Lucy Adams, director, Firehouse and The Disruptive HR Agency and former head of global HR, BBC, discusses her communication strategy in trying times

Lucy Adams

The fact people believe that only one in five chief executives will tell the truth when the going gets tough suggests business suffers from something of a credibility crisis. Having led internal communications during one of the most difficult periods of the BBC’s history (the Savile crisis, the resignation of the director general, major cuts, the move to Salford, etc), I learned through bitter experience how easy it can be to get the message, language and tone badly wrong. What I also learned is that when it worked well, a very clear and simple set of steps were taken – which I’ve termed the ABC approach.

A is for… know your Audience

The sophistication of consumer segmentation allows marketers to devise almost individually tailored messaging is now almost taken for granted. Unfortunately, in the workplace we still rely on the outmoded and clunky employee annual engagement survey.

Grouping employees into homogenous chunks based on geography or function cannot hope to provide the insight required to tailor a difficult message to a variety of audiences. Where companies manage the difficult messages well, they understand that blanket communications will not work and they must enlist the support of an army of human intelligence officers – their line managers.

As most of us connect to our company through our line manager, having one who really knows us is essential to maintaining trust in the leadership during difficult times. Knowing your audience – or equipping line managers to know theirs – and handling the message on as individual basis as possible, works so much better than the corporate email.

B is for… Be Yourself (Better)

There’s lots of buzz about ‘authentic leadership’ as an antidote to the sterile corporate face, but what does this actually mean? On a very basic level, leaders are visible and accessible.

I’ve had to play ‘hunt the executive’ during the more difficult moments.

The most inspirational leaders fight this instinctive urge to hide and have the courage to be even more accessible and visible when things get tough.

Secondly, great leaders admit their mistakes and acknowledge when they don’t know the answers. Saying “I’m sorry” can break down barriers and builds trust and rapport. I’ve seen leaders gain greater respect through lowering their guard and being more open about their uncertainties.

Finally, the best leaders are not afraid of embracing their inner storyteller. Presenting facts is only half the battle. Telling stories helps our people to suspend their inner cynic.

When we can connect to the emotional side of the story we are more likely to believe and trust it. The most effective communicators rely less on the corporate crutch of persuasive logic via Powerpoint and more on connecting emotionally with their staff.

C is for… the voice of the Customer

Almost every change programme I have led or been involved in has had a customer-related motive at its core, yet it is amazing how often this is forgotten by the time the messages are crafted. The vast majority of employees get the need to change the way they operate and can accept even quite painful changes if they benefit their customers. Change communicators often ignore this fact.

The most successful communications of difficult messages I have seen have been those that made the link to the customer really explicit.

Lucy Adams will be speaking at Reward Live 2016, at 16.05 on Wednesday 11th May. For more information, CLICK HERE