Internal communications: Think before you speak

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A recent gaffe by a Sainsbury's employee meant an internal poster encouraging staff to upsell was seen by thousands of customers. Considering the impact of the strategy on company reputation may have avoided the blunder.

One of the best pieces of work advice I've been given is 'don’t put something in an email that you wouldn’t want the entire office to receive'. What you intended to be private could become public, and no-one wants hundreds of colleagues knowing you’re hungover, the curry in the canteen gave you a dicky tummy, or that Deidre from finance gets on your nerves. 

And the same is true of internal communications – don’t write anything to your employees that you wouldn’t want your customers to read.

Sainsbury’s fell foul of this basic principle when a poster encouraging employees to get customers to spend an extra 50p every visit ended up in a shop window. Someone took a picture and Tweeted it to the supermarket’s Twitter account. A public and rather embarrassing conversation then ensued over social media and, before you know it, it went viral.

If only they’d tested the content of their sales campaign with the question 'how would a customer feel if they read this?' The answer, ('Not best pleased, actually') would have (hopefully) driven the internal communications team to rethink their approach. How about encouraging better customer service, or suggesting recipes and key ingredients? Or products that complement other products, and so on. All would result in additional sales, but none would result in reputational damage.

Sainsbury’s made a small mistake which has had big repercussions, and here are the two main reasons why: 

1. Internal v. External: There is every chance that what you issue internally could end up in the public domain, be it through a leak or a mistake, and social media spreads stuff like wildfire. Internal communication practitioners should avoid this risk by acting as the conscience of the business – being sensible about what they issue to employees, and sensitive to customers’ needs. When household budgets are tight the last thing customers want to feel is that their supermarket is trying to squeeze every last penny out of them. I’m sure this isn’t entirely the case with Sainsbury’s, but perception is reality, and right now, a lot of people perceive Sainsbury’s as greedy...

2. The tone of the poster. We all know Sainsbury’s is in the business of making money, and that’s fine, but when your ‘promise’ is 'Live well for less' you’re bound to come unstuck when you’re asking staff to get customers to spend more. What you say to the outside world (brand, values, promise, vision) and what you say inside your organisation must be aligned, not least because if they’re not then you find yourself in a PR pickle when someone takes a photo of a poster and it ends up making headlines. 

Sainsbury’s is experiencing some financial difficulties of late and the clumsy management of a perfectly reasonable sales strategy will surely only serve to make matters worse.

The importance and profile of internal communications continues to rise, and its impact can be felt when it gets things right and, as we have seen with the #50pchallenge, when it gets things wrong.

Ellen Hall is a change and employee engagement consultant at Lansons

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