CovidComms Awards

How a new corporate purpose drove Greene King’s Covid-19 response

Winner: Best in-house internal communications team
CovidComms Awards 2020

Just one week before the UK went into lockdown, the management of Greene King launched a new corporate purpose for the pub chain. Plans to cascade We Pour Happiness into Lives down through Greene King were put on hold as all its 1,700 pubs closed and almost all its 38,000 staff were furloughed virtually overnight from 6 April.

The communications team was also impacted. It shrank to just three people, including corporate affairs director Greg Sage, after two-thirds were furloughed. (One member returned temporarily in May, to prepare for the reopening of pubs, but was later put back on furlough, leaving the original trio.)

Yet this small team still managed to perform its critical role as it kept everybody engaged and informed on how the business was handling the crisis. Indeed, comms was a central part of the crisis response team from the outset, attending all board ‘meetings’ so they could clearly communicate relevant messages to their colleagues.

And the pub chain’s purpose and new values, including Customer First, Freedom to Succeed, Win, Learn and Celebrate Together and We Take Ownership, which simply articulated how Greene King had always behaved, became the lens through which decisions were made.

Being a pub company, you can imagine what our purpose means for our customers, but our values are what drives us

Head of communications Joanna Kreckler explains that the arrival of chief executive Nick Mackenzie back in May 2019 had led to a review of Greene King’s culture and values. ‘He spent a lot of time in his first months researching what Greene King meant to people. It was a very inclusive process,’ she explains. ‘He brought the leadership and management teams together that autumn to [consider a range of options] of what our purpose and values could be. He got some feedback – it was a real two-way process – and worked that through over the winter before launching our new values and purpose to the business in March, to bring them to life.’

Plans for events to ‘get under the skin of what these meant’ may have been put on hold, but they will be dusted down as soon as physically possible. ‘Being a pub company, you can imagine what our purpose means for our customers, but our values are what drives us. Our We Care value is the one that our team members felt came through strongly,’ explains Kreckler.

Indeed, this value shone through on Super Saturday – 4 July 2020 – when the pubs were permitted to open for the first time after lockdown. Many of Greene King’s general managers expressed concern that there could be such pent-up demand that their teams, working together for the first time after four months, who were just getting the pubs back up and running, might be overwhelmed or feel unsafe. ‘We delayed opening until that Monday, to allow them to get back into the swing of things and to understand social distancing measures as well as PUBSAFE,’ says Kreckler.

PUBSAFE represents a series of promises that Greene King developed to ensure safe social distancing for both customers and employees. These include introducing cleaning monitors in each pub, to check everyone is safe and venues are kept clean, training staff on the latest government guidelines for safe working, introducing hand sanitisers at entrances and within the pubs, and minimising contact by introducing contactless payment, disposable menus and table service. Initially, just 1,294 pubs re-opened while Greene King established how to open the remaining estate, where social distancing might be more problematic, safely for its staff and customers. She adds: ‘We Care came through particularly strongly for our people. Obviously, there was a lot of money that could be made so that was a consideration, but we put our people first.’

Not that such a stance should have surprised employees. So concerned was Greene King’s management about their London colleagues and the prevalence of the virus in March 2020, that the group had told staff of its plans to shut its pub estate in the capital just hours before the government announced a national lockdown. ‘We got the news out to our teams in the afternoon, and then Boris said at 5pm that all pubs would be shutting,’ she adds.
Staff concerns about re-opening on 4 July 2020 emerged during a Teams Live event. Greene King now regularly hosts live events for up to 10,000 people, where employees can ask questions on any subject, after the communications team underwent a ‘step-change’ in the way it communicated digitally, and like so many peers, ‘quickly upskilled’ on Microsoft Teams.

Another platform that has become central to employee communications is Greene King’s app Kingdom, which had been running for just over a year prior to lockdown. ‘Most of our employees are in pubs, and we needed to find [a platform] that was accessible to them. They have it on their personal phone, and they can check in when they need,’ adds Kreckler.

If you were furloughed, you knew that on Friday at 5pm there would be Round Up, a weekly newsletter summary of all the things that had happened and a video from our CEO on what was coming up, what he was focusing on and what we were doing as a company
Prior to lockdown, about 69 per cent of employees had downloaded and logged into the app: by September 2020, that figure had risen to 93 per cent. (Most of the remaining seven per cent are office-based and have access to Greene King laptops and the intranet, and thus do not need the app.)

‘Those months between March and September, we really used the app to communicate. If you were furloughed, you knew that on Friday at 5pm there would be Round Up, a weekly newsletter summary of all the things that had happened and a video from our CEO [Nick Mackenzie] on what was coming up, what he was focusing on and what we were doing as a company,’ she adds.

‘It was really important. He did a great job in keeping people buoyant and informed, and bringing them along with him and trying to keep positivity. Sometimes it would be challenging, because the government’s decisions weren’t always in favour of pubs, but it was a way for Nick to talk to people directly and I think they appreciated that.

‘And, if you cared about your place of work and colleagues, it was a great place to be. They could talk to each other. There was the news group [which everyone was in] which we pushed from comms, but there were divisional, team and area groups, which were organised centrally.’

The Friday round up also shared good news stories, such as the amount of food Greene King had donated to food banks and its offer of pub car parks to local hospitals, or information about volunteering opportunities with its charity partner Macmillan Cancer Support.

‘It was difficult for a few months, because there was nothing we could say in terms of re-opening, but once we could start to see the light, we would start to seed out stories on how we might re-open, keeping people informed.’

The comms team did not restrict themselves to Fridays. Each time there was a government update which impacted pubs, such as regional lockdowns or tier systems, the team would quickly summarise the details and put them up on Kingdom so that colleagues would understand how it might affect them. They also worked with human resources to build a wellbeing communications plan, posting three times a week to support colleagues with their mental, physical, emotional and financial wellbeing.

The team also built a virtual community with the launch of Ice-Olation Breaker, a play on Greene King’s famous Ice Breaker pale ale, which focused on challenges and interactivity. Each member of the executive board, for example, set challenges. ‘They were really silly, like how many Smarties can you pick up with a straw. One director put on loads of jumpers and challenged people to guess how many he was wearing. But you could win amazing prizes, which led to great levels of engagement,’ adds Kreckler. ‘It helped our colleagues feel part of the company while furloughed.’

Another initiative to keep employees engaged is The Lock Inn, a virtual pub offering a weekly quiz on Wednesdays and musical bingo on Fridays which launched in April 2020. Organised externally, The Lock Inn is free to both customers and colleagues, although there are opportunities for participants to donate to Macmillan.

One of the things I wish I had captured more at the time was the tremendous amount of external endorsement of our people on LinkedIn
Historically, Greene King embarks on a fundraising month for Macmillan in May, and in 2019 raised a record £700,000. Last year, for obvious reasons, the fundraising month was pushed back to September and more than £1 million was raised for Macmillan. ‘Wow! We had social distancing, loads of pubs shut because of tier restrictions while others hadn’t yet re-opened, but our teams are so amazing they get people really behind things. People may not have had as much money as before, but they wanted to do something for Macmillan because they recognised there had been a massive funding gap for the charity,’ adds Kreckler.

‘One of the things I wish I had captured more at the time was the tremendous amount of external endorsement of our people on LinkedIn, especially between April and June 2020, but even now to some degree. People saying I can’t believe they are doing this; they’re doing that…’

For example, internally Mackenzie took a 50 per cent pay cut, other board members took 30 and the leadership also made voluntary sacrifices. Those monies, boosted by a company donation, totalled £650,000 and were put into a Team Member Support Fund, which ran from March to June 2020. Managed independently by Licensed Trade Charity, the fund donated grants of up to £400 to access food and retail vouchers. It is based on the Licensed Trade Charity’s criteria, meaning it was open to all colleagues who earned less than £2,500 per month and had less than £6,000 in savings regardless of their length of service. A new Team Member Support Fund launched in January 2020, with monies once again from voluntary salary reductions and a company donation.

‘The challenge for working in a pub is that, if you’re not salaried, you’re not getting the same pay each month. Furlough was based on what people received the previous year, so if they had fewer shifts their furlough pay may not be quite enough,’ explains Kreckler. ‘But it was also broader than that.’

And while 99 per cent of Greene King’s 38,000 employees were furloughed on 80 per cent of pay, this was subject to an upper limit of £2,500 per month. So, the pub group subsequently topped up those employees impacted by this upper limit, to ensure they also received 80 per cent of pay while furloughed.

‘As an internal communications team, we are central. We are more about the global and strategic messages rather than specific pub team messages, say, for which there is an operations comms team, with whom we work very closely,’ explains Kreckler.

‘But we are a really passionate team. Everybody really cares about the people. I do think there is a lot of love going on in our business right now. I felt like that before, I felt it was building, and that was brought out by the launch of our corporate purpose and values. During this time, people have come together, and our duty is to keep those messages out and to keep people informed. I don’t think we’ve ever waned on that; even though it has been hard, we have kept the energy up.’

But the tone of messages has also evolved over the past year. ‘At the beginning of the first lockdown, everything was new and there was so much to do. We had to explain what furlough meant, for example, and there were so many technical communications that we had to get out.

‘Telling people how to work from home, say. In the first few weeks, before people were furloughed, it was about how to set up a workstation, how to make sure you take enough breaks and do you juggle home life and working,’ she says. ‘There were a lot of new communications back then, which we’ve now done, so we just top them up. But we all mucked in. And I feel like we did a good job.’

Kreckler believes that their work was helped by the communications team’s participation in the pub group’s crisis response team. ‘When Greg [Sage] couldn’t attend, I would go. It was useful having comms on those calls because, when decisions were made, there was not any second-hand translation. We could ask questions at the time and give a view. While we weren’t like some operators, who were talking to their teams all the time, we did get to see what was happening on Kingdom. We could see what the sentiment was. We were monitoring that in a way nobody else was.’

From such chatter, for example, it emerged that Greene King staff really appreciated the videos from their chief executive. She explains: ‘It was probably quite scary. Our business was shut. Everyone was in lockdown, but when you have a figurehead who appears to be steering the ship, it is quite helpful.

‘And when we translated government updates, we could quite quickly see what people’s feelings were. We could feed that back to the [leadership] and that was really quite useful, in terms of being able to directly help on specific challenges.’

Indeed, such was the success of the communication team, that 88 per cent of Greene King’s employees felt engaged and supported even though most had been furloughed.