2015 Class 1: Best internal communication strategy (Winner)

Corporate Understanding Pty Ltd

Winner: Corporate Understanding for ALK

Entry Title: Communicating the Focus 2018 strategy


ALK: Focus 2018 strategy


ALK is a Denmark-based pharmaceutical company which specialises in the development and manufacture of allergy immunotherapy products for the prevention and treatment of allergy. It is the world’s largest maker of allergy immunotherapy products and employs around 1,800 staff worldwide.

Goals and planning

Every two years, ALK undertakes a review of its strategy for the next four years, tasking working groups with assessing the business environment, competitive threats, internal innovation etc, before making strategy recommendations to the leadership team for prioritisation and budget allocation, and then seeking board approval to implement the strategy. The outcome of this process is shared with the organisation as the ‘Focus 20XX’ plan (in this case, Focus 2018).

Communicating the recommended strategy has two key elements – a board meeting, at which the board of directors review and endorse the recommended strategy, and the subsequent roll-out of the strategy to the wider organisation.

The board of directors
Following input from the working groups and with support from Corporate Understanding, ALK’s management team formulated the proposed strategy in a report and a presentation to be delivered over two days at a board meeting in September 2014. Work on these two documents, and how best to deliver them in terms of messaging, ran from early June right up until the meeting itself. From a communication perspective, a key decision was to promote continuity by retaining the three strategic themes introduced under Focus 2016 – that of ‘Simplify’ (measures designed to save money), ‘Innovate’ (investments in research and new technology) and ‘Grow’ (commercial priorities aimed at growing sales). These three themes formed the centre-piece of employee communications and all the strategic initiatives were contextualised within these themes. The board of directors approved the strategy with no changes. For confidentiality reasons, it is not possible to share the board report and presentation as part of this submission.

The ALK organisation
In previous years, new strategies have been communicated to employees in two ways – via an employee brochure and a leadership roadshow, where ALK leaders visit each major location and share the new vision with employees.

Although employee surveys showed that ALK had a good record of communicating previous strategies – According to the company’s 2009 survey, 80% said they knew the strategy, rising to 82% in 2011 – employee feedback on the previous Focus 2016 communications had been that the information contained in the ‘Focus 2016 brochure’ (enclosed) was too scant, did not reflect the breadth and diversity of the
organisation, and was ‘too corporate’ – glossing over some of the challenges the organisation faced and failing to acknowledge the financial austerity seen in the organisation over recent years (salary constraints, headcount reductions, hiring freezes, etc). There was also feedback that middle-management had not been sufficiently involved in cascading the previous strategy through the organisation.

This feeling of discontent within the organisation was further illustrated by declining scores for motivation, engagement and satisfaction in the two-yearly employee survey (most recent survey, 2013) and the fact that, in the 2013 survey, just 67% of employees found senior management to be trustworthy.

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To identify employee preferences for the new strategy roll-out, ALK conducted a ‘strategy communications survey’ (enclosed) to identify the information and level of detail that employees wanted from Focus 2018 communications.

In response, ALK Corporate Communications decided to depart from the glossy summary brochure of previous years and to produce a special newspaper (enclosed) which not only communicated the strategy, but also acknowledged and tackled some of this discontent head-on, and which featured more, and lengthier, articles so that every employee could see their situation; their work area represented in some way. They also wanted to involve line managers more by gathering them for a pre- briefing and supporting them as engagement champions, and then to endorse their position as local leaders by holding a more intimate roadshow than previously, with senior leaders co-hosting town hall meetings at every ALK location alongside local management.

Although likely to be challenging for senior management to approve, Corporate Communications wanted to acknowledge and bridge the gap that was opening up between employees and senior leaders.

The goal was to achieve this, while still creating a high understanding of the strategy within the organisation.

The biggest challenge was the limited window for writing, designing and printing the newspaper. The strategy itself was only finalised for presentation to ALK’s board of directors in mid-September 2014, and ALK Corporate Communications had a target publication date of the first week in November, to coincide with an employee all- hands meeting at the company’s Copenhagen headquarters.

This meant a highly concentrated period of writing and photography, which overlapped with the start of design work – the production of design treatments, layout grids and agreement of page size and paper stock etc.

Some things were clear, however, we needed to adhere to the ALK corporate visual identity – the use of colour palette, typefaces, and the Scandinavian design sensibility – while at the same time looking like a real newspaper, albeit a quality, upmarket newspaper. This was important to ALK Corporate Communications because they felt that the look and feel of a real newspaper was important in sending a subtle message to employees that the journalism inside was authentic, true, believable, and not just corporate spin. They felt that trustworthiness could be communicated before the employees had even read a word of the newspaper’s content.

At the same time, the newspaper needed to include details of further organisational actions, many of the details of which had yet to be finalised – the series of town hall meetings, the ‘People Agenda’ designed to improve engagement.

Despite everything being produced to a tight project plan, the clients changed their minds four times about which of the patient stories should be the front page lead, requiring several page redesigns. This resulted in lost evenings and weekends for the writers, editor and designer, a photography reshoot, and losing a printing slot. However, in the end, the publication was finalised, approved, printed and distributed in time for it to be shared with managers at their pre-briefing and distributed to staff at the same time as the first town hall meetings, in early November.

The newspaper

Although Denmark-based, ALK is an international organisation and uses English as its business language so, while previous brochures had been produced in both English and Danish, ALK Corporate Communications made the decision to simplify things by producing the newspaper in English only. This received some comment in the follow-up survey, particularly among non-managers.

Another new approach was the inclusion of stories from patients living with allergies, so that the company’s wider purpose would provide a contextual backdrop to the business strategy. These stories in particular gained the greatest approval from readers.

The brief for the tone of the articles was ‘journalistic, inquisitive and challenging’. This was tough because, while the Corporate Communications team had agreed this approach with the leadership team in advance, this was the first time they had adopted this approach for internal communications and there were some doubts
about how the newspaper would be received when it actually came to the comments and approvals phase.

This concern was justified when, with the publication already designed, the CEO called the communications team to a meeting and wanted several articles rewritten so they were more flattering to the leadership team. To his credit, the head of communications offered to distribute the centre-spread as a standalone poster instead, rather than allow the leadership team to fuel the fire of being untrustworthy and out of touch. The high-stakes brinkmanship worked, and the newspaper was approved with minor edits.

Perhaps the best examples of where this mattered are the articles on employee workloads and on addressing the results of the most recent organisational survey – on pages 3 and 8. The acknowledgement of employee frustration was a major first for ALK and played a big part in securing the ‘trustworthy’ score that was later seen in the evaluation of the newspaper.

Newspaper evaluation

A follow-up survey, two months after publication, showed that Corporate Communications’ original goals were largely met.

Although small-scale (a full organisational survey is planned for 2015 and this was a way of gauging reactions quickly without usurping the full survey), the results were positive:

  80% of ALK managers used the newspaper in employee communications
  The majority of respondents remembered reading about ALK’s three ‘must win

battles’ for the next four years (86%, 64% and 62% respectively)
  88% regarded the newspaper as highly trustworthy or trustworthy, while no one

found it untrustworthy
  When asked to rate the newspaper compared to the previous brochure format,

78% said the newspaper was better

In a free-text comments field, the survey also identified areas where readers thought it could be improved still further. For example:
  Include more stories on the day-to-day business, not just strategic projects
  Include more stories from the local operating companies in different countries
  Translate the newspaper into local languages

While not all suggestions are practicable, the survey in general, and these comments in particular do point to an appetite for more stories internally. Currently, ALK has no regular internal news channel other than occasional stories published on the company intranet.

As a result, ALK Corporate Communications has committed to a more fundamental review of internal communication channels, taking account of employee comments, and may well introduce a more regular newspaper-type publication outside of the
two-yearly strategy cycle.
Additional follow-up

To assist with the strategy roll-out and support the communication effort, at their pre-briefing, all managers were supplied with a messaging document (enclosed) which contained key messages about the strategy, an elevator speech to explain it briefly, and a series of answers to likely questions that employees may have had – the Q&A was made easier to use than in previous years by the addition of a ‘lines to take’ response, which allowed for a quick, more human answer than memorising (or reading from) a Q&A document.

The series of management town hall meetings at all ALK locations was completed in early 2015 and saw high attendance and searching questions from employees.

At the same time, a series of shorter articles were published to the ALK intranet, summarising the new strategy, its background and the company’s long-term vision (enclosed).

Starting in 2015, ALK delivered a new ‘engagement training’ programme to more than 260 ALK leaders in 15 different sessions at all of the company’s major locations. It augmented this by introducing an online resource dedicated to supporting employee engagement. As well as containing detailed results from the ALK Engagement Survey, it features information and tools designed to explain and help stimulate engagement at ALK, including articles and research on engagement in the workplace, an interactive zone where employees can seek inspiration or upload engagement ideas of their own for colleagues to adopt and adapt, and advice for line managers on how to improve engagement scores in their local teams.

Further measurement

The 2015 employee survey added to ALK’s feeling that their mission was accomplished. Results showed that 80% of employees knew the new strategy – down from 82% in 2013, but still a high score.

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But more importantly, the decline in other scores – Satisfaction, Motivation, Engagement – was halted, as was the falling score for trust in senior management.

However, the communications team were extremely happy with the end product –
ALK’s leaders felt that their messages were communicated effectively, while ALK’s employees felt that the communication content and style reflected their reality, which allowed both to come together on the vision and strategy for the future.

Appendices (in order)

— Focus 2016 brochure
— Focus 2018 planning presentation
— Pre-project survey of employee preferences
— Focus 2018 newspaper editorial plan
— Managers’ key messages and Q&A document
— Focus 2018 newspaper
— Articles published on the ALK intranet ‘Felix’ (x4) — Focus 2018 newspaper survey results
— ALK Employee Engagement Survey 2015 results
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