Communication channels: our first, our last, our everything?
By Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick
Thanks to years as a hospital radio volunteer and being a serial dater of DJs in her younger days, Sue occasionally turns to music to illustrate a point. Most recently she dropped in a reference to the old Barry White disco classic, My First, My Last, My Everything.
The unlikely backdrop to the musical interlude? A conversation about professional communicators, channels, and another ‘classic’ – the article, conversation or conference debate forecasting the dawn of a new phase in our industry, when internal communicators will become strategists, focused on outcomes over outputs and measuring accordingly.
We were both feeling quite frustrated. Having read two such articles in quick succession, we were reminiscing about all those times over the last 10-15 years when we’d been here before. We probably even wrote one or two of the articles and spoke in some of the debates. And yet, here we apparently still are. How is it that we keep going around in circles, heralding this bright future, but never quite reaching the pot at the end of the rainbow?
Our first …
We took the view that one reason was the relationship many comms pros have with channels.
There are certainly times when channels should be the first thing on our minds. We need a channels infrastructure to be able to operate, it needs to be the right structure to support the business and communication strategy, and it’s part of the employee experience. All these things are important.
Our last …
There are also many, many times when they should be the last thing we think about. A strategic approach to communication starts with exploring the organisational goal communication needs to support; with understanding the root causes behind problems that need to be solved. This means resisting the temptation to jump quickly to tactical solutions, and asking more questions and listening for longer than might feel comfortable.
But surely we know that, don’t we? As a profession, we’ve been giving ourselves this advice for years. So why do we apparently not take it?
Sometimes, of course, we really do try to take it, but the barriers are just too high. We know excellent communicators who are genuinely stretched too thin, working in organisations where the leaders just don’t ‘get it’.
Elsewhere though, we see repeated scenarios in which channels become our everything. When communicators talk a good game about wanting to be strategic, but actually what dominates their thoughts and conversations is channels.
In days of old, it was all about print. Certain professional associations for communicators had whole awards categories dedicated to factors like ‘best font’. (No, we’re not joking.)
And then, along came The Intranet. At which point, conference agendas filled with sessions dedicated to hypothesising what this new technology might mean and what organisations might do with it … and later to show case study after case study of what they actually were doing with it.
Conversations inside organisations focused on stopping print and moving everything onto The Intranet, which seemed like the one-stop-shop solution to all communications problems.
A similar pattern was repeated when social media was born. More recently, we’ve seen the conversation turn to digital. We even noticed someone arguing a short time ago that should be the focus of communicators’ attention, because they form so much of ‘the employee experience’.
Now don’t get us wrong here, we’re not suggesting we should hide our heads in the sand, forget about what’s coming over the horizon and stick with the way we’ve always done things. We’re also not downplaying the fundamental shifts and array of possibilities new channels have brought to employee communication.
But what we do see is that it’s very easy to shift all attention and energy to the latest ‘shiny’ tactical options or find a new angle which makes it feel OK to put channels at the centre of our world. And every time we do, we fall back into to our old traps … until we wake up again and re-discover the concept of outcomes before outputs.
Why we should all eat our greens
To mix our metaphors, many years ago, when we wrote the first iteration of the Melcrum Black Belt training, we asked several people to review it for us. We both remember the day one person came back to say it felt like “broccoli”. By which they meant the content was clearly very good for you, but it just didn’t feel very exciting. The implication was that they’d much prefer a portion of chocolate cake with a sparkler fizzing away on top.
But the thing is, however much we might love chocolate cake, however tempting it is to go straight to the dessert menu, we all know a good diet is about getting the balance right. And a good proportion of it should be based on vegetables!
To use communication in a good, strategic way, as a business enabler, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel – or our profession. There is no holy grail, waiting to be discovered. The principles are already here. Outcomes, not outputs. Let’s think of channels occasionally first, most often last, and set the mental alarm bells ringing very loudly if they become our everything.
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Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick are longstanding collaborators. Although they work independently for clients, they have come together over the years to create the original and renowned Melcrum Blackbelt training programme for communicators and to research skills and competencies. Their work has resulted in multiple articles and most recently, in the book Successful Internal Communications published by Kogan Page in 2019.