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Storytelling as a cornerstone of change management

Change communication and two-way symmetrical communication possess invaluable attributes that can enrich the change management ‘product’. They include issues & change management, listening, market research and messaging – all of which use the cornerstone component of storytelling.

Sign Language American alphabet

Communication alone, however, no matter what the indisputable logic of the change (e.g. the business won’t survive and nor will your jobs if we don’t get on the bus together) and the effectiveness of getting people to recognise that logic, is not enough to make people change.

This post is an excerpt from A Communicator’s Guide to Successful Change Management, a free resource that explores, and provides practical strategic and tactical advice on, how communication contributes to effective change management.

Communication is imperative, yes, but it’s not the be-all and end-all and its application, like all elements of change management, requires humility, collaboration and, as Rachael Bibby has insightfully pointed out, compassion from its exponents, including executive leadership.

The ark – and the arcs – that is storytelling

At the heart of effective communication is articulating a compelling story – storytelling – a topic discussed at length in The Communicator’s Guide to Successful Change Management. And it’s not as easy as it might sound.

It’s the compelling characteristic which is the kicker.

The narrative ‘arc’ provides a vision and/or big picture scene setting context. This is especially relevant to transformational change, but so does it provide a context for any form of communication. From this narrative arc other messaging materialises, messaging more specific to the actual changes occurring.

The narrative arc has, embedded within it, the rationales for change. There are a number of factors relevant to the arc…

It will include a (hopefully) compelling vision for the future. But this goes to one of the core premises of effective communication (and culture for that matter):

  • Whose vision is it?
  • Was it co-created with employees or was it conceptualised by executive leadership and/or a consultancy firm?
  • “The power of a vision comes truly into play only when employees themselves have had some part in its creation” (Goman, 1999).

Employees need to be given the big picture and then have it drilled down to the what’s in it for me (WIIFM) dimension. Maybe the WIIFM is as simple as your job is at risk if we don’t change.

There needs to be honesty and transparency in communicating the rationale for change and, hence, in the narrative arc and vision.

Organisations need to share characteristics of their operating environment that are making change/transformation necessary and what needs to occur to future-proof the organisation.

Research consistently tells us that employees are phlegmatic in their response when it comes to these sorts of reality checks. They may not find it palatable, but they would rather be told the truth than given candy-coated, obfuscatory tales told in frigid auto-piloted corporate weasel words.

Operating environment factors driving the need for change could include:

  • a challenging economic operating environment
  • the unpredictability of, or emerging, competition
  • customer needs
  • leaps in technology that will facilitate efficiencies occurring and organisational competitiveness or productivity improving
  • an organisation needing to play catch up in productivity (Greece, as well as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland are examples of where change management needs to operate on a nation-wide basis!)
  • financials, risks, potential positive and negative outcomes of undertaking or not undertaking change (Goman, 1999).

Storytelling for trust

A key factor – and outcome that is sought – through organisational storytelling is trust.

This goes directly to the heart of culture (in itself heavily influenced by how much an organisational genuinely listens to its employees and acts upon what it has heard), because no amount of incisive, memorable storytelling will resonate – for the right reasons, at least – if trust is not granted from executive leadership and line management to employees.

Similarly, trust will not exist within employees unless the CEO, as the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates:

  • communicates clearly and transparently
  • tells the truth, no matter how complex or unpopular
  • engages with employees regularly to discuss the state of the business
  • is front and centre during challenging times.

Each of these four factors is crucial to change management. If it occurs, change has a fighting chance of becoming embedded. If it is not occurring, either from the CEO or executive leadership, then…

This post is an excerpt from A Communicator’s Guide to Successful Change Management, a free resource that explores, and provides practical strategic and tactical advice on, how communication contributes to effective change management.

(Goman, Karen: 1999. Twelve Questions to Ask Before Communicating Change. In IABC Handbook of Organizational Behaviour. 122-135. New York: Marcel Dekker.)

By |October 7th, 2015|Communication tactics, Internal communication|0 Comments

Saving the world – one cigarette at a time

It isn’t communication and public relations that will save the world; it’s what PR professionals have to work with – corporates’ social responsibility and business innovation.

Smoking kills

CVS Pharmacy is doing it by ditching cigarettes from their retail shelves. Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks are doing it through their stances on gay rights and sexual orientation. There are opportunities aplenty in the areas of resources (including energy) and waste.

Positive public relations from commercial and ethical foundations

On February 5, 2014, CVS Pharmacy (CVS Caremark), one of America’s largest pharma-retail companies, announced it will end the sale of tobacco products in its 7,600 stores come October, 2014.

This is a guest post by Adedamola Jayeola, who writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. Adedamola has written previously for this PR blog and brings a unique perspective and experiences to his observations, thanks in part to his Nigerian background, but also due to his global perspective.

Launching the move with the slogan “CVS quits for good,” company CEO, Larry J. Merlo said that “tobacco products have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered and removing them from our pharmacies is the right thing to do.” This makes CVS the first pharmaceutical retailer of its size to chart such a course. As expected, the announcement received commendation from stakeholders such as the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association and even the White House, to name a few.

This is not a step without consequences.

The company is projected to lose about two billion dollars in revenue (one percent of its estimated $120billion annual revenue) and significant ‘traffic’ from tobacco consumers, meaning further negative ‘knock on’ impact on the sale of other merchandise in the pharmacies.

Analyses will uncover different objectives for this decision, from the public health perspective proffered by the company, to business strategy (CVS Caremark plans to evolve from the retail model into a health care provider) or just “Great PR”, as described by Forbes.com and other industry watchers.

However, what is indisputable is that CVS is taking a stand, a definite one. Tobacco smoking is still dangerous to health and CVS wants to have nothing to do with it.

Taking a stand: fallacy or fact?

Do brands take stands now? Recently, some brands have brazenly expressed, or alluded to ,opinion on controversial issues, often dividing their audience into different schools of thought in the process.

The debate on gay rights and sexual orientation involving Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks and some brands in sports and entertainment come to mind. For-profit ventures now declare a corporate stand on sensitive topics, either as a matter of choice or in a move of strategy. Indifference as a business stance seems to be losing its appeal.

Not to be dismissive of socio-cultural or ethno-religious issues, I find CVS ending tobacco sale an action with greater impact. With consideration of health dynamics, morbidity as a sequel to tobacco usage will supersede individual orientations such as sexual preferences or proclivities. It is a matter of life first, before how you swing. No pun intended.

Applying conscience and commerciality to African enterprises

I had a chat with a colleague on the lesson(s) indigenous businesses (small, medium and large-scale) in Africa’s emerging economies can take from CVS. She gave me that “you cannot be serious” look which I (admittedly) saw coming.

The peculiarities of the business environments in some regions on the continent will make any brand think again before deciding to be a hero. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report of 2014, Nigeria and Kenya score 147 and 129 respectively (out of 189) in a ranking of “ease of doing business.” Suffice to say ,the regional average for Sub-Saharan Africa in this data is 142.

Behind any ‘sunny’ statistic positioning the continent as emergent are everyday challenges of infrastructure, finance and lately, security. For local businesses, these are real excuses to be indifferent and leave saving the world to super, cape-donning [and western-based? – Ed.] brands.

These handicaps notwithstanding, I believe Africa’s businesses can take a stand on some issues of global importance. Possible areas include:

  1. Energy: Nigeria (my home country) is still challenged in power production for domestic and industrial consumption. This forces many businesses to generate their own electricity, often through fossil-fuel powered engines. The downside of this is extreme air and noise pollution, especially in the commercial cities. Until power is fixed, brands that take a stand to Go Green on energy (solar, wind, etc.) either partially or totally, will reduce their own carbon footprint. The benefits for the society if there is industry-wide replication will be tremendous.
  2. Waste: Waste and energy share an interesting relationship. Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs) on waste management are yielding success in cities such as Lagos and Accra. The progress can be made symmetrical if brands are active with sustainability initiatives (recycling, composting, etc.) or develop in-house eco-preservation projects that are strategically communicated.
  3. Resources: Specifically, raw materials that go into manufacturing or production. Issues and conflict from crude-oil exploration in Nigeria’s Niger Delta are legendary, but little attention is paid to other natural resources. For example, wood is an important raw material for industries such as art, tourism and furniture on the West African coast. Players in these industries can take a stand on preserving the earth through tree planting projects, or choose to adopt synthetic materials as substitutes for wood, if possible.

These suggestions are not unfamiliar and would fit somewhere in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan. Are they practical? Yes (though I admit this practicality is relative). For instance, in (1) and (3) three above, production costs may be involved, no matter how marginal.

So, here is the crux. Taking a stand will be a step beyond executing a CSR script. As earlier described, it will often come at an appreciable cost, even in the short-term. With pressure on Walgreen and other players in pharma-retail to tow the CVS line, credence is being lent to a radical, yet credible point of view:

the brand of the future cannot afford to only create value for profit, it must demonstrate values in itself. Strong values that may yet give our dying earth some hope.

Adedamola Jayeola writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. He’s online at www.adejay.com and@drjayecomms

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Politics and influence: the furnace of internal communication

Identifying and leveraging influencers, just like with external communication, is a critical element of internal communication. Communicating within organisations is, in many ways, a compelling microcosm of external communication. The politics of people, however, can make it a much richer and more intense experience for professional communicators.

Reasons for this include:

  • target audiences for the communication are right there, in your face – forget six degrees of separation!
  • different leaders wanting communication to be undertaken in different ways – often involving communication timing and degrees of transparency – and with different content
  • the personal politics of positioning and careers.

People want to be perceived in a certain way. Put this in a professional context, where people work, and this want is deepened and made more complex. The natural desire to be liked and respected is made more important because careers and income generation enter the equation very strongly.

It is a cave man/survival/law of the jungle situation, which goes equally for both genders. Supporting families becomes a factor. Protecting your turf and ensuring there is a pathway to progress (or escape?) is an atavistic urge.

You can, however, combine the reflective, intellectualised capability of humans, especially well developed (one would hope) in the contemporary business environment – especially with leadership. But you still have conflict associated with each person wanting to, basically, ‘protect their turf’.

So in this complex, politicised context, it would be unwise to characterise internal communication as a lesser species than it’s better funded genetically related cousin with the bigger ego, external communication.

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Identifying and leveraging influencers for internal communication

Influencers are not necessarily bosses. And they are definitely not necessarily those which occupy the very top tiers of organisational leadership. And one reason for this is that those who are officially ‘leaders’ do not necessarily exhibit ‘leadership’.

I’ve discussed how face-to-face is, in nearly every context, going to be the most effective form of communication. The same goes for those being closest to you in the workplace having the greatest potential to influence your behaviour. So it makes sense leaders closer to individual employees are going to have a greater impact, in most cases, than those leaders further removed than them.

This is one reason why leader-led communication is so important. And why it is so important that top-tier leadership engages with lower level leaders to ensure messaging, storytelling and, most importantly, behaviour is consistent across the organisation. Behaviour relates to the:

  • competency and alacrity with which work is undertaken
  • way in which employees treat each other and external organisational stakeholders
  • the values and ethics of employees and how they apply them in the workplace.

There are plenty of employees who show leadership who are not leaders. They will have no one reporting to them, but through their behaviour (including the respectful manner in which they deal with all employees) and the proactivity with which they communicate they are a hub of influence and communication. Smart organisations will identify who these people are and find ways of prioritising the feeding of information to them and utilising their influence.

Informal communication settings will provide more meaning and context for most employees: the beers, cigarettes and lunchroom context.

It may sound flippant, but wherever informal conversations are occurring between employees there will be work-centric conversations occurring where organisational content is being discussed. Getting to the informal influencers to assist in message traction will assist organisational communication effectiveness and functionality.

Additionally, there is a place within organisational communication to use different people to lead specific conversations. For instance, the chief financial officer will probably hold optimum credibility with employees when discussing the financial state of the organisation than line supervisors; the chief information technology officer will probably be listened to more closely than others when IT issues are being communicated.

It may be somewhat painful for some organisational leaders, but I strongly subscribe to the MBWA (management by walking around) approach to communication. Leaders will become more relevant to employees and their messaging will resonate more clearly when it is obvious they are personally reaching out to employees by talking WITH them, not at them.

Dialogue, empathy, contextualising organisational stories and content to individuals is clearly an effective approach to communication.

An extension of this is leadership having regular large group face-to-face forums with employees, giving them updates on key organisational matters; asking for feedback; providing opportunities for new ideas to be tabled.

Have you used an approach which involved influencing the informal leaders in an organisation to assist with proactive or issues management-related communication? How has the politics of organisational existence influenced the way in which you have undertaken internal communication and what have you learned from situations where politics are rife?

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