Someone once said that good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and is just as hard to sleep after: I wish that we all have as many sleepless nights as possible from good and motivating communication!
Unfortunately, after several years of experience in the communications field, I know how difficult it is to achieve good and effective communication.
To establish a large group of people to communicate effectively is always a demanding task, and often we witness two people, who instead of having a dialogue, have two separate monologues running consecutively. What’s worse, the participants are often not even aware of it.
Communication is a field which is not as tangible as the financial results of the company or the number of new customers. All the background work, the published articles, press releases, events or crisis communications do not bring instantaneous results.
Instead, they become visible after a period of time, and when we are finally able to pick the fruit of our efforts, there is another task waiting on the desk. Sometimes the professional communicators come across the layman opinion that anyone can communicate and that the best communicators are top managers; except for being experts in business, top managers also act as experts in communication. Many of them are, no doubt, very talented and they clearly understand that communication is essential to good leadership.
However, one thing which should be kept in mind is that each responsible company appoints its communicators who do their jobs in order to provide a systematic communications approach to the company and its employees. Company communication as a whole needs to be a well-chosen mix of tools and channels. Internal communication encourages employees to have an open dialogue with the management, to share the knowledge and motivate them to help to reach the company objectives.
Therefore, internal communication should be considered as important as its external counterpart, as it is a key success factor of any organisation. If your own employees don’t believe what is written or said about the company, why should your customers, suppliers, business partners or family members? Communication should not be limited to ‘vision and mission’ and used only as a tool for statements from the top down. Of course, these are all important; but corporate communication is mainly an interaction among people in the company; it involves trust, relationships, motivation and transparency.
Introducing the company
Vychodoslovenska energetika a.s.(VSE) has its seat in Kosice, Slovakia. It is a regional energy company with 80 years of history and more than 500,000 customers in Eastern Slovakia to whom we supply electricity. In 2003, 49 per cent of the company’s shares were bought by the German energy concern RWE Group and the remaining 51 per cent is owned by the State. The company has 1,600 employees which equals 1,600 ambassadors, all with valid opinions.
By giving voice to these opinions, our employees can reasonably influence the image of their company. On average, 900 employees are blue collar workers who work in different locations all over the region. The other two groups of employees are those who have direct contact with our customers and those who work in administration. As they create many target groups spread across different locations, it is important for the company to handle its internal communication effectively.
Under the wings of the CEO
I believe it is crucial for the head of the communication department to have direct access to the CEO, and that is why the communication department at VSE reports directly to our CEO, Norbert Schürmann; in the organisational structure, the department belongs to the CEO division. This placement helps us to obtain and spread information urgently. It also has the advantage of close contact with top management - to all directors and managers of all divisions.
Our department cooperates with almost all other departments as the information flow and exchange is very intense and diverse. Every internal campaign or information which is sent to employees and requested by other departments is evaluated together with the internal customer, and then the whole process – timing, wording, and so on – is prepared by our department. This internal process and setting of the rules has helped us to solve problems in the past, before they became a hot topic in the newspapers or a topic of ‘corridor talk’. The rule of informing employees first has given us a great added value and trustworthy position in the eyes of our employees, as well as in the eyes of the public.
The A Team
We used to be a small team consisting of four or five members, which would acheive several great things for what is considered a big company in our region. Nowadays, the communication department has two parts: one section has five members including myself as head of the department. This part is responsible for internal as well external communication. The second section consists of six translators. Even though the scope of our tasks is different, we have learned how to live together and cooperate effectively.
What I appreciate about my team is their loyalty and their positive attitude to work. It seems almost unreal that so many dedicated people are gathered in one place, and I feel lucky to work in such a team. Each team member has his/her own agenda according to his/her expertise and experience. As head of the department, I am responsible for putting together the internal communication plan, external communication plan, CSR strategy, CEO communication and crisis communication. Apart from the managerial and expert work, I also act as a spokesperson for the company. I closely co-operate with the CEO and, in many topics, I suggest what steps should be taken from the communication point of view.
This close contact with the CEO and a good understanding of the company’s goals is essential when preparing the communication strategies. The CEO of the company is appointed by our German mother company and therefore it is often necessary to formulate messages much more carefully than would be the case if the communication came from native speakers. The messages have to be clear and understandable for all recipients. While doing this we have to be aware of the linguistic and cultural differences, especially when communicating about sensitive topics.
Who are we?
Boris Pesko, our senior specialist, is responsible for external communication, mainly with regards to topics such as grid investments, renewable projects, preparation of press releases and public relations articles, as well as articles for our internal monthly newspaper. He also takes care of internal campaigns which are ordered by different departments, and is responsible for the main internal communication tools such as the newspaper, the intranet and email. Communication specialist Katarina Sulikova is responsible for the external communication of the sales activities of VSE and gas activities of our sister company, RWE Gas Slovensko. In addition to this, she also covers the corporate social responsibility agenda and its activities and at the same time she supports the team when organising events for employees.
As our work requires close cooperation with the human resources department, we gladly hired a human resources specialist, Darina Lendacka, as a new team member. She has worked in the company for 25 years. Today, she works as communication specialist and is primarily responsible for formal and informal employee events. Employees in a company as wide and diverse as VSE are more likely to trust a person who they know personally and who knows how to talk to them.
Our employees, particularly those who have worked in the company for a long time and in regions far away from the headquarters, prefer personal contact to letters, emails or official statements. That is the reason why we offer different possibilities to meet the top management or their peers in both formal and informal meetings in our headquarters or in the regions. These activities are of great value for our employees, but they are very time and energy consuming, too, so, apart from Darina, other colleagues have to participate in organising these as well.
Another colleague of ours who takes care of internal communication is Andrea Vlkova. She joined our company several months ago, taking over some of the responsibilities of our former team member Ruth Goblova, who is presently occupied with family duties. Andrea specialises in smaller internal events and cooperates on bigger events. She prepares articles, letters from the CEO and other written material. Andrea also takes care of the preparation of sponsorship and gift contracts.
Dedication’s what you need
Communication needs dedication, a willingness to learn and the strength to face criticism. Not all people who work in communications possess this combination: in my opinion, what gives us the strength to do it is team work. As a team, we face different challenges, and, from time to time, colleagues exchange some of their tasks and thus learn new skills – at the same time, we as a team get fresh air and new creative ideas. In everyday business we cannot avoid sharing the work and have more people on the spot when organising big internal events. To give an example, this happens when we prepare the top management meeting with all 1,600 employees, or “The Day Full of Energy” – an informal day for our employees and their families, which ads up to more than 3,500 people.
Speaking the language of employees
We run a biannual audit to find out how satisfied our employees are with communication within the company. Its goal is to evaluate the usage of internal communication channels: traditional ones such as the newspaper, the intranet, e-mail, personal meetings with managers and posters, as well as evaluating new channels. We also listen to new ideas or proposals for improvement. This research is one of the most valuable sources of feedback for our work, allowing us to find out what was done well and what could have been improved. This audit also gives us information about preferences for traditional or newer communication channels. So far, results have shown that people like to get their information from traditional channels: not all our employees have access to PCs and they are not yet ready to use social networks.
The reason may also be the company business, which is more traditional. Despite these facts, we regularly propose adjustments to our intranet or some new innovative communication channel as a test of readiness. We cannot avoid the fact that social networks will soon influence our company communication. The question is whether it beats our need to communicate face to face.
Times are changing quickly and many people today live their lives from behind computer screens. There are some who say that communications is living its last days. Each of us can evaluate these words in terms of his or her company. For VSE, communication is one of the pillars which help us to be a leading and successful company in the region. Therefore, we are keen to continuously work on it and use the most effective communication channels for our customers as well for our employees.