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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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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