Gazing into the crystal ball

By Simon Monger, SCMP®

Predicting what’s going to happen in 2021 might seem even more of a laughable prospect than usual. You might well ask yourself why anyone would even want to.

Jenni Field recently posed a question on Twitter: ‘What do you think will be the big trends for communications and business in 2021 #internalcomms #business #trends.’ There’s some interesting thoughts in the thread, so I recommend taking a look.

It got me thinking. And three things very quickly came to mind:

  • Employer brand and organisational culture.
  • Employee listening.
  • Human communication.

Employer brand and organisational culture

Every organisation has an employer brand, whether it knows it or not. You only have to look on Glassdoor to see the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), in their 2008 guide, ‘Employer branding: a no-nonsense approach’, define employer brand as ‘a set of attributes and qualities, often intangible, that [make] an organisation distinctive, [promise] a particular kind of employment experience, and [appeal] to those people who will thrive and perform best in its culture’.

Of course, employer brand is closely connected to organisational culture and values. Which is all well and good when you’re in a working environment. But how do you foster the right culture with people working remotely?

As we begin to vaccinate against COVID-19, we may well see some companies returning to their workplaces. But this isn’t going to happen overnight, and many organisations are very unlikely to return to the old ways of working.

So how do you ensure that your employer brand and culture are fit for 2021 – and beyond?

You already have an employer brand and culture. Hopefully, it’s even one that you like. It might not be perfect, but it’s there. You may be one of the many organisations we’ve seen this year really stepping into their own, putting their values into practice. 

But is this experience consistent throughout the employee lifecycle? From induction to performance management, from the way you communicate to how people leave your organisation, you need to be consistent. What are you doing to sustain this in the new remote working world?  

The new year might be a great opportunity to take stock and reset. Because as we know, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Employee listening

Listening to employees isn’t new. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. While it’s true to say that, historically, communicators might have been better at communicating out and less good at listening to what comes back, that’s definitely changing. And as we enter a new year, with many of us still away from the workplace, ensuring that we’re really listening to what people have to say is more important than ever.

This ties in nicely with culture. Do you have a listening culture? If you do, have you been able to maintain this through lockdowns and remote working? If you don’t, what small steps could you begin to take to begin to establish trusted ways for employees and management to share? 

The ‘Who’s Listening?’ report – a joint activity between the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the PR Academy – showed that effective listening delivers a more competitive organisation, a greater sense of employee engagement and advocacy (reducing reputational risk and enhancing that employer brand), more trust in leadership, greater innovation, and openness to change, resilience, learning and wellbeing.

But fear can be a barrier to listening – both for employees and leaders. And it’s not just speaking the truth to senior leaders that can be difficult. Some leaders and managers avoid listening because they’re afraid of being asked a question they feel they can’t answer, but should be able to.

The report was updated in 2020, showing that with COVID-19, organisations have sped up the rate with which they are adopting new, online ways of listening to employees, and listening will only grow in importance. 

A note of caution: the research also shows that some companies still undervalue listening as a leadership capability, and often pay lip service to it. This will not wash with employees in 2021 as we continue to adapt to different ways of working.

Human communication is here to stay

You might well ask what type of communication it was before, but the truth is that this year we have really seen the human side of organisations. 

OK, so the novelty of seeing your CEO with a cat on their lap, or your HR Director trying to wrangle a screaming four-year-old while presenting, may have worn off. But no one can deny that we now know more about our colleagues – and leaders – than ever before.

Internal communication is often criticised for being too formal, too corporate – and rightly so. This year has seen many organisations really focus on bringing empathy and humanity into their communications – and it’s here to stay. As we settle into a routine of ‘COVID normal’ and, eventually, whatever kind of normal comes after that, we should never lose sight of the fact that people are behind every communication we craft and send. 

There will, no doubt, be many surprises in the coming months and years. Notice I didn’t even mention Brexit! But no matter what happens, organisations can’t go wrong focusing on culture, listening and clear communication. Because at the end of the day, we’re all human.

Why inclusive communication should be everyone’s business

By Diane Lightfoot, CEO of the Business Disability Forum


Business Disability Forum is a not for profit membership organisation that supports businesses – of all shapes, sizes and sectors – to get better at recruiting and retaining disabled employees and at serving disabled customers. Ultimately, we exist to transform the life chances of disabled people* as employees and consumers; something which is all too needed when you consider that (pre-COVID) the disability employment gap stood at around 30%, with just 51% of disabled people in employment, compared to 80.2% of the population as a whole – and it’s much lower for specific groups.

*(Throughout this article I use the term ‘disabled people’ as this is the preferred terminology in the UK. The term “disabled people” reflects the social model of disability which says that people are not inherently disabled as an innate characteristic of who they are but rather are disabled by a society that doesn’t meet their needs. Other countries prefer other terms, including people with disabilities as “people first” language.)


Our 300+ members and partners employ an estimated 20% of the UK workforce and over eight million people worldwide. We provide our members with pragmatic support and advice, rooted in best practice, through our confidential advice service, learning and development, consultancy, events, and a range of networks and taskforces that enable them to learn from their peers and share what works – and what doesn’t!


So, alongside numerous roundtables and networks, we currently run taskforces themed on technology, global – which reflects the fact that approximately half our members operate beyond the UK, whether they are a truly global brand like HSBC, Shell or Unilever, or operate in a few overseas markets – employment, neurodiversity and more.


Of course, disabled people are consumers, too, with significant spending power. The “Purple Pound” – the spend of disabled people and their families – is estimated at £249bn per annum in the UK. Globally, it’s estimated that this is a market the size of China! So, we also run a customer taskforce to help businesses to support disabled customers, and to provide an excellent service to everyone. Indeed, we often say that when you get it right for disabled people, you get it right for everyone.



There are plenty of practical things that communicators can do to ensure that what they deliver is done with disabilities in mind – and they don’t have to be difficult or expensive.


Use plain English. It always strikes me how much of our time in education is spent trying to obscure our meaning and write long sentences. Writing from an accessibility and inclusivity perspective can mean unlearning that!


Make sure that videos are subtitled so that they are accessible to people who are Deaf or have hearing loss. Also, make sure they are audio described for people with a visual impairment (audio description is a voiceover explaining what is happening on screen.


For events or meetings, ask if people have accessibility requirements. It’s best practice, at least for larger events or meetings, to provide captioning (live speech to text) and a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter as standard.

Don’t forget to make use of built-in accessibility checks – Microsoft Office, for example, has a built-in ‘check accessibility’ function. Use ‘alt text’ to label images so that a screen reader can interpret them.


Check your contrast. Make sure that colour palettes (digital and online) are accessible and that you have sufficient contrast between text and background. Online, you can offer the ability for users to change colours and backgrounds, but better still is designing out barriers to make the core site as accessible as possible. Incorporate contrast guidance (e.g. which colours can and cannot be used together) into your brand guidelines.


Above all, test your communications with a wide cross section of disabled people – and by that, I mean people with a range of different conditions – to ensure that they work for as many people as possible. Though remember that you may still need to provide alternative formats (such as Easy Read or Braille) for some individuals – and make it clear that you can provide this on request. Easy Read is also helpful for people who do not have English as their first language, or who are simply time poor! It’s a great way of getting to the central points of a communication without the fluff!


Also think about how you represent disabled people in your imagery. Research suggests that seven out of ten people feel more positive towards a brand if its advertising includes disabled people.


I also think that we have, thankfully, moved on in our thinking from a time not so long ago when there was a tendency to think of design in particular as being either good design or accessible design. It’s a false opposition; design is a tool to convey a meaning. If that meaning isn’t understood – because it’s not accessible or not inclusive – then it isn’t a good design!



COVID-19 has presented plenty of communication challenges for disabled people, as well as opportunities.


Challenges include the lack of different/accessible formats for vital information at the start of the pandemic, and the fact that the then daily and now ad hoc briefings from 10 Downing Street do not include a sign language interpreter.


Online meetings can be very difficult for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing – they may rely on lipreading, which can be difficult if the camera and lighting is poor, or if people talk across each other, so good meeting etiquette is vital. Similarly, providing high-quality captioning makes the difference between a Deaf colleague being included and able to engage, or not. It also sends an important message about what you value.


Other communication challenges include the wearing of face masks – again a huge barrier for people who rely on lipreading. Another challenge has been the lack of a proper public information campaign to raise awareness of people who are exempt from wearing a face mask, or who cannot socially distance, perhaps because they have difficulty judging distances or because they just can’t see to do so.


But there are opportunities, too. There are different ways to take part in meetings – being able to participate using a chat function online, or simply to “like” something that someone has said means that people who are shy at speaking up in a group can still participate.


And of course, communications technology has opened up huge opportunities for many people in how we live and work. Prior to COVID-19, homeworking was the most frequently requested workplace adjustment for employees with disabilities, and now it’s commonplace. At our annual conference in October, one of our speakers from Microsoft described this is as a “digital pandemic”, and it’s difficult to imagine how we would have coped without technology to communicate.


Technology is not a panacea though. Many people – disabled or not – struggle with loneliness and isolation. And even with video we miss visual cues that may tell us if someone isn’t coping well. So really listening and looking out for other signs is vital.



Our ethos is that getting it right for disabled people and becoming “Disability Smart” is not just the domain of HR or Diversity and Inclusion teams, but needs a cross-business, whole organisational approach.


One of the key areas around getting it right is communication. Communication is ultimately part of everyone’s job, but there is a key role for communications professionals in ensuring that visual, written, digital and multimedia content is as inclusive and accessible as possible.


About a year ago we were approached by one of our members, Skipton Building Society, for advice on inclusive communications. While there was a lot of information out there about making websites accessible, very little existed for other forms of communication. So, we created an Inclusive Communications Toolkit to bridge the gap. We worked with Skipton, who kindly sponsored the toolkit for us, to create a comprehensive guide for communications professionals. We also involved a cross sector steering group in developing the toolkit to make sure that it was as practical as possible for all sectors.


The toolkit is aimed at introducing people to the topic of inclusive communications.  It’s primarily aimed at a UK audience and there are, of course, important language and cultural differences that communications professionals need to consider when creating content for different countries. Nevertheless, the principles remain the same and I really hope that this toolkit is a useful resource for communicators, wherever you are in the world.


The full toolkit is available to all our members and partners on our Knowledge Hub and you can find our “Top tips” resource on our website here: You can also find a blog on creating accessible emails, created by Skipton Building Society here: Inclusive communication: Skipton Building Society and creating accessible emails – Business Disability Forum



We were so bowled over by the interest in – and hunger for – our inclusive communications toolkit that we thought that there might be an appetite for a new network in this space.


We consistently hear from our members and partners that they really value the “safe space” that our taskforces provide. (They are only open to members and partners and are run under Chatham House rules.) So, we set up the first meeting of the Inclusive Communications Network at the beginning of November. We were overwhelmed by the response and are going to run the network on a regular basis – visit for details.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports businesses to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers. Business Disability Forum’s 300+ members now employ around 20% of the UK workforce and 8 million people worldwide. They range from FTSE 100 companies and central Government departments to technology, transport and construction companies, retailers, higher education providers and public services bodies.

Diane sits on a number of boards including the Government’s Disability Expert Advisory Panel, Work Autism and the Institute of Coding’s Diversity & Inclusion Board. She is Chair of the Disabled Students’ Stakeholder Group, a Commissioner for the newly formed Disability Commission, chaired by Lord Shinkwin and hosted by the Centre for Social Justice, co-Chair of the Disability Charities Consortium and Chair of the Challenging Behaviour Foundation.




Global employee listening survey

We’re launching a global research study into how organisations listen to their people – and I would love it if you could participate by completing this 10-minute survey.  In return we’ll send you a copy of the findings* that will enable you to:

  • Understand and share good practices in listening
  • Compare your (or your clients’) listening practices with local and international practices
  • Provide evidence of the links between effectiveness in listening and other business benefits
  • Underpin recommendations for improvement against a robust international dataset

This work is the product of collaboration with Howard Krais at Johnson Matthey, Dr. Kevin Ruck at PR Academy and the International Association of Business Communicators Foundation.

One of the consequences of the pandemic is that people’s relationship with their employer is changing because the way we work has had to change.  Many of us are working from home far more than we used to.  Even if we are physically at a formal work location, our working patterns will have changed to accommodate social distancing locally and virtual working with many colleagues.  As we move through this crisis and continuing uncertainty it creates different demands on each of us and the organisations we work in.

Nurturing relationships and staying in touch during times like this is very important.  People need to know that the people they work for care about them.  The boss needs to know how people are coping and the emotional and practical support they need to be effective.  But there are also much harder nosed reasons for listening to employees.  Making it easy for people to speak up can avert disasters, employees have numerous insights into how to improve service and ways of working, and effective listening plays an important role in effective change and building resilience. 

We know all this because about two years ago we began researching the way people are listened to.  At the time our motive was a belief that organisations tend to put too much emphasis on “transmitting” rather than “receiving” – a consequence in part of the impact social media has had on attitudes towards communication.

Our first Who’s Listening? report showed that was true and provided an update from our study across people in Europe, Middle East and Africa.  It explored how and why companies listened to their people and the barriers to listening.  This was conducted before Covid-19.  

Our second report in 2020 explored good practices amongst a group of companies that consistently demonstrate the capability to listen well to their people and was highly relevant given the lockdown caused by the pandemic.  Based on their insights we drew out a number of principles for good listening and a spectrum of different listening approaches which you can find in the report.

When we presented this work at the IABC World Conference in June 2020 we were encouraged by the response and so the third phase of our work is to launch this survey to gather input from across the globe.

We’ll be providing further reports and updates on the findings via webinars in the New Year.

*You’ll need to give us your email where indicated to receive the findings.  We promise not to use this for any other purposes than to send you the results of the survey.

Mike Pounsford 

November member newsletter

Dear member,

As we’re locked down for a second time, everything may feel a little bleak. When I think about the last lockdown, I reflect on how much my IABC membership got me through those months. The Virtual Networking Drinks were both light-hearted and great for sharing insights during that crazy time. Plus knowing that I had access to a global network of peers in the industry made me feel connected and part of a team (even though I was self-employed and working from home for the first time in my career.) I wholeheartedly urge you to stay connected and make the most of your membership in the coming weeks – we have lots of great things to help you keep progressing, even when everything feels like it’s standing still here in the UK & Ireland.
25 November Future Fit 2020: How Communicators Can Seize Tomorrow
Finally it’s here! We had to postpone our annual Future Fit event back in June, but we’ve taken the decision to deliver this flagship event from IABC UK&I, virtually, on 25 November. So far, our line up of speakers includes Futurist Matt O’Neill and DE&I expert Katrina Marshall. Our speakers will share their unique insights on future trends in PR, DE&I, Crisis Comms, Neurocomms, where AR is taking the communicator and much more. An event designed to help communicators seize tomorrow and stay Future Fit. Book your free member place here. 
12 November Virtual Networking Drinks
As I mentioned above, the IABC UK&I Virtual Networking events kept me pepped-up during the last lockdown. So grab a glass of something you love and log in on 12 November at 6pm, to chat with your peers and hear from an inspirational speaker. It’s friendly and fun, I promise! Register here.
Inclusion and Gender Webinar
Last week, IABC EMENA Region hosted the first in a series of events on Inclusion. I found the discussion fascinating as the panelists shared from their own experiences so candidly and they explored some really inetersting angles. As Gloria Walker described in her blog“The webinar focused on inclusion from a gender perspective, particularly how women are affected in their careers generally and in the communication field specifically.” Panel members were Ann-Marie Blake from London, Alex Malouf from the UAE, and Dr. Ana Adi from Berlin. Watch the recording of the webinarhere.
Who’s Listening?
You may be familiar with the great work on Listening for Communicators by IABC UK&I Board members Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais, alongside Kevin Ruck. They aim to take their exploration even deeper with this next tranche of research, beginning with a survey for IABC members to complete:
Please do complete this if you can, it’s designed to discover how organisations listen to their employees and should take around 10 minutes to complete. To catch up with the research so far you can find the two Listening Reports that this team have already produced, here:
Does Your Work Reach the Gold Quill Standard?
Another gentle reminder that the Gold Quill Awards are open for entries now, with the deadline being 20 January 2021, more detailshere.
State of the Sector Report
Lastly, are you familiar with the annual Gatehouse State of the Sector report? It provides extremely useful insights into trends in our industry, which will be shared with us from February next year. In the meantime, they need your help in providing the data. Their survey takes around 15 minutes to complete, but if you could that would be great, as we all get to benefit from the results! Find it here:
Looking forward to staying connected with you, please do get in touch with your comments and ideas!
Best wishes
Sarah Harrison
President IABC UK&I

The last leg of our listening journey: the global survey

I remember kicking this whole thing off. IABC’s Euro Comm event in Copenhagen in the spring of 2018 (remember when we could travel?). It was the Open Space session and I wanted to talk about listening. I wanted to talk about whether communicators were listening to their audiences or were we increasingly just getting stuck behind our desks, ticking off items on our ‘to do’ lists?  I had no idea at that point what I was getting into. 

Surprisingly perhaps others were interested in the topic too. Back in London, together with Mike Pounsford, my predecessor as IABC UK President, and Dr Kevin Ruck from the PR Academy, we decided to collaborate on some work around listening and see where it would take us. 

What we found has been fascinating. We’ve explored topics such as psychological safety and social justice, introduced a listening spectrum and reinforced beyond doubt the strong correlation between listening and employee engagement, trust and well being; and indeed better business performance. 

Two things in particular have stood out for me. Firstly that this work has resonated with so many people. Communicators from across the world have attended our events, contributed to our research and generally taken an interest in the work. I hope it has helped them. Secondly I have had the chance to work with two real pros. Mike and Kevin have frequently taken on much of the ‘heavy lifting’ without complaining and certainly helped me manage through the challenges of the day job and I thank them deeply for that. 

It’s been quite a journey and investigating the topic of listening has opened up a world of interesting opportunities. Two reports (download the first one here and the second one here) and a number of events later (including this year’s virtual IABC World Conference), we’ve arrived at possibly the final phase of this journey. Not wanting to finish quietly we are working with the IABC Foundation to undertake a global listening survey, with the kind support of the CIPR Inside and IoIC organisations in the UK.

With this survey we are looking to better understand attitudes towards listening, to compare practice across different regions and to deepen our understanding of how listening supports better outcomes.

So please help us. Please take this survey – it should only take 10 minutes and you can find it here. And if you and leave your email address then we’ll send you a copy of the following report.  

Are we really approaching the end of this work? Will this be the final piece of the listening project? Maybe – I’m sure we’ll listen to what you tell us. 


Howard Krais

IABC UK&I Past President