Sheila McHale

Communicating key messages

How to overcome the challenges of internal and external communication

Written by Sheila McHale FAIM
5 minute read
Sheila McHale

WARRRL Chairperson Sheila McHale FAIM

Effective communication within a team and designing and delivering a successful marketing strategy have considerable similarities and challenges.

As a Member of Parliament for 12 years and Cabinet Minister for eight of those years, I am certainly no stranger to communicating with broad, diverse audiences.

However, the impact of COVID-19 and the rapidly changing nature of work has sharpened our attention on how we communicate in the digital world.

In this opinion piece, I have drawn upon my experience as Chairperson of Western Australia Return Recycle Renew Limited (WARRRL), as well as my professional and political life to provide a few insights into organisational communication, whether the audiences are internal or external.

When it comes to communication, I believe the following are key: knowing your audience, being aware of the diversity of our potential audience and understanding organisational culture and how it is communicated.

Adaptation – WARRRL - the secret to success

WARRRL is the not-for-profit organisation behind the state’s most-recognised recycling initiative, Containers for Change. It is WA’s first comprehensive container deposit recycling scheme and was launched by the State Government in October 2020. The company moved from start-up phase to full operations during COVID-19.

Adapting communications to suit local conditions and reacting to market and other research has been paramount to the success of the scheme to date.

Since the launch of Containers for Change in WA, more than 1.67 billion 10c beverage containers have been returned, saving them from landfill and recycled into items, including new containers, construction materials, household items and furniture. More than 820 jobs have been created and over $6 million donated to charities and community groups.

In our early launch phase, our initial marketing strategy focused on the financial reward to the customer – the 10c refund – and on the assumption that financial reward would be the strongest motivator.

A review of that strategy six months post-launch allowed us to test that assumption further, along with the hypothesis that many Western Australians were motivated by more than money when it comes to recycling.

Our research into community attitudes told us that although the desire to recycle is strong across the general population, this does not necessarily translate into behavioural change.

When it comes to recycling, there is still a lack of confidence in traditional recycling efforts, and this is undermining the shift to long-term behavioural change.

In August 2021, less than one year after launch, we reviewed our marketing strategy and launched a big, bold, marketing campaign built on local knowledge and insights with a call to action to change behaviour. The ‘Don’t Feed the Fill’ campaign landed in WA with great impact.

We built our marketing and communications strategies upon our unique selling point – that all 10c containers returned to a Containers for Change refund point would be recycled and 100% of funds would be donated to the chosen cause. This is the core strength of our scheme in action.

Understand your audience

A fundamental tenet of effective communication is identifying and understanding your audience.

Many campaigns fail because of misplaced assumptions about what the audience wants, what motivates them and how messaging is received.

Knowing your audience, realising what you believe in is not always what others believe in, is a lesson I learnt very early in my career. This is a simple principle that can apply to small teams or large-scale campaigns.

Understanding your audience includes knowing what they want, where they are, both geographically and emotionally, and the different value systems that might guide their understanding and interpretation of meaning and messaging.

To do this effectively, listening and understanding what motivates your audience is critical. I freely admit that this view has come about as a result of numerous painful mistakes and many good lessons in communication. In this context, I love a recent tweet @adamMGrant, posted on 28 September 2022:

"The true leader in a group is rarely the person who talks the most. It’s usually the person who listens best. Listening is more than hearing what’s said. It’s noticing and surfacing what isn’t said. Inviting dissenting views and amplifying quiet voices are acts of leadership."

Your audience includes your team

The last two years have been full of disruptions to everyday life and how we communicate in the workplace has not been immune from this.

Online communication has impacted the traditional non-verbal communication techniques, all of which contribute to meaning and understanding.

We communicate non-verbally more than verbally, and only about seven per cent of meaning is conveyed through what we say. Communication can be quite a challenge if you don’t have the traditional non-verbal cues around you.

The storytelling structure and narrative behind our ‘Don’t Feed the Fill’ campaign is a communications tactic that can be replicated with internal teams. In our campaign, we identify landfill as the problem, and we demonstrate and encourage the role of the individual and the community in reducing that problem, by returning their drink containers.

“Don’t Feed the Fill” is a simple, effective message that drives home the call to action – this is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is the role you can play. This is how you can help solve the problem.

Culture is critical to success

Culture is broadly understood as the norms, values, and rules by which people behave within an organisation. The processes used to convey their meaning, the way they are modelled by leadership teams, and how well they are communicated to new employees, are all factors which impact on the effectiveness of an organisation in embedding its culture in employee behaviour.

Now consider our digital world, where employees are working from home or distant locations, where onboarding is often online, communication is more through technology than through traditional means and with little face to face interaction. How do we facilitate the adoption of organisational culture in this environment? How do we build trust and empathy along with a collaborative workplace?

A strong organisational culture is dependent on effective, meaningful communication. In a changing workplace, we need to be mindful of how organisational culture is established and nurtured.

Embracing difference

We are all different in the way we see the world and ourselves in it. Adapting to cultural and social diversity is crucial, both in the workplace and within broad campaigns.

Our community is highly diverse; our messaging and communication must embrace and respect this diversity.

This can help break down barriers and reset how we convey meaning, and lead to a more inclusive work environment.