11 steps to ensuring outstanding internal comms

By Richard Stokoe | 14 April 2020

In this war against COVID-19 there is nothing more important than getting internal communications between senior management and staff right.

There are 11 steps that should be taken to ensure internal communications help the councils work against COVID-19. Be a leader. Listen to staff. Be visible. Celebrate success. Use every communication tool. Explain things clearly. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Repeat the message. Staff can both receive a message and spread it. Trust the comms team or get new staff in.

Adopt these tools and lives can be save, the economic and social impact of coronavirus reduced, the reputation of the council increased and the morale of staff boosted.

People are the most valuable asset a council has. Without employees doing their best in the most trying of circumstances, the knock-on negative implications of this crisis will be compounded ten-fold.  

Unlike disasters such as floods, fires or storms that impact the UK, COVID-19 is different. There is no specific incident, no short-term end, and no changes to which services and staff are most in demand. Instead there are months of work ahead saving lives, keeping services going and supporting local residents - all being done by the same people and same teams.

The corporate management team must use all their skills as inspirational leaders to help staff through the coming arduous days and weeks. Internal communications allows leaders the opportunity to provide clarity of purpose, motivation, direction and encouragement.

However, to lead effectively, the senior team cannot just tell people what to do. They also must listen and get real time information from the front line. Overarching statistics and data help make decisions but there is also no substitute for gathering soft intelligence from the people who have to implement those instructions on the ground.

Don’t just talk to managers and direct reports. Talk to front line colleagues in order to listen, learn, understand and support. During this crisis staff understandably feel scared, stressed and exhausted. By meeting those at the coal face, with the appropriate social distancing rules applied, senior managers can provide extra support and appreciation for the work they are doing. It also provides the top brass with a vital understanding of the human issues affecting people and what needs to be done to keep services running.

Staff need to see and hear senior leaders. Even if the front line is out of bounds, there are free tools that allow employees to visibly access top management. Zoom, for example, is a free online video conferencing facility that can host a Q&A session with up to 100 staff for 40 minutes at any one time.

Employees in these trying times need to be given a feelgood factor for the work they are doing. There should be no public naming and shaming if something goes wrong but only applauding and rewarding of good work. Celebrating success, encouraging and boosting the morale of staff is imperative. This helps generate a culture where people look out for each other.

Internal communications cannot just be a standard newsletter or email drafted by the communications team. Whilst that is great for imparting process information, it won’t provide the leadership and human touch that senior managers must deliver during this crisis.

Every internal communication tool must be used. Professionally designed laminated posters, screensavers, newsletters, video conferencing, phone meetings, online updates, cascade briefings and face-to-face discussions all must be repeatedly used to provide staff with the inspiration, support and information they need.

When using these tools there are four key aspects to achieving success with the messaging. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it consistent. Keep repeating it.

Too often the public sector uses 800 words of impenetrable jargon when eight simple ones would do. That incomprehensible messaging comes once via a single channel before the information is never repeated again. This approach does not work.

Conveying information to people is much more effective when it is short and punchy. Being brief ensures consistency, comprehension and can be said repeatedly using different channels so that the message hits home.

The government strapline on COVID-19 is ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ It conveys vital information in eight words. It is backed up with more information as, and when, it is needed, but the repetition of this short and simple message gets through to people and gets acted upon.

Finally, the internal communications team must be the go-to people who are trusted to deliver. If not then now is not the time for sentimentality. Instead a ‘COVID communications team’ of consultants must be hired to get things done.

Outstanding internal communications cannot be underestimated in its importance in helping the local authority, the staff and the people it serves through the COVID-19 crisis. Adopting these 11 steps will help provide that excellence.

Richard Stokoe lectures at the University of South Wales on planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership. Before this, he worked as director of communications at the London Fire Brigade and was head of news at the Local Government Association.

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