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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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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