Action for Children, UK: A Critical Analysis of Planned and Strategic Internal Communications

Internal communications seems to be a fast growing major department in Action for Children.
Internal communications seems to be a fast growing major department in Action for Children.

Since the last decade, the area of internal communications has expanded and is now recognised as integral not only to effective public relations practice but also to organisational success. Internal communications, specifically employee communication, has been credited as being integral to internal brand-building and integrated communication.

While public relations is still viewed by many as a predominantly externally oriented practice, it now requires an understanding of internal audiences as a basis for developing effective external communication strategies.

Communication activities and processes undertaken within an organisational context may be defined as ‘internal communications’. Other references to this field may include the more general ‘organisational communication’, ‘corporate communication’, ‘internal public relations’ or the more specific ‘employee communication’. While the proponents of each term may argue why one is more appropriate than the other, they all agree that the concept involves strategic communication activities geared towards an organisation’s internal audiences and stakeholders.

Kennan and Hazleton (2006), in proposing a theory of internal public relations, explore the value of employees to an organisation’s development of social capital, defining social capital as the “ability that organisations have of creating, maintaining, and using relationships to achieve desirable organisational goals” (2006, p. 322). However they view ‘internal public relations’ as a means of improving the understanding between those who fill management roles and those who are defined as employees or workers.

But internal communications is not only regarded as an indicator of ‘soft’ measures. Watson Wyatt’s third Communication ROI study (2007/2008) revealed that effective employee communication is a “leading indicator of financial performance”. While the study does not suggest that effective communication causes better performance, their results indicate that investment in employee communication is likely to “higher financial returns”.

Due to the fact that internal communications is a relatively young practice, particularly within the context of public relations, its scope is still evolving, and as such is prone to various interpretations depending on who is attempting to define the field. Organisational communication scholars argue that organisations are created through conversation (Conrad & Poole, 2002), while marketing scholars refer to employee communication within the context of building the internal brand and customer service (Vallaster & Chernatony, 2006; Asif & Sargeant, 2000). The scope of activities under the rubric of internal communications will largely depen on the perspective and ideas of the CEO or the most senior communication executive in the organisation. This will again depend on their experience and vision about communication’s value to the business.

Regardless, internal communications will include traditional public relations activities such as research, construction of messages, selection of media channels and evaluation for internal stakeholders, as well as the more contemporary involvement in organisational processes, such as culture change and values development.

The advancement in new media technology, globalisation and an increasingly diverse workforce are major factors in organisational change and the increased interest in internal communication. Employees from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds as well as different generational groups populate the contemporary businesses. Cultural and generational diversity in the workplace are seen as key issues for workplaces around the world. As a response, public relations practitioners are starting to develop programs addressing diversity (Ford, 2006, p. 6; Hunter, 2007, p. 13).

It is within these contexts that this article discusses the planned and strategic internal communications (IC) of Action for Children since 2008. Furthermore theories, policies and frameworks related to IC have been highlighted and discussed.

Action for Children

Action for Children is a children’s charity which work with more than 250,000 children, youngsters, parents and carers. It runs, across the UK, 600 services which include tackling concerns such as child abuse or neglect. With the vision to create a “world where all children and young people have a sense of belonging and are loved and valued” (AFC, 2011), Action for Children offers numerous innovative services including adoption and fostering services, specialist schools and family support services. Furthermore, life-changing campaigns are conducted for children, young people and families who find themselves in difficulties. Since 2008, Action for Children has conducted two main internal communications campaigns.

Table 1. Internal communications campaigns conducted by Action for Children.

Year Name Objective Method Outcome
December2010 My action for children day – Encourage 90% of staff to go the extra mile;- Come up with fun and imaginative ways;- Endorse external awareness through social media;

– Strengthen the bond between staff;

– Have 100% staff by January 2012 to go the extra mile;

– 60% response to pledge postcards;

– Plan, design and produce in house to keep costs low.

– Duration of campaign is one day;- Communicated through intranet, email, posters, sharing and telling. – 93% went the extra mile;- 98% worked extra hours;- 83% promised to get involved in charitable activities;

– 67% inspired to raise money outside working hours;

– 70% bought a ‘Very

Hungry Caterpillar badge’;

– 2% of Facebook page fans increased;

– 68% response to pledge postcards.

November 2010 Action Packed – Determine how successful the in-house magazine, ‘Action Packed’ has been at delivering corporate messages. – Poll and survey – 8% used the magazine;- 82% weren’t ready to take actions based on published materials;- 79% wanted the magazine to engage more staffs.

 

February 2011 Lights, Camera, Action – Provide information to every staff to do their jobs and know about latest campaigns and activities;- Atleast 60% of staff to watch the DVD;- Atleast  50% of staff to get involved and ask about the DVD;

– Endorse fundraising and how to get involved;

– Organisational priorities and target senior leaders;

– Circulate news and forthcoming activity.

– Launch a quarterly magazine style DVD – 93% of staff appreciated the DVD initiative;- 68% watched the DVD in group; 

Converting employees to ambassadors

In traditional mechanistic organisations, employees are seen as automatons performing a part of the process. Classical organisational theorists Frederick Taylor, Henri Fayol and Max Weber studied organisations for efficiently, hierarchies and bureaucracies, and developed what are also collectively known as the tenets of scientific management, many of which are still applied in today’s organisations.

Organisational scholars such as Argyris (1982) noted that the difference in need of organisations and of individual employees often led to conflicts. Organisations focused on productivity while individuals were interested in a pleasant and satisfying workplace. As a result, organisations adopted the human relations and human resources models (Miller, 1999), where employees’ welfare became an important issue for the organisation. As employee satisfaction and organisational commitment were found to relate to organisational productivity, organisations also adopted what Conrad and Poole (2002) refer to as ‘relational strategies’ of organising. Included within this rubric is the area of participative decision-making (PDM), which is appreciated by employees not because it gives them power, but because it keeps them abreast of what is going on in the organisation (Conrad & Poole, 2002, p. 72).

Eventually, communication practitioners found the untapped value of employees as purveyors of the organisation’s reputation by being its ambassadors. Employees are natural ‘ambassadors’ because not only are they exposed to the organisational culture and practices, but also because, by choosing to work in their organisations, they demonstrate their affinity for and interest in the organisation. Of course, their familiarity with the nitty gritty of day-to-day organisational practice can also become an area of risk and scandal. If an ambassador becomes disgruntled or bitter, they can easily turn into a whistleblower within minutes or seconds with the aid of the internet.

Action for Children, through its campaigns, has attempted to change its 7,000+ staff and volunteers into ambassadors. In December 2010, the organisation came up with “My action for children day” campaign in which it ensured that its employees are engaged, and feel good and proud to be members of the organisation. Employees who take pride in their organisations are more likely to promote and defend the reputation of their employing organisations (Johnston & Zawawi, 2010, p. 339).

To communicate the relevant information, Action for Children opted for intranet, email, posters, sharing and telling medium. A recent International Association of Business Communication (IABC) study on internal communications practices in small businesses confirmed that “direct face-to-face employee communication practices are most valuable for building employee engagement and increasing productivity” (Gillis, 2007, p. 28). The study also reported that the “power of positive productive relationships in the workplace” and “trust built from a foundation of effective communication practices” are essential to productivity and business success (Gillis, 2007, p. 28). As a matter of fact, Action for Children could use the interpersonal communication with its employees to promote campaigns.

Interpersonal communication

Studies (Hess, 2008; Ward, 2008) continue to show that face-to-face or interpersonal communication is rated highest in effective communication techniques despite increasing use of electronic communication. Earlier research (Whitworth, 2002) also found that face-to-face or interpersonal communication was still the favored and most credible choice because of the “opportunity to observe non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice and facial expression, as well as the opportunity for immediate feedback” (2002, p. 9).

A poll conducted by Action for Children in late 2010, to assess the success of in-house magazine ‘Action Packed’, has given some negative results. A very few number of staff used to believe in the magazine and take steps at work after reading it. According to Sinickas (2006) employees prefer to get information from their immediate supervisor, team breafings between senior managers and low-level employees are not necessarily more effective than newsletters. However, team briefings are still effective in gaining acceptance and changing behaviours (Sinickas, 2006, p. 12).

In the same way, staff meetings are a form of interpersonal communication that allows team members to keep each other up-to-date. The two-way communication means participants can provide immediate feedback, with meaninful additions in the form of non-verbal cues such as facial gestures, posture and body language. Also, employees can discuss any issues that need clarification at length, rather than being constrained by time, money or distance.

Employee engagement

Practitioner definitions focus on employees ‘going the extra mile’ as a feature of employee engagement. Shaffer (2007) defines engagement as “a condition that exists when people are willing to go the extra mile to make their organisation successful because, in part, they passionately believe in the values and purpose of the organisation” (2007, p. 13).

Perrin (2008) regards employees as engaged when the employee is willing to “go the extra mile to help their companies succeed” (2008, p. 3). However employee engagement is defined, it is vital to acknowledge that employees want to be included and to participate in organisational processes if they are expected to become advocates or ambassadors for their respective organisations.

By implementing the “My action for children day” campaign, Action for Children expected 100% staff engagement by January 2012 to go extra mile. This rethinking of the role and function of employees extends their traditional ‘internal’ role to also simultaneously become external stakeholders as investors and consumers. And by thinking about employees as both internal and external stakeholders, organisations potentially have a ready pool of ambassadors who can help them achieve their organisational goals.

However, it is not sufficient for Action for Children to assume that employees will automatically become organisational ambassadors. A lot of work needs to be undertaken to develop those relationships in order to convince employees to commit and agree – perhaps voluntarily – to represent the organisation in the community. One of the most important, but underrated, areas of internal relations is the ability to cultivate employee goodwill. While goodwill has not generated a great deal of research – presumably because of the difficulty in measuring it – one cannot deny that public relations practice is based on the goodwill emerging from relationship with publics. Ferguson (1984) identified this concept in 1984 and has often been quoted in the emerging literature in relationship management (Ledingham & Bruning, 2000). Action for Children should not that lack of goodwill can lead to employees becoming organisational activists. Public relations practitioners acting on behalf of their fellow employees may in fact take on activist roles within their organisations. Holtzhausen and Voto (2002) suggest that:

“The practitioner as organisational activist will serve as a conscience in the organisation by resisting dominant power structures, particularly when these structures are not inclusive, will preference employees’ and external publics’ discourse over that of management, will make the most humane decision in a particular situation and will promote new ways of thinking and problem solving through dissension and conflict.” (2002, p. 64)

With employees becoming a key stakeholder group, it is inevitable that communication practitioners in Action for Children need to work with the department traditionally expected to look after employees – Human Resources (HR).

Tools used in practice

Rapidly changing new media technology, along with the geographical dispersion of global employees, has encouraged the development of new internal communications channels. While in-person or face-to-face communication is still the most preferred approach to employee communication (Ward, 2008), this may not always be possible or may not be the most appropriate for the kind of information or message.

While traditional communication media such as company magazines/newsletters, company meetings, notice boards, corporate videos and events are still used by many organisations, these are now supplemented or adapted to include internet-based technology. However, a 2006 Edelman/People Metrics-sponsored study reported that, while awareness of new media technologies is quite high, not many organisations used new media for internal communications purposes because many communicators were still confused about their implementation (Ewing, 2007).

Another study by the UK-based IRS Employment Review found that team meetings, attitude surveys and focus groups were the most popular ways of encouraging employee involvement. The study also found that three of the four respondents had staff feedback mechanisms in their workplaces, which ranged from intranet forums to executive time on the floor, a confidential email address, an open-door policy, pizza clinics and breakfast banter (Amble, 2005). Ward (2008) supports this, noting that the conference roundtable has not been superseded by the increased uptake of virtual meetings over face-to-face communication. If communication practitioners are clear about the purpose and context of their messages, then they will realise that the best practice may involve a combination of interpersonal and new media channels.

New media

In February 2011, Action for Children came up with the ‘Lights, Camera, Action’ where a DVD was launched to provide information to every staff to do their jobs and know about latest campaigns and activities. However this campaign could have been enhanced by opting for other media channels currently used for internal communications purposes, as discussed below.

  • Podcasts

Described as ‘radio on steroids’, podcasts are popular because of the availability of high-quality audio via the internet. Kramer (2006) believes that podcasting can enhance communication programs, including internal communications. He suggests that podcasts are useful as a means of distributing CEO messages via the intranet, and training messages. Action for Children could have used this technique to circulate information to its 7,000+ employees and volunteers.

  • Weblogs

New media forms such as blogs can actually replace or substitute the benefits of face-to-face relationship-building. Seltzer and Mitrook (2007) found that weblogs offer more potential for dialogic communication than traditional websites. Blogs could be used by Action for Children for the purpose of online relationship-building, but it is also advised to the organisation to decide who initiates, writes and maintains the blog:

“The organisational blogger needs to be independent enough to maintain the distinctive, individual voice that is part of what makes a weblog a weblog, yet must also be trusted not to go off message or post items that could prove to be embarrassing to the organisation (Seltzer & Mitrook, 2007, p. 229).”

  • Social media

During Action for Children’s “My action for children day” campaign, a two percent increase in the number of Facebook page fans was observed. Wright (2008) contends that because of a “lack of a demonstrable business case” many organisations refuse to accept using social media networks, like Facebook, for collaborative projects. He proposes four potential ‘gateways’ which internal communicators and public relations practitioners can opt for: video library, staff directories, project wikis and user group forums. According to Wright (2008), if employee descriptions and profiles are uploaded on Facebook, these details can, for explample, be used by associates and collaborators to set up a virtual team, thus classifying who to interview or consult in another locality.

“User group forums, on the other hand, allow companies to listen and receive customer and client feedback immediately. The difference with customer hotlines is that user group forum members can ‘defend’ the company from ‘unjustified complaints’ fom other members. Video libraries are compilations of all corporate videos, stored on the company server (Wright, 2008, p. 23).”

Wright (2008) foresees that internal communicators and public relations practitioners can end up operating “their own company web TV channels” (2008, p. 24). It has also been found that wikis are the perfect model for collaborative projects since they provide team members the platform to put in and edit work via the web. Wright (2008), on the other hand, considers it to be the biggest challenge to encourage the organisation’s staff to use them.

  • Web conferencing

At no point during its campaigns, has Action for Children opted for the web conferencing an internal communications technique. Action for Children runs 600 services across the UK and offices are spread out in numerous locations. A later addition to video and teleconferencing, web conferencing allows participants to ‘attend’ a live meeting or seminar as they sit in front of their computer. When the number of subordinates or their geographic location make it difficult for a superior to visit employees face-to-face, organisations resort to tools such as web conferencing or videoconferencing. Video and teleconferences use telephony links to allow for two-way audiovisual communications between two or more locations. Web conferences, however, allow each conference member to ‘see’ the people with whom they are in conference in real time, albeit perhaps in different time zones. As such, this method of internal communications is more cost efficient than paying transport and hotel accommodation, and physically moving staff for every meeting.

Internal communication tools

Table 2. highlights the use of different communication tools in internal environments.

Communication Useful for
Face-to-face
  • Large-group/town hall meetings
  • Site visits
  • Walk-about
  • Recognition/award events
  • Staff/team meetings
  • Daily briefings
  • Breakfast/lunch events
  • One-on-one meetings

Presenting information and soliciting immediate feedback

Gathering information on operations

Meeting employees in their workplaces

Rewarding people for their performance

Evaluating & planning programs, activities, distributing workload

Raising profile and networking

Discussing sensitive information

Print

  • Employee magazine
  • Employee newsletter
  • Annual reports
  • Posters/collateral

Informing staff of news – policies, procedures, products, staff

Informing shareholders about financial status and future projects

Raising awareness about new programs, values, mission, etc.

Video

  • Corporate

Motivating staff by presenting what the organisation is about in a lively, usually upbeat, visual manner  Online

  • Intranets
  • Emails
  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • Database
  • Web conferences
  • Podcasts
  • User group forums

 

Sharing organisational information with access restricted to work colleagues

Confirming and documenting information discussed at meetings; initiating a project or a meeting

Collaborating in projects where colleagues can add/review information

Providing access to similar information for employees across different work sites

Meeting with people in real time across different work sites, nationally and internationally

Providing access to meetings/conferences where physical attendance is not possible

 

New approaches in internal communications

From the time when it has been recognised that employees need to make sense and find meaning in the world around them, many organisations have approached internal communications using an old tool – storytelling. More recently, storytelling has been used to generate commitment to change, to provide a context to organisational values, products and services and the overall culture (McLellan, 2006), or as a tool for organisational leaders to inspire their employees and their external stakeholders. Action for Children has not used this technique to carry out its various campaigns.

Storytelling can be used as a useful motivational tool, but it is important that stories are balanced. While storytelling has been a technique encouraged for organisational leaders, it can also be used by other organisational employees:

“Stories package information in a compelling and memorable way. Story-based communications are more emotional in nature and less neatly structured. They connect with people in a more visceral way because they trigger the listener’s own experiences and personal associations (Ioffreda & Gargiulo, 2008).”

Conclusion

Internal communications seems to be a fast growing major department in Action for Children. As Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y employees populate our workforce, many organisations are seeking a work-life balance. In response, Action for Children should increasingly adapt time and space boundaries. New media technology is providing a faster and more flexible means of gathering, sharing and communicating information between individuals, groups and communities. However, while technology may assist and extend social networks, employees still value relationships that are nurtured face-to-face where people can connect in real time over a cup of coffee. This is a facet which Action for Children should definitely consider while designing strategies for internal communications campaigns.

– KRISHNA ATHAL

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