Seasonal readjustments

Communications should be at the heart of any successful change strategy


Even though the process of change is inevitable, inescapable and ineluctable in all our lives, this does not necessarily mean we are always well prepared for it. In fact, recent research has found that up to 70 per cent of organisational change initiatives fail (Higgs & Rowland, 2000). At a time when everyone, no matter where they work, is affected by change, Communication Director decided to turn its attention to how companies communicate their various change strategies and to try to ascertain why a large number of firms seem to be going wrong.

Main priorities 

Think of any process of change, and one’s gut response is to consider the personal implications, how change will affect us. Employees need to be told what the local, immediate effects will be: the most important topic of initial change communications is any future effect on the local work area. But your key messages must be developed in tandem with identifying your target audiences, a process complicated by the scale of the change in question. When Unilever had to close three out of six factories in the Netherlands in 2007, the scale of the project encompassed several different stakeholders that were all either responsible or had to be consulted and kept informed throughout the whole process. Fleur van Bruggen, media relations manager at Unilever Netherlands, explains how, faced with this mammoth task, the communications team got down to basics: “We took the time to determine roles and responsibilities and created a small amount of key messages,” she says. “This, combined with our target audiences, created our strategy document, the basis for all communication materials before, during and after the announcement.” The question of identifying and prioritising target audiences is a tough one to negotiate, not least because of the different demands and roles played by various stakeholder groups. However, van Bruggen agrees that “our internal employees were our main priority. They needed to be informed first and we needed to create an environment in which they could express their emotions, ask their questions and feel that Unilever would be the responsible social employer that they knew and needed.”


Compelling case for change

How organisational change is approached is another crucial factor. Here, there are many pitfalls for the management team to avoid. With the plethora of communications channels available, the risk of diffusing the message and of not connecting with everyone down the line increases. The message of change should not be sidetracked or made to be a special case; it has to become part of the fabric of the organisation’s everyday conversation. And it should be a compelling case for change, with a clear vision of the strategic goals, an almost palpable sense of what the new situation will feel like. It should engage all employees on an emotional level throughout the whole process. Naturally, this approach should be spearheaded by top management: unless the management own the change process, then that itself can send out a message. Malcolm Higgs, a Professor of HR Management and Organisation Behaviour at the University of Southampton, England, is clear on the centrality of direct engagement and the vital role of management: “There is no doubt that face-to-face communication is the most important channel,” he says. “It is one of the critical challenges. That is not to say, however, that it’s not important to set the context in terms of broader communications through a whole raft of other channels, but unless you get the managers talking to their direct reportees regularly about it, then other channels aren’t really conveying the reality of the message.”


Management-driven change

This does not mean that change communications should start and end with top management, or that the top management should be expected to carry the whole process of change. Indeed, Professor Higgs points to overdependence on leadership-led schemes as one of the major factors in the failure rate of change strategies: “One thing we’ve found consistently is that if the leaders are leader-centric, if everything depends on them and they’re the ones making the pace, the change almost invariably fails,” he says. “It’s when leaders really trust people to work for them, and give them the freedom and support to enable them to do that, that you get traction in change.” But how to ensure everyone feels included in the process of change, and that they understand and accept the vision and the strategy? This is never simple, with every case and employee requiring different approaches to increase the likelihood of a smooth transition, but the management, in conjunction with the communications department, sets the frame for change first by clearly making the case for change and then by creating a cascading work model operating from the top management down. Then, within a clearly defined set of rules and boundaries, employees should be free to contribute within that framework.

Finding the balance between what is new and unfamiliar with fixed points in the underlying strategy helps acclimatise your audiences with your organisation’s new strategic goals. Remi Calvet is senior vice president of marketing communications at the digital security provider company Gemalto. The company was created when Gemplus, where Calvet held the same position, merged with Axalto. A merger is a particularly fraught example of change, and Calvet found that a direct approach helped ensure buy-in throughout the new company: “Branding was really on day one, with all the details saying ‘this is Gemalto, here’s our new business card’, and that made a change to the positioning of the company,” he says. “That of course takes more time, as you need to explain [the change] to people to get buy-in. You need to provide examples of success stories to show that you will be successful, this story we are telling you...”


Consistent communications in changing times

In order to ease the transition, communications should be consistent, a fixed point in a changing landscape. Professor John Kotter, a widely-published author on organisational change based at Harvard Business School, defines consistency during change as “communicating the things that are relevant and useful, and jettisoning the rest.” But of course, the best laid plans of the most painstakingly prepared communications strategy can go astray in the face of the unexpected developments inherent in a process of change, threatening consistency of message and even forcing backtrack on key strategic goals. Full employee engagement every step of the way is an effective corrective as any to the vagaries of chance. As Professor Higgs points out: “Because they’re involved, they can see why this particular part of the strategy isn’t going to work exactly as we thought it would.” Remi Calvet agrees that consistency and engagement safeguards communicators from being caught out by events: “Part of it is inevitable, but we had processes in place to make sure that we had a limited number of spokepersons, there was ongoing information on the process of the merger, we had a regular flow to the customers of the two companies and, when the merger was done, to the customers of the new company,” he says. “So it’s intense detail that you have to go through, and that requires a lot of preparation. You can’t just start from scratch and be reactive to each piece of news that comes in.”


Keeping up with social media

Other challenges are presented by the speed of the ubiquitous social media, leaking news and commentary on news before official channels – i.e. your channels – have the chance. Professor Kotter believes that “to react to gossip would be really dumb. Gossip fills a void, and that void shouldn’t be there in a successful strategy.” At the moment, however, the sheer number of people using such social media sites means that voids will be found, regardless of the lengths a company might go to fill them. Perhaps the best solution is to simply keep the firm’s message consistent in the face of challenges, although a number of companies now employ workers to scour the web in order to provide reactions to such online activism. Despite this, the current trend appears to be that the online communities are always one communications step ahead of their corporate counterparts.


Letting go

At the root of these kinds of mismanagement of change is often complacency: we are witnessing corporations around the world being punished for this, which Kotter attributes to “historical success and inward focus.” It is not enough to assume that because a previous change campaign was a success, future projects will triumph if you follow the same principles as before. No two changes will be the same. Another stumbling block is presented by the task of breaking hard, bitter news. The temptation to euphemise bad news with window dressing, to camouflage the hard stuff with evasive or blandly positive language, is one to be avoided, however tough the task. This is particularly true when communicating job losses, as happened to Unilever Netherlands. Fleur van Bruggen explains: “Of course, we anticipated an emotional response from the employees: some of these people had worked for Unilever for more than 30 years. Preparation of the people who had to give this emotional message was essential, and this was done by means of workshops and Q&A sessions with the three works directors together and also in one-on-one sessions.” But treating those you have to let go as thoughtfully and considerately as possible is not just a matter of being altruistic; as Higgs points out, “The way you treat the people who you’ve got to get rid of has a huge impact on the commitment of the people who stay, and we know through years of research evidence that there’s a strong relationship between employee commitment and the ability to make change happen.”


Changing mindsets

This serves to highlight an often overlooked aspect of communicating change: the psychological care required at each and every stage. It is questionable whether most companies are adept at taking this factor into account, and whether they give due care to helping employees overcome innate resistance to change as well as navigating the trickier aspects, such as job losses. Communications should be at the heart of this. Changing structures, processes and systems represents only one part of change; changing employee behaviour – the heart of all internal communications – is what is essential to succeed. While avoiding what John Kotter refers to as a sense of “false urgency”, which creates panic and anxiety and is largly unproductive, change communications should steer clear from complacency or even denial.

Any element of change takes us out of our comfort zones; this journey away from the familiar to a new, unknown shore must be powered by the aforementioned compelling case for change. A strategy cannot be rigid or set in stone, as no one knows how exactly the journey will unfold. Fleur van Bruggen acknowledges this: “I’m not sure if it could have been helped, but we aimed for a short sprint and ended up with a marathon,” she says. “Due to strikes and negotiations with unions, this project took a lot more time than anticipated.” So we need to communicate: a general direction can be pointed out on the map, but the need for potential adjustments along the way must be acknowledged.