MONDAY 31 JUL 2023 9:54 AM


Mimi Brown, director of corporate communications at The PHA Group, explores the lessons to be learnt from how bicycle manufacturer VanMoof has handled its internal comms following bankruptcy.

Last week, following a bankruptcy filing by Dutch e-bike maker VanMoof, 700 employees received an email from the company’s founders, brothers Taco and Ties Carlier.

While the founders may not be as au fait with the detail of how that ruling effected each employee as the administrators were, it struck me that the email was focussed on the founders’ sadness about closing operations and not achieving the potential they had hoped - but it didn't really reflect on the emotional impact of the news on 700 likely terrified employees.

The email shared heartfelt thanks to the employees who were part of the business’ growth but there’s no real depth. There's a sorry that their plan didn’t work, there's a sorry the company's mission remains unfulfilled, and there are kind regards - but there is no acknowledgement of the huge uncertainty and worry that the employees of VanMoof would have felt upon opening that email. No reassurances or next steps were given, and the email also failed to explain why the company was being wound up. In a purpose driven scale-up, I’m sure employees deserved and wanted more context on something that affected their future, direct from the people leading the business – not through an administrator’s addendum.

When it comes to difficult news it’s really important to help people – whether that’s customers or colleagues – understand what is happening and, crucially, why.

Sure, leave some of the legal stuff to the administrators and experts (nobody wants to miscommunicate on potential mass redundancy), but there’s always room for honesty, facts and empathy for the people you trust and credit with building your business.

It's incredibly hard to communicate tough news well - and lots of businesses are facing unprecedented pressures across their supply chain and operations. VanMoof's news is an extreme example, but how you communicate with employees and colleagues can be the difference between a secure, stable future and a highly uncertain one.

Unlike customer and marketing communications, which are usually highly personalised thanks to the big data and tech investments made by brands, internal comms is too often ‘white labelled’.  Bland communications is the most common trap I see businesses fall into: emails and intranet posts that don’t convey personality and sincerity – or recognise that the recipients really do know their organisation, having sometimes dedicated a huge proportion of their life to making it a success.

A parallel external comms example is how best to communicate price rises. Research into the psychology of price rises shows consumers want the following, in order of priority: at least a month's notice, an explanation of ‘why’ and the context, the detail of how it will affect them personally, and then finally the price change detail itself. The same logic of forewarning, transparency and openness can be applied to internal change management communications, where 'the hundreds of dedicated and loyal people' working for VanMoof would have immediately skipped past the email prelude and references to the ‘vision’ in order to find the explanation of what had happened and how it would affect their lives and income.  

High performing organisations are driven by employees that feel valued. This is particularly pertinent in founder-led and scale-up phase businesses where employees are often united behind shared values. To hear direct from leadership is powerful and personal and, in an increasingly difficult economic landscape, businesses should be prioritising their internal communication strategy as much as they do their external.