Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Slow on the uptake

Melcrum's Source for Communicators took me aback slightly today when among Kathy Collura's five suggestions for communicators coping with employee angst she stated: Connect the employee communication plan with the external communication plan The messages about jobs, paychecks, retirement and benefits are specific to employees but these messages should be linked to the business and industry messages going to external audiences.

Hello Kathy, but where have you been this past decade? Or is this just a sign that employee comms in the US is some way behind Europe.

For all my time in Leapfrog and even before, I've dealt with issues communication - as have most of my peers around me. Today's employees are shareholders, customers and vociferous members of their employer's local community.

Even back in my corporate days we looked at issues and defined the appropriate audiences for them, cutting across the artificial internal/external boundaries.

Employee communication should never be dealt with in isolation. If it's to be credible, it has to be bound up into one seamless corporate communication plan that identifies all of the audiences to be engaged, and builds the appropriate relationships with them.

It's quite shocking that Melcrum and Collura seem only to be waking up to this now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Communicate through the downturn...but don't overdo it

As recession nears, the tendency in most corporate is to slash and burn – and then batten down the hatches. Training, development, communication and R&D all tend to suffer as reduced income leads organisations to focus on what’s seen as core services.

Yet, is it not just as essential when times are tough to focus on your people and to keep the innovation pipeline flowing? If you can manage to keep your best people – and even poach a few from the competition – and find innovative ways to deliver your business goals, you’ll be in a much better position to gain a competitive edge once the upturn finally comes around.

It’s easy to cut communication resource when times are tough, but there’s a real danger that this will lead only to greater uncertainty among your workforce, and an even greater likelihood that your best people will walk. They’re the ones who’ll be in demand, even in tough times, and they’re the ones you should be focusing your communication on.


There’s no harm in using a downturn to audit how you communicate with your people. In good times, we tend to get a little lazy. Communication mushrooms in terms of the media used and the frequency we hit our people with more and more corporate messages. There’s no harm in refocusing efforts: concentrating on what’s really important to share rather than what’s nice to share and blowing the froth away to get to what really matters.

This is the time to sharpen core tools – use line managers far more as a credible conduit for information. Give them the skills to build morale among their teams; to get people pulling towards clear and measurable goals, and encourage them to share small successes. Equally, listen to them. They’re your eyes and ears to real engagement among teams, but so often their voice is unheard.

Bring them together more, but for action not rhetoric. Tough times call for collaboration and visible leadership – your line management presents opportunities for both.

There’s received wisdom that says you should communicate more in tough times – but is that really worthwhile? If people suddenly hear more and different things, or have to adjust to new communication media, they may well just as easily assume the worst: ‘Why are they suddenly talking to us now?’ ‘What’s wrong?’

It’s better to tap into existing channels but to take time to understand what’s really motivating your people to deliver against a tough market and to shape communication around those drivers.

The staples remain: be honest, don’t speculate, and if you don’t have all the answers, tell people – and then try and find those answers.

As someone who has worked in internal communication through one recession, I’d say the two most important communication skills are the willingness to listen and the ability to be flexible. The business world is moving very quickly at the moment. You want to be on the front foot, not backed into a corner.

© Mark Shanahan 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cutting closer to home

Before trimming back my more strategic consultancy work to concentrate on the MA, I was an associate of one of the UK's better-known HR consultancies.

For the six years I was involved with them, working on occasional projects, they worked hard to build a communications and engagement practice. However, I saw today that even the best are struggling in this credit crunch when I received a note saying:

"We have taken the decision to move to a purely associate model for the delivery of Engagement and Communication Strategies. Whilst many clients recognise the importance of this work, the current economic climate means that it is not sustainable to continue to retain internal resource in this area. There will be a total of 7 post closures......"

Now, from what I can tell, they are creating other HR consultancy roles, but not in IC so some pretty skilled practitioners are going to be out of a job. This is the first time that the current downturn has struck close to home for me. I suspect it won't be the last.

Monday, September 22, 2008

No point worrying about what you can't influence

A long time ago, someone gave me some very good advice: 'don't worry about things you can't change.' Now at the time, I probably thought I could change the world, and I still think there is stuff outside my control that I can probably still influence...if only a little.

Now I'll do my little bit for global warming, and take what steps I can to reduce my costs and manage my finances as well as I can - but I'm not really going to sweat the big stuff too much.

I'm coming to the end of three projects and my biggest concern is that despite all three having long-ish lead times, they've all converged so that deadline time has hit for all three at once. To be fair, two are now all but finished and there's only days left in the third. But it's a fact of freelance life: however long the time allowed, projects will only get serious once the deadline's looming. But I'm not panicking. The last week has seen a lot of juggling and some 50 hours in front of the computer, but features, case studies and scripts have all been delivered on time and in pretty good shape.

When I first started Leapfrog, and was looking over the shoulders of three other people, I did worry. There were a fair few sleepless nights involved. Now that it's mainly me with the odd project that Jac handles and a bit of associate support, life's a lot simpler.

I'm certainly glad I haven't got staff at the moment. After these three projects conclude, there should be four others in over the end of September and throughout October. But none has been definitely confirmed yet. All are set up and ready to roll, but my clients' bosses are being cautious and waiting to see what's happening in the market. I'm ready and they know I'm willing - if the work's going to come, it will. And if not, I'll be raising my profile among all my work contacts fairly shortly.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pause for breath....or will my bubble burst?

I'm really busy at the moment, but worried that my business is in a bubble that could just burst at any moment. So, with 15 minutes between phone interviews, there's just time to knock out a few thoughts.

This week, I've three live projects on the go. One has a deadline of Thursday, and on current form, it'll be a tight squeeze as some of the needed information still isn't quite here, and interviewing will go right to the wire.

Another has a Monday deadline and it's eminently do-able....so long as I put in a stint over the weekend.

The third completes next Wednesday. At the moment, all's A-OK.....but that's 'coz nothing much is happening. If it's still that way by Friday, I'll move from slightly manic to rather panicked.

After those three, there could be an hiatus or I could be just as busy. I simply don't know. The economic downturn hasn't had much of an effect on my work pipeline yet - but if some of the possibles don't turn out to be actual pieces of work, I'm definitely going to feel the pinch soon.

Balancing work with the MA has rather forced me to take a tactical and linear view over the past 12 months. That's quite a change from the previous three years when I've gone for the strategic projects and spent most of my time balancing between clients. Sometimes it worked and sometimes......

I expected to make less money this past year, but I've ended up slightly ahead, mainly through doing solid projects for solid clients with a few added extras dropped in from three or four agencies who all know me well.

To be honest, those agency calls have been less frequent in the last couple of months. The previous pattern had been to quote for work from one or more of these agencies on about a weekly basis. Some we won and some we didn't, but it produced a few good little earners, and it always galled me to have to turn down these opportunities when bigger projects demanded all my time.

Since the summer, the calls have become fewer and the word is that clients have been postponing projects left right and centre, and cancelling some plans outright.

My direct client work has actually benefited a little from the downturn as clients haven't replaced staff who have left, but have been asked to do just as much and more with leaner teams. The result has been outsourcing some projects - and I've been lucky enough to pick up some of this work.

However, a lot of my work is linked to the organisational development arena and that so often comes under intense cost pressure when times are tough. So I'll wait and see what comes through over the next few months.

I'm still in a far better position than some of my peers. A former colleague called this morning to say she'd gone into work and had been told her project had been cancelled and her interim contract was being suspended. She was running comms on a people development project for a bank. The Lehman effect has kicked in and her project, along with a number of others, has summarily been pulled and the contractors and small numbers of permanent staff involved have been laid off.

Her contract is actually with an employment agency, so she should be paid the remaining six weeks, but her strong hopes of it being extended for the next year or more have been completely extinguished.

I've done work for three major banks in the last six months, and have no doubt that the ripple effect of the Wall Street meltdown will even catch up with mini-fry like me sooner or later. In the past three years, I've pared my costs to a minimum and have enough now in the Bank to cope with a few months of flat-lining business. But I doubt any micro businesses are feeling too confident about things at the moment.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Since starting this blog, I've used Sitemeter to track the stats on this blog. they upgraded over the weekend and much of what had been useful no longer seems freely accessible, and the new reports are pretty useless to someone line me who counts hits in 10s not millions!

Anyway, I've put a new counter in and also took the time to revise the look of the blog. Not sure I'm entirely convinced by this template, so I may tinker a little more with it if time allows during what's set to be a very busy week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The scourge of Voicemail

How did we ever get any work done before we could hide behind voicemail?

Okay, I don't actually think that - mainly because I've been operating on the flip side of the coin today, calling people for quotes and interviews for a number of magazine pieces I'm writing and hitting voicemail, after voicemail after voicemail. Actually, I did get one person directly this afternoon - and she flatly turned down my interview request.

From those on the receiver's end, it's easy to use voicemail as phone screening - never answer a call and only respond to the messages you want to. It's a lot cheaper than having to have an assistant answering your calls, and it means never being unprepared when dealing with a caller.

But it's lazy and frustrating too - and too often leaves people to communicate only by email.

I hate cold calling. When I'm requesting an interview for an article, I'll email first and set up a date and time for the call where possible or at least give a reason why I need to speak to the person before I call them. That way, I'm not having to 'sell' anything over the phone first before I get into the conversation. But the most frustrating thing is to have sent the email, perhaps set a time and date, and then reach only a voicemail. It's fine if people come back quickly....but a thorough pain in the bum if I'm left hanging on the will they/won't they return the call intrigue for the rest of the day. What's the best thing to do then? Ring again and begin to sound like a desperate stalker or wait and wait - and probably not end up talking to them at all.

I know a couple of companies that have banned voicemail. If a person's away from their desk, they have to forward their phone to someone else who can take messages. I like that idea; it maintains a personal touch in an increasingly electronic world. Email's great, but useless at sensing nuance and open to massive abuse. Voicemail is useful....but it wasn't invented as a telephone screener.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Telephones are great....discuss

As a freelancer working largely with the written word, there are two essential tools that I need to be able to function effectively. They're a phone and fast internet. Sending drafts to and fro, arranging interviews and conducting web research are key elements of my everyday job - and I'm severely hamstrung without the right tools for the job.

Thanks to BT, fast email and other internet services have been but a memory for most of the last five days.

The saga began last Thursday when the line for our Broadband hub and secondary phone line dropped out for no apparent reason. That was 'no apparent reason' until I looked out the front window and saw a BT man with his Openreach van over the road. He had his head down a manhole, and I put two and two together and concluded that whatever he was working on had caused our line to drop out.

I popped over the road and explained this to him. He was clearly a good sort as he came back to me about 20 minutes later, checked out my line, acknowledged there was a fault and spent the next half hour putting it right. So, all good, and only about an hour's working time lost.

Next afternoon, the line dropped out again. I looked out and there was another Openreach van with two different engineers peering down the same manhole. Being now expert in the procedure, I trotted over the road, exlained what had happened and how it repeated the events of the day before and asked them to ensure my line was reconnected before they left. One of them, David Essex-like with dark curly hair and an ear ring nodded and assured me that all would be ok.

An hour later, the line was still not back. I looked out and saw that the manhole was closed up and the pair had gone - clearly it doesn't pay to stay late at a job on a Friday afternoon. So, my service was stuffed for the rest of the day.

I reported the fault, told BT Customer Services what had happened and was told an engineer wouldn't be out until Saturday. So that was, effectively, four more working hours severely compromised.

Two more engineers arrived on Saturday lunchtime and restored the service within the hour. All good again.....until yesterday morning. Then, guess what? A fourth BT man with his Openreach van, legs dangling in the good ol' Brook Road manhole, but this time he was deeply engaged in a personal call on his mobile.

My line/broadband had, of course, dropped out again but I knew the drill. I crossed the road once again and stood over the engineer for a good 10 minutes as he chatted on. It was an interesting conversation as this tall, bald, tattooed engineer told the other party all about the job interview he'd just had and how he still intended to do some private work after he left BT and would make sure that the van went back to his employer empty..............I wasn't so sure that this engineer was quite such a good sort.

Anyway, once he'd deigned to complete his private call, I explained the saga and the effect that each engineering visit had caused. I gave him my number. He said he'd get it sorted.

Within 20 minutes he was gone - but still I was lineless. Needless to say, I was pretty mad but surprisingly calm when I once again reported the fault and explained to Customer Services for the second time in three days why they'd have to send an engineer out.

For the rest of yesterday and all this morning, I was reduced to using my Vodafone mobile wifi dongle. It works great in London and big towns where there's access to the 3G network, but Risborough hasn't been 3G'd yet, so the experience here in rural Bucks is much like dial-up. Very slow and very frustrating......much like my BT experience.
The line was restored at lunchtime today - a two-hour job as today's engineer said that yards of my line had been ripped out and used to patch another job. I assume that was yesterdays' work.

The lack of professionalism of two of the engineering crews is galling, and trying to actually report a fault is a byzantine process - made all the more annoying by BT's automated system constantly encouraging me to report andf track my fault online.......I would if I could bleeding well get online!

I become ever-less impressed by the service of some of our major organisations. I intend to take this further with BT, and hopefully they can restore my faith a little.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

McCain & Palin - what a combination

I haven't been paying too close attention to the US Presidential race over the past few weeks - but you've got to hand it to John McCain: what an inspired choice of running mate!
Who else would have pared up the inventor of the oven chip with one of TV and film's most likable funny men. With all those global travels behind him, Michael Palin's got all the foreign affairs expertise the ticket could ever need - and clearly can do all the walking that McCain seems unable to manage....In fact, have you ever seen a photo of McCain showing his legs?

I particularly like this one from his MySpace site showing just what every pensioner needs -colour-coded hats for the forgetful.........although I'm sure, John, that this one's royal blue not navy. Scarily, he looks remarkably like my Dad...!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Three hotel tales

I seem to have spent most of the last month in other people's beds......no not like that!

Late July/August saw us spend one weekend in Birmingham for a wedding, two weeks in Cyprus for the annual Shanahan-clan holiday, and the weekend just gone in Eastbourne for a visit to the in-laws.

Each stay left me ruminating on what defines quality, value for money and good service.
First stop was the Crowne Plaza in Birmingham for a two night stay. The hotel was priced incredibly cheaply - just £58 per room per night on a Friday/Saturday night stay. It was immediately apparent why when we rolled up to Holliday street and found the building shrouded in scaffolding as it came to the close of a 16-month refurb project.

However, once through the doors, any semblance of building site was left behind and we settled in for a very good weekend. The rooms were newly-decorated, spacious, clean and cool. Probably not to everyone's taste - they were a bit red and black all over - they suited us well. But what really won points for the hotel on this stay was the staff attitude. Over the next 48 hours I talked refurb with the duty manager; good places to eat with the bar tender and cricket with the front desk staff. We weren't asking them to do anything extra or special, but their friendliness and willingness to go the extra step made it an easy and relaxing stay.

That's what we were looking for the following week at another ICH property - the redoubtable Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus. The very fact that this is a package destination - we booked through First Choice - does enough to suggest that this isn't actually the domain of the world's highest rollers, but the hotel didn't quite seem to have cottoned on that in the summer peak at least, they're actually an upscale family holiday destination.

For our first week, the clientele wasn't Europe's high-rollers, but mainly British families with kids and in-laws in tow, and probably more plumbers, electricians and small businessmen like me than the Captains of British industry. In the second week, many of the Brits were replaced by their Cypriot counterparts as Nicosia shut down for the Cyprus holiday season and the capital's families headed for the coast. Over both weeks, the core clientele was supplemented by a visible presence of ostentatiously wealthy Russians - plenty of bling, lots of brand labels....but not a lot of smiles.

The hotel has some great facilities - a well-run kids club that Sophie took full advantage of; a good gym and heath club and, at first glance, a selection of restaurants to frequent. But these formed part of the downside for me. The main restaurant was a buffet for breakfast and dinner. In both instances it was chaotic with often too many staff but too little organisation. It didn't feel five star; it didn't feel special in any way. Two of the alternatives were around the pool, while the third opened only on the last weekend of our stay.

Both the main alternatives that were open during our stay were very expensive - and unsurprisingly pretty empty most evenings. A large waiting staff brigade stood rather menacingly around both and did little to make either seem welcoming. We ventured into one - a fish restaurant, but didn't venture back.

Using the same set-up as the day-time poolside bar, but with linen on the tables, it offered fish priced by weight. So you actually didn't know what you were paying until the bill arrived. The waiting staff was mainly Eastern European and lacked more than a little in warmth though they were exceptionally efficient. However, with a brigade of eight, and just six active tables, they were overly-attentive to the point of being intrusive. What really grated with me was the constant upselling - actually a feature throughout the hotel during our stay. That particular night, we were pushed towards particularly expensive French wines (rejected for cheaper, but still overpriced local wine), the kids' drinks were replenished too often and we must have been asked six times if we wanted to order more, and what finally got me, my eight year old daughter was urged to have a second ice cream by the waitress.

At that point I snapped. I've run customer service courses in the past and have written extensively on the subject for clients over the years. One thing that should never happen is upselling to a child. The waitress got the sharp edge of my tongue; we didn't return to experience the 200 Euro two course experience again (including a child's meal!) and my dis-satisfaction featured in my end-of-holiday comment card.

Other than that, the stay was pretty good. Not everything was perfect - the air con broke down and took a while to fix, random TV stations dropped out on numerous occasions; and we never seemed to get the right number/selections of towels and bed linen. But these were minor things.

I just had a sense that the resort was a tad pretentious and pitching itself for a high-rolling audience when actually its market in summer was more family orientated and cost aware. Six euro fifty for a cranberry and soda and five fifty for a small beer around the pool soon added up, and even the other 'village' food outlets were all priced at a similar premium.

The result was that we used the car more to get out and eat out - more fun for us, but overall a revenue loss for a hotel that probably has too high a staff to customer ratio.

90% of the Aphrodite Hills experience3 was terrific - maybe my expectations are too high, but I came back a bit too focused on the other 10%.

The downside of the package was flying First Choice Airways - a horrible cramped Boeing 757; disaster-scene food and sub-Ryan Air service. Yuk.

Still, it set the tone for this weekend's trip to Eastbourne. We booked in to stay at the Travelodge on the front. Travelodge normally delivers a good, clean, basic product and everyone knows what to expect. But this time I got a lumpy bed, on the ground floor, opening on to the pavement and beside both the reception desk and the lift. On a hot summer's night, it was incredibly noisy (with the biscuit being taken by the person who honked up his night's beer right outside our window at about 1am as he stepped out of his taxi returning to the hotel); the lift had a loud two-tone electronic beep every time it arrived; the front door had another electric beep and the doors between reception and the room corridor groaned open and closed.

Ok, it was unlucky to get the worst room on a hot and busy night. But the staff didn't seem to care, and seemed to have the attitude that any guest was more likely to nick anything not nailed down than be in need of some service. Perhaps if they'd been more welcoming, we'd have had a better experience.

There's both an art and a science to customer service. They appreciated both in Birmingham; some but not all got it right in Cyprus (high praise particularly to the Concierge and Kids' Club staff); and it didn't appear to be on the radar in Eastbourne. It's funny how my best experience was, on the face of it, the least promising - and also cost the least.