• Branded Culture – Internal Communication as the key Instrument of Change

    Picture this. You are a successful professional in the world of

    communications. You are respected. You have “cracked the code” –

    the code to success in your industry. Life is looking pretty good. And

    then, you meet a man. You decide to jump ship. It’s a flying ship. It’s

    Malaysia Airlines. Add one “minor” detail. Cash fuels this ship. The

    company has enough cash to keep it airborne for just three more

    months, with no safety net. The Prime Minister has firmly declared,

    “No more bailouts.” You take on the role of leading the charge on

    communications and you hit the ground running. Your name is

    Indira Nair.

    Branded Customer Service

    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 2 of 7

    I first met Indira some three years ago at her Malaysia Airlines office

    in Subang. I recall observing her calm, softly spoken, humble yet

    confident persona. She speaks slowly, thoughtfully and intelligently.

    Indira has a presence about her. When she speaks, people listen.

    Since that meeting, Indira’s name has come up from time to time in

    conversation with people in the industry. Based on the snippets of

    information that I picked up, I could see that Indira was a respected

    and well-liked figure in the advertising fraternity. And since I first met

    Indira, Malaysia Airlines has undergone a major turnaround. This is

    the story of how Indira, has been a major change agent within the

    airline.

    The MAS slogan was “Going Beyond Expectations.” MAS ads were

    doing a great job of building expectations. And cabin crew were

    winning awards. But there was a disconnect between the advertised

    brand promise and what was being delivered by most of the rest of

    the organisation. As a passenger of MAS, I was always impressed

    by the cabin crew. However, the story at my other key touch point

    with the airline – check-in – was inconsistent. Depending on who the

    check-in person was, it might be friendly and fast one time and

    transactional and slow another time… Indira and her senior MAS

    management team had their work cut out for them. The brand

    promise of “Going Beyond Expectations” set too high an

    expectation. When the customer experience does not match the

    expectations that have been set, customers become dissatisfied. It

    was time to re-brand.

    And so, “MH” – Malaysian Hospitality – was born.

    The information vacuum

    Indira joined MAS in February 2006. The fuse had been lit, and the

    “no cash, no bailout time-bomb” was going to explode in three short

    months. Levels of trust in the organisation were low. “There was an

    information vacuum in the company. This was being fuelled by

    rumours and gossip. Employees would open the newspapers to find

    out what was happening,” said Indira. She saw an urgent need to fill

    the vacuum. The only problem was that the tools and infrastructure

    for effective internal communication were not in place. “There were

    printed newsletters, no intranet and a static e-mail system. I thought

    to myself, ‘where do I start?’ it was daunting,” she said. So, Indira

    started at the very beginning. “It was a matter of rolling up our

    sleeves and getting down to basics. The first objective was to kickstart

    the communications channels and to get them out into the

    organisation,” she said.

    The brand

    promise

    raised

    expectations

    too high…it

    needed to

    change

    Urgent need

    to fill an

    information

    vacuum

    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 3 of 7

    Internal communications has a target audience – employees. The

    first step was to understand her audience. “I needed to understand

    the workforce – how they got information, where from and what they

    believe,” she said. She did this by using some ageless technology –

    she spoke to people, starting with her team. “People in MAS have

    been with the airline for a long time, and have a strong affinity to the

    brand,” she said. She found that people were more than willing to

    talk.

    Indira and her team worked at a grueling pace. Within two weeks of

    her joining the airline, Idris Jala announced the turnaround plan. A

    47-page document outlining the Business Turnaround Plan (BTP), in

    both English and Bahasa, was distributed to every one of the 20,000

    plus employees in the organisation.

    Filling the vacuum

    A variety of communications channels were developed. Bulletin

    boards were placed in 12 “hotspots” around the company.

    Information was disseminated, printed and put up on the boards.

    The intranet quickly went up. There was a competition to name the

    intranet. Idris announced the winner at the same town hall that

    launched the Business Turnaround Plan. Berita, the MAS

    newsletter was refreshed and reformatted to provide information in a

    fresh, readable format. Indira unblocked the organisation’s

    information arteries. Company announcements were communicated

    and cascaded to Board members, employees and on to the media

    swiftly and with military precision. The standard procedure was for

    the announcement to go to the Board, and 10 minutes later to

    employees. The media would get the same information 10 minutes

    later. This was referred to as the “the +10+10+10 process.” Cascade

    packs were developed for major presentations by Idris. This might

    include video footage and PowerPoint presentations with speaker

    notes. All of these were supported by weekly circulars from the

    CEO.

    The information vacuum was being filled. Gossip was being

    replaced by fact. Trust was being rebuilt and the employees were

    starting to get galvanized. Indira said, “The reaction among

    employees was, ‘wow’, management is being open!” A key driver

    behind this was speed and extensive internal communication.

    The first step is

    to understand

    the target

    audience –

    employees

    Trust was rebuilt

    through

    communication

    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 4 of 7

    There were comments of discomfort among the management team

    about the newfound openness of the communication. “They asked,

    ‘should we say that?’” said Indira. I said, “Why not? The media will

    now quote the true source of information rather than just rumours.

    Idris said that as long as we do not violate any Bursa rules, it was

    okay to share information with employees. If you keep information

    from the Board or from employees, they will get worried. We were

    rebuilding trust.”

    “So, the early stages were about simple internal communications. It

    was structured and logical. With the +10+10+10 process, we could

    not miss anything. It was systematic,” she said matter of factly.

    Listening to Indira, it all sounded logical enough. What was

    incredible was the quality of the thinking and the speed of execution.

    Indira gave some insights into what was happening within her team.

    “They were shell-shocked at the speed at which things were

    happening. I would write something in five minutes and out it would

    go. My team executed the plan. We couldn’t be too analytical. We

    didn’t have time. We all had to hit the ground running,” she said.

    Keep it simple, make it fun

    As the saying goes, “Sell, don’t tell.” A key objective of the change

    process was to get employees back on board – to fire them up

    around a common cause. Indira and her team did this by involving

    employees in the communication process and by adding generous

    doses of fun.

    MH Pulse, the MAS Intranet site, has become a “happening place”

    on the internal communications landscape. “When we started, we

    got 300 hits a week. We now get 20,000 hits from employees every

    month.” Indira’s team drives traffic to Pulse by making it interesting

    with photos, on-line alerts and contests. Pulse is now an accepted

    tool where people can find information and updates. “It’s not your

    policy location. We often run MH Pulse Polls where we ask for

    employee opinions on issues. We get 800 to 1000 responses.”

    When I commenced this interview, I thought that I was going to be

    speaking to Indira Nair, a very clever internal communications

    expert. By this point, I realized that I was talking to a highly effective

    change agent who achieved results by focusing on the

    fundamentals.

    The Intranet

    became a

    “happening

    place”

    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 5 of 7

    Visual symbols and reminders are an integral part of any change

    process. Once again, Indira went for the jugular vein of simplicity.

    “We gave out MH button badges at the town hall talk – we weren’t

    sure if employees would use them. Employees, including cabin

    crew, proudly wore them”. A rolling series of posters was

    developed. They were to be seen everywhere around the

    organisation. The messages on the posters came from employees.

    “We had polls such as, “What do you think MH stands for?” she

    explained. The responses were simple. And so were the messages

    on the posters. Simple, but powerful. For example, one poster said,

    “Smile! Treat people with respect!” It’s not rocket science, but it gets

    the right message across in a way that connects with employees.

    You will learn in any course on Marketing 101 that it’s important to

    stay in touch with your customers, to engage them, to connect with

    them and to give them what they want. Indi’s customers are MAS’s

    20,000 employees. She applied the fundamentals of Marketing 101

    and got them to shape their own messages. And, in doing so, she

    sold an idea to them in a powerful way. The core idea revolved

    around MH – Malaysian Hospitality – and what it means. TMI works

    on the “3 by 3” Rule. That is, to get a message across effectively, we

    have to communicate it at least 3 times in 3 different ways. Indi’s

    team are communication grandmasters who used a multiple of the 3

    by 3 rule.

    Getting communication down into the organisation

    Many things happen at the top of the organisation that do not filter

    down into the ranks. Indi was instrumental in setting up a team of

    champions that now number 180 employees in Malaysia and

    overseas. This is the team of MH Juaras – champions – who play

    the role of change agents within their own sections of the

    organisation. “We asked for influencers among middle managers.

    They would be people who would listen to who had drive and

    leadership capability.” Title was not important. The MH Juaras went

    to an initial 2 day workshop where they planned a program on what

    they would do to engage their team members, keep the

    communication flowing and to get projects up and running. The real

    challenge for them was to make MH come alive. All change

    processes involve projects. And, yes, being a MH Juara means extra

    work on top of normal work loads. It was important to keep this

    group energised. They met every quarter with the CEO to give him

    feedback. During this process, Idris would share with the group the

    company’s business plan. Once again, this is a simple, yet powerful

    strategy.

    Visual symbols

    reinforced the

    change

    process

    Brand

    champions – a

    key instrument

    of change

    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 6 of 7

    Employees want to make a difference. However, being human, they

    want to feel that their efforts are being noticed. There is no better

    way of achieving this than to arrange quarterly get togethers with the

    CEO. And there were little rewards at the end of the year. .Nothing

    big, but rather, a gesture of “thank you for going the extra mile.”

    Reward and recognition is more systemized now. Rather than have

    MH Juaras feel that they have an extra job, their additional duties

    and performance are now built into their KPIs.

    As might be expected, there were different levels of support for the

    MH Juaras among their bosses. Each MH Juara had a buddy in the

    Communications Division. “If we had feedback that they needed

    support or that information had not been cascaded, we made a

    supportive call to the relevant boss. We would say something along

    the lines of, “We hear that employees have not heard about…Can

    you do us a favour and make sure it happens in the next week.”

    The impact of the MH Juaras was huge. The organization now has

    180 change agents and communicators with their shoulders to the

    grindstone and ears to the ground. They helped to build and sustain

    the momentum of change.

    Indira lavished praise on Idris Jala, the CEO who steered MAS into

    higher, safer altitudes. Idris was mentioned throughout the interview

    as the enabler. He was open to new ideas. He rolled up his sleeves.

    He broke down barriers, for example by having lunch in the MAS

    cafeteria with employees. He wanted to connect with employees.

    And, it seems, employees wanted to connect with him. And, of

    course, Idris was very focused on the bottom line. That’s what this

    was all about. Apart from Idris Jala, senior management played an

    active role in the communications process. Divisional Heads all had

    to do Turung Padangs – walk the talk. If any of them were travelling,

    we would remind them to visit the MAS office.

    After all of the thinking and planning, the long hours, deadlines,

    challenges and obstacles that MAS faced, things turned around. A

    major contributing factor was that the culture was turning around.

    “My role is to keep MH alive in the system, to get it embedded,” said

    Indira. And, now, three years down the track, MH is very much alive.

    “It didn’t happen overnight, but we now have people living and

    breathing it,” she said. “MH is real. It has become a common

    language. People anchor on it…”

    Recognize your

    brand

    champions

    Senior

    management

    played its role

    Support your

    brand

    champions

    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 7 of 7

    There is a lot more to the story. I have just scratched the surface. I

    had respected Indira before the interview. By the time we finished, I

    was in awe of what she and her team at the MAS Communications

    Division had achieved. And, by the end of the interview I was

    heartened that, in this fast changing world, fundamentals are as

    powerful as ever – if in doubt, use common sense, listen to your

    target market, creatively use all of the tools around you, keep it

    fresh… and focus on execution. We look forward to seeing MAS

    continue to rise to the higher altitudes where it belongs.

     

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