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?

PR-driven thought leadership turbocharges employer branding

Employer branding is something of a chic sub-section of contemporary branding, yet marketing has yet to get its head around how to leverage PR to achieve a best-possible outcome. Actually, marketing has yet to figure out how to leverage marketing to best effect! But it’s an exciting and incredibly worthwhile dimension of business communication and one where dialogue/conversation/change based on feedback really does have an opportunity to occur.

PR thought leadership for employer brandingIn my previous post on employer branding I talked mainly at a more strategic level and talked extensively about thought leadership. And this is all lovely, isn’t it, but let us not, dear congregation in the Church of PR, dwell on the theory, let us deliver results and make clients and bosses happy!

So let’s get pragmatic, practical and, ultimately, potent.

Rolling out PR thought leadership to ramp up employer branding

A plan needs to be designed for the rolling out thought leadership content that has been created to enhance employer brand equity. There are three basic options that should always be considered for external communication:

  • Media placement
  • Placement on non-organisational social media platforms
  • Placement on organisational social media platforms, with a blog probably being best practice dependant on the organisation and its situation. But this is not no-argument position (other options include using it on a traditional corporate website or Facebook, for example).

Of course, the best approach will probably be a blend of these options.

Methods of placing/distributing the content include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Generation and placement of by-lined op-eds in media
  • Issues-based PR media campaigns that seek multiple media placements
  • Guest posts on relevant blogs
  • The offering of interviews with organisational leaders to relevant bloggers.

A further option for leveraging this content is through speaking engagements. The primary target audience for all this communication is potential employees. This means industry conferences and/or industry association professional education programs relevant to vocations the organisation wants to recruit (e.g. IT, finance etc) will be the first port of call when looking for platforms through which to convey the thought leadership content.

Thought leadership for employee engagement

Even when using social media as a platform on which to roll out thought leadership, there is a strong whiff of ‘broadcast’ (i.e. one-way communication) inherent within it. The real opportunity for two-way communication and a deep level of engagement comes with internal communication – internal employer branding, if you like.

Public relations platforms for internal communication include:

  • Newsletter
  • Special thought leadership-customised bulletins – digital or hard copy
  • Presentations by relevant thought leaders
  • Intranet
  • Putting it on the agenda for every small-group team meeting.

A further option are broadcast emails pointing to where external media (or social media) coverage has occurred that either overtly or subtly helps employer brand positioning. This does great things for employee ownership of the brand.

But you really need to point out where the organisation has taken a bollocking if doing this, as you can’t have it both ways. Rationalise the bollocking, by all means, but don’t try to ignore it. Do so, and employer brand equity does a nosedive.

A mix of platforms will no doubt be most effective at achieving a higher degree of engagement, but I particularly like the option of team leaders (teams being, say, a maximum of about 20) extolling the need of every team member to read the thought leadership content, then leading a discussion about its ramifications.

This is a great way to:

  • enhance the value of, and insights provided by, the thought leadership content
  • make it relevant to and resonant for each individual
  • ramp up the levels of empathy and understanding between team members (hello – productivity come on down!)
  • build business-relevant dialogue – any team leader worth a pinch of salt will feed information of utility up through the hierarchy so that it can help the organisation evolve and fulfil its mission statement.

‘External’ social media tactics for internal audiences

Don’t think that social media hosted external to the organisation cannot help with internal engagement. Why not promote organisational presence on social media and encourage employees to engage with it?

What better way to exhibit to potential employees what a switched on workforce that you have? Of course, some organisations may feel they are giving the keys of the asylum to the lunatics, loosening brand control strictures. But baby, this is so old school, so redundant and so not facing the reality that brand is a shared construct, not a command and control one.

Somewhat ironically, employees in this context are actually a 3rd party, providing 3rd party credibility endorsement of a brand they actually work for. It’s an interesting strategic approach, a cute switch, and one with potentially huge value. If your employees are not your greatest brand advocates, then I’d suggest you ditch the employer branding program – I’d get to work on a cultural change program!!!

Have you experienced social media being utilised for effective internal communication/employee engagement? How can external communication outcomes be leveraged internally – can you share any thoughts or experiences? What have you learnt from putting thought leadership into practice? And how have you actually added intellectual or strategic value to the process and content?

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