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.

 

5 reasons to call TMI Consultancy


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