WHY IS CHANGE COMMUNICATIONS IMPORTANT?
To paraphrase Heraclitus, “change is the only constant in business.” To this aphorism I would add “and that change needs to be constantly communicated.”
Business is relentlessly shifting – new technologies emerge, customers demand the latest thing, organisations restructure. In order for these changes to be successful, a company needs to have a robust communications strategy in place.
Remember, there’s no one perfect way to communicate change. Creating an impeccable Gantt chart doesn’t mean the process will go smoothly. Change is a long-term process and not an easy one.
The role of communications is to help the process of changing behaviours, beliefs, and habits.
In the longer term, the value of successful change should become so ingrained in a company’s culture that teams welcome the opportunity to transform and grow. Here are my top ten tips for effective change communications.
1. GET INVOLVED AT THE START AND KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY
Planning is key. Communications strategists need to be involved at the very start – when the idea of a change is just an idea. Too often, communications teams are dropped in at the last minute, long after the rumours and counter rumours are rampant.
It’s important that everyone’s clear on what needs to be achieved. The change campaign, and the supporting communications campaign, needs to have robust objectives.
When developing your objectives for the campaign, think about:
- What’s the current situation?
- What’s changing and what are the consequences of the change? What won’t be changing?
- Who’s affected by the change and how?
- Why is the change necessary? What are the internal and external factors driving the change?
- Who is driving the change? Customers? Senior management? Regulators? Investors?
- What happens if the change doesn’t go ahead? Why is it important? Highlight any successes or failures of previous changes and outline what will be different.
- What’s the end result? What does that mean for those affected?
- What are the key milestones of the project?
- How are the changes going to be monitored and communicated? When? How often?
Also, think about how those impacted going to react to the change. This is your opportunity to anticipate questions and answer them before they’re asked.
2.UNDERSTAND WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO (AND TALK TO THEM LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE)
When it comes to communications, one size doesn’t fit all. Different people will need to know (and will demand) different information. Your key messages need to take this into account.
As with all communications, think about the language that your audience wants to hear. How many change projects have you seen stuffed full with jargon and buzzwords? What is a “responsive organisation”? How do you “empower colleagues”? What does “scalable” entail?
Give your communications substance. Link them with the every day and give examples of what you actually mean. Talk to your employees in a language they understand.
3. FOCUS ON THE WHY AND EMPHASISE THE “WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?” (WIIFM?)
In communications, it’s easy to concentrate on the end or how the process of change will work but that doesn’t help your employees.
One of the first questions that will be common across audiences is “why?”
Communicate the “why” before the “what” and the “how”. (This is another opportunity for me to point you towards the great Simon Sinek who explains why this is so fundamentally important). This “why” needs to be reinforced throughout the communications campaign.
Change can’t be sold – everyone in the organisation needs be involved with making it happen successfully. Making that change happen is a personal choice.
To help your employees make that choice, your communications needs to resonate. It should be focused on their personal situation and the things they care about. You should provide a compelling case for why they need to engage with the change and what (positive) affect the end result will have on their lives.
4. FIND YOUR MOST EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATORS
‘Research’* will show that employees like to hear about change from two main groups – senior management, and their line managers. And, while it’s true that communication needs to be led from the top, I would add a third group to this list. A group that has far more authority and is far more likely to persuade.
No matter how clear, consistent, and compelling your formal communication is, there’s always going to be chatter. Conversations over coffee, throwaway comments in meetings, gossip, rumours.
In these situations, the power of informal leaders and influencers cannot (and should not) be underestimated.
These people aren’t necessarily bosses. They may not be particularly senior. They may not be working in the most central department. But they are liked and trusted by employees. They’re seen as a hub of information and influence – they will know what’s going on, and they’ll have an opinion on it. You need to engage these informal leaders as your ambassadors. With them on your side, you will spread your messages much further than simply using a top-down approach.
No matter who’s assigned as your key communicators for the project, make sure they’re prepared. Provide them with a toolkit outlining the key messages, the timeline, and a robust Q&A. If they need it, provide basic training to help them deliver these messages.
*(I put research in inverted commas because there never seems to be a solid source for this research!)
5. PICK THE RIGHT CHANNELS
What works for one group of people, may not work for another (even more so when you’re communicating across language, culture, and working practices). While formal channels (such as memos or emails) may work for one group, others may prefer to talk through issues face to face.
If you haven’t already, carry out an audit of your communications channels. Assess which mediums will work for different kinds of messages and conversations. Communications doesn’t have to cost money. There are probably numerous channels already being used. How can you make full use of them? Some channels you might want to consider:
- Social media
- Online Q&A sessions
- Digital signage
- Screensavers and pop ups
- Desk drops
- Line managers
- Notice boards
- Events and team briefings
Be creative in your communications. Use multiple channels to reach the widest range of people you can. Use evaluation metrics to get feedback on which channels are the most effective.
6. START EARLY, TALK OFTEN, BE SUBSTANTIAL
Barring legal and investor-driven restrictions, information about change should be shared with employees as soon as possible. The last thing you want is an employee hearing about a reorganisation on the radio as they drive to work. Fear and uncertainty will erect an unnecessary barrier to your communications.
You need to be proactive. If you hear rumours about the project, you’re already too late.
It’s important that your communications are consistent and regular, however, be aware of what you’re communicating, too. Ensure all the information you’re sharing is relevant, significant, and substantial. Anything irrelevant will just add noise and dilute your key messages.
Don’t communicate for the sake of communicating.
7. REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
Your audience has a short attention span – they have a long list of things all crying out for their attention (the average office worker receives over 120 emails a day!)
Each time you communicate be prepared, and don’t be afraid, to repeat your key messages, and repeat them often (bearing in mind point six)
Just because you’ve read it ten times, it doesn’t mean your audience has. Remember, this may be the first time they’ve seen your communication. With enough repetition, your messages should resonate through the noise.
8. DON’T JUST BROADCAST
Imagine you meet someone for the first time. After initial introductions, they proceed to talk at you for half an hour. Is that a conversation? Are they communicating effectively? No.
Communications isn’t just about speaking. Communications is about asking questions, sharing ideas, listening to what others think, changing perceptions, driving action.
Make sure that there are sufficient feedback mechanisms in place during your project. While a business isn’t quite a democracy, it shouldn’t be a dictatorship either. This change is having an impact on people’s lives. You need to let them participate in the process.
Give employees the chance to share concerns, provide feedback, and ask questions. Following up and providing feedback should be a top priority. However, only give answers if you know what they are. If the response can’t be given, or isn’t known, then say so. Don’t lie, obfuscate, or make excuses.
Employees will be far more likely to buy-in to the process of change if they feel that they are part of it, not just spectators.
9, CREATE A VISION AND COMMUNICATE SHORT-TERM WINS
Your vision is a picture of what success looks like. This is the guide for your employees. It’ll help them understand where the company is going (and what their role is). Your vision should act as something to unite your teams.
Change takes time. When faced with a giant project, it can be easy to feel disheartened. Break down the project into smaller goals and milestones. This’ll help show progress and make the task ahead look a little less daunting. Celebrate when you achieve your short-term goals.
Taking the time to celebrate is important. Not only does it acknowledge hard work but show progress is being made which will boost morale and keep up the momentum.
The only way to assess if your communications have been effective is through your audience. They are the ones who’ll decide whether it’s compelling, whether it makes sense, whether they act on it.
Build in evaluation measures across your communications plan and consistently track them. Are you achieving what you set out to? Are your messages working? Do people understand them? Do people care? Are there questions you’re not answering?
As you answer these questions, you can correct and refine your communications to ensure they really deliver to your objectives.
Do your leaders need help in enabling change in your organisation? Let’s talk about how we can work together to take the company to the next level.
Beaumont is a communications agency based in Lausanne, Switzerland. We work with clients all around the world to change the way they talk about themselves – helping them create engaging stories that motivate action.