Key communications principles for planning change

While every change is different, there are some key principles to keep in mind to guide your communications planning during times of turbulence, writes Ms Claire Taffee.

Claire Taffee
Ms Claire Taffee

Change is hard. Really hard. As the communications head of a large organisation that has itself been through constant change, I have seen firsthand how communications can make or break a change process. While every change is different, there are some key principles to keep in mind to guide your communications planning during times of turbulence.

All Hands on Deck

Communications during change is not just up to your Communications Department: Yes, they can be responsible for developing, supporting and executing a plan but communicating the change is every single leader’s responsibility. Unless a change has widespread leadership support, it is doomed. Also lip service will not do. Leaders will be judged by their actions far more than words so unless everyone is aligned and active, all you will get is mixed messages and confusion.

Burn your platform not your bridges

Don’t assume everyone firstly a) understands why change is necessary and b) agrees with you. Until people believe the platform is on fire, no-one will jump! You also need to remember that a lot of your team will have helped build that platform and could be very attached to it. You want people to help everyone to jump and not put out the fire.

Leaders will be judged by their actions far more than words. There will be formal channels in place but every workplace also has an informal and equally important subculture.

Be Kind

It can also be very easy to over orchestrate a change. We can create very complex change communications programmes, creating feedback loops, CEO roadshows, weekly updates and Q & As, but often we forget to stop and think about what people are really concerned about. I think there should be human “reality check” tests throughout every change process where everyone comes up for air, puts down the plan and stops to ask how and what people are really feeling and thinking. Despite its long tenure, Maslow’s well known hierarchy of needs, is still very applicable for any organisation today. How do or can you expect employees to engage with and embrace new ways of working if their individual concerns such as job security or compensation are front of mind. It may not always be possible to solve individual concerns but an equal waste of time would be to attempt to collectively drive a change agenda if people are worried for themselves. It is also important to remember that individuals are exactly that, individual. You won’t be able to please everyone, but it is worth remembering to take a step back and look at the human and personal impact the changes will have and amend your communications approach accordingly.

Different strokes for different folks

It really will be ‘different strokes for different folks’ so you need to adapt your communications strategy to fit your target audiences. Just because one person or group looks like another does not mean that they will behave or be motivated in the same way. Depending on what you are trying to deliver, you should consider whether an Educate/ “Tell” town hall session would work if perhaps you are delivering a decision that cannot be changed or if there is a more flexible solution possible. Perhaps a more collaborative approach could be used to involve employees in both designing and communicating the change. People are far more likely to trust and believe their own line manager or colleague than a senior leader in many cases, so don’t assume the boss always has to be the messenger.

Smell the roses

Change always feels difficult, like wading through mud. Yes telling everyone about the change is important but don’t forget to stop to celebrate successes. Communications is key to keeping energy and spirits up, so whether it’s introducing recognition awards or creating mini-events to mark a milestone passed, sometimes just saying thank you and well done can be more impactful than a leadership video that took weeks to make. I have led many communications change strategies in my career and to be honest, the time we brought the ice cream van in on a sunny day to thank people is still one of the most impactful things I have ever done.

Swim with the current

You need to work with a culture not against it. People get very attached to the status quo and values of their organisation. Very often when you look at why change initiatives haven’t worked, it isn’t always for apparently rational reasons. Figure out the true communications social network of your organisation. Yes there will be formal channels in place but every workplace also has an informal and equally important subculture. Understand the informal power players and networks. Whether that is at the coffee station, sports and social club or department meetings, these are very real sources of information and communication so at the very least acknowledge them but ideally you should also plan for them.

Have no finish line

Things change. People change. Change changes. The reason for change is often through external forces rather than internal momentum so organisations have to continually adapt. I’ve heard communicating change described as improv theatre as in you make the best judgment you can in the moment and remain prepared to adjust to whatever new conditions arise. Change fatigue is a very real phenomenon where people are struggling having delivered a massive change program, then to go straight into another. Perhaps a more successful communications intervention is to work towards introducing and embedding a continuous change culture, rather than a specific programme. More challenging yes, no doubt, but in the long-term probably more effective.

Claire Taffee is Communications Director with GSK