Cheerleading, customisation and storytelling: 3 pivotal axes of internal communication

Storytelling, the customisation of content and being an effective organisational cheerleader are critical axes of internal communication. Each of these are vital if we are to achieve internal communication nirvana: employees as an organisation’s number one brand advocate.

Communication nirvana

Customisation and target audiences in communication

As professional communicators we are always seeking to customise the message/content and the communication mechanisms/conduit to have the greatest impact on the target audience. In some ways, internal communication possesses greater challenges than external comms, as the target audience is often so small any significant expense cannot be justified on the basis of ROI.

This means, quite possibly, no grandiose launches, campaigns, gimmicks etc.

On the other hand, as interpersonal, face-to-face, leader-led communication is going to have the most impact almost every single time (internal comms or external comms), in theory internal comms should be much easier to get a result in than external comms.

Of course, this necessitates leadership buy-in and endorsement of the messaging and, without question, it means actively communicating this with teams, not just assuming they know it.

Other reasons why internal comms can hit some pretty big home runs these days includes:

  • Intranet – most employees will access the intranet on a daily basis. For employees in many organisations, when the browser is loaded up the intranet is right there in your face, making it the first port of call in work-related communication (not that this means all employees read its content, of course…)
  • Email – a very much abused and underestimated means of communication. How many times have you heard, well, if they don’t like it they can just delete it…? This is an attitude which contributes to the undermining of email as a useful communication mechanism (e.g. spam). The customisation of email lists can help alleviate this spamming attitude and make the communication approach relevant to as many employees as possible
  • Video – corporate communication teams are becoming increasingly adept at video production. Visual communication is a winner. ‘Moving picture’ visual communication is an even bigger winner. Simply extrapolate what’s driving social media usage into an internal context. No brainer, folks…
  • Photography – same as video, but less so, yet still extremely helpful in conveying information, giving a turbo boost to written and spoken communication and engaging with target audiences.

Don’t get me started on the laziness which can be exhibited by leaders when it comes to communication and the preference of many for images and video, however. The reliance some people have on visual communication poses the risk of subtlety, context and depth being lost in the communication mix.

I don’t think it is so much a symptom of the social media sharing age – i.e. images, video, punchlines with no narrative – as it is of information and responsibility overload. Quick wins and not taking responsibility for providing context and implications are bedevilling the competency of contemporary management.

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Storytelling for internal communication

Generating narratives with resonance and relevance for the entire organisation is a critical step in achieving:

  • an understanding of, and subscription to, the desired culture
  • an awareness of what the organisation actually does and why it is relevant to its external stakeholders
  • productivity and efficiency, including the outcome of employees staying longer at an organisation and so, therefore, reducing churn.

As a sage government relations expert ex-colleague of mine, Jason Froud, has said, “Culture is an amalgamation of stories.” An implication of this is that not every story has to resonate with every single employee, which is true. But for the bigger picture, the strategic direction if you will, to be clear to all employees there must be a common understanding of what the aspiration/objective of the organisation is.

It’s a paradox, but one which can be easily tolerated. The narratives relevant to only a few will often still have an approach, theme or sentiment which is encountered throughout multifarious stories. It could be something as uncomplicated (but important) as good customer service or telling the truth or having a positive attitude.

Good narratives help humanise an organisation, make it an entity which is people-driven and peoples’ values-driven, rather than one which is a corporate edifice and little else.

Internal public relations: always a cheerleader

The role of a communicator is by default that of a cheerleader. It is one of the terrific aspects of public relations; it focuses on the positive.

PR also identifies the potential negatives and develops approaches to help protect organisational reputation.

And the third, and potentially most important aspect of public relations is identifying perspectives and behaviours which are not aligned with the organisation, understanding this, then providing strategic counsel to the organisation which enables it to become more aligned with stakeholder (including employee) expectations. Ipso facto, changing the organisation, as well as changing stakeholders’ knowledge, opinions and behaviour.

The communicator needs to be careful when focusing on the positive that it is not being done in a manner which is so obvious as to be inane and saccharine-sweet. This could lead to literal, metaphorical and behavioural eye rolling – the actual undermining of organisational credibility rather than building it.

The other negative of focusing on the positive with a little too much gusto is if there is actually a seriously negative dimension to what is being discussed (e.g. redundancies, safety-related issues). This can lead to perceptions of spin or manipulation, which employees have a very sensitive nose for.

In fact, as employees are very intimate with an organisation’s business, it can be much more challenging dealing with some issues which require communication than in external comms.

One reason for this is the informal networks and relationships employees have across the business. It doesn’t take long for one piece of information to spread like wildfire through unofficial means. In many organisations, bosses will have strong relationships with those lower down the food chain than themselves, sharing information which shouldn’t really have been provided.

What is your experience in the use of video and imagery in internal communication – or even external for that matter? Is there a risk that context and fine detail is lost which then undermines the utility of the communication? How have you addressed the challenge of making storytelling relevant for the whole organisation when the stories can be particularly focused on one part of the business?

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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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Two-way symmetrical employee communication: tangible outcomes

A mistake that public relations professionals and/or organisations (and PR researchers/academics?) make too often is ignoring employees when it comes to the application of two-way symmetrical communication. Manifestations of practical outcomes where public relations should be achieving outcomes for employees include them having more control over their work activity, varying tasks, their work being respected and work expectations being clear.

PR helps employees and society get happy

Some of the most important reasons why PR/organisations should place a premium on employee communication include:

  1. Employees have the potential to be an organisation’s/product’s/service’s/brand’s greatest advocate (i.e. salesperson). (In a sense, employees are actually 3rd party advocates for the organisation, as most of them are not in management positions and not, therefore, inherently expected to ‘toe the corporate line’.) One outcome of this is increased sales
  2. Interpersonal communication is the most influential of all communication modes on other individuals, underlining the importance of point one
  3. Happy employees who trust their employers are more productive, thus helping an organisation achieve its business objectives.

Ideally, employees should be placed at the top of the tree in regard to organisational stakeholders, yet whilst the talk is talked often enough in this regard, I think we’d all agree it doesn’t translate into the walk as often as it should.

Happier employees work better

I was prompted down this line of thinking by a typically astute and interesting article by economics journalist Ross Gittins, who has a strong social seam running through his conscience and attitude to finance.

His article makes a number of points which I echo above, whilst he also points out research undertaken by two Canadian economists that shows, “life satisfaction – happiness – is significantly higher among workers who work where they rank management trustworthiness highly.”

This finding underlines what a serious responsibility all organisations have to the social fabric. Like it or not, organisations where people work impact on the holistic life of individuals and, by extension, those who they interact with and/or influence – i.e. society.

Organisations cannot rely on government regulation alone to guide them in the way they operate. Nor can they pretend they exist in a vacuum where their objectives and values operate in a ‘special’ sort of isolation from society.

Managers who are able to generate trust from their reports are more likely to be acting as a leader, rather than being a more process-defined ‘manager’. Perhaps a larger selling point is that improved trust in management, basically, ends up, having a greater impact on employees’ life satisfaction than an increase in income.

Public relations’ critical importance to employees and change management

Public relations has a profoundly important role to play in organisations behaving appropriately in regard to their employees.

The reason why advocating for employees is a fundamental part of public relations is that our role includes:

  • making organisational decision makers aware of its stakeholders’ perspectives
  • providing advice to organisations to help them evolve – both in the sense of what its objectives are and how to achieve them
  • communicating strategically on behalf of an organisation so that its operations and positions are understood, empathised with and, hopefully, subscribed to by stakeholders.

Underpinning this, of course, is the reality that communication is inherently two-way. Taking the perspective that communication is all broadcast/one-way is a dinosaur attitude. In our complex, hyper-connected stakeholder world an organisation cannot take a high and mighty-disconnected position. This is pure hubris and, in western democratic civilisations at least, a certain road to ruin.

We can’t rely on the process-driven human resources departments to instigate or cultivate changes within organisations that lead to the best possible culture. It’s actually within public relations remit so we need to fulfil our potential and run with it:

  1. Find where relevant research exists, like that referred to in this post, that informs, influences and shapes cultural change processes
  2. Undertake internal market research; identify issues, blockers and where opportunity lies
  3. Present the information in business-relevant terms and shake that tree until impact occurs – use our PR/advocacy skills!
  4. Instigate change management processes, which need organisational leadership buy-in.

Don’t die wondering!

Does it take effort, time and money to bother listening (i.e. short-term pain)?

Sure.

Will it lead to a greater degree of engagement and advocacy from employees; to a better return on organisational investment; to a healthier society with happier people (i.e. long-term gain?).

You can bet on it.

Have you been involved in employee communication where you have applied two-way symmetrical communication? How have you advocated the position of employees? Can you tell us about your work in this area or where you think the approach espoused above should have taken place?