Internal communication – missing in PR action

Internal communication is the easiest form of public relations to practice as the target audiences are captive and receptive to organisational messaging, employees are always committed to achieving the best they can and leadership provides positive role modelling.

Ah, if only life – and business – were so simple!

Then again, would we want it to be so straightforward, so tick-a-box, so lacking in crinkles, creases and subtleties? At times, I am sure the answer is a resounding yes, but if it were always like this then perfection would surely look a bit bloodless and antiseptic after a while.

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The discipline of internal communication may well seem simple, but this is profoundly deceptive.

It has many challenges, not least of which ‘everyone is a communication expert’, an hypothesis most professional communicators will have come up against.

Despite the fact we comms professionals may have degrees, including post-grad ones, and years of experience, it is the engineers, the MBA-garlanded management warriors and the IT boffins – amongst many others – who think they know best when it comes to communicating to, and engaging with, target audiences.

Whilst this is a situation all communicators come up against, I think it’s particularly prevalent when it comes to internal communication. Part of the reason for this is organisational politics.

The politics of positioning oneself as the most influential or important or prestigious within organisations is inextricably related to internal communication. This manifests itself in who:

  • is being quoted or referred to, and thus who is being favourably positioned within the communication (and by extension, organisation)
  • is directing the nature of the communication being undertaken
  • is authorising the communication to occur.

There need not even be a Machiavellian rationale for the above three points occurring. It can simply be a need for rigour.

On the other hand, business is hardly Sunday afternoon croquet at the family estate. It can be ruthless and it is clearly competitive.

Organisational values? Yeah, I get it. But if there are two or more leaders jockeying for position in a race which has as its rewards recognition, promotion and prestige, I think we need to be pragmatic about these factors and deal with them.

Following are some fundamental human resources-related characteristics to consider when undertaking internal communication. In the future, I’ll discuss other important aspects of internal communication such as influencers and hubs, target audiences, customisation and storytelling.

Role modelling and looking to leadership

You can paraphrase this as leader-led communication. It’s the same principle as parenting. It enacts the walk the talk methodology. You can’t expect employees to undertake their work activities in a manner which is not mirrored by leadership, whether its the CEO or a team leader.

There are perhaps two fundamental aspects of this. The first is behavioural. Communication supports, and is also reflective of, organisational culture. Culture beats communication for importance every time, but you won’t achieve a positive former without a functional latter.

So the first port of call is making sure leaders operate in a way which enacts the values of an organisation, including the imperative tenet of supporting employees both professionally and, to a degree, personally. They need to be building a positive culture.

This is role modelling and it includes the secondary aspect how well the leader communicates with those who report to him and/or are influenced by her.  For instance, is the leader proactive, honest and transparent with communication? Does communication occur frequently? Is it relevant and interesting?

Get these two inter-related dimensions right and it may just be the leader is an inspirational one.

Human resources and corporate communication: power partners

Surely it is common sense that an entity known as human resources will have a serious interest in all things concerned with employees, yet it’s often the case that HR is concerned almost entirely with the transactional nature of hire and fire. Whilst it may talk a grand-sounding talk on culture, in actuality it invests little more than tokenistic effort into the area.

Yet for communication to have any real impact on the internal workings of an organisation and, hence, its external results, it must be aligned with culture. Alone, communication has no hope of impacting positively on culture. It must be part of a more deeply rooted approach, one that is embedded in aspects such as:

  • induction
  • training
  • individual position descriptions and performance evaluations
  • whether employees are promoted or given pay rises
  • leadership.

These aspects are not in the communication function’s remit. Certainly, it can espouse, lobby and influence, but it cannot undertake this activity.

It is only when working in concert with HR can internal communication have any significant effect on organisational outcomes. Whilst this could be said for many of an organisation’s business operations, especially in regard to discrete campaigns or programs whic are targeted at limited, discrete units only of an organisation (e.g. engineering, call centre), there is no internal communication which is not relevant to the manner in which human resources are managed.

Have you worked hand-in-hand with HR in your internal communication work? What did you learn from this partnership and process? Where and how do you think internal communication can make the most positive impact on an organisation?

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Transforming ugly duckling business tasks into career-advancing swans

We’ve all been called into an ugly duckling project where our advice is being sought. We look at it, tilt our heads, give the thing a good squint and just go: what the hell am I doing here!? But a seemingly obscure, arcane or only tangentially relevant business task provides an opportunity for learning, career advancement and reputation enhancement: a beautiful swan indeed.

The professional communication disciplines (communication management, public relations, stakeholder relations, marketing communication et al and ad nauseum) are no different than any other discipline (e.g. accounting, law) in this respect. In fact, due to there being such a general lack of understanding of professional communication disciplines such as PR, it wouldn’t surprise me if we are called into projects where we can add little value more often than other professions.

And as much as it is tempting to ‘participate’ in these projects with little enthusiasm and minimal effort, especially where it is clear the value we can offer is either negligible or will not manifest itself until a long way down the path of the project’s evolution, that is not an approach I espouse taking.

Opportunity for learning

One of the great delights in participating in projects which seem alien or irrelevant to our day-to-day activities is they provide an opportunity to learn. I would expect all communication professionals to be naturally curious and have a desire to learn. Without these characteristics, I don’t see how we can reach our potential as professionals.

Reputation enhancement

Participating in projects based on topics or fields we are unfamiliar with almost certainly means we are interacting and building relationships with people we have not met and/or undertaken business with. By visibly adding value to the project and by being an enthusiastic, conscientious participant our reputation will be enhanced.

The value we add will help build up our capability to influence approaches and outcomes not just in the project at hand but, also, through other projects. Our influence will definitely not be contained to the single project team as its participants have connections to other parts of the business, as will the project itself. The power of word of mouth…..

Career advancement

The information we learn can have benefits in opening up new areas of expertise for our careers. If participating in an accounting or IT-specific project, for instance, knowledge gained through this project could provide the foundation for a career change into practicing comms within those industries.

Participating in projects could also lead to sufficient knowledge in a particular field being generated to allow the comms professional to leap up into a higher management level (and not necessarily comms-specific). This can occur based on the relationships built, the project management experience gained and the expertise in certain fields accrued.

You really do never know where next steps can lead.

Relationships are a critical conduit in career advancement, as is proving you can add value to a process and help achieve an excellent outcome. If you are not an active and enthusiastic participant in the ‘ugly duckling’ projects, then this may well be an opportunity lost – and that potential career advancement in the form of a beautiful swan could be sailing blithely by you as you impotently wonder why you are stuck in the muddy rut.

Pulling the pin on the ‘ugly duckling’

In some ways, this post could be read as another example of PR spin. The question, you may ask, is still unanswered: what if it really is impossible for the communication professional to add value to this project? It’s all well and good, you may say, to try to achieve the three outcomes noted above, but you are not adding any value to the process.

There are three responses to this I can think of.

Firstly, if the project team continues to want you to participate in the project as it evolves, there is likely to be a reason for this. Perhaps, without even realising it, you are in fact adding value to the process. This will only occur if you are engaged to an acceptable degree in it, however. Being purely a spectator in what is occurring will contribute nothing.

By asking questions (no matter how ‘stupid’ you may think they are – the only stupid question is the one not being asked, I recall hearing…) is providing a very valuable and typically PR contribution:

  • you are challenging assumptions
  • you are challenging accepted orthodoxies
  • you are, in fact, challenging the potential of groupthink occurring which, as has been proven time and time again, is a good thing. Call it the emperor’s new clothes approach, if you like.

Sometimes, what seems obvious to you can be lost to those deeply immersed in the topic. One of the best ways of adding rigour to the process and quality to the end result is to continually question assumptions.

Conversely, and this is the second of my answers, the communication professional is typically a great source of enthusiasm for excellent and innovative approaches and what will be likely outcomes. As a default, we tend to be half-glass full professionals. And that in itself is a highly valued commodity in what can sometimes be a jaded business environment.

Who can blame non-communication business disciplines for wanting to have some of this magic mojo!

Thirdly, and here I end the post on a downer, you may well be right, there is no point in being in this room with these people or being part of this project. If that is the case, you are going to need an acceptable rationale for suggesting you are not included in the team. You have been asked to join the team, presumably, for a good reason. Look hard at that reason and identify whether it really does hold up under scrutiny.

Before you jump, however, seek counsel from someone you respect, someone who will keep your conversation confidential.

Often, it all comes down to ROI. All of us only have so much time. The business is paying for this time. Is this time you are contributing offering the best return on investment for the business based on all your other responsibilities? We all need to prioritise. And often we need to be ruthless about it, too.

So what’s your approach going to be to this ugly duckling? Is it a swan in gestation – or not?

Have you been involved in projects where you have been unable to offer any value? Did you tolerate it or resign from the project? How have you managed to offer value to these projects and what has been your mindset in the involvement – with tolerance and enthusiasm being just two options?

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Kids football coaching achieves excellence in PR

Basic principles of talent in public relations are that it is not innate, it takes years of deep practice to become excellent and inherent, sustained motivation is vital.  Leadership must praise effort not talent, emphasise that abilities can be transformed through application and challenges are learning opportunities, not threats.

Coaching kids at football

PR guy in action as kids football coach!

Perhaps most importantly, “failure is a great opportunity for improvement”. To which I would add: the only fail is failing to give it a go.

If you’re wondering which PR textbook this came from, then you’ll be wondering for a while. These assertions come from a Football Federation Australia kids coaching resource.  Practicing public relations is not that much different to coaching kids at football, it seems! Mind you, I’ve written previously on the analogousness between mentoring and teaching children at sport and the business environment of PR.

There is not much point in recognising the truth in some of the points above, however, unless they are put in practice. And this is where leadership must manifest itself. It is about doing, not preaching; about being the change, not handing out instruction books on it.

The principles of excellence in PR

Scientific research has identified the following:

  • While geniuses (Messi being the one who comes to mind most immediately) do very rarely come along, most outstanding performers don’t inherit special genes from birth
  • All world class performers have a history of deep practice
  • No excellent performer has reached their pinnacle without possessing intrinsic and sustained motivation.

It has been asserted by one scientist it takes 10,000 hours – or ten years – of practice to reach a level of excellence in any field. Yes, the quality of that practice is imperative, but informal or ‘non-professional’ forms of practice (e.g. kicking the ball around with your dad/son in the backyard, writing important emails) can be just as important as formal practice.

I think writing posts for this blog is an example of informal practice:

  • It prompts me to think more deeply about aspects of my professional than I might otherwise have done
  • It is clearly writing – the single most important skill in public relations – practice
  • I would like to think it helps me in becoming a better leader as I have to weigh up arguments supporting or dissenting against different perspectives.

Without excellent leadership, public relations is ineffective

Leadership is a vitally important aspect of many of the points raised above:

  • If the quality of practice is important, then we need excellent leaders to make sure we are undertaking work which is effective, imaginative and delivers outcomes in line with business strategies and organisational positioning
  • The only way practitioners get a chance to really develop and to understand their capabilities, is to be given opportunities to stretch themselves. If they fail – partially or wholly – in the process then they have had the best learning opportunity they could ever have had. This is dependant, of course, on being given the support to help them improve and being provided with a safety net (through the leader)
  • Praising effort should always come before praising talent. Talent is meaningless unless it is put to good use. It cannot be put to good use without effort. Talent will last only so long, then it will wither without effort and application. It’s a bit like the tortoise and hare – we know who one that duel.

Another reason for praising effort over talent is that if effort is perceived as being second best then the majority of people are at risk of feeling marginalised and disrespected. This is because most of us rely on effort to achieve. And if the majority are left to languish in the shadows of praise prioritised towards the talented, then the majority will not be incentivised to achieve.

Motivation is vital to help achieve excellence. And I’m not talking performance reviews or objectives. Motivation must be intrinsic, not imposed. Methods to help stimulate this motivation include:

  • excellent role modelling from the leader
  • recognition of effort
  • encouraging a mindset which embraces mistakes, rather than avoiding their implications and shying away from them, using the opportunity to get better.

Commercial benefits of applying football excellence in PR

The efforts and outcomes achieved by the majority will be of greater commercial benefit to an organisation than that of the – very rare – person who relies primarily on talent, rather than hard graft.

This should not be taken as meaning the practitioner relying on practice rather than natural talent cannot be creative or imaginative. Far from it.

Creativity is often stimulated from insights which come through a deep familiarisation with content and the task at hand.

Intuition itself becomes even more honed after years of practice. This can help deliver insights more quickly than those without practice. Those who more quickly develop intuitive and insight-identification skills are – or should be – those who are considered for leadership roles. It saves time (= money) and provides a foundation for empathy.

Not only is empathy a characteristic of the excellent public relations practitioner, it is a characteristic of an excellent leader.

What is your view of the analogies I have drawn here, essentially looking for similarities between practicing PR and coaching kids football? What ‘non-professional’ factors do you draw upon when considering business activity? Should professionals be given opportunities to make mistakes or should we never put a business in that position?

Reference: many of the notions referred to in this post are captured in Football Federation Australia’s Game Training Certificate participant manual.