Expert view: Talk with your staff, not at them

The smoking ban that comes into effect on 1 July is doubtless to be welcomed for its contribution to the nation's health, but few have considered the impact it will have on internal communications.

Smokers are always the best-informed people in any organisation because they have the only entirely effective, cross-discipline, pan-departmental, direct form of information exchange.

They always know about plans for new campaigns, problems at the top, that someone is leaving or the thinking behind restructures. For years, employers have relied upon them to spread the word.

The result of inadequate internal communications is that members of staff are not as well informed as they should be, which can prevent them from speaking with conviction to outsiders about important matters affecting their organisations. That is not great for reputations.

Most of the internal communications approaches in use are actually information-giving systems - linear, top-down and with scant opportunity for discussion.

Some of these approaches are so complex that no one understands them or knows where to look for what they need. Others are so bankrupt that no one bothers to engage.

The most important target audience any of us has is our internal one. If we can't communicate effectively and compellingly with our own staff and volunteers, then our external relations are also in jeopardy.

Everyone in your organisation represents your brand and can enhance or damage it. Let's face it: one of the scariest threats to reputation is a disgruntled ex-employee.

The first problem in addressing this is that for any approach to work there must be a high level of commitment across the workforce. Everyone has to make it a priority: if it isn't a two-way process, it isn't communication.

The second is that there must be high levels of trust. You can't manage your reputation with an iron grip and by suppressing what you think people shouldn't know. You have to trust your workforce to understand and handle information intelligently. You also have to be honest when things go wrong and be brave enough to free internal channels for comment and exchange.

Internal communication requires the same discipline and commitment as external communication; it is arguably the first thing to get right in the quest for reputation management. So why not make 1 July internal communications overhaul day?

- Mirella von Lindenfels, founder of Communications Inc 

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