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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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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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.