Amplats got it right

anglo-platinumAnglo American Platinum (Amplats for short) is the world’s largest producer of platinum. At the time of this case study, they had more than 48,000 employees (that’s 48 THOUSAND) on their mines in South Africa. In 2010, the head of Corporate Communications commissioned a demographic analysis of the workforce to see what messages the decade-old company newsletter, Our Voice, should have. It turned out that Our Voice, which was filled with “hatches, matches and dispatches” and otherwise dull corporate-speak in formal English, had not much to offer the employees. But what was the alternative? Who exactly where they talking to? 

The results of the internal survey and analysis that the company conducted in 2011 showed up the following discrepancies that would make mass communication difficult:

  • The majority of workers did not have English as a mother tongue, the biggest group was Tswana, followed by Xhosa speakers. (In South Africa, there are 11 official languages, one of which is English.)
  • There were two distinct groupings in education levels; a large group were uneducated blue-collar labourers, the other group had Grade 12 education. Very few employees had above Grade 12.
  • There were two matching peaks in age: the group with little or no education were in their 50s and 60s, the group with high school education were in their 20s and in their 30s. These two groups had very different interests and needs.
    Interestingly, the older the workers, the more dependants they had.
  • Lastly, they could mainly be communicated with while they were at work – and since most of them worked on underground operations, this was very difficult. There was only time for critical production and safety information at the operational meetings on the mines.

To communicate with them about issues other than production and safety, the company would have to find other channels and platforms. The majority of workers lived in private housing off the mines, a big change from a few years before. But that offered an opportunity for communications that could reach them on a personal level.

Information about housing, job advancement, education, job security and safety – in their mother tongues – were all important to the workers. These were usually communicated in varying degrees of success by the HR Departments of each operation. Most communiques about these subjects, including shares schemes, retirement benefits and pension plans, were in almost unintelligible legalese.

What did Amplats decide to do?

They decided to put in the money to develop a graphic-novel type series of paperbacks for the older, illiterate or semi-literate workers, to take home and read with their families. Note: graphic novel, not comic book.

They got the broadcast rights for a private radio station, Platinum Radio, to reach the workers at home and on the buses to and from work, in their mother tongues.

They started a campaign for safety that did not feature the managers, but the workers in their own words, and their own mother tongues, called “My Values Story”. Those that could not write, could get a friend to write down their stories. The idea was that the prize for each submitted story would be a wind-up radio, so that they could listen to Platinum Radio at home where they may not have electricity. (At the time, South Africa had a big problem with rolling national electricity blackouts.)

For the educated workers in their thirties, the company developed an on-line version of the company annual report, with info-graphics to explain the financial terminology in ways that they could grasp.

For the management-level employees, they OK’ed the development of an e-zine (basically a news blog) that they could access on their iPads when travelling between mine sites.

The old newsletter, Our Voice, was continued, but with somewhat different content than before, focusing on issues that matter to the workers. For a start, the writing in all the mine publications had to be in Plain English with specific Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease & Grade Level scores (see the graphic). This included contributions about safety, pensions, shares, medical schemes, etc.

These were brave decisions requiring radical changes in process and deliverables. Ultimately, their projects were overtaken by unionized labour unrests and national events which made all other information seem unimportant. However, the initiatives showed how very different decisions can be made once a company definitively knows who they are talking to by doing research, not by making assumptions and doing guesswork.

Below, extracts from the final set of demographic reports:



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