In this interview, we discuss the importance of research and measurement in organizational communication, with Sean Williams.
Update - Sean Williams is a contributor to Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective, where he speaks about the impact of electronic communication on IC (pp.70-76). Click here to learn more about the eBook and download the free eBook here.
ICK - You are one of the few communication professionals who is well known for his interest and involvement in communication and PR research. Why and how did you get interested into this level of the discipline?
SW – I caught the research bug some years ago when I worked at a regional bank. Our head of market research was kind of a genius at explaining the research results, and I worked with him on an internal communication audit. The information we got from our research was so valuable! Later on, at Goodyear, I wanted to get insights that were actionable from a strategic standpoint, so I did my own research there. Next came a trip to the Summit on Measurement, then an Institute for PR event, where I met a whole lot of really smart people and learned about the IPR Measurement Commission. It changed my career entirely, because for the first time, there was a support community for me as a fledgling researcher. After that, I just loved the intellectual discipline and insights that came from research.
"It changed my career entirely, because for the first time, there was a support community for me as a fledgling researcher." Sean Williams
ICK - Why do you think it is important for communication professionals to develop an interest for communication research?
SW – Too often we are the only people in an organization saying, “Trust me!” When we don’t have data on which to drive our strategies, we’re exposed to criticism about nearly all factors of our work. We don't have a leg to stand on. Our marketing cousins, on the other had, have reams of data, and lots of insight from market research. They get the budgets, we don’t. The path to gaining influence is underpinned by a foundation of research insights, of strategic plans and solid objectives. Even our very young theoretical literature is heavily dependent on other disciplines – the true theories of internal communication come out of organizational development, interpersonal communication, neuroscience and other areas. If we are to be taken seriously, we must understand these areas and how they apply to our work. That means research literacy, at the very least. We must read, understand and apply research, even if we don’t perform it personally ourselves. I’d say, though, that the latter is also crucial to our credibility. We must measure our impact on organizational objectives, so research is an important part of that.
"Too often we are the only people in an organization saying,“Trust me!” When we don’t have data on which to drive our strategies, we’re exposed to criticism about nearly all factors of our work. We don't have a leg to stand on." Sean Williams
ICK - Many communication practitioners find that the gap between communication research and their day-to-day practice is too big and therefore, they don’t really see the value in taking time to keep up with the latest findings. As a communication professional, how do you use research in your day to day communication practice and how does your knowledge of research benefits your clients?
SW –I’m asked all the time about getting employee’s attention and motivating them to succeed, so being curious about why employees react the way they do and following up on that curiosity is central to my work. When I’m working through strategy for a client, or preparing to train people in my workshops, I need to know how people react and why. That way I can change my approach as required. For example, we know that employees are distracted by the multiple INTERNAL channels – email, instant messaging, calls, SharePoint, the Intranet and maybe publications. But they also carry their personal communications into the workplace as well. It’s pretty easy to set “official” channels aside and hit Facebook or Instagram. So what advice should I give? Ban social media? How about if we follow Grunig and Hon’s Relationship Theory and sharpen our focus of content on the things that generate engagement, commitment and stronger relationships with our people? The survey they conducted could be a template for effective IC.
ICK - You sit on the advisory board of the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC). Can you tell us a little bit about the IPRRC?
SW – Brain food. IPRRC is an academic conference that’s focused on material that’s good for the practice, because the practitioner is there, listening and evaluating, but also discussing. That’s the difference between IPRRC and other conferences – it’s all about discussion. Small groups, short presentations followed by discussion. It’s amazing to be a part of. Scholars who literally wrote the book on PR are there – and everyone gets the chance to talk with them and learn from each other. I’m still astonished at how much I learn and how much I love it.
ICK - IPRRC is not restricted to PR research only and includes a portion of research on organizational communication and internal communication as well, right?
SW – We use “PR” as inclusively as possible, so indeed, organizational, internal and employee communication are part of the agenda. I’ll be there again this year with my colleagues presenting our original research on internal communication measurement standards. I’m also a strong advocate to these scholars to study IC. It can be difficult, because scholars need access to IC data and people to study. I’m also attempting to bridge that gap and help my academic colleagues get the data they need.
It’s fun! I get to pick the three attendees who’ll get funded – live on the last day of the conference!
"I’m a strong advocate to these scholars to study IC. It can be difficult, because scholars need access to IC data and people to study. I’m also attempting to bridge that gap and help my academic colleagues get the data they need." Sean Williams
ICK - IC Kollectif has a particular interest in communication research. We just created a new section on our website dedicated to this topic where we list useful links on the subject, including the IPRRC proceedings from 2003 to 2016. We are extremely proud to be a partner with IPRRC for their upcoming conference in March, in Miami.
SW – On behalf of my colleagues, thank you for all that you do to help. The practice needs to embrace research and use it in strategy, planning and execution. IPRRC will be a great experience for IC Kollectif for two reasons – first, it’s just a fabulous opportunity to learn. Second, because you’ll meet so many researchers and have the chance to help them get their research read and used.
ICK - You are very much involved in another very important topic: measurement. Before getting into your work in this area, we’d like to have your opinion on the following. In the 2016 State of the Sector Survey, 88% of respondents indicated that they do measure their communication activities. However, the survey also demonstrated that often times, their measurement is neither structured nor systematic, largely metric-based – focused more on output than outcomes and for 65% of the respondents, the employee engagement surveys remained the most frequently cited methodused to measure impact. Why do you think Internal Communication Measurement seems to be such a difficult task for a large number of communication practitioners?
SW – Let’s start with, hey, at least they’re making the attempt! We would like to see more substantive measurement, and I believe there is progress there. Our task force on IC measurement standards will help, just as similar efforts to establish external communication and social media measurement standards will help. As to why it’s taking so much to get there – you’d have to ask them. My sense is that there’s general “math-a-phobia” – the fear that you’ll need to calculate some abstruse figures. It also could be lack of interest – if you measure something and it isn’t turning out right, you need to change. That can be scary. I’ve heard, at least once, that you don’t want to hand someone the weapons they will use against you. Disappointing, but understandable.
"We would like to see more substantive measurement, and I believe there is progress there. Our task force on IC measurement standards will help, just as similar efforts to establish external communication and social media measurement standards will help." Sean Williams
ICK - You have been working with 3 colleagues to develop new standards for measuring internal communication. You presented your preliminary results last October at the Summit on the Future of Communication Measurement and also at the PRSA International Conference. What can you tell us about this project and the findings?
SW – We started this effort two years ago at IPRRC. Julie O’Neil, of TCU, Stacey Smith of Jackson, Jackson and Wagner and I were the original trio tasked by the Measurement Commission to start the process. There were standards efforts already in progress on social media measurement, and nearly complete on traditional media measurement, so it was evident that we needed a similar project for internal comms. We recruited Michele Ewing from Kent State and nine others from around the world to serve on a task force to tackle the topic. We had representation from North America, the UK, Europe and Asia as we sought to define the different ways we might measure IC, outtake, outcome & business impact. We wound up with 21 possible standards to define. Next we did a Delphi study – kind of a small scale survey among IC leaders – at least 10 years of experience, five in charge of IC or consulting on IC. We have those results in hand and will present the findings at IPRRC in Orlando in March. That’s an acid test round with the academic community.
"There were standards efforts already in progress on social media measurement, and nearly complete on traditional media measurement, so it was evident that we needed a similar project for internal comms." Sean Williams
ICK - What are the next steps for this project?
SW - We’ll develop the “how to” of measuring the final standards after IPRRC, post them for more general comments, and reveal the final, final at PRSA International Conference in Boston next October. After that, we’ll market the standards and try to get the major organizations to endorse them – IABC, Institute for Internal Communication, CIPR, CPRS – and agencies who work a lot in internal communications. We’d like to recruit more people from outside North America to adapt our research to those cultures and languages – there likely are differences in outcome and business impact measures depending on the culture, and we’ll need to take that into account. I’m pretty sure the final result will be a book!
"......... Sean Williams
"IPRRC is an academic conference that’s focused on material that’s good for the practice, because the practitioner is there, listening and evaluating, but also discussing. That’s the difference between IPRRC and other conferences – it’s all about discussion."
ICK - How long have you been involved with the IPRRC and what is your role within the IPRRC?
SW – I began as an attendee, then a presenter. I first presented in 2008 – and won, with Dr. Julie O’Neil of Texas Christian University, the inaugural Jackson-Sharpe Award for scholarship conducted by an academic and a practitioner. I’ve served on the advisory committee for three years, and am a reviewer of the applications to present at the conference. So I read research and share my opinion on it. Communication AMMO is also a sponsor – I give each year to fund a scholarship for graduate students to help them defray their costs of.
ABOUT SEAN WILLIAMS
Sean Williams is Vice President and Practice Lead, Education and Internal Communications, for True Digital Communications, a full-service communication and marketing agency based in Greater Cleveland. Previously, he was owner of Communication AMMO, Inc. from 2009-2017. Focusing on research-based strategic counsel and execution, his current and past clients include McClure Engineering Company,Iowa Department ofTransportation,Ernst &Young (EY),the County of Kalamazoo (Mich.),Western Reserve Academy, University Liggett School, Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Reputation Leadership Group, Excelsior University, Kent State University, Ketchum Change, Avery Dennison, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, and Western Financial Group. Much of his current work centers on integrated communication AMMO planning process, and manager training, through the Face2Face Communication Learning Program.
Williams is a member of the PRSA Employee Communication Section, the international and Greater Cleveland Chapters of SHRM, and the Association for Training & Development (ATD). He also is a member of the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission, and the advisory board of the International PR Research Conference.