Category Archives: Communications Strategy

Just a few thoughts on the dark art of corporate communications and how one should approach it – and when you’ve approached it, whether you should embrace it with open arms, or simply walk away. Quite quickly.

Moving to 280 – Removing a Valuable Discipline?

So Twitter is trialling 280 character tweets.

According to Biz Stone, Twitter’s founder, “science and study showed us phonetic languages want and need ~280. Not everyone will use this amount”. This could be true, but because the science and study can’t be explained in 140 characters (or 280, for that matter) it feels a bit vague. (It would interesting to see the science and study though – they could tweet a link to it.)

Give people the extra characters and mostly they will use them, because it’s easier and because they can. The beauty of Twitter was in the 140 character limit – it is a real skill to be able to condense your meaning into that amount, and still have it understood as you intended. It is even more skilful to to do it with humour and personality. Brevity, as the great man said, is the soul of wit.

The discipline that Twitter imposed was a great pointer for all good communication. Plain language, short, to the point and, if at all possible, personal. Simplify your messages so they are brief and instantly comprehensible. Take time (but not too much) to eliminate ambiguity.

Twitter’s character limit forced the identification of superfluous words – vital if you’re writing a media release, an all-staff communication, a script, a position statement, a key message document, the list goes on – and encouraged creative use of vocabulary (another key skill for the communicator).

In fact, when approached with a brief by a client or an internal customer, a good starting point would be to distil the essence of the communication into an 140-character sentence (or sentences). Get that right and everything builds from there.

Twitter’s provision of extra characters encourages less thought, which, given the standard of some of the ‘thought’ on the medium already, is a bad thing.

In the wider world of communication generally, a similar lack of boundary and discipline leads to four-page media releases, eight-hundred-word staff emails, confused journalists, disengaged employees, words for words’ sake and the wanton use of adjectives like ‘fantastic’ and ‘fun’.

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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.

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A Few Truths About Internal Communication and Employee Engagement

As an old communicator, I’m certain that Engagement isn’t my bag. Employee engagement is not internal communication or, indeed, vice versa. The reason I take an interest (apart from the fact that internal communication helps pull the levers of employee engagement, or motivation, or belief or whatever you wish to call it) is because I once worked for a company where Engagement sat with Communication, as a part of Corporate Affairs.

Straight off, engagement is not the same as internal communication. Engagement is a by-product of the organisation’s culture and its approach to the ‘way we do things around here’. From that point of view, I think most would agree that HR is best-placed to own employee engagement.

Internal communication can – and should, of course – support the growth of, and strengthen, employee engagement by ensuring widespread understanding of the things that make a difference to the employee. These will include, but are not limited to, the organisation’s mission and vision, its purpose, its strategy and progress made against that strategy, its culture, its successes and its narrative.

What is it that makes someone proud to work where they do? An understanding of, and belief in, what the company is doing and how it is doing it, and a clear idea of what part they play in helping it achieve its goals. It’s that old (probably apocryphal) story about the NASA cleaning operative, pushing his mop. JFK, on a tour, stops him and says “What’s your job?’ And the janitor looks at him and says “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, sir.” The one thing that would make that story better is if JFK had recognised and rewarded the janitor’s efforts by making him US Secretary for Labor (sic).

But internal communication is not employee engagement because no matter how successful its activities, no matter how many channels and how much reach, no matter how much interaction, an employee’s ‘engagement’ (or motivation, or belief) can be blown away by perceived (or actual) negative behaviours by fellow workers and management. Which is why EE sits with HR or OD – basically, the people who are responsible for developing the people to ensure the right people have the right skills to manage the people. People people.

Employee engagement is a lot about people development (as well as reward and recognition, also HR functions). Move the engagement function away from HR and all that’s left to it is measurement (given that it’s internal communication which is spreading the good word and  advising on best communication practice).  Fairly soon – and I’ve worked in two companies where it has happened – the measurement of employee engagement becomes the thing itself.

This approach is, clearly, encouraged by those who make their livings measuring employee engagement. According to Gallup’s website ‘87% of employees worldwide are not engaged at work’, which is dreadful, because “companies with highly-engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share”. (I’ll leave you to reflect on the robustness or otherwise of those claims.) They encourage it because, once it’s been delivered a couple of times, there’s simply no way to stop it – it’s a type of corporate substance abuse. I can stop measuring employee engagement anytime I want – just not this year.

To be clear – no matter which firm of measurement consultants is employed, the actual measurement is an employee survey, comprising the same old fifteen to twenty questions. There is nothing to stop this being done in-house, probably more efficiently and resulting in numbers that are comprehensible and – because it’s your system – of some value to your organisation.

Or – and here’s where Communications generally can have a massive impact on the chimaera that is employee engagement – you could simply convince the senior team to get out and about a bit more, find out what the problems are – if there are any – and see about fixing them. Arm them with a few stories – give them some coaching if they need it – let them lead by example. And if they won’t, or can’t, try the next level down.

It’s only a start – but showing and telling your people that you’re interested and involved has to beat faceless metrics tracking movement on an invisible and irrelevant scale.

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We Need To Talk About PR and Communication….

Quite the week.

  • Bell Pottinger was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for breaching ethical standards with a campaign that the association’s DG called ‘absolutely unthinkable’.
  • As a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), I was stunned to learn that – according to a press release issued in May (which I’d not seen, to my chagrin) – after grace period one year, members found using AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalents) as measurement will be liable to disciplinary action.
  • As a LinkedIn member, I added a response to an open request for ‘personal take(s) on communications’ core purpose’ -reading the other 15 responses, I saw the words trust, diplomacy, influencing, reputation, behaviours – but nowhere did I see the word ‘selling’.

Recently I published a piece entitled ‘What’s the Value of PR’ (feel free to have a read) in which I proposed that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now – this is an abridged version:

  • The communication industry has an image problem
  • There is no workable, affordable, industry-standard evaluation methodology for communication activity
  • Communication is still chasing its seat at the top table

The first two are self-explanatory.

  • To the outside world, the communication professional is a spin doctor or a celebrity publicist or Edina Monsoon. Those with a greater level of understanding see the role as that of an eminence grise, and not in (if there is one) a good way. On the inside, the communication professional is seen as an event organiser, a clearer-up of messes, a corporate policeman, a scriptwriter and someone to answer queries from difficult customers. The perception problem is not helped by Bell Pottingergate, nor by tweets such as the one seen this morning “You know your (sic) work for a #PR agency when……you hear a champagne cork pop before 9am!”
  • A massive amount of good work has been done, by AMEC and others, to achieve some consensus on the issue of evaluation. The CIPR – and in fairness, the organisation has since indicated that its intention is not to punish – is to publish its guidelines this autumn, and hopes to kill AVE stone dead. The problem is that any form of meaningful evaluation is costly and labour-intensive and for those with pared-back budgets, it’s not feasible. Thus, we are presented with a choice between sacrificing a sizeable proportion of our budget, or doing nothing.

The third is about the function of communication:

  • Communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. It may not all be about directly shifting widgets – it could be about encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

There are other issues, of course – such as the fact that communication works in silos (internal, external, digital, issues management, public affairs) when, quite clearly, to have an holistic view (and to guarantee clarity of message) all communication disciplines should be but different faces of the same object.

Image, function and measurement are the big ones, however, and have been for years. Unfortunately – and with no disrespect to the PRCA or the CIPR, who are herding cats, and making a good fist of it – improvement is up to everyone who works in the industry, and as we’ve learned this week, it only takes one to reinforce and renew the general misconceptions.

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What’s the value of PR?

30 years. That’s how long I’ve been treading the Way of the Communicator, seeking communication enlightenment and the meaning of – well, different things actually – currently I’m seeking the meaning of ‘agility’. Which, I’m afraid, has a whiff of new clothes about it. But that’s another story.

In the last month or so, I’ve been reminded (not for the first time) that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now, and there’s continued talk around them, emphasis on their importance, and yet no coherent, industry-wide, workable solutions. Big issues like – and in no particular order:

  • The communication industry’s image problem
  • The evaluation of communication activity
  • A seat at the top table for the communication function (‘trusted advisor’)
  • The communication silos that the industry works in (internal vs external vs public affairs vs reputation management)
  • The ownership of communication, how it should be described and where it should sit
  • Why is communication necessary – explaining the value that it adds (as distinct from measuring its effects)

Recent triggers have been an article on evaluation, demonstrating that, despite all the great work done by AMEC, there’s still not an affordable, workable, industry-standard communication evaluation model (and that AVE actually ain’t all bad); and a piece that talked about the benefits to be gained from bringing internal and external communication together – the implication being that they are, currently, separate things. Should you so wish, you can read some thoughts on these two things here and here and a previous piece (prescient, but lightweight) on PR’s image problem here.

More recently there was this statement on Twitter. “Public relations (& corporate comms) is/always will be, about ‘reputation, value & relationship building.’ Not selling stuff.” In fairness, it’s not clear whether it’s serious, or whether it’s tongue in cheek – but either way, it’s a sad indictment of our industry – that people actually believe communication is not about selling (and they do), or that people are so aware that it’s a prevalent belief, they find it necessary to poke fun.

Thing is, communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. Agreed, it may not all be about directly shifting widgets, or encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

To distance communication from ‘selling stuff’ alienates it from a large part of the organisation that it should be serving, shuts it off from key insights provided by sales data and customer contact, demonstrates an elitist, ivory-tower mentality and prevents it taking the holistic overview of the organisation that would make it so valuable. Most importantly, it relegates communication to niche-player status. Marketing, the traditional adversary of communication, with the bigger budgets and the bigger offices, embraces selling – and communication still needs to learn that lesson.

Addressing this ‘we don’t do sales’ mentality would go a long way to identifying solutions to some of the long-standing issues. People tend to take you more seriously if you deliver against the bottom line – or, at the very least, understand where the bottom line is and how you can impact it. That delivery/understanding will undoubtedly help in getting communication the seat at the top table. Being seen to generate tangible business benefit adds weight to a function and helps others place it.

Being familiar with what drives business success – along with wider comprehension of social and political issues, allied with a feel for the media agenda – positions communication professionals as trusted strategic advisers, and moves us closer to where we want to be.

Here’s a piece (from prnewsonline.com, by Seth Arenstein) entitled ‘PR Pros as Strategic Advisers, an Where it Goes From Here.’ Good read, as it assumes the communicator’s role as strategic adviser, even though, to my mind, there’s not enough about ‘selling stuff’ i.e. being a part of the business beyond managing reputation and crafting the message. It does, however, contains the following quotation “You can’t be a separated, subject-matter expert only. You must have tremendous business acumen.” To coin a phrase – that’s what I’m talking about.

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Internal and External Communication Go Hand-in-Hand – It’s Only Common Sense

Being an old communicator means, perhaps, not being as in touch, or as conversant, with some of the latest communications thinking or tools as one might be. (This, of course, is a topic for another time – how to bridge the, dare I say it, growing divide between the younger and the more mature communications professional, who often have to work very closely together and yet have different formative influences and different views on communication best practice.)

Being an old communicator, however, brings a career’s worth of experience draw on. And a network of other old communicators, providing further careers’ worth of experience to plumb. One thing we are all agreed on – and I do hope no-one feels I’m giving away trade secrets – is that it isn’t actually that difficult. All good communication is, at its root, common sense. (For example – journalists like news, customers don’t want to be patronised, no-one likes the wool clumsily pulled over their eyes – simple and, you would think, obvious.)

This piece via the Forbes Communications Council, on the importance of internal and external communications coming together, is, therefore, rather frustrating.

The gist of the piece – and, with due respect to the author, it is important and it makes complete sense, it’s the fact that it needs discussing at all that’s the worry – is that there are benefits to be harvested when internal and external communications work together.

Listed amongst these benefits are (and these are edited):

  • Leaders of communications groups can realise efficiencies by uniting teams that develop employee and public content, including stories, videos, infographics and social media pieces
  • Communications practitioners may be interested in exploring both disciplines – this provides an opportunity
  • When internal communications work together with external, all company stakeholders — from employees to customers — feel heard and respected
  • Such an approach can generate stories that employees and external stakeholders see at the same time

And here are a few of my own, just to reinforce the importance of the topic:

  • Merging internal and external communication allows you greater control over the corporate message, with less room for re- or mis-interpretation
  • Your employees are your ambassadors and your advocates – they should hear and see what the outside world hears and sees
  • You cannot – and should not try to – tell the internal audience one thing and the external audience(s) another (which means having an eye on tone of voice as well)
  • The internal communication function sits within the Communication Department – it is not a devolved function, and should never be the responsibility of individual business function heads

This is all, clearly, common sense and, despite the qualified assertion that ‘some may say that only senior communicators reach the stage where they can and do blend both internal and external expertise’, seniority (or age) has no monopoly on common sense.

Internal and external communication shouldn’t need merging, converging or bringing together. They are two sides of the same coin, share the same aims and are predicated on the same corporate truths. They shouldn’t be separate in the first place.

It’s obvious. It shouldn’t need explaining and it certainly isn’t some secret wisdom revealed only to those who’ve spent years following the Way of the Communicator.

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The Savagery of Social – implications for internal communication

This, I suspect, may get me into trouble. Let’s talk about the nastier side of social media for a moment, and then let’s consider the implications that arise for internal communication and the already established trend of using enterprise social networks like Yammer, Workplace by Facebook and, well, Sharepoint. (There are others, clearly – like Slack and Unily – arguably collaboration tools, or bespoke intranets, but as it’s all about ‘sharing’ – and odds are on that ‘conversation’ is also being mentioned – they’ve got all the characteristics of the established social media channels.)

And that’s the issue, really. Here’s a piece from The Irish Times (written by Jennifer O’Connell) which says ‘social media has shown us that when humans gather with no rules, savagery prevails’ and goes on to say ‘there’s a brutality now in the way we communicate with one another that did not exist before social media’. The article, which is definitely worth a few minutes, starts out looking at Ed Sheeran’s decision to leave Twitter, touches on the Orange Mussolini in the White House and uses personal experience to further illustrate the point. And it’s all demonstrably true.

Quite some time ago, I attempted to categorise this phenomenon. (If you can be bothered, you can find my original post here.) It’s ‘an ailment that afflicts a small but significant proportion of the population when they are presented with the opportunity to post whatever they like to a public forum’ – appearing to be compulsive and involuntary. It can take the form of simple intolerance of anyone else’s point of view, or extreme bad language, or posting of inappropriate material (visual or written), or racial harassment or career-threatening stupidity. That it’s a small proportion of the population is important – although the Brexit ‘debate’ has shown that the proportion may be larger than first imagined – however, as is always the case, it only takes one.

So – what does this mean for enterprise social networks? First, let’s go back to the Irish Times piece (above) and note the words ‘with no rules’. Social media have no rules, and anyone can say whatever they like, hiding behind a blank avatar and an anonymous username. Obviously, in the workplace, there will be rules governing the use of corporate intranets, collaboration tools and how employees represent their employer on external social media. Won’t there?

Well, actually, not necessarily. From personal experience, there are companies that have not thought about a code of practice. That do not have a Use of Social Media Policy. That – and this is terrifying – won’t implement guidelines because they don’t see them being at one with the spirit of social media. It’s all about sharing and collaboration and conversation, apparently – placing guidelines on how you do it would stifle its very essence. Hang the potential consequences.

Again, quite some time ago, I did a piece on my experience of implementing a very early version of an enterprise social network. (And again, if you can be bothered, you can read the whole thing here.) The conclusion was – ‘give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable, given half the chance.’

There are many companies (three that I know personally) – no names, no pack drill – who use enterprise social networks. There are consultancies who offer to implement an enterprise social network in your business. My experience is that they do not work – amongst the workplace as a whole – as they were meant to, generally because a busy workforce does not have the time to add an extra layer of complexity to its day-to-day and also – obviously – because not everyone wants to share their work. Because it’s theirs.

So what happens is that the expensive tool becomes a means for the few to blow their own trumpets and a further few to ‘like’ the fact that they’ve done so. And there is always the risk of wholly inappropriate, reputation-damaging content – although, in fairness, there is a less of it than I envisaged, way back when. But still, the expensive tool is a reflection of the shiny object that it imitates – faint, but a reflection nonetheless. And if social is becoming increasingly savage, thoughtless, stupid and radical then – without the policies, guidelines, checks and balances in place – so must your internal network.

From all of this, there are clear take-outs:

  • If you have an enterprise social network, govern it with a strict policy
  • Have a corporate ‘Use of Social Media’ policy in any case – you never know when you’ll need it
  • If you haven’t got an enterprise social network, think carefully – do you need one, or is it Shiny Object Syndrome?
  • Remember, the role of internal communication is to keep the workforce appraised of the organisation’s successes, vision, values, strategy, policies, procedures and its corporate religion, thereby generating a sense of belonging, belief and purpose. It is not to encourage free debate around these things, as Google has found out.

 

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