Scarlett Abbott’s mission to revive the art of talking

“THERE’S nothing more difficult than making things simple.”

Rachel Thornton is quite pleased with that sentence.

Not only is it a catchy and memorable statement, it is the guiding light in her professional life.

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As head of internal communications at Scarlett Abbott in York, she specialises in helping businesses to communicate clearly and effectively with their staff – even when that message is a difficult one to deliver.

“The message is really important, but the way it’s delivered is too,” said Ms Thornton.

“Some organisations believe sending an email has communicated, whereas we will advise people to have conversations. It’s the best way to communicate with anyone, even in this digital age.

“A conversation is far more effective.

“It’s not just the words you choose but how you deliver that authentically and credibly and to give a sense of trust.”

No matter how successful they are, Ms Thornton believes that every business can find ways to improve its internal communications.

“It’s a busman’s holiday,” she said. “People are good at doing their job and managers usually get promoted for being technically good, not for being an amazing communicator.

“We all know that people join an organisation and leave a manager. Poor communication or a feeling they don’t trust that organisation are reasons people leave and go elsewhere.

“When our parents and grandparents worked, that generation didn’t expect to be engaged in their job. It was much more of a command and control environment.

“The new generation fully expect to buy into their organisation’s values; they think they have got something in common with it.

“It’s that kind of dialogue now that successful organisations are trying to have with their people. You don’t get that by keeping people in the dark.”

One of the most important moments to get communication right is when times are tough and potentially unpopular decisions have to be made. Given the recent fortunes of the economy, Scarlett Abbott has found its services even more in demand.

“In some organisations, there’s still a little bit of a fear of being open and honest,” said Ms Thornton. “That may be a good thing because they are trying to protect their employees – they don’t want to worry people.

“We encourage people to be as open and honest as possible, because generally employees appreciate being trusted and being in the picture.”

Far from just swooping in to solve a problem and then leaving again, Scarlett Abbott also offers training to people who need long-term help to communicate with their employees – but Ms Thornton isn’t worried about putting herself out of business as a result.

“I would feel very proud indeed if I could get an organisation to a point where they didn’t need professional communicators!” she said.

“It’s not an ideal world and not everybody has the skill set to be a natural communicator.

“The reason for communicating in business is to drive better performance. We don’t do it to be great people.

“Organisations which communicate effectively tend to be more effective and profitable.”

Among the businesses which have recognised the importance of internal communication and have brought Scarlett Abbott in to help are Aviva, O2 Telefonica, KPMG, Santander, East Coast, Northumbrian Water and United Utilities.

With such high-profile clients, Scarlett Abbott has grown significantly in recent years – so much so that it had to move to new offices at the end of last year.

The perfect opportunity presented itself in the form of an old Methodist chapel in the Fulford area, which had been empty for around a year – and took a further year for it to be renovated to suit Scarlett Abbott.

“It’s exactly what we would hope for a creative agency,” said Ms Thornton.

“Even though there’s lots of chatter and music and noise, it feels very serene. It’s very different. Our old office used to feel quite pressured, but here it feels much calmer.”

Although the business had a busy year in 2012 as it prepared to move into its new office, there are no plans to relax.

With enough space to more than double the number of employees to 35, Ms Thornton said Scarlett Abbott could be at full capacity again within the next five years.

A change of direction

Scarlett Abbott has been operating for 21 years, but its origins bear little resemblance to the company which exists today.

Founded by Jonathan Abbott as a one-man band offering graphic design, advertising and marketing, it began changing significantly around seven years ago when Rachel Thornton came on board.

With a background in journalism, PR and internal communications, it was not long before she and Mr Abbott realised there was an opportunity to specialise in helping other businesses to speak to their staff. “We realised there was a huge opportunity for internal communications,” said Ms Thornton.