In this first of an occasional series of interviews with top communication thought leaders, we discuss the state of the Internal Communication profession with Mike Klein, along with his recently-formed practice, Changing The Terms.
Update - Mike Klein is a contributor to Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective, where he speaks about breaking the rules of engagement (pp.187-192).
ICK: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.
Mike: Thanks very much for having me. I have often said that “if IC Kollectif didn’t exist, we would have to invent it!”
ICK: Well, thank you, but what do you mean by that?
Mike: It feeds into the state of the profession. There are a lot of commercial players trying to sell their little bits and pieces of training, or knowledge, or access to networks.
But IC Kollectif is doing something much bigger: aggregating and collecting a lot of good stuff and building a truly global IC community, as opposed to a London community or a North American community. It has IABC roots but it has a true internal comms focus. It works with conference organizers but it isn’t in business to sell conference seats. No one has been doing this, and you’ve been doing a great job with limited time and resources.
"My biggest thrust is in helping organizations identify and mobilize their internal influencers, and engage them to increase the impact of their communication while reducing noise, cost and resistance."
ICK: We appreciate your support. And you have been up to great things with Changing The Terms. What made you pick the name “Changing The Terms?
Mike: It has a double-barrelled meaning. The word “terms” has two very relevant meanings.
First, “terms” means “words,” which speaks the writing side of my practice--I do a good amount of writing, including strategic writing for clients as well as my frequent blog posts, LinkedIn articles and items published more broadly in places like Communication World and Communication Director.
But “terms” also means “rules,” and I am very active and vocal in challenging the rules - and strategies - that drive much IC activity and many budgets. My biggest thrust is in helping organizations identify and mobilize their internal influencers, and engage them to increase the impact of their communication while reducing noise, cost and resistance.
ICK: It’s interesting that you call what you are doing a “practice” rather than a “firm.” What do you mean by practice?
Mike: It’s how I integrate client work, the pursuit of new work, my participation in IABC and other IC-related activities and my blogging and writing into a common approach. I’m not interested in starting and running a big firm, and I’m not wedded to being independent forever. I’m committed to doing IC work that’s more effective than what is currently standard--particularly by promoting an influencer-based approach.
ICK: And how is it going?
Mike: I started up in September and I am happy to an extent, but I’m also very interested in generating more work, especially from people and organizations which have a need for sharper messaging or more precise targeting. Although I am based in the Netherlands, I am globally connected and happy to get on a plane or a conference call from time to time.
ICK: Why do you choose to be an IC professional?
Mike: Most of us stumbled into internal
comms--I don’t know of anyone who had
internal comms as a childhood ambition, or
collected trading cards of Roger D’Aprix, Brad Whitworth or Steve Crescenzo. But once in the field, many of us figured out that the relationship between employee and employer was deep, complex, commercially critical and potentially highly strategic.
"It’s no secret that I think the idea that we have to engage all employees equally is utter garbage."
We also recognized that this is a rare field where we can see the direct impact when we take action that improves this relationship. At the same time, many found that this relationship was difficult to describe and convincingly explain to bosses, colleagues and spouses, who still think in terms of “so you put up posters and write newsletters.”
So when I call myself an “internal communications pro,” I speak to this shared experience--our shared ambition with what this profession is capable of, the shared frustration of how much work we have to do to shift perceptions and generate budgets and standing and of the determination to do whatever I can to make a difference that moves this conversation along.
ICK: What would move the conversation along?
Mike: First we need to demonstrate we are able to do things that increase impact, reduce organizational friction and cut cost.
It’s no secret that I think the idea that we have to engage all employees equally is utter garbage. It forces us to dumb down and take important details out of our messaging, to tailor the messaging to the employees who have the least impact and lowest degree of leverage, and produce stuff that is often graphically attractive but has limited meaning and invites little or no action.
"I bang on about influencers because there is hard data that says communicating intelligently with the right 3% of the population can impact 80% of the conversations in nearly any organization."
It’s not like shifting is so hard. I bang on about influencers because there is hard data that says communicating intelligently with the right 3% of the population can impact 80% of the conversations in nearly any organization. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper to communicate and engage with people who are already engaged, than in trying to beat 100% of the people into submission. What makes this difficult are management demands for 100% survey participation,” 100% awareness and 100% happiness.
ICK: So you are saying management expectations are the big barrier?
Mike: Yes--or as I call it, client over specification. It doesn’t only happen when clients define strategic parameters that lack actionability, it also happens when they demand precise comms ”solutions” before the communication “problems” are adequately evaluated and diagnosed. Indeed, it may be
the single biggest problem we face--in that it hijacks our budgets, makes our strategies contradictory and leaves us continually on the defensive, as our success is measured based on our performance using inadequate tools to achieve inappropriate objectives.
ICK: Some think user-generated video is the answer to employee engagement and internal communication?
Mike: Ahh, the siren song of “Corporate YouTube.” As in, “if you create a corporate
video platform, it will fill itself with topical,
engaging, neatly-prepared content that will eliminate the need for a written intranet and indeed, the IC professional.”
Video has always been the future of internal communication...and it will continue to be so.
Some organizations will spontaneously produce more video content than others, but it’s user-generated. It’s not driving an organizational objective, and it’s not fuelled by viewer demand. So, the idea of buying or building massive video platforms because “it just makes sense” or “it works everywhere else” is one of the most egregious examples of client over specification.
"Practitioner confidence is absolutely vital. This isn’t just about being competent and having confidence in our own practical skills. It’s about believing that we can put together the right combination of facts, logic and conviction to prevail even when challenging a CEO."
ICK: What do you think can help?
Mike: Practitioner confidence is absolutely vital. This isn’t just about being competent and having confidence in our own practical skills. It’s about believing that we can put together the right combination of facts, logic and conviction to prevail even when challenging a CEO.
That isn’t something we can do alone. That’s a big part of what IABC exists for--and it can be a big piece of the puzzle for IC Kollectif--to connect us with other practitioners who have faced similar challenges and overcome them.
ICK: Where do you see IC Kollectif fitting in?
Mike: If IC Kollectif can become a central gathering address for the global IC community, the potential would be huge. IC Kollectif could secure its future through sponsorships, and IC professionals would be able to access enhanced content and resources, and perhaps, connect with each other virtually.
About Mike Klein
Before becoming an internal communication consultant, Mike Klein worked as a political consultant in the US for eight years. With nearly two decades of experience in internal communication, Mike has penned a book about social dynamics in large organisations, titled From Lincoln to LinkedIn, the 55-minute Guide to Social Communication.
Mike currently authors a blog, Changing The Terms, which advocates selective engagement and a strategic approach to internal communication. Mike is an MBA graduate of London Business School and is based in the Netherlands.