The world is more open than ever – although it may not feel like it right now. Digital advancements and a shift in the way we work means that expanding overseas and working with dispersed teams feels like a greater possibility.
When teams span from Paris to Peru, internal comms is the vital glue holding everyone together across regions and cultures. Internal communications professionals are the guardians of cultural awareness, sensitivity, and your global internal brand.
How do you make sure your internal comms resonate? We spoke to leaders in the industry to see how they are successfully engaging their global workforce.
1. Start with a story
“Every communication starts with a story. If you don’t have a good story, find one in what you need people to know.” Julia Lloyd, Internal Communications Lead at Clear Channel Outdoor
As humans, we are compelled by great stories. After all, this is how our ancestors passed down knowledge and skills long before we could just ‘Google it’. When writing internal comms, tapping into the human instinct of storytelling can help simplify and focus messaging, making it memorable, engaging and clear.
Caitlin Kirwan, Internal Communications Manager at PayPal, advocates the use of simple, straightforward messages and language to make them more effective when transmitted globally. However, it’s worth remembering that not all stories will be received the same way and that they may need to be adapted for certain cultures or languages.
A way of doing this was suggested by Tracy Tsang, Marketing and Communications Professional, who has gone to great lengths in the past to achieve the ‘Plain English’ Crystal Mark Award. This certification means that any documentation is as clear as possible. This helps to embed the importance of simplification to aid understanding.
Gavin Buckle, Internal Communications Lead from B&Q, has a similar approach around relentless simplification. By using stories as a backbone of messaging, it forces you to simplify the message. Although good advice for any internal communications approach, it becomes even more important when speaking across geographies, cultures and languages.
Nishita Andrea Ganatra, Global Internal Communications Advisor from Royal HaskoningDHV also emphasised how important it is to go right back to start to clearly understand the desired outcome or result in telling the story. Focusing in on the human element in communications to connect with people has also made a real difference for Nishita.
2. Take cultural cues
“Culture takes precedence over everything. Acknowledging and respecting that people have different ways of doing things and that’s part of the richness of working for an international company.” Julia Lloyd, Clear Channel Outdoor
Rich Perrett, Senior Internal Communications Manager from Unite Students shared a great example from a previous role of the potential for cultural blunders during the pandemic. Simple hygiene measures needed to be communicated to staff and in France, this included ‘No Kissing’. For a British audience this advice would have seemed absurd and so had to be changed. This shows how although we should strive for simplicity, taking the time to localise the message is also important.
Nishita Andrea Ganatra, Global Internal Communications Advisor from Royal HaskoningDHV, shared Julia Lloyd’s opinion that an effort must be made to understand different cultures. By combining cultural awareness with local insight, you ensure that content not only resonates but avoids being offensive. Not doing so can have harsh repercussions on your internal brand and organisational trust. Nishita also shared her experience of focusing in at the human, more personal level when developing a better cultural understanding to inform communications.
Keith Riley, Internal Communications at DWF, shared an example of when a video was created showing a family with their feet in the sea. It was intended to be a relaxing and positive message, but in some countries, the showing of feet can be extremely offensive. By having a high-level awareness of different cultures, costly mistakes like this can be avoided. Another example we heard was when a central internal comms team was sending gifts to their Chinese office and chose culturally inappropriate black boxes. If there had been effective communication and relationships in place this faux pas wouldn’t have happened.
Fidelma Horan, Senior Internal Communications and Engagement Manager from Barnett Waddingham, has had to navigate the complexities of company culture with local culture in the past. Having worked with colleagues in different countries, she has experienced cultural differences around gender or family roles; and this has had to be managed carefully alongside a corporate culture of inclusion. A similar principle has been observed by Keith when promoting campaigns and initiatives around supporting LGBT inclusion in countries that may not be so accepting of such relationships.
Our experts who have faced this, and other similar scenarios, agree that making the effort to understand the culture and its nuances will allow you to make good decisions and be aware of sensitive areas that need careful management.
3. Speak the right language
“We need to engage, and hopefully inspire, and we’re not going to be able to do that unless we’re talking to them in the same language.” Simon, Internal Communications Manager.
After you’ve spent hours crafting comms, why leave it up to chance whether or not your employees will understand it? It’s more difficult for individuals to pick up nuances or emotion in a language they might not be overly familiar with. By not using someone’s native language there is an increased risk key messages or directives will be missed. This is something one of our experts found with his multilingual comms. When emails were not written in employees’ languages they had around a 27% open rate, but once the emails were translated the open rate more than doubled.
Many of our experts have partnered with translation agencies or set up in-house teams to manage translations. For tips on getting started with internal comms translations, and finding a great partner, take a look at our free guide here.
One of the experts we spoke to, Marghaid Howie, Senior Communications and Content Marketing Specialist from ThoughtWorks, understood the importance of speaking the right language first-hand. She (impressively) speaks several European languages and has used this to engage with local staff in a way that is most comfortable to them.
Many of our experts worked in organisations where English was the Lingua-Franca (official language) but as we have discussed in a previous blog, even in those cases there are certain communication messages which need to be in the native language of the recipient or the message simply won’t be heard. One of our experts has found that engagement and effectiveness of training is improved by as much as 50% when it’s in the local language, but organisations often still want to stick to English. This can be frustrating as it limits what can be achieved.
4. Use regional teams for insight and engagement
You’re all part of one organization. It’s so easy just to defer to being UK centric, but you’ve got to remember that you need to engage everyone and get everyone on board.” Kirsty Bowen, Head of Internal Communications at Coventry Building Society
Utilising regional teams can be a huge benefit when it comes to reviewing translations, deciding which channels of communication to use, getting local teams engaged and distributing comms. Getting this insight upfront means that consequences can be fully understood, but this relies on good, trusting relationships being in place.
Julia Lloyd shared with us how she focuses on building a network of advocates in each region. These advocates are people on the ground who can provide local insight and feedback. A key part of their role is to help with translations, and this often requires them to review material in advance so they can advise on what needs to be translated and how. This relies on trusting local colleagues to make the right decision based on their local knowledge and expertise. This insight was also shared by Nishita, who has worked closely with colleagues in different regions to review and mold communications to ensure content is fully tailored to the local audience.
Fidelma spoke about the importance of setting up these sorts of relationships from the start and being clear on what is required in this role. That way you can have much more confidence that it will be received in the way you intended.
“No-one knows your employees better than the people on the ground,” says Keith Riley, Internal Communications at DWF
Trusting the people on the ground was a key theme we heard from all our experts. Tracy Tsang shared her opinion that regional employees should be treated as the professionals they are so that they can determine what will work or not work and what adaptations might have to be made. By creating a feeling of two-way communication, these champions can not only provide feedback on future communication, but also news stories or local material, which will allow content to have a much wider appeal.
A key danger of not doing this is ending up with very generic communications that do little to inspire or engage. Miriam Boulia, Internal Communications Manager at a leading Fintech company, has found that engaging and building strong relationships locally means that she can produce much richer content for all areas.
“You need trust in the regional teams that they will have done everything they can to get the message out” Rich Perrett, Senior Internal Communications Manager, Unite Students
It’s not just the words on the page or screen that local teams can help with – they can also help give a voice to different stakeholders, thus making sure your message is not only understood, but relevant to that team. By taking the time to build a community of local influential voices across the region you can be confident you’re delivering the right message in the right place. Then it is about trusting regional teams to disseminate it in the most appropriate way for their audience.
Finding your way through the multilingual comms maze
Global internal comms may feel like a minefield, but great comms come down to this: the right message, in the right language at the right place and time. By working together with a translation provider you can create multilingual messaging that connects your global workforce, keeping them safe, informed and included.
“I think that the best advice I can give anybody is common sense and good manners. Do what you think is right. Do it in a way that you feel you would want to be treated or spoken to. If you are following that, you can’t really go too wrong.” Gavin Buckle, Internal Communications Lead, B&Q
If you’re keen to find out more about translating internal comms, read our free guide ‘Creating internal communications that engage and connect in every language’.