Presenting the 52nd edition of Intraskope’s Spotlight on Internal Communication Series featuring Vanessa Unwin of Hitachi Rail. Vanessa is a creative communications professional who leads internal communications globally at Hitachi Rail and is based in the United Kingdom. She is passionate about employee engagement and happiness at work, helping high-value, high-profile companies make changes for the better. Vanessa is a Certified Member of the Institute of Internal Communications and believes in building relationships, leading teams and finding solutions to key communication challenges through strategy, leadership and innovation
In this interview, Vanessa discusses the importance of internal communicators to behave like ‘equals’ to get a seat at the table. Vanessa is passionate about understanding human psychology and neuroscience to solve some of the key issues at the workplace and communication and her perspectives on the challenges and opportunities for internal communicators makes for excellent reading.
Watch the complete video interview on YouTube or read the transcript below.
1.What does internal communication mean to you?
I first began thinking that internal communications was about keeping everybody around an organization formed about business directions, plans and priorities. Later in my career, I reached the kind of realization that it’s even more than that. It’s how do you demonstrate to employees that their own personal ambitions are related to the ambitions of the organization. And that when their values are aligned to the values of the organization it increases awareness on what we call – engagement. I don’t be mean one needs to be working long hours outside the employee-employer contract, but that, the business priorities really matter. Even in a small company you can be closely linked to other people you work with. So, internal communication is a lot deeper than I first realized when I started in the field.
2. How is it practiced in your organization?
We are focused on engagement. We have several HR programs which are designed to enhance that feeling that I’ve just described – that people are related to an organization and that they feel linked to it. And also, that we’re giving them, something that will benefit not just them not working in the company but within their career as a whole. We also create a series of what we call just ‘strands’ or ‘work streams’ if you like, but themes that are taken from the annual strategy. So, we won’t have a obviously stated pillar, but when we’re creating pensions, as internal communicators in our own minds, we make sure that everything that we’re communicating is linked back to that plan and that strategy. We have a 70% reactive communications style. because of the situation right now the world is going through. Normally it’s reversed and we have kind of 70% planned and then about 30% is reactive communications.
3. Please share an example/campaign that you are personally proud of working on and that made a significant impact to an organization in the recent past
Last year we had a new CEO in 2019. He became CEO on the first of April, and on the 10th of April we did a live broadcast internal communications conference about the strategy. So, he’d been for 10 days in his role. He has been away in another business in another country for three years. They had a new team, and we linked 350 people who have senior managers from around the world on to this broadcast. It was literally a broadcast in a studio setup. It was a challenge to make that happen with a group of people who had never really worked before together as a senior leadership team. The 350 people on the call have never come together before in that way, they had a huge appetite to know what the direction of the company was and to see this new CEO for the first time. But it was that bewildering sense of, how does this technology work, is it going to go wrong, is there going to be a horrible technical hitch? And I think it was conveying that sense of the direction of the business with a new group of people. And technically it did hitch right at the beginning. There was 10 minutes of broadcast silence. Well, the connections didn’t work. And I think the most satisfying moment for me was when I just said to the production team. Let’s just go. Let’s just go we’re just going to have to do it. And it was the right decision because as soon as the machinery kind of cranked up, then it did. The hitches seem to work themselves. And I think it was for me the idea of bringing everybody together in that way, bringing that kind of personal connection and people, and just making them aware of the sheer volume of the organization that, as it was grown relatively quickly, the strength of the people can get from knowing there are people all around the world, and there is that big picture. We did have informal feedback – people said it was great. We had good quantifiable feedback which was satisfying – it was one of those kinds of events that does keep you awake for a few nights before it happens.
4. What is the biggest challenge and opportunity you face while going about managing internal communication?
I think the biggest opportunity has been the pandemic which brought us on the place this year. It is the biggest challenge but it’s also the biggest opportunity because this year we’ve been able to demonstrate that internal communications, more than any other function in the organization knows human psychology, the behaviors, and we understand the impact on people within an organization. And I think the opportunity is to just keep building on that and to keep going. Also, demonstrating the kind of technical knowledge, because we all assume, when we’re doing a call for example on Skype or, or WebEx or that we’ll assume everybody knows how to use it. Demonstrating that confidence that we can use technology to our advantage and again by understanding human psychology, is the biggest opportunity. No other function in an organization is thinking about it in a conscious way.
5. How can internal communicators add more value to the business?
I think they should sound more like businesspeople, rather than say, “this might work or that might work”. They need to get into the data at the table. There are people who only really look at data that’s the first thing that they’ll listen to. They like percentages, they like graphs, they like diagram process and documents. You need to demonstrate that you’re one of them. That you’re thinking along data lines rather than psychology lines. Then when you’ve got their attention, they will then listen to your follow-up opinions and your advice and your burdens. But I would say that get to the table with the data and anecdotal feedback data to demonstrate that what you know works.
6. What skills must they have or develop?
My biggest fear is being able to listen to very complicated information and distil it into something which anybody could understand. The skill of hearing something and thinking – how would that be perceived by a whole number of people? Who is the biggest cynical person in the room? What would they think of what they’re hearing, and to be able to appreciate it in a way that even they would say? Something like – “I can see what the benefits are!”. And I think that’s the skill of being able to break something down into simple approaches and considering what we want people to think, feel, and do because of the information that they’re hearing or seeing. So that’s the first skill I would say. Then, learn about neuro psychology, learn about neuro linguistic programming, learn about all of those kinds of things because, again, not many people within an organization are thinking along those lines. That’s the kind of missing nuts and bolts if you like. So, I would say really scale yourself up in those areas. Thirdly, is having the ability to write. Even though it should be the most basic thing internal communicators can do, I don’t see huge evidence of it happening consistently everywhere among people within internal communications. They don’t seem to have that natural ability. Some people are outstanding but it’s something that we all need to constantly refine and work.
7. What is your advice for people who are keen to join internal communication and make a career?
I would say – Be Brave. Talk with confidence, demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, see yourself as an equal without being domineering or kind of arrogant. See yourself as equal in your knowledge that you gain. Learn everything you can. Talk to other internal communicators – contact people on LinkedIn and just how to have a conversation with them. I learned my first internal communications theory just by reading books. But books aren’t enough. You need to talk to people who practice in the field and learn from their experience and build that network with other internal communicators because we do feel quite lonely. Whenever I joined them at conferences, there’s this big sense of relief that other people know what I’m talking about, that they have the same kind of problems or issues or dilemmas that I do. And I think even, at most stages in my career after I’ve reached a certain level of seniority you still feel those kinds of frustrations or those kinds of confusion. So, I would say, build your network of people, not just for advice but to share experiences. Have a voracious appetite for learning. Don’t be scared of trying something new. Once you have learned, try to put it into practice really quickly.
8. With COVID-19 and other crises, how must internal communications engage? What has changed or will change? Examples of how your organization has helped reassure employees and navigate the crisis as it unfolds.
I think due to COVID19, we have seen probably the biggest shift, demonstrated this year. I do see a growing confidence in internal communicators. And, the feeling that we do know what we’re talking about. We don’t have to prove ourselves as much, we don’t have to take on the extra work and do everybody’s work – the small bits of their job they don’t want to do! I see the partnership approach more developed than it used to be, even a year ago. So, I think that our role as idea advisors and partners is a really strong one. And attractive to me, and I think people joining in internal communications, and they do like to have a seat at the table. They do like to feel that they are advising people on best practices. So, hopefully that’ll continue. The function and people’s roles will be better and stronger as a result.
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