Power to the people

European legislation means that from next year companies will be legally obliged to offer regular internal communications to staff concerning the business’s stability. By Nathalie Kilby

What do internal communications mean to you? Perhaps they mean a monthly newsletter, the occasional training seminar or the crisis conference to tell staff of imminent managerial changes or, worse, job losses. But now such dialogue with staff is an imperative, as the Information Consultation Directive (ICD) and the resultant impending European legislation means regular internal communications will be a legal obligation. If you were unaware of this latest employment legislation, then you are not alone. Many companies have no plans in place to deal with the ICD, despite the fact that there is less than a year to go before it becomes law.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry the “directive gives staff a right to be informed about the business’s economic situation, informed and consulted about employment prospects, and about decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation or contractual relations”. The DTI maintains, and it appears that most companies are in agreement, that “involving employees more in understanding the business can be an important factor, although not the only one, in achieving high- performance workplaces”. The directive has been welcomed in many quarters, not least the TUC, which sees it as a positive step towards employee empowerment.

Profile boost

Another advocate of the ICD is MJM head of UK operations John Birger. MJM’s UK arm is little over a year old, but the corporate events company has 20 years’ experience in the industry in the US, and boasts a client list that includes global pharmaceutical business Böehringer Ingelheim and telecoms giant Vodafone. Birger says enthusiastically of the ICD: “Anything that boosts the profile of the C&E industry can only be welcomed.”

Recently, MJM commissioned research into corporate communications with internal and external audiences, conducted on its behalf by The BPRI Group, to gain an insight into FTSE-250 company views and opinions on events and corporate communications. The research found that nearly half (44 per cent) of respondents are unaware of the pending legislation on internal communications. Despite this fact, the research shows that 75 per cent of companies use conferences to communicate with internal audiences. While only 29 per cent believe such staff conferences are effective, all is not lost: in 2002, Microsoft spent 1.4 per cent of its total revenue on events. And the corporate communications industry turnover stands at £3bn – ten times that of the British film industry. However, the research also shows that FTSE-100 companies are twice as likely to think conferences are effective as FTSE-101 to 250 companies.

MJM’s Birger says: “While many businesses may be unaware of the pending legal requirement to communicate with staff, they are aware of the value such activity – and not purely to communicate negative news.” Often internal conferences are held to communicate managerial changes, corporate consolidation or job cuts, and Birger believes companies need to look at more positive ways of communicating such changes, as well as using internal events for staff training and building brand values.

A cast of thousands

MJM organised a pan-American event for Pfizer following its acquisition of Pharmacia last year, and had to reach thousands of employees. MJM set up a dedicated website, satellite links and local conferences that all took place at the same time in various regions – a necessity because of time zones. The key objective was to communicate corporate and managerial changes, the business’s goals and to generate brand awareness.

Playing mind games

Birger says: “We organised thought-provoking activities that enable staff to understand the brand – to ‘activate’ it in their minds. Technology certainly has its advantages at such large-scale events, but nothing can beat face-to-face interaction. To engage the staff we arranged interviews with managers, corporate quizzes and group sessions.”

MJM has also worked closely with fledgling insurance company More Than and organises an annual national roadshow for the company to communicate with its staff. The goal here is for management to present key business messages, share its vision and celebrate success. In May 2,500 people attended eight shows in six venues over two weeks.

More Than marketing director Mike Tildersley admits that such events are time-consuming but says: “We are a business made up entirely of brand managers – every one of our staff is responsible for delivering our brand promise. It is vital to our success that we communicate regularly and effectively with our staff. The annual roadshows are a central part of our communication programme – this opportunity to rub shoulders with staff not only helps to make everyone feel involved in the company, but also helps the effectiveness of our regular day-to-day communications.”

MJM’s Birger believes that it is imperative to work with clients to achieve the conference objectives and ensure effectiveness: “It is vital to get the right mix of technological and personal interaction. Essentially, the corporate messages are the same for each business, but the key is tailoring the events and activities to the client in order to achieve the greatest effectiveness.”

Mirage Events managing director Christian Marryat agrees that getting the right mix is essential: “You cannot win hearts and minds without engaging people and you cannot engage if communication is all one-way. Where appropriate, get people involved, whether through participative activities, Q&A sessions, using technology to create virtual dialogue, or breakout sessions. But most events try to do too much. They complicate messages and overload the audience. Clients should simplify, manage and shape messages around a memorable theme, so that they stick.

Money can’t buy you love

“If the delegates come away without a clear understanding of the key messages, then the conference is a waste of everyone’s time and valuable budget. Throwing money at an event does not guarantee success – employees may resent an elaborate, expensive set if they are faced with pay or bonus freezes.”

While many conferences communicating change are knee-jerk reactions, you might think training programmes are part of an ongoing strategy. But all too often, with budgets cut during a recession, training is not well thought out. The research for MJM shows that 85 per cent of companies actively use staff training programmes; yet only 23 per cent believe them to be effective.

Mirage’s Marryat says that this can be addressed in a number of ways, for instance by using a simple but effective set and investing in interactive technology that allows delegates to participate in the training conference and provide input. He says: “Interaction is essential – but shouldn’t be done for the sake of it. It needs to be aligned to and reinforce business messages, and should aim to build valuable working relationships.” According to Nick Terry, managing director of West Midlands-based video and event production company Top Banana, corporate conferences can be an effective tool for keeping staff informed of developments and promoting or, more appropriately, initiating change and training. However, he says, such conferences should be part of an overall integrated internal communications plan, reinforcing key messages and values.

Terry adds: “Significant resources are invested in image and brand development with the long-term objective of achieving a good reputation among a target market. The same approach should be taken with employees, by implementing an integrated communication plan. The approach to events is important. We are living in the age of interactivity, while shows like Big Brother and Pop Idol have made judges of us all. People have become used to having a say in what’s going on and making their opinion count.”

He says that companies should undertake intensive pre- and post-event communication to ensure the conference has maximum impact and that by encouraging staff to provide input it will help to shape the conference agenda. He also believes that companies should not be afraid of honest feedback from its staff. Terry says: “If change is the objective, then involving people in this change will be more effective.”

Getting out what you put in

On a positive note, the BPRI research shows that 71 per cent of companies are committed to measuring the effectiveness of their training programmes, perhaps illustrating a desire to improve such initiatives and the importance that these companies attach to corporate training events.

One thing is certain: with less than a year before the ICD becomes law, conferences appear to be playing a much bigger role in staff engagement and, once the ICD is in place, this role will increase. This can only mean good news for the corporate events industry. But it is essential for both organisers and clients to remember that at the heart of all internal communications is the staff themselves. How they react to events and what they get from them is more important than ever.

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