Leadership

office boardroom peopleInternal communication is an important piece of an organization’s brand reputation and, in the past few years, it has undergone a shift from being an HR function to becoming a crucial component of strategic communications.

Here at AHA, we develop communications plans for clients on a regular basis. During this process, one of the first questions we ask is about the organization’s current approach to internal communications – and how the external communications will be supported and reflected internally. This often results in an interesting discussion about employee engagement, how to best communicate with internal stakeholders, and the task of developing an internal communications plan in collaboration with both the communication and HR departments.

Internal communication provides an excellent opportunity for the senior executive or leadership team to move away from “top-down communication” and create channels that are open, direct, authentic, two-way and more personal. It also provides the opportunity for two-way dialogue – an important piece for an organization that wants to attract the best and brightest in their industry. Creating an opportunity for employee feedback, participation and involvement helps to promote engagement. When staff is engaged, they are more productive, morale is higher, and the organization is seen as a good place to work – which attracts talented professionals.

A solid internal communications plan also provides employees with the ability to tell the organization’s story. There are no better ambassadors for an organization than its employees, when they understand and believe in the brand story. No advertising or PR campaign will be effective if what is being said externally is not supported internally. Encouraging employee involvement in a range of internal and external communications initiatives helps to tell the brand story in an authentic way. The people who come to work each day can be exceptional assets in building and maintaining a good culture, in maintaining a positive brand reputation, and in communicating the organization’s values to each person they come in contact with during their workday.

In developing an internal communications plan, it is important to create a consistent approach – random or ad hoc communication doesn’t work. The communications efforts need to be planned out and delivered on a regular basis. The objective of the plan has to be clearly defined. If employees are asked to participate, expectations and reasons why the outreach is being done need to be clearly communicated. Two-way dialogue, including negative feedback, has to be encouraged and the feedback has to be acknowledged and respected. Staff members need to know that they are being heard – especially if your organization has challenges.

Strategic internal communication does take time and effort to plan and to implement, but the results can provide exceptional return-on-investment. Building relationships internally and ensuring the employees are informed, engaged and are provided opportunities to authentically participate in developing and sharing your brand story creates a strong workforce. It increases productivity, attracts good employees, improves morale, and develops a positive work culture – all of which support your organizational objectives. Should an issue or crisis happen to your organization, you have created credibility among your staff, which results in their support during a challenge. By focusing on internal relationships, you increase trust – one of the most valuable assets an organization has.

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800px-Carnival_SplendorThere is a direct link between generating results for your organization – whatever that means to you (sales, engagement, response, behaviour change, perception change etc.) – and living your brand promise.

I had an interesting experience over the weekend that so clearly showed the importance of customer service and how it supports PR and the brand promise, that I want to tell you about it. We are cruisers. While we might not meet the stereotype of a cruiser, we have taken quite a few cruises – in the Mediterranean, to Mexico, in the Caribbean.

Now, it’s pretty clear that the cruise industry has been challenged over recent years – the Costa Concordia tragedy, several ships having issues out at sea, dealing with norovirus, and other serious challenges. The industry is in desperate need of some good PR. Even as I wrote this blog post, there was more negative news coverage of the cruise industry.

This past weekend, I got a call from Chris, our “personal cruise consultant” from Carnival Cruise Lines – a cruise line we have sailed with in the past (the last time was probably five years ago). It was at the end of the day on Friday and I was a little bored, so I took the call. Chris was knowledgeable, engaging and professional and he came across as a nice guy who authentically wanted to help us find a cruise vacation that we would enjoy – at a good price. And his enthusiasm was contagious. I ended up talking to him for 15 minutes or so and he gave me some good options for a Caribbean cruise. We had no plans for any cruise at this point, but he engaged me – and he had some great promotional offers for us as past cruisers. By the time I hung up the phone, I was thinking about taking one of the cruises he had offered.

On the flip side of that, we have also cruised with Norwegian Cruise Lines and several other cruise lines (some five star, some budget, some in the middle). We book ships based on the ports they visit – so we have hopped around a bit between cruise lines.

I am planning a bucket list trip of the British Isles and likely Ireland and Scotland, for my dad and his wife. Once cruising was in my mind, I wondered if maybe Norwegian had some love for me, so I called them. In trying to find the right person to speak to, I was put on hold for 45 minutes. (I have to say, the first person who took the call was very good and tried to help.) I finally gave up. An hour later, I got a call from someone at Norwegian who said they had seen that I was on their website and they asked what could they do to help get me on that cruise I was looking at. They didn’t mention that I had called and had been put into “on hold hell” – with Norwegian audio ads cycling over and over – just that I was on their website. I explained my issue and the person did the surface “I am so sorry for your inconvenience” but they still couldn’t help me access whether I would qualify for the specific promotions I was asking about. It was not their department.

By now, we had received an e-mail from Chris at Carnival outlining what we would receive through the promotion, a link to the ship’s layout and some additional information on the cruise. A nice touch, especially on a cold, gloomy winter day in January when the thought of sun, surf and sand was quite appealing. It tipped us into deciding to take the Carnival cruise.

We booked with Carnival and it was because of the exceptional customer service and follow up by Chris. I know he is there to sell me a cruise, but he made it fun and easy and he hit all of the right notes with me (five amazing ports in a seven-day cruise). It helped that he had some nice promotions to offer. Good for Carnival for giving him the tools he needs to do his job well. I now have a sense of loyalty to him – and Carnival – because he made me feel like we were important past guests and he wanted to do whatever he could to bring us back to the Carnival family.

As for Norwegian, I called them again on Monday because I wanted to know how long it would really take to get someone to talk to me about the British Isles cruise (Carnival doesn’t have a British Isles itinerary). I finally got to the right person at the promotions desk and they told me that since it had been 18 months since I had taken a cruise with them, I was not eligible for any of the specific promotions I was asking about. My slate, so to speak, had been wiped clean. Interesting – it had been much longer than 18 months since I had been on a Carnival cruise, but they wanted me back and were offering some pretty sweet incentives to interest me in returning!

I thanked the person and hung up the phone a little surprised and disappointed. Clearly, Norwegian isn’t trying to woo me back as a past cruiser. Then – two hours later, I got a call AGAIN from another Norwegian “personal cruise representative” trying to get me on a cruise! I explained that I had already talked to someone and I got the “I am so sorry ma’am” talk and then the “that’s a different department” excuse. Not once did Chris from Carnival try to put me off to another department – so good on Carnival for giving their team the ability to be what I need from a cruise specialist. On Tuesday, Norwegian called again – another different “personal cruise representative” wanted to talk to me about my cruise interests. Obviously, no one at Norwegian puts any notes on a person’s file so that they will know who has called or what the feedback has been.

Carnival will need to keep up with delivering on their brand promise on the cruise – and I am interested to see what they will do in this area. However, I can say that in my experience this weekend with my interaction with Carnival, they walked the talk. All of the advertising, marketing or PR in the world won’t work unless the person who your customer, client or stakeholder connects with delivers on your brand promise. Every interaction – from what the president of the organization does when he or she is in line for their daily coffee, to how the customer feels they are being treated through the sales process, to the actual experience you have with what you have purchased or contracted for, has to reflect the brand promise. Chris from Carnival completely delivered on their brand promise – he made it fun, he made it easy, and by living the brand promise, he got us to book a cruise that wasn’t even in our minds before he called. He got results. He re-engaged us with the Carnival brand and he earned my loyalty.

I am now telling people that I think Carnival gets it right – without having been on a ship in about five years; I have re-engaged with their brand and have become an ambassador for them. In fact, I have put it out to several of my friends that they should come on this cruise with us. It’s that straightforward – if your employees bring your brand promise to life with each interaction with a customer or client, you get results.

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I have been a fan of Newark Mayor Cory Booker since a story broke last winter about Mayor Booker hearing about a dog left out in a snowstorm on a very cold night. He went to the house and took the dog. You can read more about that story and several others, where Mayor Booker went what can easily be considered above and beyond the call of duty here.

Mayor Booker is a hands-on kind of guy. He gets out and does what it takes to show his constituents that their issues matter to him. And his communications team does a good job of making sure we see and hear, through traditional media, about the things he does. However, the mayor is active (and quite funny) on Twitter, he is on Instagram and he has a Facebook account where he posts regularly.

He is currently running for the U.S. Senate and he is doing an excellent job of not crossing over and campaigning. He uses his mayor “shares” on social media for that job, and he uses his campaign social media accounts for the upcoming August Senate election.

Cory Booker is authentic and genuine. He connects with his constituents, rather than talk at them. He updates regularly. He responds – especially on Twitter, which seems to be his platform of choice. And he is human about it all. He also takes on the tough questions and the people who are clearly not fans of his. He doesn’t shy away from them. I think that earns him respect, even from those who will never vote for him.

There are very few politicians that I have seen who do such a good job of connecting with people, using social media. Cory Booker uses social media as an important tool, and it works because he sees it as a tool. He is who he is – he doesn’t pretend to be anyone else – and he is an active communicator using many avenues, including social media. He doesn’t hide behind his accounts. He uses them to showcase the work he is doing, to raise issues and concerns, to start dialogue, and to bring his citizens together when tragedy or a crisis strikes.

I realize that I am not the only one who thinks Cory Booker is an example of good social media use – PR News Online has a short piece on What PR pros can learn from Cory Booker.

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TorontoI was born and raised in downtown Toronto. As much as I love the West Coast (and I really do), Toronto will always be my hometown. I have been watching the saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford develop – or perhaps I should say unwind – for quite some time now. The most recent development added to the allegations of crack use is now rumours of one of the people in the video having been murdered. This sounds more like the plot of a made-for-TV movie than reality, but it’s real.

Not only has this issue (which I think has actually morphed into a full-blown crisis) created challenges for the people working at City Hall, but Toronto has now become the fodder for late night TV hosts – you can see Jimmy Kimmel’s take on it here. I have to admit, it’s pretty funny. However, from a communications standpoint, you never want to see your boss, client, organization or colleague mocked by the media. Keep in mind that it’s no longer just a few minutes of ridicule by Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and others – it now lives on forever online. And I would bet there are now several investigative reporters digging further into this story – and others concerning Ford – and we will start to see a lot more in the next few days.

From a communications perspective, I don’t think I have seen many better examples of how not to handle an issue or a crisis. Start with the fact that it took Ford a week to respond to allegations regarding the existence of a video that showed him smoking crack cocaine. A week. That left a great deal of time for people to speculate on whether or not it was true – and the fact is, it’s human nature to fill in the gaps. If you don’t provide accurate information, people will create theories, speculate and come up with their version of what could have happened – which, after a few times of talking it through, starts to feel like – in their minds – what really happened.

When Ford did respond, he said: “I do not use crack cocaine.” He declined to comment on the video, which he said he had “never seen” or “does not exist.” Hmmmm… rather than come out and clearly refute crack cocaine use (using words like, “I have never used crack cocaine and will never use crack cocaine.”), he skirted around words. As for the video, if it’s true, he could have said: “Since I have never used crack cocaine, there is no possibility that the alleged video could exist.” Of course, had Mayor Ford just taken a drug test, all of this would have been put to rest quickly. But he did none of the key things necessary to effectively manage an issue or a crisis.

He fired his Chief of Staff and, yesterday, word came out from City Hall that two more senior staff had resigned – both communications people. That sends a clear message. I don’t know these communications professionals at all – not even by name. But I can tell you, in my experience, when one communicator leaves in the middle of a crisis, you start to wonder what is going on behind closed doors. When two leave – well, it signals something pretty big. I know the only reason I would leave during an issue or a crisis is if: a) the client was not listening to me at all; or b) I felt that my ethics or integrity were being violated.

In my next blog post, I will talk about what you can do during an issue or a crisis.

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