How video restored employee trust at HSBC

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HSBC employees were disillusioned and disengaged after the global financial crisis and a series of high-profile scandals. In 2011, surveys showed that only 50% of employees trusted decisions made by senior leadership. To rebuild trust, the banking group realised it needed to restore a sense of pride and unite 257, 600 employees across 71 countries. The solution was to launch HSBC NOW.

NOW is a video platform dedicated to telling the extraordinary stories of the people who work at HSBC. It aims to put a human face on the organisation and make employees the stars of the HSBC story. The programme focuses on examples of sacrifice, friendship and triumph over adversity, inside and outside the business. The content is audience-driven and tackles challenging topics unexpected of a financial institution – from how political instability and violence affects employees to sexuality, mental health and abuse.

Marc Wright went to meet a team of communicators who have boldly taken HSBC where no other bank has been before. In an interview with Jenny Varley, Global Head of Content and Employee Digital Platforms and Dee Gosney, Senior Editor At Large, he found out how stubborn determination and a passion for empowering employees helped them to drive digital innovation and achieve something that many thought was impossible within a highly regulated organisation.

Jenny Varley: “The path was laid for a more progressive approach to communications back in 2011 with the arrival of new CEO Stuart Gulliver. Traditionally, employee communication had been a top down affair, relying largely on senior management cascade and set piece events. With Gulliver’s arrival HSBC introduced HSBC Exchange – a very different style of communicating across the business, which was, at its core, simply to encourage people to just have a conversation.’

Exchange – informally known as the ‘shut up and listen’ project – turned HSBC’s traditional way of communicating internally on its head, encouraging staff to talk about what matters to them most – be that an idea, a frustration or an issue. What makes this especially interesting for leaders is that it acts as a reminder that there are two parts to communication: if someone is doing the talking, someone else must be doing the listening. If you find yourself on one side of that equation too often, then it’s not a reciprocal social norm.

There are just three simple rules: the manager does not talk in the meetings but just listens; there is no agenda; and the time belongs to the employees. Instead of cascading information top-down, HSBC Exchange is a unique forum that enables employees to share their thoughts and views freely, and cascades this information from the bottom to the top. This initiative set the scene for a new type of communications, one that would encourage a more open culture where employees felt empowered to work together to address problems and turn ideas into reality at the grassroots level.

HSBC NOW launched in 2012, and in the four years it’s been running its format has changed to reflect the needs of its audience as well as to keep abreast of video consumption trends.

Varley says: “Before we launched NOW, video had been reserved for the classic ‘politbureau’ style messages – the CEO discussing results, or perhaps an investor video. They were highly censored, formal and staged affairs and certainly limited to senior execs talking to the business” she explains. “But Stuart Gulliver wanted employees everywhere to have a voice. He wanted a whole new approach to how the business talked to employees, and he wanted to use video to reflect back to the global workforce their efforts, stories and interests – not the senior management’s. He gave us our brief: to create a global TV series in multiple languages that would be accessible to a quarter of a million employees across the globe.”

In the early days the team of internal producers had to work hard to unearth the hero stories they were looking for, but it was not long before the pipeline was overflowing. Early examples including Ivonne Márquez González, a Mexican employee, paralysed from a basketball accident, who went on to participate in the London 2012 Olympics; and Wendy Trehiou, an employee from Jersey who survived breast cancer and went on to complete a two-way cross-Channel swim. As viewing figures rose – NOW averaged 33,000 views per episode in the first year, – it quickly became apparent that staff were genuinely interested in what was going on in other parts of the world and other parts of the business. Varley: “We were creating a real sense of community and when we sensed that our global audience was beginning to get frustrated that we couldn’t cover everyone’s stories quickly enough, we decided to go to weekly broadcasting and to share our stories externally too.”

No bank had ever published its internal content on social media before and in 2013 NOW launched a dedicated You Tube channel (www.youtube.com/hsbcnow) and a Twitter handle (@HSBC_NOW). Just to give a sense of how well it’s going, today episodes reach an average of 42,000 views internally with some gaining more than 80,000. The brand now has over 52,000 followers on Twitter and recently attracted more than 650,000 views for its 2016 Pride campaign. In 2017, NOW also plans to launch on Facebook.

It is worth noting how the creation of the episodes has changed over time. The early episodes featured highly crafted stories commissioned by the internal team of producers and filmed professionally by their agency partners (Merchant Cantos), using employees as anchors to link stories together. Anchors proved incredibly valuable in the early days in terms of building a community, but it was labour intensive and, with the move to a YouTube format, no longer necessary.

Jenny Varley again: “Communicators know that video is the best way to get stories out there and our distribution strategy has had to change too. With the introduction of native video player on Twitter and Facebook, we are now publishing directly to these channels rather than driving audiences to YouTube. Recent examples include our output around Pride this year and International Women’s Day which received high levels of likes and shares even by external broadcaster standards. There is still a place for the big hero stories, but as mobile becomes the key platform for video consumption we will produce more short form and micro documentary content.”

Although the anchors were gone, the stories continued to be filmed by professional film crews – something the team knew had to change with the evolving demographics of the audience.

Dee Gosney picks up the story from here: “With the majority of our workforce now under the age of 40, we were facing increasing pressure for more and better use of user generated content in our programming.”

Eager to find a way to allow a quarter of a million people to create and share content, about their organisation, the team scoured the market and read about a company that had just been voted London Start up Of the Year for their video crowdsourcing software.

“We instantly knew the Seenit app was the tool we needed. It’s a neat way of crowdsourcing or co-creating content from our wider community giving us unprecedented access to the lives of our people inside and outside of work.” Launching in a highly regulated and risk-averse organisation involved much lobbying and persuading to be done to enable use of the app. It needed to be entirely secure, leak and hacker proof; it needed to be white labelled for the organisation to trust it and it required a degree of bespoke functionality to ensure that access was only available to HSBC employees; the team needed the legal rights to share employee content and it had to be compliant with internal controls governing staff in customer-facing environments. Gosney: “Personal mobile devices are not permitted in many of our branches and call centres, obviously posing a challenge to our ambitions to gather user generated content on a global scale. We had to lobby to get some of the rules re-written for key markets.”

Undeterred, the small team managed to launch HSBC NOW Share, available in six languages, in just eight weeks, giving employees the opportunity to discuss issues that matter most to them. The innovative mobile video app enables staff all over world to film and upload their own stories safely and securely to the NOW production team. “It was by no means plain sailing” explains Gosney. “Although people were super excited about the app – 72% of employees said it had the potential to strengthen communications across the bank – content for the launch campaign was slow to come. What we hadn’t anticipated was that our previously conservative culture was our biggest barrier. Our people needed to feel safe about publishing their own content so openly within the organisation. So we encouraged them by sharing early pioneer content on our established channels internally and via a video feed on the app.
“We asked colleagues worldwide to share their experiences and thoughts about life at HSBC – what motivates them, inspires passion and makes them feel proud. Over 4,000 employees downloaded the tool and by the end of the campaign 57 hours of user-generated content had been crowdsourced, which the team used to create a 10-minute documentary film titled Our People, Our Story that attracted over 60,000 views in the first week of publication.

Our People, Our Story was more than just a film. We set out to make something that would show from sunrise to sunset across the world what it’s like to work for a bank that never sleeps – told through the unique lens of the people who work here. It proved to be very compelling with our audiences; we received hundreds upon hundreds of emails from employees across 23 countries all saying the same thing: the film made them feel part of a global family.”

Jenny Varley sums it up: “It’s been an extraordinary journey for us since we first launched HSBC NOW. In just four years we have moved from a top down ‘tell’ approach within our video communications to a culture of sharing, interaction and dialogue – created by everyone.”