IT with military precision

An interview with Becky

An interview with:

Becky Smith – Marketing and communications expert


Group Engagement Manager – Medical Research Council
Internal Communications Business Partner – Nationwide Building Society
Internal Communications Manager – Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)
Head of Marketing and Communications – HP Enterprise Security Services
External Communications Manager – Magnox Generation


Healthcare, Financial Services, Defence, Information Technologies, Nuclear

In your current or previous position as a marketer, what experience do you have in communication and explaining a complex business, subject, product or service?

BS:This was in a previous role and probably the most complex subject I have had to communicate. It was something called the Defence Information Infrastructure. I worked for HP (Hewlett Packard) and they were a lead contractor of the ATLAS Consortium.

The Consortium was there to deliver something called the Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) programme which was a huge IT programme. It was the largest in Europe (and I think it still is to date), only rivalled by the USA Defence Intranet programme.

It was to deliver a single IT infrastructure and a range of IT services to around 300,000 MOD staff, across 2,000 locations worldwide. Anywhere from the front line in Afghanistan and battlefield sites, to remote office locations and headquarters, as well as fixed sites in the UK and abroad, and in the deployed environment. A vast range of places in which this had to be communicated.

So a huge, multi–million pound, 10 year programme and my role was to explain why it was happening, what was going to happen, what the benefits were, what the user would experience moving over to this new system and celebrating all the success stories that go with it.

Can you give an example of a project where you have successfully communicated a complex subject in a simple way to your primary audience? Tell us about the approach you took and your successes?

BS: Again it’s with the DII programme. Users would have to do a lot of preparation before they migrated over to the new system. It wasn’t a question of we turned the old one off one day and then turn the new one on the next. They had to do a lot of work getting their data into such a place where we could ‘lift it up and move it’ over to the new system without losing anything.

This was from admin clerks in the office to the guys that are heading up operations to ensure we have troops in place in Afghanistan or forces in the seas. We had to ensure this was done properly.

I called the migration comms plan, the ‘Big Head Campaign’, simply because the imagery we used was normal people with big heads, full of big brains [laughs].

Basically, it was guidance documentation that showed in easy to follow steps, what you needed to do to prepare your data so we could migrate it across to the new system. Along with that we would migrate people in units, so we would go to one of the MOD locations and concentrate on that team and get them ready to go.

We had a comms plan that explained DII is coming, and posters that went up to say “this is what you need to do, you need to look out for this”. They then had the guidance documents that were given to them and we also provided leaflets. There were people that were very IT literate and those that were not. So the steer from the MOD was to give instructions as if you were giving them to somebody that didn’t even know how to turn on a PC.

We developed a guidance pack and also did a number of leaflets that gave a high level overview of what needed to be done

Can you tell us about the success of that project?

BS: It went really well, the challenge we had to start with was that when you work with the MOD as your customer, they have very strong brand guidelines that they want people to adhere to.

The first task we had was to convince them that they shouldn’t use the usual military artwork. Normally for them, if you were going to do a piece of communications it would ALWAYS have to have Royal Air Force, Royal Navy or Army personnel in it. So we had to say that “we are going to move away from this, it’s going up into your buildings but in fact it’s actually an ATLAS collateral it’s just supporting what you want to do”. There was quite a debate about what we should use and how we should use it.

The ‘Big Head Campaign’ went down really well. We only intended to use it for the migration of users over to DII, so when they saw it land on their desk they would know that it was something to do with the migration to DII, so best pick it up and look at it.

This worked. People did start associating the ‘big heads’ with DII migration but they also then associated it with DII as a whole. It was then adopted for any communications to do with the system when they had moved over to the live service, so actually the longevity of it continued which was brilliant to see.

We didn’t worry about the normal tabs along the top of the menu bar and simply concentrated first on what it was that we were trying to say, what we were trying to do for the MOD and what the delivery challenges were.

When working in a particularly complex industry, how have you gained insight to your audience’s knowledge and understanding of your business, subject, product or service? What approach have you found most effective?

BS: What we were delivering to the MOD was very specific so they knew what they were after. However, they didn’t really know what we as a consortium could deliver. So one of the of first things we did to help the MOD and the general public understand what the ATLAS Consortium was about, was to develop an external website. It was a key part of a bigger business transformation that ATLAS was undertaking at the time but it also helped to explain what ATLAS was all about.

We went away from the conventional approach to a website. We didn’t worry about the normal tabs along the top of the menu bar and simply concentrated first on what it was that we were trying to say, what we were trying to do for the MOD and what the delivery challenges were. We did a complete picture that showed what ‘the ask’ was, what the solution was to address ‘the ask’, how we delivered that and what the benefits were, so it gave a good snapshot package of what the Consortium did.

This was also the start of an integrated campaign making sure that we got good news stories out across all of the MOD publications where we could, whether that was the internal publications or the external publications. We ran an advertising campaign which started to tell people about the ATLAS Consortium and what they were delivering. With the website, we worked very closely with the communications teams within the MOD as well so there was good collaboration.

Did you find this was the most effective approach, the collaboration, in educating them in a way that was simple?

BS: Yes, it did help. People across the MOD could see that their comms team was working closely with the ATLAS comms team. ATLAS were the ‘good guys’. At the end of the day, even though nobody likes change, nobody likes that they are used to logging onto their systems, then suddenly it all changing to another, but I think it was because they could see that we were all working together, really helped.

The army, navy, air force head office are called Top Level Budget and we would hold workshop events at these key places so people could come and talk to us if they were uncertain about anything and this was done jointly with our MOD counterparts so they could see it was a joined-up approach. We went to a lot of the key sites around the UK.

Again, when thinking about working in a particularly complex industry, how have you tailored communications to multiple stakeholders? How did you tackle this, what techniques did you apply and what did you find most effective?

BS: I would probably put that in line with say if the DII system was going to be down for any time or there was a glitch in the system. We would obviously have a number of stakeholders we would have to explain the situation to and why. From my side, it would be from CEO down to the Programme Managers and on the MOD side it would be my CEO’s equivalent downwards so the level of detail that was put into each of those would be slightly different. The same message but the level of information that each audience needed to know about that was obviously tailored to them.

What did you find most effective from the techniques you applied?

BS: It all depended on the message that you wanted to get out. Sometimes face-to -face was most effective, another time physical leaflets and posters would be, it wasn’t a one size fits all.

How have you measured the success of your communications? What measurement methods have you found most effective?

BS: Measuring internal communications is such a hard thing to do. With the DII programme probably the fact that the majority of the staff got their data migrated over successfully was the key measurement. A lot of this was down to the communications that we sent out because if they hadn’t received these and carried out what was asked, they would have gone home on the Friday, come back on the Monday and their data wouldn’t have been there. I think the fact that most people got migrated over and all their data followed them is a sign that it worked well.

I think the fact that we had general anecdotal feedback coming back into us from the MOD saying that the information they received was really helpful helped to demonstrate the success of the communications.

You have got all the Google analytics you can find but we also carried out a staff survey across the MOD and part of that survey covered off communications. So all the normal ways of measuring but still very hard to really know what the true impact is.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a fellow marketer working in a complex industry?

BS: Get Forepoint in to help you!

Thanks Becky. It’s great to talk to you and hear your thoughts and experiences of making complex simple.

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