Some communication mishaps become public disasters if mismanaged, whether they are big business howlers or more local problems.

Right time, wrong place

An internal comms campaign can go horribly wrong if it ends up in the wrong place. A Sainsbury’s poster to support its ‘fifty pence challenge’ for staff read: ‘Let’s encourage every customer to spend an additional 50p during each shopping trip between now and the year-end’. So far so good, but the poster was inadvertently put in the window at a branch of Sainsbury’s in Stratford, east London, instead of the staff room.

‘Not sure this is supposed to be in your window.’

It was soon photographed and posted on Twitter with the caption: ’Not sure this is supposed to be in your window’. When Sainsbury’s responded asking which store the sign was in the tweeter didn’t say, but asked instead how Sainsbury’s staff were supposed to make people spend more money.

A very public Twitter conversation followed, with Sainsbury’s left a little battered because they hadn’t followed a basic rule: don’t communicate anything to your employees that you wouldn’t want your customers to see.

The moral: consider how customers would feel if they saw your internal comms messages – and remember that anything can get onto social media these days.

Pension woes

‘Struggling BHS workers claimed £376m in tax credits as Sir Philip Green’s family wallowed in opulence,’ trumpeted The Mirror, just one of the many headlines that highlighted the ire of BHS employees.

While the BHS pension fund had a £571m hole when it collapsed, more than the chain’s market value, Sir Philip seemed insensitive as he enjoyed his luxury life-style. It’s said that potential buyers for BHS were put off by the prospect of taking on the massive pension burden.

With stores closing all over the country it was a PR disaster, and one of the main concerns of staff was that they were kept in the dark. While rumours had spread about store closures for years, people actually working there said that they were told very little. The news that their pensions were in jeopardy was the last straw.

The moral: sometimes there’s no way of avoiding bad news, and employees deserve more than rumours.

Yahoo gets it wrong… again

Yahoo has had several internal comms disasters. In February 2013 all staff received a message from HR saying that everyone working from home would have to relocate to an office or leave. The memo gave no explanation and furious workers made sure it became public. Yahoo refused to discuss it and the silence let anger and uncertainty fester.

It seems Yahoo didn’t learn from its mistake because the company went on to outrage employees again when it changed its way of grading workers at performance reviews, again without proper communication and explanation. Yahoo managers were told to give a certain percentage of their employees failing grades, even if their performance was fine. The story leaked out to the press via Yahoo’s internal message board. To outsiders, it looked as if Yahoo’s comms team deserved an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating.

The moral: tell people ‘why’ as well as ‘what’.

Sports Direct blames the weather

If you make a gaffe, it’s best to accept responsibility. Sports Direct made one mistake after another. First a Guardian story in December 2015 alleged that the firm was paying its workers unfairly low wages; soon there was talk of dire working conditions (one factory was known locally as ‘the gulag’).

The story was all over the media and when Sports Direct’s profits plummeted, consumer confidence seemed to be the obvious reason. But the company blamed the weather, saying there had been ‘a deterioration of trading conditions on the high street and a continuation of the unseasonal weather over the key Christmas period’.

Meanwhile, staff were spreading their discontent all over social media. Internal and external comms failed to get a grip and the company was plunged into a disaster.

The moral: IC professionals must encourage management to own up and put it right with employees.

No scope for whistleblowers

WorldCom’s huge accounting fraud might not have escalated if there had been a way for people to raise concerns internally. When the scandal emerged, many people said they suspected wrongdoing but had no safe way to report it. The same was said after the Enron scandal: staff were suspicious but had no way of airing their fears anonymously.

The moral: for IC professionals, the lesson is that employees must have ways to report concerns anonymously and they must feel that they are taken seriously.
And while they may not become national PR horror stories, we all have day-to-day challenges with difficult clients and colleagues who think internal communicators have no scruples… or can work magic.

Halloween Horror Stories for Comms People

Despite their better judgement, sometimes internal communicators have to accept that their client is right…even when they’re wrong. But not always. There’s a story (possibly a myth but unlikely) about the manager who asked a comms team to make the printed page of a magazine physically longer to accommodate his extra text!

Or the time a comms executive was asked to interview someone on a factory floor after a round of redundancies and cuts with the instruction to make the interviewees seem happy even if they were not.

The moral: as a comms professional you have to draw the line somewhere and tell your stakeholder if something is just plain wrong!

And repeat…

The old mantra of communications is: ‘Tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.’

‘Tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.’

Take the IC professional who worked on an internal communications plan about a new set of company values. There were posters, an article in the printed staff magazine and on the intranet. It all looked good but a quick survey showed that few employees recalled seeing anything about values. Gasps of horror all round from the comms team. A follow-up campaign with a postcard on every desk seemed to do the trick. ‘Oh yes,’ staff said, looking at the cards. ‘I did see this; I remember now.’ Job done.

The moral: if people are to hear and retain a message it needs to be repeated, preferably in different ways.

Last with the news

A story in a local newspaper and on social media about a long-established department store closing came as a horrible surprise to staff – even the store manager who had worked there for nearly 30 years. The shop owner made some off-the-cuff remarks at a business dinner without thinking that his fellow diners would leak the news. Shop staff were furious at being the last to know and the woman in charge of HR and internal comms (a friend of mine) took the flak.

The moral: impress on management that they can never have an off-the-record conversation. Staff must know bad news before anyone else.

Cover everyone

Some employees say they are deluged with communications while others feel left out altogether. One communications professional advised on an employee engagement campaign for a national bakery company. There were printed and online communications covering offices, factories, staff rooms and canteens… surely everyone was covered?

But the drivers who deliver baked goods all over the country had been forgotten. They rarely used staff facilities and didn’t receive printed publications. It was only when a driver complained that the comms team made sure they were included.

The moral: remember the people out on the road, the cleaners, the night shift – everyone!

Spot the mistake!

Whether internal or external, printed or online, the perils of not proofreading are always lurking.

Published howlers – or near misses – stay with you. One of my colleagues is still filled with horror when she remembers a terrible error that nearly got printed. A poorly thought out line break turned ‘therapist Joe Bloggs’ (not his real name you understand) to ‘the rapist Joe Bloggs’. Luckily an eagle-eyed proof reader spotted it and a bit of simple rejigging saved the day.

Another colleague working on a magazine had a headline published heralding the ‘Shinning talents of Ruby Turner’.

So there you are, we all make mistakes but owning up and acting fast can stop a simple error turning into a horror story.