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5 minutes with Sam Bleazard, Employee Communications and Engagement Lead in the retail industry

In this section, we are meeting with internal communication professionals across the globe, to share their best practices and vision for the future!

Sam has worked within the field of internal communications for over twenty years, both in the UK, and with companies across the globe, for various industries.
With 6 years experience in the construction sector and now working at Fortnum and Mason’s, a premium London store chain, Sam knows very well the communication challenges associated with a remote workforce !

He will share his vision of internal communications as well as precious advice and tips to succeed in communicating with front line employees.

Sam is also the founder of the podcast Comms from the Shed that he started during the pandemic.

1 – What do you think are the key aspects for a successful internal communication strategy?

Very often, communications professionals are brought into the organisation to improve the internal communication and bring it to a higher level. You are often there to problem solve, or improve the situation that you find on arrival.

First of all, it is fundamental to be intrinsically linked to the business strategy, and to understand from the leaders themselves where the company is headed. This is the first step to make sure that the internal communication strategy is in support of the business’s core aims.

To be successful, it is then important to understand how the company communicated previously and be objective about it. By that, I mean that you should ask managers direct questions, but it is also crucial to hear feedback from the employees themselves, by connecting with the staff on the ground! Which means walking the floor, or site and talking to them directly. It’s always appreciated if you’re brave enough to do it – and you should be if you want to be credible and taken seriously.

Another piece of advice is to look at any gaps that you’ve identified and apply from your experience what you believe will work in this specific company’s situation.
Are there digital screens available as a channel, are face to face briefings the norm? Does everyone have a company email address or a mobile phone ? Are there any internal issues to tackle? Analyse the context and then use your own experience to define your own internal communication strategy. Also think about what you’re trying to prove upfront – so that your measurement is meaningful when you play it back to leaders.

2 – What are the main challenges faced by internal communication?

The first challenge I see is around data. It is important to know when you’re planning internal communications how your messages are being received. To get to the bottom of this, using the right analytical tools will be key to give you access to the necessary data.

Another challenge concerns the quality of your content.
Are you confident that you have the best version of the content that exists in your business? The best interviews, the best pictures, the best film, the most insightful perspective or analysis ? A message can be shared in so many different ways : it can be conveyed in a long, text-heavy article, or through a story that moves or inspires employees and that can beadapted to each communication channel.
Good content must not only be understood, it must also inspire people. Very often, internal content only targets the mind, the intellect, whereas it should be the other way around. Communication managers should speak to the employees’ hearts first, and only bring intellectual arguments in when they have the attention of the staff.

3 – A lot of the employees in your company are working in stores, away from a computer and their emails. What is your approach to communicate with them?

As mentioned previously, going out into the field is very important. Sometimes, we may need to do this virtually through video conference, but in all cases, I believe it is necessary to connect with the people on the ground and their managers.

In the retail industry for example, daily face to face briefings are often common place, but you have to find out when they are and ask if you can attend as a listener. 
I invited myself along to all the team briefings when I joined my current company. I was once welcomed by a round of applause (which wasn’t merited !), but it showed me that people really appreciate the time and attention given to them. It is important to really listen during those visits to understand their communication challenges better. Do you know if your remote workforce ever sees the intranet and receives your e-newsletters? Have you ever seen the staff’s kitchen areas?

A few weeks ago,, I was visiting a store and the employees asked me if they could have a digital screen in the staff room in order to run presentations. In another store, I was told that although the team does not have time to get on to personal computers, the shop manager had set up a Whatsapp group for them to communicate through. Those visits bring me valuable information I would never have gotten otherwise.

Lots of managers say that they do not have time to travel to all sites, but I believe this should be prioritized, in order to know your people. Especially in a time of great resource shortage in our workforce, retaining people is crucial, and physical visits can be a vital intervention in terms of increased understanding.

4 – Apart from field visits, are there other channels that can be used efficiently to reach those remote employees?

When I worked in the construction industry, there were two main ways to reach the staff : through their mobile phones – that they looked at during their lunch breaks or before and after work, or through the Health & Safety team briefings that took place every morning.
Display boards were also used, but had less impact in my view. Mobile phone communication is always an efficient option for crisis management.

Again, you need to talk to employees to understand how to reach them better. If they are used to reading news feeds on their mobile phones during their breaks, then dropping a leaflet in the canteen may not be the most effective way to reach them! In this case a short, bite-size web magazine suited to mobile phone displays, with reduced text and lots of visuals and videos could work much better.
A challenge that arises here is that the staff must be willing to give out their personal email, notably temp staff who do not have a work email. However by providing interesting content, human stories etc, you will always be able to grab their attention.

5 – How have you seen internal communications evolve during the last two years and with the pandemic?

It is a question that I actually tackle in my podcast, Comms from the Shed.

I think it is useful to look at the start of the pandemic to understand that for any organisation who had planned to invest in employee communications or tech tools, this impulse accelerated. This was the case in the construction firm I worked in, where a bespoke video conference platform was developed and integrated with Microsoft Yammer for example.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic , I used to hear many complaints during events and conferences staged for Communications people that internal communication was not taken seriously enough. With people needing to work from home more and more, seeing new ways of hybrid working introduced, internal communications has become more important than ever before. Corporate topics that were previously of vital importance have fallen down the list of priorities, because people have other concerns, and these have to be tackled. Employees need to know how they can get through the weeks and months ahead.

Leadership visibility became very important during Covid-19. Going on live calls, being authentic, showing recognition to employees was at the heart of successful internal communications during that time. CEOs began holding a Q&A every fortnight during the pandemic, which would have sounded very strange before 2020!

6 – Do you have any advice for internal communication professionals?

I had a manager who once told me to never lose the ability to train in new skills, remain vital and work with new tools. Be able to walk the walk, not just talk about it. E.g. film, social media etc.

I was already experienced at the time and felt in control, so it would have been easy to become complacent. But he challenged me to create good film content on the ground, to become an expert in social media usage and data analytics.

Never assume that because you were successful previously, applying what you have always applied will not necessarily guarantee your long term success. Internal communication tools keep evolving, new skills can always be learned, and getting out of your comfort zone is an important ingredient.

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