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.

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.

Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)

 

Corporate Reputation: Not enhanced by Gurus, Black Belts, Ninjas or Masters

Way back when – 1985, to be precise – a gentleman called Nick Graham founded an underwear company called Joe Boxer, and appointed himself Chief Underpants Officer. And why not? It was irreverent and amusing and – this is the key element – it reflected what the company actually did, and his role in it. His claim that “The brand is the amusement park, the product is the souvenir” provides insight into his thinking and an interesting take on customer relations, not suitable for all, but worth a moment’s consideration.

The point is that it is possible to break away from the conventions of job titles and role profiles – Chief Executive Officer, Sales Director, National Accounts Manager, Head of Human Resources, IT Analyst – and, in so doing, enhance corporate reputation and make a clear statement about strategic direction.

This piece, by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester for the BBC, provides a couple of further examples. Let’s hear it for the Captain of Moonshots at Google, who heads up research and development (and whose name, brilliantly enough, is Astro Teller). And take a bow, Berkshire Hathaway’s Director of Chaos, who manages the organisation of the company’s annual shareholder bunfight. From the ridiculous to the sublime, let’s not forget the sandwich artists at Subway.

There’s a point to all of these and even Captain of Moonshots is sufficiently evocative that it’s clear what the job entails and, perhaps more importantly, why it needs/merits an extraordinary descriptor. However, there is a newer and perhaps slightly worrying trend towards ‘differently naming’ roles and positions, and Sir Cary’s article goes on to discuss it.

Coming from the private sector, and having worked in environments where ‘process efficiencies’ and ‘continuous improvement’ (read cost saving and downsizing) had become central to the culture of the business, I am no stranger to people with ‘guru’ in their title. I have met those called ‘ninja’. I have held meetings with ‘commercial black belts’ – people whom, I suppose, will cripple you on price.

Sir Cary says that incomprehensible job titles are an elitist affectation.  All of this stuff surely adds value, but not knowing what the job title means, it’s difficult to ask the right questions about the job, and not asking the right questions means not getting the right answers, and thus not being certain of the value added. But, and going back to what the Chief Underpants Officer said, an organisation which allows incomprehensible, and above all unfriendly and slightly intimidating, job titles – for whatever reason – is not going to have the cultural mindset to be an amusement park for its customers.

For the record, the latest examples appear to be the job titles of ‘scrum master’ and ‘agilist’. The first, ‘scrum master’, gives little clue to what it might be, save (for me anyway) a vague sense of foreboding that it might involve large, sweaty men tearing each other’s shorts. The latter, ‘agilist’, for which you can train and obtain a qualification, is someone who promotes agility in an organisation (I think). And – as an aside – for anyone who’s ever spent time in a large organisation – well, I don’t have to tell you how well that’s going to work.

So what does it all mean for the Corporate Affairs/Corporate Reputation manager? Well, it’s an object lesson in how reputation enhancement and good public relations start at home. An internal view is as important as an external one. It’s no good focusing on overall customer experience and corporate image if – to over-extend the metaphor – your publics cannot relate to those who run the amusement park. And if the corporate culture allows for ninjas, black belts, gurus and masters – then it’s probably about due an overhaul.

No Measurement, No Value

One of the things about being an old communicator is that you’ve seen such an awful lot of it before – and never more so than in the field of evaluation and measurement. Without wishing to bore the pants off of anyone, in the nigh on three decades that I’ve been a jobbing spin doctor, no-one – but no-one – has come up with a robust and meaningful method of measuring the results of communication/public relations activities.

There have been attempts, sure, some more successful than others. Six years ago the Association for Evaluation and Measurement of Communication formed to address the issue, led by some of the biggest names in the global communications industry. Credit where credit is due, they made a good fist of it and, for those who want to have a look at the results, here’s a link for you.

Problem is, I’m afraid, that it is unutterably complex and, unfortunately, carries with it considerable cost – even if it is just the cost of the human resource that you have no choice but to allocate against it. You see, complexity and cost are the downfalls of any half-decent attempt at cracking the evaluation and measurement conundra.

The communication function has never enjoyed the budgets that are allocated to the marketing/advertising functions and thus the proportion of total budget that meaningful measurement would suck up is far greater. Given a straight choice between greater levels of activity or a nicely-produced report measuring the effectiveness of much lower levels of activity – well, rightly or wrongly, it’s more activity, every time.

And did I say that meaningful measurement is also very complex? Meaningful measurement, simply put, revolves around understanding the impacts of your activity against your varying target audiences and aligning the impacts against the various goals that you agreed at the beginning of the campaign.

And that’s in its simplest form. Never mind – should you wish to examine your return on investment – putting a price on the attainment of those goals (which won’t always be increased unit sales, or net promoter scores, or share price increments) and then balancing that cost against what you paid for the campaign. And it is, I am afraid, an eternal truth that the more complex it is, the less time the intended audience (senior management, of example) will spend trying to understand it.

Which is why, for so long – and still today – Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) is many communicator’s measurement of choice. Even I have used it – albeit apologetically, and with a full disclosure of the system’s inherent limitations and less-than-robust nature – because when you can’t afford anything else, something is better than nothing. If you don’t show some form of evaluation, you don’t get accorded any value and if you’re not accorded any value, then you’re not going to be top of mind when the FD’s divvying up next year’s spend.

So I was interested to read about Earned Media Value (EMV) – via Stephen Waddington’s excellent blog – which is, to all intents and purposes, AVE brought up to date. Or at least, AVE for the PESO media environment. (OK, OK – Paid, Earned, Social, Owned.) It’s still hogwash, it’s still fatally flawed (some might say meaningless) and it’s still chock-full of limitations. But – if you’re all out of alternatives…………..

Let’s be clear. Right at the beginning of the planning cycle, we need to ensure that we (or our client, dependent on whether we’re in-house or agency) are lobbying for a budget allocation that allows for proper measurement and evaluation.

Very, very simply put – we need to explain what proper measurement is and get the blessing of the exec directors and the board. This will be difficult first time round and then progressively easier as it becomes accepted. We need to shield them from the complexity of it and present the results to them in top-line findings aligned to the agreed goals – which, clearly, should be, or should closely mirror, the overall corporate objectives.

The problem is – if you’re not successful in this course of action, what do you do? I am not advocating listening to the snake-oil salesmen who would make AVE or EMV industries in themselves and money-spinners for the unscrupulous.

But you might look at them and think – without any form of measurement at all, no matter how flawed, what we’re doing is simply tactical, not strategic and of little perceived long-term value.

But that’s another can of worms.

Made-Up Jobs In Communications – Chief Content Officer

Once upon a time, there was a chap called Nicholas Graham, who (in 1985) started a company called Joe Boxer, which sold (and still sells) underwear. Nicholas Graham syled himself  ‘Chief Underpants Officer’. I have often wondered whether I should give myself a spurious title (rather than simply ‘Managing Director’ (of The Wordmonger Limited)) but, honestly, I’ve not been clever enough, to date, to come up with something that works.

And, let me tell you, Chief Content Officer is something that doesn’t work. I have difficulty with the concept of content anyway – it smacks of a term coined in desperation to describe a disparate and amorphous group of extraordinarily different concepts and products with the idea of somehow ‘bucketizing’ it (thank you, America), thereby rendering it somehow harmless, easy-to-understand and pigeonhole and – above all – non-threatening. The content conceit has developed in parallel with the proposition that we have never faced such corporate communication complexity and an entire industry has grown up around it, propagating fear and awe in equal measure and taking a large cut of the content investment it recommends.

So I’m not really a believer then.

Anyway, here you are, snorkellers, here’s a piece from Forbes, asking the question ‘Do organizations need a Chief Content Officer?’ and, as far as I can see, failing, abysmally, to answer it.

Apart from the fact that I started to get a headache when I read this – which is a sure sign that it’s more complex than it needs to be – it’s also got a diagram, reproduced below.

Which, frankly, gives me the heebeejeebies.  This is trying to put a forced order onto a naturally chaotic process. Trying to define what things are, identify where they come from and map out where they go. This is trying to create a science around what is essentially an art. This is all about complicating something intuitive with badly-drawn rules. I could go on.

Content? It’s the same old stuff that we communicators have been producing since time began, with a few new bits. Audiences? The same old audiences, with some new points of access. And the audiences vary from topic to topic, product to product, concept to concept – there is no hard and fast set of messages or basket of content that will suit every audience, every time (what you tell your investors will be different to what you tell the community in which you operate and different again to what you might tell your employees). This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a single central theme on which you hang the audience-driven elements – but still, trying to diagrammatize it (thank you again, America) is a pointless exercise in navel-gazing – thought and talk, for thought and talk’s sake.

Chief Content Officer? Librarian, right?

Journalists Prefer Traditional Comms – Pope Has Balcony Etc Etc

From the hallowed pages of PR Week (issue dated July 22, cover price £57.32) comes this story – and story it is, for no – disbelievers all – the Week has not made it up, oh no, they let Broadgate Mainland(*) make it up for them – t’Week has simply reported it. They’ll make journalists yet.

(* Meisters of Financial Spin of the parish of Old London Town.)

Anyway, before I got so wildly carried away, I meant, bloggy snorkellers mine, to post the link. No, of course you won’t. You’ll simply see if you can make head or tail of the post without going anywhere near the colourful linkey of doom. Wet, is what you are. That being said, maybe there is an Arthurian trotter amongst you and for that brave Templar I provide this – the Holy Link of Har Megiddo. Carefully now – swish and click – obliviate!

(Warning. I am sorry, faithful followers, but in an almost Murdockian stylee, PR Week will wish you to subscribe before you read the article. You may not wish for PR Week to be your horcrux, however, at least, not while there are still pesky kids around.)

So, the article. In brief, it says that while UK corporates are doing more social, a survey of financial journalists (and I think we can take that to mean journalists, period) reveals traditional comms channels remain the more important media relations tools. That’s what it says – ‘more important tools’. With 81% of the 100 surveyed saying that they prefer to receive stories via email, I’d say ‘most important tools’, wouldn’t you?

In other bears-defecating-in-the-woods- type revelations, only 11% thought Facebook was an appropriate corporate comms channel and 97% researched companies via their corporate websites. (Incidentally, a truly spiffing photocaption for the article’s illustration of Zuckerberg’s monster – “‘Inappropriate’ Facebook”.)

So, it’s official. Journalists prefer to get their stories off real people, in real time, via targetted communication. Unsurprisingly.

Other stats in the article included the 38% of FTSE100 companies signing up to Facebook (up from 25% six months ago) and the 56% running a corporate Twitter account (up from 40% in December). And we know why they’re doing this. Mostly peer pressure and a misguided desire to be ‘down with the kids’ and to have their very own shiny object. And, as I’ve said before – if you’re an airline, then Twitter is useful for updating your customers. If you’re a firm of management consultants it is wholly inappropriate (like Facebook). In the case of most of the FTSE100, it is wholly inappropriate.

Just sayin’.