A Tipping Point For IC?

The thing about being an old communicator is that, over time, years of experience become clarified and whittled down to very simple basics. Sometimes this means seeing things in stark relief and the way ahead, for you anyway, becoming incredibly clear.

Reading the CIPR Inside document ‘Making It Count – The Strategic Value and Effectiveness of Internal Communication’, published in November 2017, occasioned one of those moments. Being honest, it was one of those ‘oh shit’ moments.

The issues identified by the CIPR document were (and this may not be an exhaustive list, so read the damn’ thing yourself) as follows. (The summaries following each issue point are drawn from the report, but are my own words.)

IC’s ‘professional branding’

(The term ‘professional branding’ is used (by me, here) to mean how IC is viewed when it isn’t in the room.) IC is tactical not strategic, it lacks business acumen, it is not measurable, its function is unclear. Communication within an organisation is seen as important and valuable – but is spoken of (by senior management) in broad terms that do little to suggest an understanding of tangible benefits or the risks of not doing it.

IC’s ‘place’ in the organisation

CEOs responding to questioning about the value of business functions highlighted IC as important but, understandably, said that the areas that generated profits had the most value. The impression is that IC practitioners, on the other hand, fell that they are wholly undervalued and, in some cases, merit a place on the board.

What IC actually is

Many IC practitioners surveyed used the terms ‘IC’ and ‘engagement’ interchangeably, a confusion which hints at a lack of professional clarity. ‘Culture’ was also thrown into the mix. CEOs mentioned IC strategy, but were talking IC tactics. It appears IC is often a simple delivery system and not the instigator or shaper of the message.

What IC delivers to the organisation

Motherhood statements (from senior management) such as ‘Internal communication is extremely important…..it’s right up there and (I) would rate it at a nine or ten, because if you don’t communicate effectively with your people….. you’re probably going to have a dysfunctional organisation’ imply no real understanding of IC delivery or benefit. 

How IC is measured

The summary finding ‘there is a strong focus from leadership on performance and targets’ illuminates and damns in one. CEOs agreed that an engaged workforce (engagement/IC confusion) was more productive, but believed it was difficult to to prove with hard data.

Finally, and I cannot ignore this, there is a clear indication of corporate attitudes to IC in the sample size. The aim was 40 senior managers ‘however, (the CIPR) found it challenging to identify the full sample for varying reasons, including access to CEOs’  – the end result was 14.

I want to be clear, I disagree completely with the CIPR when it says the report ‘delivers an upbeat assessment of the practice, with senior leaders demonstrating a sharp understanding and appreciation of internal communication.’ Sadly, I think I got a different version of the document.

But I was always told that one shouldn’t highlight problems without offering solutions – so, what should we be doing about all of this? Here’s a few things – by no means an extensive list, without the detail that is required to initiate a conversation – we might consider starting with.

  • Let’s put IC where it belongs – in Corporate Affairs, Communications or PR. It’s not part of HR and it’s definitely not part of marketing. It needs to sit with other comms functions to be part of a central messaging unit
  • Let’s be sure we know the difference between IC and Engagement. Communication can help deliver employee engagement, but Engagement (and its measurement) sits with HR/OD
  • Let’s ensure that we know what IC’s goals are (they should be aligned to the company’s goals) and use them to develop a strategy. Only then should we talk tactics
  • Let’s put measurement in place – start simply, with a couple of questions for each employee. These questions could form part of a wider engagement survey (there is no irony in this), or could be on the intranet or could be printed out by line managers, filled in by staff and handed in to IC
  • Let’s get involved in messaging – reflecting the corporate messaging, and developed by function, by department, by team – as granular as you want, as long it’s relevant and useful – and use this opportunity to enhance management understanding of the role
  • Recognise that IC (and Corporate Affairs) are unlikely to get seats on the board, and maybe not even (officially) on the ExComm. But also recognise that both are ‘trusted advisor’ functions and, as such, require business knowledge, business acumen and a healthy respect for cash flows and bottom lines

I first became aware of IC as a discipline 23 years ago – before I became aware of a thing called the world wide web. Before I had a mobile phone. It is not a new thing and there has been plenty of time for it to ‘mature as a specialist discipline within the broader communication function’ – and I have experience of several organisations where it has.

The CIPR report shines a useful and timely light on the issues confronting IC as a discipline. It should be treated as a call to immediate action.

In-House Communication – A Business Essential, Not Priced By The Yard

Recently, I came across – not for the first time – the idea of creating a ‘rate card’ for in-house communications activity. Simply put, this is the concept of putting a cost on the team’s time, and on the activity the team carries out. While (normally) the charge would not be passed on to your internal customers, it shows what the service would cost, if  it were. The slide below lists the potential benefits.

(NB I apologise unreservedly to comms2point0, who created the slide. I encountered it via Twitter, and haven’t seen it presented. I do not believe it’s quite the same as I’ve described above – I think it’s a thought experiment, aimed at demonstrating the value of the in-house communication function, to those working within the function itself and amongst its internal customers and stakeholders. I have to acknowledge that – as I have no experience of how things are done in the public sector – the idea may work very well in that context.)

In the cyclical and budget-constrained world of in-house communication, where, I am afraid, there are turf wars and land grabs, creating an agency in-house is a genuinely risky course of action.

I understand what drives this thinking. Very often, the in-house communication function is (or appears to be) undervalued and thus is under-utilised (or utilised in the wrong way) and inevitably under-funded. No matter how often it tells its story or sets out its stall, at other teams’ meetings, through its own channels and tools, or on a one-to-one, it’s an uphill struggle.

Little or no value is attributed to in-house communication (exceptions may be found at C-Suite and ExComm levels) and no-one wants to engage with it – unless they have a specific story to tell, or the organisation is in crisis. Even then, many senior managers will enrol external communication advisers, apparently based on the premise that if you pay for it, then it’s worth more.

So the temptation is to put a cost on the work that’s being done in-house. Not to actually charge anybody, but to demonstrate the value. The problem is that, once done, it’s open to attack. Marketing will say that their agency can do it cheaper. Procurement will get involved in buying print and video. Continuous improvement will demonstrate how processes can be streamlined to require less manpower. Finance will question the numbers. Finance always question the numbers. And then cut the budget.

It doesn’t work. It’s like trying to assess the value in a painting by pricing up the paint, brushes, canvas and frame. Someone can always get the materials cheaper – but what they can’t buy is the knowledge of how to put them together.

The value in in-house communication lies in its strategic approach, bound to the strategy of the organisation. It’s in the team’s depth of knowledge of the business. It’s in its role as a trusted advisor. It’s in its network of contacts throughout the body corporate, and the intuitive way it helps the body function. It’s in its appreciation of business and organisational imperatives, and its understanding of how best to serve them.

No other function does this. It is invaluable – you can’t put a price on any of it.

Moving to 280 – Removing a Valuable Discipline?

So Twitter is trialling 280 character tweets.

According to Biz Stone, Twitter’s founder, “science and study showed us phonetic languages want and need ~280. Not everyone will use this amount”. This could be true, but because the science and study can’t be explained in 140 characters (or 280, for that matter) it feels a bit vague. (It would interesting to see the science and study though – they could tweet a link to it.)

Give people the extra characters and mostly they will use them, because it’s easier and because they can. The beauty of Twitter was in the 140 character limit – it is a real skill to be able to condense your meaning into that amount, and still have it understood as you intended. It is even more skilful to to do it with humour and personality. Brevity, as the great man said, is the soul of wit.

The discipline that Twitter imposed was a great pointer for all good communication. Plain language, short, to the point and, if at all possible, personal. Simplify your messages so they are brief and instantly comprehensible. Take time (but not too much) to eliminate ambiguity.

Twitter’s character limit forced the identification of superfluous words – vital if you’re writing a media release, an all-staff communication, a script, a position statement, a key message document, the list goes on – and encouraged creative use of vocabulary (another key skill for the communicator).

In fact, when approached with a brief by a client or an internal customer, a good starting point would be to distil the essence of the communication into an 140-character sentence (or sentences). Get that right and everything builds from there.

Twitter’s provision of extra characters encourages less thought, which, given the standard of some of the ‘thought’ on the medium already, is a bad thing.

In the wider world of communication generally, a similar lack of boundary and discipline leads to four-page media releases, eight-hundred-word staff emails, confused journalists, disengaged employees, words for words’ sake and the wanton use of adjectives like ‘fantastic’ and ‘fun’.

Corporate Reputation – No Place for Newspeak

Corporate reputation is not enhanced by the continuing trend for elitist and alternative job titles, and neither are levels of employee engagement (or motivation or trust – whatever you care to call it).  Guru or ninja, black belt or master, ‘innovation sherpa’, ‘fashion evangelist’ or ‘digital prophet’ (yes, really) these titles muddy the waters instead of clarifying them, close doors instead of opening them and make it more difficult for the outside world to relate to the company or organisation in question.

In the same way, internal or external audience opinion of, or reaction to, a company or product cannot be improved by simply changing the way things are described. A recent BBC article, entitled ‘Why d0 some companies ban certain words?’, provided the quite brilliant example of  Davio’s, a chain of steakhouses in the US, where the CEO has banned the word ’employee’ and replaced it with ‘inner guest’.

I learnt that companies like Apple and General Motors have taken action with employees to avoid the use of words that might be perceived as ‘negative’ – like ‘bug’ and ‘crash, ‘defect’ and ‘flawed’ and – terrifyingly enough, ‘death-trap’.

Clearly banning the use of ‘death-trap’ if your employees were actually using it to describe your products is not going to solve the problem, mitigate against reputational damage, or assist in dealing with the crisis that’s bound to ensue.

As an aside, it is exactly in a crisis situation, however, where a possible exception to this can be found.  In a crisis situation, avoiding – and providing alternatives to – emotive and dramatic language can help prevent the escalation of an issue (particularly in media terms), the results of which will help no-one. Still, it is a difficult road to tread, and the approach must be dictated by the nature and scale of the issue.

In the cases cited above, however, a company has attempted to do away with everyday issues faced by customers by changing the names of the issues. And it’s not like the customer isn’t going to spot it – and when they do, they will feel patronised, undervalued and taken for granted. The effect on your employees is going to be similar. Telling people how to communicate (including banning of words), strange new job titles – they’re going to feel talked-down-to, they’re going to feel out-of-touch and they’re going to be disengaged.

The issue is threefold. First off, it’s not authentic. Second, it’s not transparent (in the sense that something is clearly being avoided). Third – and maybe most important – it’s slightly ridiculous.

Like most things in communication, let common sense prevail. If you’ve got a bug, call it a bug and offer a solution. If it’s crashed, repair it. If there’s a defect, then it’s a defect – so fix it or replace it. If you’re building deathtraps, stop it immediately, before you’re in a position where you have explain why you did. And don’t worry about what you call your employees – find ways to involve and reward them, and always keep them informed.

Be honest, be upfront, tell it like it is. Trust and belief enhance corporate reputation and deliver an engaged workforce.

A Few Truths About Internal Communication and Employee Engagement

As an old communicator, I’m certain that Engagement isn’t my bag. Employee engagement is not internal communication or, indeed, vice versa. The reason I take an interest (apart from the fact that internal communication helps pull the levers of employee engagement, or motivation, or belief or whatever you wish to call it) is because I once worked for a company where Engagement sat with Communication, as a part of Corporate Affairs.

Straight off, engagement is not the same as internal communication. Engagement is a by-product of the organisation’s culture and its approach to the ‘way we do things around here’. From that point of view, I think most would agree that HR is best-placed to own employee engagement.

Internal communication can – and should, of course – support the growth of, and strengthen, employee engagement by ensuring widespread understanding of the things that make a difference to the employee. These will include, but are not limited to, the organisation’s mission and vision, its purpose, its strategy and progress made against that strategy, its culture, its successes and its narrative.

What is it that makes someone proud to work where they do? An understanding of, and belief in, what the company is doing and how it is doing it, and a clear idea of what part they play in helping it achieve its goals. It’s that old (probably apocryphal) story about the NASA cleaning operative, pushing his mop. JFK, on a tour, stops him and says “What’s your job?’ And the janitor looks at him and says “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, sir.” The one thing that would make that story better is if JFK had recognised and rewarded the janitor’s efforts by making him US Secretary for Labor (sic).

But internal communication is not employee engagement because no matter how successful its activities, no matter how many channels and how much reach, no matter how much interaction, an employee’s ‘engagement’ (or motivation, or belief) can be blown away by perceived (or actual) negative behaviours by fellow workers and management. Which is why EE sits with HR or OD – basically, the people who are responsible for developing the people to ensure the right people have the right skills to manage the people. People people.

Employee engagement is a lot about people development (as well as reward and recognition, also HR functions). Move the engagement function away from HR and all that’s left to it is measurement (given that it’s internal communication which is spreading the good word and  advising on best communication practice).  Fairly soon – and I’ve worked in two companies where it has happened – the measurement of employee engagement becomes the thing itself.

This approach is, clearly, encouraged by those who make their livings measuring employee engagement. According to Gallup’s website ‘87% of employees worldwide are not engaged at work’, which is dreadful, because “companies with highly-engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share”. (I’ll leave you to reflect on the robustness or otherwise of those claims.) They encourage it because, once it’s been delivered a couple of times, there’s simply no way to stop it – it’s a type of corporate substance abuse. I can stop measuring employee engagement anytime I want – just not this year.

To be clear – no matter which firm of measurement consultants is employed, the actual measurement is an employee survey, comprising the same old fifteen to twenty questions. There is nothing to stop this being done in-house, probably more efficiently and resulting in numbers that are comprehensible and – because it’s your system – of some value to your organisation.

Or – and here’s where Communications generally can have a massive impact on the chimaera that is employee engagement – you could simply convince the senior team to get out and about a bit more, find out what the problems are – if there are any – and see about fixing them. Arm them with a few stories – give them some coaching if they need it – let them lead by example. And if they won’t, or can’t, try the next level down.

It’s only a start – but showing and telling your people that you’re interested and involved has to beat faceless metrics tracking movement on an invisible and irrelevant scale.

We Need To Talk About PR and Communication….

Quite the week.

  • Bell Pottinger was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for breaching ethical standards with a campaign that the association’s DG called ‘absolutely unthinkable’.
  • As a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), I was stunned to learn that – according to a press release issued in May (which I’d not seen, to my chagrin) – after grace period one year, members found using AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalents) as measurement will be liable to disciplinary action.
  • As a LinkedIn member, I added a response to an open request for ‘personal take(s) on communications’ core purpose’ -reading the other 15 responses, I saw the words trust, diplomacy, influencing, reputation, behaviours – but nowhere did I see the word ‘selling’.

Recently I published a piece entitled ‘What’s the Value of PR’ (feel free to have a read) in which I proposed that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now – this is an abridged version:

  • The communication industry has an image problem
  • There is no workable, affordable, industry-standard evaluation methodology for communication activity
  • Communication is still chasing its seat at the top table

The first two are self-explanatory.

  • To the outside world, the communication professional is a spin doctor or a celebrity publicist or Edina Monsoon. Those with a greater level of understanding see the role as that of an eminence grise, and not in (if there is one) a good way. On the inside, the communication professional is seen as an event organiser, a clearer-up of messes, a corporate policeman, a scriptwriter and someone to answer queries from difficult customers. The perception problem is not helped by Bell Pottingergate, nor by tweets such as the one seen this morning “You know your (sic) work for a #PR agency when……you hear a champagne cork pop before 9am!”
  • A massive amount of good work has been done, by AMEC and others, to achieve some consensus on the issue of evaluation. The CIPR – and in fairness, the organisation has since indicated that its intention is not to punish – is to publish its guidelines this autumn, and hopes to kill AVE stone dead. The problem is that any form of meaningful evaluation is costly and labour-intensive and for those with pared-back budgets, it’s not feasible. Thus, we are presented with a choice between sacrificing a sizeable proportion of our budget, or doing nothing.

The third is about the function of communication:

  • Communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. It may not all be about directly shifting widgets – it could be about encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

There are other issues, of course – such as the fact that communication works in silos (internal, external, digital, issues management, public affairs) when, quite clearly, to have an holistic view (and to guarantee clarity of message) all communication disciplines should be but different faces of the same object.

Image, function and measurement are the big ones, however, and have been for years. Unfortunately – and with no disrespect to the PRCA or the CIPR, who are herding cats, and making a good fist of it – improvement is up to everyone who works in the industry, and as we’ve learned this week, it only takes one to reinforce and renew the general misconceptions.

What’s the value of PR?

30 years. That’s how long I’ve been treading the Way of the Communicator, seeking communication enlightenment and the meaning of – well, different things actually – currently I’m seeking the meaning of ‘agility’. Which, I’m afraid, has a whiff of new clothes about it. But that’s another story.

In the last month or so, I’ve been reminded (not for the first time) that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now, and there’s continued talk around them, emphasis on their importance, and yet no coherent, industry-wide, workable solutions. Big issues like – and in no particular order:

  • The communication industry’s image problem
  • The evaluation of communication activity
  • A seat at the top table for the communication function (‘trusted advisor’)
  • The communication silos that the industry works in (internal vs external vs public affairs vs reputation management)
  • The ownership of communication, how it should be described and where it should sit
  • Why is communication necessary – explaining the value that it adds (as distinct from measuring its effects)

Recent triggers have been an article on evaluation, demonstrating that, despite all the great work done by AMEC, there’s still not an affordable, workable, industry-standard communication evaluation model (and that AVE actually ain’t all bad); and a piece that talked about the benefits to be gained from bringing internal and external communication together – the implication being that they are, currently, separate things. Should you so wish, you can read some thoughts on these two things here and here and a previous piece (prescient, but lightweight) on PR’s image problem here.

More recently there was this statement on Twitter. “Public relations (& corporate comms) is/always will be, about ‘reputation, value & relationship building.’ Not selling stuff.” In fairness, it’s not clear whether it’s serious, or whether it’s tongue in cheek – but either way, it’s a sad indictment of our industry – that people actually believe communication is not about selling (and they do), or that people are so aware that it’s a prevalent belief, they find it necessary to poke fun.

Thing is, communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. Agreed, it may not all be about directly shifting widgets, or encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

To distance communication from ‘selling stuff’ alienates it from a large part of the organisation that it should be serving, shuts it off from key insights provided by sales data and customer contact, demonstrates an elitist, ivory-tower mentality and prevents it taking the holistic overview of the organisation that would make it so valuable. Most importantly, it relegates communication to niche-player status. Marketing, the traditional adversary of communication, with the bigger budgets and the bigger offices, embraces selling – and communication still needs to learn that lesson.

Addressing this ‘we don’t do sales’ mentality would go a long way to identifying solutions to some of the long-standing issues. People tend to take you more seriously if you deliver against the bottom line – or, at the very least, understand where the bottom line is and how you can impact it. That delivery/understanding will undoubtedly help in getting communication the seat at the top table. Being seen to generate tangible business benefit adds weight to a function and helps others place it.

Being familiar with what drives business success – along with wider comprehension of social and political issues, allied with a feel for the media agenda – positions communication professionals as trusted strategic advisers, and moves us closer to where we want to be.

Here’s a piece (from prnewsonline.com, by Seth Arenstein) entitled ‘PR Pros as Strategic Advisers, an Where it Goes From Here.’ Good read, as it assumes the communicator’s role as strategic adviser, even though, to my mind, there’s not enough about ‘selling stuff’ i.e. being a part of the business beyond managing reputation and crafting the message. It does, however, contains the following quotation “You can’t be a separated, subject-matter expert only. You must have tremendous business acumen.” To coin a phrase – that’s what I’m talking about.