COMMUNICATIONS AND EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

Most communications folk have wrestled at some point in their careers with the distinction between internal communications and employee engagement.  Some see the disciplines having shared DNA, while others believe that every so often, one needs to sit down for a rest while the other takes over the reins.

The debate is important for a number of reasons, none less so than the tension it has been creating between communications and human resource departments over ownership since the Pope first tried on an altar boy’s surplice. These tensions typically intensify when the economy gets shy and job cuts and austerity-class business travel take precedence over new hiring and employee morale withdraws to a dark place.  This is a real shame because it’s the wrong debate.

The one thing that is beyond argument these days is that better-engaged workforces reward their employers by out-performing less engaged competitors across a range of measures, from productivity and improving customer satisfaction to hard-edged bottom line returns.  It’s also a reasonable assumption that a business that has fostered a culture of meaningful engagement with its employees will have smuggled that philosophy in to the way it manages customers and other external stakeholders.

Furthermore, genuinely engaged employees are more willing, when tough times come calling, to accept and embrace difficult but necessary business decisions that call for organisational and structural change, site closures or a reduction in budgets and benefits.  Wouldn’t we all prefer to weather the storms of recession surrounded by colleagues who are up for the battle rather than those who prefer to spend time debating the need for a fight?

But what is an engaged employee, exactly?  In my book, it’s someone who takes more than a passing interest in the health and wellbeing of their colleagues and the company they have chosen to work for. They invest time to understand the external headwinds and opportunities, the changing needs of customers and the economic and market conditions that impact the world they inhabit.

Engaged employees recognise that, ultimately, their personal long-term interests align with those of a good employer and view happy customers a valuable commodity.  They accept the need to make things ever better and more efficient. They see the need to do the right thing, even when it costs them personally in the short term.  They bring passion, commitment and a desire to win, a pride in the employer they’ve chosen and a will to succeed alongside their ID cards and lunchboxes to work.

Logic would tip its hat in acknowledging the important role that a well-managed flow of strong, honest and consistent messages plays in improving and reinforcing employee engagement.  It would also have no quarrel with the view that HR policies and practices, such as pay and rations and learning and personal development plans, have an impact too.  But logic would also have to accept that both, while important, in themselves do not constitute employee engagement.

Engagement cannot exist without trust, and trust only truly exists between people.  In large organisations, employees look to their local line managers, the senior people they know best and have most in common with, for explanation, context and direction.

Line manages are the people employees are most likely to have a common experience with, have had a drink or social interaction with and, as a result, is where the engagement battle is ultimately won or lost.  This is not to say that the HR and communications teams don’t have a role to play but it’s as part of the production crew, not on the stage.

Internal communications can be an overly passive pursuit, dominated by a flow of anonymous electronic messages from headquarters created and issued by the communications department, usually at the request of a senior executive or divisional head.

A lot of internal communications bears an uncanny resemblance to corporate hoopla or vanity publishing.  Too much of what passes for corporate comms lacks relevance to employees because it treats them as a communal body with homogenous interests, rather than the regionally and demographically diverse collection of experiences, expectations and skills that make up the group. The outcome can be non-engaging, corporate noise.   Similarly, the occasional state visit by a CEO or other executive to a satellite site operation often feels to staff like it has more to do with the senior figure’s profile than their education of the business from those at the coal face.

Local line managers, when they have the confidence, the commitment and the mandate to engage their teams positively, can bypass this corporate carousel.  In fact, it’s part of the day job of a good leader but not an inherent skill for every manager.

HR teams are well placed to instil this confidence by ensuring employee engagement is on the corporate agenda and that the ability to engage employees is valued and supported in training budgets.  The comms teams, meanwhile, can get on with supplying a steady flow of relevant collateral ammunition and guidance, which local managers can localise and add relevance and context to.

But engagement, like communication, is a two-way thing.  Listening is more important than talking – nothing kills engagement faster than a manager enamoured with the sound of their own voice and who fails to hear about the opportunities that only local teams can see and understand.

Honestly and transparency are also critical.  It still amazes me how many senior managers believe they can gain better and more timely business insight from month old data on a spread sheet than the people working on the shop floor, in sales or in the billing department with their real time and real world exposure.

Telling the employees that everything’s going to plan when its obvious to them that orders have dried up, or demanding cost efficiencies when sales are patently strong, will cost the attention of anyone who knows better.  Management credibility also takes a haircut. No one will take the time to engage with a non-credible manager.

For me, employee engagement is neither an internal communications nor a human resource department accountability, despite the tug-o-war it often creates between the two.  Rather, it’s a responsibility that only line managers can truly discharge systematically with their teams when supported fully by their communications and HR teams, and championed by the most senior executives in the business.

At the time of writing, the economy is as low, and corporate confidence as fragile, as at any time in my fading memory.  Now might be a really good time for any internal comms and HR folk who continue to wrestle control of engagement to put down their weapons and join forces. Doing so will help support the business in making the best of the current outlook and prepare the ground for sunnier days.

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RYANAIR RANT

Like most stories, it started promisingly. In 1985, Ryanair emerged as a plucky upstart destined to shoot holes in the monopolistic, over-priced fuselage of the traditional airlines, a modern day David to poke Goliaths like British Airways and Aer Lingus in the eye with a complacency stick. The company’s marketing reinforced the firm’s Irish roots with a Celtic harp, a symbol of tradition, honesty and history, presented proudly on the tail fins of its aircraft.

Ryanair’s vision was to open the skies to the masses through costs lowered by removing the unnecessary.  They would open up new routes between airports at sites an expensive cab ride from where we actually wanted to go, while putting us on first name terms with silly-o-clock departure times. But we accepted it because Ryanair was the peoples’ champion and they would make us both mobile and solvent.

Times have changed.  A recent poll by gocompare.com, the price comparison website, named Ryanair the worst airline in the world.  The poll results validated a view I share with others – no one likes Ryanair anymore.  We still travel with them, reluctantly.  We put up with their cabin crew who, with the charm of second-rate market stall traders, attempt to sell us everything from cheap perfume and train tickets to over-priced drinks and lottery tickets.  But we don’t like Ryanair.  Some people hate them.

In their first year of operation, Ryanair carried 5000 passengers.  By 2010, that number had risen to 73,553,580 – evidence, some might argue, of a successful business serving an ever-growing market of happy customers.  But Ryanair has grown fat, dumb and arrogant on profits fuelled by hidden charges, not happy customers.  And yes, I do understand capital risk, but Ryanair could hang ‘L plates’ on any commercial organisation when it comes to customer contempt.

We travel with Ryanair because, like drug dealers, they’ve got us hooked on frequent travel and regular weekends away, or because businesses under cost pressures insist their staff travel austerity class wherever possible to save money.  Some people even bought second homes overseas because low cost air travel made it feasible, while an army of super-commuters learned to work in another jurisdiction, returning home at weekends.

In the same way that a fish rots from the head, Ryanair staff have learned apathy and distain for customers at the knee of Michael O’Leary, the company’s contemptor-in-chief, who practices his art regularly and publicly.  This is the same man who said he was mulling charging his customers to discharge the over-priced liquid they sell and call coffee in their on-board toilets.

To call Ryanair’s pricing opaque is a huge generosity.  They charge more than payday loan sharks for the pleasure of paying online – the only way to pay for a Ryanair flight.  We can accept surcharging to offset modest banking charges, but Ryanair’s approach in naked profiteering.  Why the Office of Fair Trading hasn’t hammered them for these practices remains a mystery that Columbo and Poirot couldn’t solve if they set up as a tag team.

If a customer doesn’t take a flight they’ve paid for, they are entitled to a full refund of any tax paid, since no tax liability is incurred if they don’t use the service.  No problem, Ryanair says, but they charge a fee higher than the tax paid to process a refund, a practice that feels very much to me like they’re getting their ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ mixed up.

Ryanair passengers have to check themselves in and print their own boarding cards.  Failure to do this, or go two ounces over your luggage allowance, and a hefty bill awaits at the departure lounge, even when the flight is delayed by 90 minutes as happened to a passenger I shared a Ryanair flight with recently.  If you try to complain at the airport, you’ll find that Ryanair has no ground staff. That’s been outsourced, the perfect alternative to accountability.

If you phone Ryanair to complain, you have to call a premium rate number. I made that mistake once, which was a waste of both time and money because they have no interest in complaints anyway.  O’Leary has created his workforce in the image of Millwall FC supporters with their ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’ view of customers, the same customers who pay Ryanair staff’s salaries and their shareholders’ occasional dividends.  Ryanair may not be unique in this regard but they are truly world class when it comes to sucking any joy that remains from the art of air travel.

I have, in the past, invited Michael O’Leary to surrender his Irish citizenship and adopt the nationality of any nation better suited to his personality. I could propose Afghanistan or Libya, but fear that might offend the remaining leaders those countries call their own.  Failing that, I’d like Ryanair to remove any link – visual or otherwise – with Ireland from their corporate identity.  It impairs Ireland’s brand globally and embarrasses Irish people, at home and abroad.

The real shame is that Ryanair is missing a huge marketing opportunity by not even pretending they respect their customers. They could have been one of the world’s favourite brands was it not for O’Leary’s bully boy philosophy, a view of the world formed, no doubt, during his previous career as a tax consultant.  Interestingly, British Airways, one of the carriers that the founders had in their sights in the early days, topped the gocompanre.com poll, despite the fact that they and other incumbents have walked away from many short haul European routes.

O’Leary’s cunning plan has worked.  We’re committed low cost addicts now and continue to travel with Ryanair despite the company’s indifferent attitude towards us.  We continue to buy their services and put up with their erratic charging structures in increasing numbers, while swearing under our breadths every time we board the rickety stairs to board another flight.

We do this mostly because we no longer have a choice. We don’t like Ryanair, I believe, because the company no longer has a soul, having implanted a calculator where a heart should be. A soul, I presume, was another frill they decided they could do without.  But it’s a mistake in the long term.

Far from impairing their passenger numbers or profits, treating their passengers like valued customers, even an occasional smile or apology when things go wrong, might make us willing customers again and would help remove the stench of monopolistic behaviour that pervades everything about Ryanair today, ironically the reason the business was created in the first place.

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BAD LANGUAGE

Communications and marketing people are often accused of performing some of the most heinous crimes against language. Management consultants carry some of the blame too, but can be forgiven because they are cleverer than the rest of us. But communicators should know that complexity is the enemy of both clarity and understanding.

Reed Hastings, the chief executive of US-based DVD and online movie business Netflix, recently outlined a change of strategy for his business.  The change didn’t go down well with customers and they made their unhappiness known through social media.  Hastings had a rethink, and then came out and apologised personally for the manner in which the change was communicated.

In the aftermath of this episode, the Financial Times’ ‘Judgement Call’ column reviewed the case, and asked three professionals for their opinions on whether Hasting’s response was the right one, whether it is appropriate for a CEO to take personal responsibility for big strategic announcements, or whether they just need to be good announcements.

The academic thought no, that the CEO should remain above the fray; the businessman, Gerald Ratner as it happens, sat on the fence by saying yes and no; but the PR man gave his full support to Hastings’ actions.  I’ll spare his blushes by not naming him or his employer here. You can find out on FT.com if you’re interested, but he wrote:

“Change is always best communicated within an overarching narrative that connects the core decision to the future benefit of the customer and employee. And stay loyal to tone and voice of the brand. Netflix has forged a deep personal connection with its customers through the power of movies. The CEO recognises this and has taken personal responsibility to move the conversation on.

“Often, followers of technology brands over-focus on the CEO or founder. The CEO is a symbolic figure but not the only champion. Communicating the message through the leadership, sales force and customer service can be just as valuable. It gives the message scale and depth.”

Eh?  I understand each of the words.  It’s just the particular order in which they are written that has my brain in a spin.

Please. Do us all a favour. Stop it. Use English that everyone can understand, without the need to read the copy three times before we can make sense of why it is you want to say.

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