Time to take stock
By Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick
Whilst the roads outside might have seemed quiet during lockdown, life for most communicators has been anything but calm. Yet, if things ever do slow down and we get space to think, where might we focus?
If we’re being honest, few of us are ever really 100% happy with how we operate. We all have a niggling worry that this channel isn’t really working or that our messages aren’t reaching that audience group. We’ve all read case studies from our peers and quietly planned to make improvements – when we have a spare moment.
Perhaps, if there is a lull in the round of messaging, now might be a good time to take stock and ask whether we are doing the right things before moving on to consider if we’re doing them in the right ways.
It’s an opportunity to rewrite our own prescription and avoid what Bill Quirke used to describe as ‘taking someone else’s medicine’. There’s a ton of great advice out there but it’s smart to start by asking “what does our organisation need employee communications to achieve?”
Get that one straight and the new question – “are we doing it in the right way?” almost answers itself.
When we were researching our book, we heard from several people about how they explored what their organisation needed. And perhaps the most striking examples were from people who managed to engage their leaders in the conversation. They were getting leaders to think about where IC could help to deliver profits or boost effectiveness for the organisation.
We heard about people who asked senior stakeholders in terms to imagine that an IC function that was starting from scratch. What could be the single most important thing that a new communications operation could do to help leaders achieve their missions?
Of course, most of the time we’ll all know the answer already although it’s always surprising what you missed or no one bothered to tell you about. The point, though, is to get our stakeholders to think strategically about where they need us to add value. When so many people have been focused in recent months on getting through the day to day, finding a space to discuss the bigger picture is helpful – when the time is right.
Time spent involving leaders in deciding the outcomes comms needs to support is rarely time wasted.
But we have to be ready to ask smart questions about their concerns and resist the temptation to jump back into the tactical side of things too quickly. If a manager is worried about costs, ask about the different costs they have to juggle, which costs are easier to control than others or how they are accounted for. If they want to talk about effectiveness, explore what measures they use and why those measures matter in your sector.
Over years of interviewing leaders, we have found that they very often don’t expect communications people to ask them about the business. When the conversation starts it’s not unusual to struggle to get away from channels or tactics. However, on the positive side, we have also found that people normally enjoy explaining their work challenges to an interested audience. We all sometimes worry about looking foolish for asking basic questions but perseverance and well considered questions demonstrate intelligence.
And remember, right now, many of your colleagues will be in reflective moods themselves so may fully appreciate where you’re coming from.
Try to get stakeholders to clearly articulate their goals and debate where good communications could help them. Probing around the behaviours which people need to adopt always takes the conversation deeper than a discussion of the failings of Slack. And find a way of gauging how much personal effort they are willing to invest in getting communications right.
Once you have a fresh idea of what leaders really need and they feel they have been involved, you’re ready to start worrying about channels, air traffic control and measurement. But if you haven’t started with a restatement on the objectives and outcomes there rest of your audit is going to produce some strange results.
Recently we’ve enjoyed looking at the research being done by team at the University of Florida. If you have time track down a copy of the paper by Cen April Yue, Rita Linjuan Men and Mary Ann Ferguson on Examining the Effects of Internal Communication and Emotional Culture on Employees’ Organizational Identification in the March edition of the International Journal of Business Communication (you may need to make friends with an academic librarian!). It’s a great review of the links between leadership, listening, engagement and workplace commitment.
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.