Internal Communication Case Studies: The Terrible & The Terrific

Stuart Sinclair - July 7, 2020

It’s a question that often comes up: ‘How do other businesses do this?’. Whether you’re implementing a new sales structure or updating your software systems, it’s always helpful to consider how similar companies approached the issue. This is particularly relevant for internal communications, where there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each organisation has its own unique set of challenges and needs to tailor its internal communication strategy accordingly. Internal communication case studies can help you evaluate your approach, by exploring comparable situations and their outcomes.

In this blog, we’ve selected some of the best internal communication examples from the world of business. Not all were successful. In fact, some were complete disasters. But these failures, along with the success stories, are great examples of internal communication in action. When you’re looking for the answers to effective internal communication, nothing speaks more clearly than real-life examples.

We have grouped the following internal communication case study examples under the ‘seven golden rules’. These rules were proposed by Fitzpatrick in his ground-breaking publication Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners. These fundamental rules of internal communication best practices help us to categorise the relative successes and failures of these examples.

Rule 1: Activity means nothing without results

The starting point for every IC has to be: “What do we want people to do?” Being busy and generating a constant stream of campaigns, videos and newsletters is a waste of time if nothing changes as a result. When you’re looking at improving internal communications, always keep track of the outcome as well as the action. This is where the true significance lies.

Case Study 1 - Nationwide Building Society

Background: Nationwide Building Society ran an award-winning five-week BIG Conversation, gathering ideas from all its 18,000 employees in a company-wide collaboration. The aim was directed to reinvigorating Nationwide’s sense of purpose.

Approach: The activity included TalkBack events, online surveys and a huge listening exercise to give staff and members the chance to contribute to its future. By implementing a company-wide internal communications survey, Nationwide opened up a free-flowing conversation with its workforce.

Outcome: The result has been a refreshed strategy and a marketing campaign based on the new concept of ‘building society, nationwide’ – helping people improve the quality of their lives. This business communication case study demonstrates the power of actively listening and acting on employee’s suggestions. 

Verdict: Success

Rule 2: Value benefits the business

You will only be adding real value if your employee communication links directly to the business needs of your organisation and helps to achieve a defined strategy or a specific project. The benefits of good internal communication only become apparent when you define your desired outcomes and set actual targets.

Case Study 2 – XPO Transport and Logistics

Background: XPO wanted to leverage great ideas from its colleagues across its 104 UK sites to help its customers improve productivity and reduce costs. Its large, flexible and hard-to-reach workforce (from drivers for Asda to B&Q warehouse contractors) don’t usually have a company phone or laptop. Of all the case studies on communication in the workplace, this large-scale exercise is remarkable in its scope.

Approach: To spark engagement, Talkfreely developed the Ideas Matter App, which every employee was able to download to their personal phone. An internal communications app is the ideal way to connect with remote workers and hard-to-reach employees.

Outcome: Linked directly to business needs, the internal communications platform proved to be exceptional value. The generation of ideas has been significant; 1 in 4 of all ideas submitted are being put into practice. In addition, it showed a remarkable return on investment of 6.5:1 with £156,000 of savings in the first year alone.

Verdict: Success

Rule 3: In the thick of it

When you’re looking for new ideas, trying to work out what your employees are really thinking or wondering why a previous internal communications plan went wrong, don't sit pondering at your desk or researching online. Leave your office and start talking. Once you talk and listen to your employees, you will begin to understand what motivates them, what concerns them and how they feel about the company. Of all the internal communication ideas, this one is key if you want to keep track of engagement levels.

Case Study 3 – AOL

Background: AOL announced it was slashing its Patch local news network by a third. This was a large-scale change affecting many employees across the company and required careful handling in its communication.

Approach: CEO Tim Armstrong set up a conference call with 1,000 employees with the aim of boosting morale across the workforce. As Armstrong talked, Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz began taking pictures of him. He was immediately sacked, in front of the 1,000 staff on the conference call.

Outcome: Perhaps Armstrong did not know that Lenz’s job included photographing meetings with key leaders for the Patch intranet, for the benefit of remote workers. But he should have. If he had been in touch with his workforce, he would have been fully aware of the roles of individual employees. This employee communication case study gives a clear indication of the importance of understanding your employee’s job roles.

Verdict: Failure

Rule 4: Shut up and listen

Communicating with employees should be a two-way street. The megaphone approach is never going to work best because people only feel connected and motivated if they are part of a conversation. It’s vital to put internal communication channels in place that allow employees to comment on the messages coming down from the top. Listen to what they have to say … and learn.

Case Study 4 – PayPal

Background: The digital payment company needed to address an internal report that revealed not all their employees were not using the PayPal app. The President, David Marcus, wrote a company-wide memo to all staff regarding the problem.

Approach: David Marcus took a heavy-handed approach to the matter. He told his staff to use the product or quit: “If you are one of the folks who refused to install the PayPal app or if you can’t remember your PayPal password, do yourself a favor, go find something that will connect with your heart and mind elsewhere”.

A better policy would have been to find out why his employees weren’t using the payment app, whether they felt competitor products had better features and ask for their suggestions.

Outcome: The memo was leaked to the press. It generated widespread coverage across the media and left customers wondering what was wrong with an app that PayPal’s own staff wouldn't use. Internal communications best practice case studies demonstrate that opening a two-way channel for feedback will improve both internal and external communication.

Verdict: Failure

Find out how an employee engagement app can play a pivotal role in delivering an employee engagement strategy

Rule 5 – I did it their way

Understand the working methods of those you need to convince. If leaders seem bound up in stats and spreadsheets, give them what they want. Gather data to prove your ideas work, show them a process, outline a clear outcome and they’ll soon be on your side. Measuring internal communications will help to provide the rationale behind your ideas. Equally, if the types of internal communication you are using don’t seem to be connecting with your employees, don’t be afraid to try a different approach.

Case Study 5 – Seymour House

Background: Seymour House runs ten outstanding childcare nurseries and wanted to get staff across the group engaging better with each other to share great practice. They needed to identify the best methods of internal communication that would resonate with their unique team-based workforce.

Approach: Talkfreely innovated with an internal communications app called Community. Community replaces static web pages and posts with highly personalised, bite-sized chunks of information presented on boards displaying relevant cards. These communicate quick stories and are far better at connecting people across teams. 

Outcome: The Seymour House teams instantly connected with the Community app. Engagement levels took an immediate uplift as the communication and understanding between teams and individuals improved. This internal communications case study shows how crucial it is to connect with employees in a way that suits their style of interaction.

Verdict: Success

Rule 6: Make the most of managers

Your leadership team are crucial to the success of your strategy. However big or small your organisation, line managers and local leaders are your allies. They are essential to motivating employees and getting them on board: through discussion, allaying fears and leading by example. When you’re pulling together your internal communication definition, make sure leadership is one of the key points.

Case Study 6 – Yahoo

Background: The tech pioneer defined a need for remote workers return to the office environment. There was no longer a role for staff working from home and all employees needed to be office-based moving forward. The job of communicating this message was handed to the HR department.

Approach: Yahoo’s Head of HR sent out a motivational memo full of praise for the company’s “positive momentum”, “the buzz and energy in our offices”, “remarkable progress” and promising “the best is yet to come”. At the end of this message was the directive that all staff working from home must move back into the office or quit.

Outcome: A communication of this importance should have come from the head of the business. By trying to hide the order as a motivational HR message, it failed to provide a strategic business rationale. This is where the CEO needed to be a visible presence, sharing the reasoning behind this unpopular decision. Internal communication case study examples show time after time that leadership visibility is an essential element, especially when communicating change.

Verdict: Failure

Rule 7: There is no silver bullet

We’d love to be able to reveal the secret to implementing that perfect internal communication strategy. Social media, the employee intranet, digital screens, email – they have all at some stage promised to revolutionise internal communications and make everything else redundant. But it hasn’t happened, which means the role of the internal communicator remains absolutely pivotal. Cut yourself slack in how you judge success, because every organisation has a different set of challenges and issues to overcome.

Case Study 7 – West Sussex County Council

Background: West Sussex Country Council has a workforce of over 6,000 staff spread across a wide geographic area in a variety of locations. In addition, around 25% of staff members have limited access to IT equipment and/or limited IT knowledge. The channels of internal communication in operation were outmoded and ineffective, leading to misinterpretation and inconsistencies.

Approach: Talkfreely developed a bespoke internal communications app designed to connect the disparate council workforce. Called ‘The Big Exchange’, the app allowed for real-time communication over a variety of digital platforms. Available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it allowed for flexibility in work patterns, increasing its appeal for all employees.

Outcome: By the end of the first quarter, a third of the employee base were actively using the app. In some sectors, 33% would be a pretty modest engagement score. For West Sussex Country Council however, it has connected with those hard-to-reach employees for the very first time. In addition, it proved that there is a real council workforce appetite to get involved. For example - there were 25,200 page views in the first month which means on average, each active user visited over 25 pages of content per month. Read the full case study.

 

“The TalkFreely app has helped improve, beyond recognition, the way we communicate with our 6000 strong workforce, many of whom are hard to reach. This has become even more evident over the last few weeks in our local response to the coronavirus crisis, helping us to get critical, time-sensitive information out to staff quickly and easily wherever they are across the county.”

William Hackett, Communications & Engagement Lead,
West Sussex County Council

Verdict: Success

Final thoughts

It’s clear, when looking at this selection of communication case studies, that not every internal communication is destined for success. And, if handled incorrectly, a poorly targeted message can actually do more harm than good. Internal communication mistakes are very costly, to both morale and the bottom line. However, if you take the time to plan carefully, the positive impact of a good internal communication exchange can be considerable. When assessing internal communications case studies, it’s also vital to consider the arena in which the company is operating before judging the relative success of the campaign. Ultimately, every organisation will need to take a different approach, tailored to suit their unique set of circumstances.

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