West Sussex County Council – Communicating with ‘one voice’

When a new chief executive arrived at West Sussex County Council he brought with him a passion for refocusing the council’s internal communications activities. Communications account manager Helen Card explains how they worked together to achieve his ambitions for the organisation. This case study forms part of our internal communications toolkit.

Communications support

The context

When Nathan Elvery took up position as chief executive in July 2016 he was very clear that he felt that the best way for the council to meet our future challenges was to encourage a more communicative, open and honest culture which allowed us to work more effectively as one organisation. He tasked us with thinking about how we could communicate with ‘one voice’ across the whole of West Sussex County Council, developing facilities that would enable two-way conversations and making sure that we focused our internal communications on the important challenges and opportunities facing our organisation so that we could foster a culture of openness, innovation and delivery. He also wanted us to make sure that we continued to be as clear as possible with our staff about the roles that they would play in overcoming those challenges and making a difference.

The plan

We started by breaking these broad issues down into smaller, more targeted areas of focus, eventually deciding on a few key objectives that we would concentrate on for the first six months. These included:

  • to positively influence staff engagement; connect all employees, teams and services across the organisation and promote collaboration
  • to ensure internal alignment with organisational goals and with external messaging/campaigns
  • to help drive high performance, and organisational and cultural change
  • to strive for continuous improvements to the effectiveness of existing channels and the research and implementation of suitable new ones
  • to constantly evaluate all activities to ensure communications had impact across the organisation.

We wanted to make sure that along with clear objectives, we rooted our activities in insight and evidence so we looked back on the data we had collected from previous staff surveys and feedback sessions to inform our tactical planning around what our staff wanted to hear and how they wanted to hear it. We also spent time with our CEO to jointly craft a number of key messages for announcements that we knew would be coming up over the next few months.

The execution

To help cement the idea of West Sussex communicating with ‘one voice’ we took the decision to refresh and develop our weekly internal communications newsletter. We decided to stop producing two separate publications for managers and all staff and instead created a newsletter for everyone – which we decided to call One Voice. The new publication brings together updates from our executive leadership team, case studies from across the organisation and examples of how our employees are living our values. We also decided to create a number of One Voice specials focused on specific issues such as our budget so that everyone could better understand what was happening.

We’ve extended this sense of togetherness by making sure that the language we use in One Voice consistently uses words such as ‘our’, ‘together’ and ‘us’. We decided to create a tone of voice that made it much clearer that we all needed to work together to face our challenges and make the most of our opportunities. Our new publication also includes more joined up, consistent messages rather than lots of separate stories to help us to take staff on a journey rather than just broadcast information.

Encouraging two-way conversation As the council had undergone a sustained period of change our CEO wanted us to make sure that our employees had regular opportunities to speak with senior managers and ask those difficult questions so that we could re-build trust and hopefully encourage more collaborative and innovative thinking. To achieve this we created Our Big Conversation – a programme of face-to-face engagement sessions that allowed employees to do just that. We also created an online forum where people could share their thoughts and ideas about the things that we could do to make a difference to people’s lives. We promoted the facility through a range of other internal channels, including One Voice, and committed to ensuring that we inform staff how their suggestions are being taken forward, as well as clearly explaining why some suggestions might not be possible to implement.

The impact

Our One Voice publication has seem some great results with over 5000 subscribers and a 70 per cent open and read rate. Our staff have also told us that they find the new style much more informative and in tune with what is happening right across the council.

We have also seen some great attendance at our Big Conversation sessions, with events usually between 80 and 100 per cent full. Pour forum has had more than 900 posts since it launched last September so it’s a facility that has really taken off and one that we look forward to developing further.

Why it worked

We had a clear plan and narrative which has really helped us to develop targeted messages, but one of the biggest factors in our success was the relationship between the internal communications team and our chief executive. He was fully supportive of what we wanted to achieve and had a really clear vision for how internal communications should operate. When I asked him about it he said that it was “essential” that the chief executive and internal communications teams had a close working relationship otherwise it just wouldn’t be possible to become a successful organisation. Without both parts working together, we wouldn’t be able to deliver messages that help our organisation to hear and move as one.

Lesson learned

Although we had some clear objectives it’s important to be flexible and adapt to feedback. For example, we added extra topics into One Voice when employees said they wanted to learn more about our corporate partners and that has undoubtedly made the publication better.

Want to know more?

For more information contact Helen Card or William Hackett.