Internal communications in Berlin is different to Melbourne, not because of language barriers or cultural ones, but more because of the uniqueness of Germany’s capital city, Berlin.
The main underlying reasons are:
- Berlin has a rich history, a unique target audience and a passion for print. There are posters, newspapers and fliers everywhere. Berlin has five local daily newspapers to Melbourne’s two local city papers, servicing approximately the same number of people. This affects how people communicate en masse.
- Another key point is that Berlin is a political centre, not a financial one. Public affairs is the flavour here in the same way that Canberra, Australia’s political hub, is the centre for lobbying. Canberra for that matter is very different from Melbourne or Sydney.
- Small businesses thrive in Berlin, but this means there is usually no room for an internal communications specialist. Nearly all of the large companies are based in other German cities such as Frankfurt. The Berlin branch is just another satellite office, often without internal communications support.
Industry professionals in Germany say the profession is still relatively new here and this is reflected in the maturity of the profession in Berlin. For more background, read Mike Klein’s article Establishing the internal communication function in Germany or Felix Escribano’s article What? Why? How? – Enigma Enterprise 2.0.
How do your leaders view your role?
We all want to position ourselves as the trusted adviser to the senior leadership team. Berlin’s Harald Dudel, Manager of Akakom, best described this to me as the role of the jester – outside of the hierarchy with access to management and the privilege of tactfully being able to say what you think.
In some organisations internal communications is respected and has proved its value. The best model I have worked in was where an internal communications professional was paired with a HR professional. We would consult together on team restructures and major changes that affected staff. We were also there to advise senior leaders on communications and manage content. Our team of 12 internal communications people serviced a division of just over 5,000 employees.
In other companies internal communications is still a developing role. For example, in one Melbourne organisation we had three dedicated professionals and a few part roles servicing over 13,000 employees spread across a state two thirds the size of Germany. The internal communication function was limited to priority projects and managing key channels such as intranet news articles, key staff events and all staff emails.
The role of the internal communications professional in an organisation depends on whether or not senior managers understand the importance of engaged, happy employees who respect their leaders, and the internal communications professional being able to show how they can add value to help the organisation achieve this.
My colleagues in Berlin have told me that although the internal communications profession here is developing towards a strategic function, it does not yet, for example, usually play a role in positioning leaders within the organisation (internal branding of leaders).
Does your company have a print publication?
Too often the focus rests on our tools of communication – producing content for internal print publications, intranets, all staff emails and managing internal events.
In Melbourne, employee surveys generally show a low readership of print publications. Most companies have moved away from a flagship publication in favour of spending resources on a company intranet that can be remotely accessed by employees.
In contrast, print publications in Berlin are impressive. Take for example Deutsche Bahn’s (German rail provider) internal print publication. It looks and feels like a newspaper. Given the city’s taste for print, it is likely to be well received by its 179,000 employees. One of Berlin’s internal communications strategists, Ulrike Führmann from Führmann Kommunikations explained to me the history behind internal print publications here. She said that internal publications have traditionally been a part of employee benefits and therefore there is often a fight for the preservation of the printed employee magazine or newspaper.
Not all Berlin companies have print publications. For example, Ilka Holzinger, the Manager of Internal Communications at Springer Science+Business Media, said their internal publication was emailed monthly as a PDF document to all staff. Staff members who prefer to read a printed publication print it, while others can read it online (same approach as many companies in Australia).
But what about employees who do not work in an office? Ulrike also told me that Germany faces the same challenge as Australia with remote workers. Not all employees can be reached via the intranet. Employees, for example, Deutsche Bahn staff who work in the depot or drive trains, or nurses who visit clients in their own home, do not always have access to a computer and the internet.
There are many ways that companies can actively tackle this issue, from daily podcasts that employees can download and listen to in their car, social media platforms to SMS notification systems. An emerging trend is to produce intranet content in a smart phone readable format with social media links to encourage feedback. The most important thing, of course, is to understand how your employees want to be communicated with and to make sure they are comfortable with new technology solutions.
Be a facilitator of discussion, not the loud speaker. The concept of social media, collective intelligence and the evolution of the internet has not yet reached all organisations. I believe the internal communications professional should only be the editor of intranet stories, not just the producer of content. If your employees understand the value of having their project or success promoted on the intranet, with a little encouragement, budding writers emerge, forming a network of engaged employees. It then the internal communications role as the editor to ensure the content supports company values and encourages communication and collaboration. Positive feedback to both your senior leaders and contributors, such as the number of hits on the article or anecdotal feedback, keeps the process alive. An organisation with the right guidelines and processes in place can take this to the next level and enable employees to self create and publish content. Does your organisation talk ‘at’ its employees or facilitate open discussion? Are staff profiles used to share information about what different business units are doing?
Spend time looking to the future
Long term, training and involving employees in the communication process leaves more time for the internal communications professional to focus on strategic work and developing the function within the organisation to bring it technologically into the next century. Facilitating change and planning for the future is an important part of the role. Some ideas include:
- Online questionnaires with real time feedback – employees can see what others think and write their own comments to facilitate change from the grassroots level.
- Taking time to coach leaders in effective communication skills.
- Creating engaging staff meetings by encouraging two business units to work together and take responsibility for the outcome.
- Investigating cost effective mobile technology to communicate with remote employees…. the list goes on.
I see the internal communications profession as a work in progress, both in Berlin and Melbourne. As the labour market improves and there is yet another global fight for talent, internal communications professionals once again have the opportunity to show how they can contribute to keeping employees engaged, productive and focused on the future.
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