and engaged?

Marshall: We tried a whole range of things. One of the things we tried was using our external media, so using that in a way that is quite deliberately targeted at our team members, at our internal employees. So we used, and particularly during, we had a whole period of panic buying in Australia where toilet paper was getting stripped off the shelf. Particularly during that period we were on a media and breakfast TV a lot. Our COO would be on TV and we used those opportunities to very deliberately speak to our team member as much as our customers.

So we were using our direct channels such as SMS, Yammer, EDMs, all of those as well as the conventional cascade channels. But those breakfast TV spots we found really useful, I supposed to do a couple of things. One was to talk about the pride that we had in our team and to really get across to the team that we were there for them in a very public fashion.

Also, we used it to talk to some extent the parents of our team members. We’ve got a lot of younger team members, I think the youngest Coles team member in a shop would be 14 years and nine months. Understandably their parents were concerned about their well being and safety. So broadcast media in a PR sense was important for us, particularly through that panic buying period.

But I think, leadership was really key and whether that’s leadership in a visible external sense like that or perhaps more behind the scenes things. So not holding back on the site visits, making sure that our leaders were accessible and responsive. Arming particularly the mid-level managers with the briefing packs, with the playbooks so that they knew what we were doing so that they could be comfortable talking to their teams. It’s very much an ongoing thing here.

Low: Panchanit, you've got a lot of employees working in the frontline, coming from healthcare and vaccine industry. We talked about striking that fair balance between authoritative, factual and empathetic. How did you manage to strike that balance with your employees?

Snape: During the pandemic, it's our responsibility to do our part and we are committed to supporting our healthcare professionals who are working in the frontline. I think this is the thing that we are so proud of, our company purpose. Our top priority during the pandemic is to make sure we continue making and delivering medicine and vaccine to all patients and at the same time, we protect our employees and our communities. We are so proud to see that our employees have stepped up to embrace the change with resilience during the past nine months.

Our sales representatives are the main channel to communicate directly with customers who are healthcare professionals. We need to make sure to support them and ensure that they all have necessarily scientific information about our medicine so that these doctors can deliver quality healthcare services to patients.

Since COVID-19, we have completely shifted to a virtual mode of engagement. This a huge change of our company and the healthcare industry. Our sales force has to work with doctors from home. We need to ensure that we engage them with empathy and show flexibility in working around the doctors' schedules, which is very important because face-to-face communication is not the norm anymore.

Since we are looking after our employees and our customers who are working in the frontline, we need to ensure that our communication messages are well coordinated and speak as one voice with the integrated approach. These two areas have been merging and it is becoming more important than ever. All the people have the same access to social media channel like LinkedIn and Twitter. We use these social media channels to promote corporate and employee branding to communicate to employees as well.

This allows internal and external audiences to receive the same message at the same time, and share their own views in the public space. There is no such thing as internal and external content anymore. To me it's just content to be customised and matched with audience needs.

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