Interviews

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FACING INTERNAL COMMUNICATION

Mike Klein is a Communication Consultant, Writer and Principal of Changing The Terms. He was the 2018-2019 Chair of International Association of Business Communicators for Europe, Middle East and North Africa. He shares his thoughts with PR Intelligence Magazine on the future of Internal Communication.

What is Changing The Terms?

Changing The Terms is the name of my consulting practice that is focused on internal and social communication.  I work with organizations in different geographies in a number of ways – to help them use language more powerfully, to understand the ways their employees influence each other and how that affects prospects for change, and to make leaders aware of organizational trends and blockers by asking the right questions.

You are an Internal Communication specialist and the 2018-2019 Chair of International Association for Business Communicators (IABC) for Europe, Middle East and North Africa. Tell us why PR professionals should join IABC.

Why should communication professionals want to join IABC? A number of reasons: First, IABC is the only truly global organization of professional communicators, and as such, it has knowledge resources that cut across geographical and cultural lines. IABC also has led the development of a certification program based on the Global Standard, which was derived from assessing communication practices and principles to see what is generally most critical and universal.

What is most pertinent, however, is that IABC is a global network of peers who care deeply about our profession and about helping fellow professionals advance within and beyond their organizations and countries. 

Internal Communication is said to be more of a science than an art. What is your take on that?

If people are saying IC is more of a science than an art, that’s really a testament to the good work a number of people have been doing to make it more systematic, analytical and strategically focused.  When done right, IC is at least as much science – social science – as it is art. When done right, IC looks scientifically at demographics, attitudes, language and power relationships, and how they can impact the achievement of objectives as opposed to simply cascading aspirations and intentions from above.

Art is also essential, and I say this as someone who has benefitted a lot from the help of designers and people who are artistically minded. Words have power; but it sometimes takes art to turn that power into vision. 

Are there challenges facing the discipline in this age of social media?

Absolutely. 

What are the challenges?

The biggest is that while IC and External Communication are converging – with employees being recognized as an external communication channel and social media and traditional media being used to support internal messaging. This trend is leading some within the PR world to call for the integration of IC and PR without a proper appreciation of the internal dynamics.

This thinking is simplistic at best, and catastrophic at worst.  Employees are far more invested in their organizations than customers. Organizations don’t just communicate with employees, they communicate through employees. And if organizations want to differentiate, employees must have deeper knowledge and insights about the brand, its proposition and its execution than customers have.

That means employee engagement has become a tougher nut to crack. What are the best practices to guarantee success?

I’ve long been very skeptical about “employee engagement” and the efforts to push higher employee engagement scores through internal communication activities.

Employees engage differently. Some are passionate about their companies. Others are more excited about being engineers, sales people or operators than they are about their companies. Still, others simply want to get through the day without making anyone upset, and look forward to having a beer after work. Current employee engagement thinking and scoring doesn’t address this basic reality.

The key thing is to address employees as individuals and as part of a community at the same time.  It’s hard to do but not impossible. Tone and language choice are the key.

Line managers are believed to be crucial to effective internal communication in an organization. Why is this so?

Line managers can be genuinely important, but aren’t the whole story by any means. The main things employees want from line managers in internal communication are validation and reassurance. They don’t need their managers to read out the canteen menu. They don’t need their managers to read the CEO’s weekly letter out loud to them if they can already read it themselves on their computers. 

That much being said, line managers can also be toxic and counter-productive. They can withhold information. They can deliver cascaded messages with a conspicuous lack of conviction. They can contribute to the flow of rumors and they can passively or actively reorder stated priorities, creating gaps at the team level.

Measuring internal communication could present a real challenge to communicators. From your experience, what methods and tools do you think could help do a better job?

It depends on what the IC role is trying to do. Much of current measurement is based on the consumption of IC resources; that is, open rates, click rates, number of cascade sessions conducted. But there is much that can be measured about what is actually used and has impact.

IC distributes words around the business. It is possible to measure whether words are understood and accepted, through online and offline surveys. It’s also possible to measure the words on people’s minds, through what they enter into enterprise search. These measures are more powerful in tracking the spread, impact and credibility of organizational messages.

You are the author of Happeo’s Present and Future of Internal Communication Series. Could you please tell us more about the series?

It’s been a great experience connecting with leaders and communicators around the world about the current state of IC, key trends and the IC discipline’s potential as a driver of performance and impact. 

There are six reports and a final summary report.  The 65 conversations I had point in a common direction – that internal communication has massive potential to drive results and differentiation, but that leaders and communicators need to look very differently at things to be able to fulfill that potential

What are the key trends and issues in Internal Communication practice today?

The roles of organizations, employees, leaders and media have all changed significantly in the last 5-10 years, but most IC practices – they way IC functions spend their time and focus their energies have not caught up. The reports point a a way for communication professionals to get ahead of the curve.

Specifically

  • IC needs to be seen as something that reduces organizational “noise” rather than adding to it. This doesn’t just mean cutting the amount or loudness of communication, but to make sure the right communication gets to the right people in the right way

  • To recognize the significant communication roles held by employees, seeing them as crucial internal and external communication channels rather than simply as the undifferentiated internal audience

  • To seek opportunities to shift and share  ownership of the value of communication initiatives and activities; that is, to get management to say what communication activities are worth to them (or avoid the risk of inadequate communication support).

  • To question the schedules and pressures that drive a lot of our outputs
  • To challenge leadership to clarify and commit to their priorities as a cornerstone of “cutting the noise”
  • To treat IC as an engine of differentiation and facilitator of innovation

What do you think Internal Communication would look like in five years to come?

It depends on how things play out. Technology and research have driven a number of alternative perspectives in the IC world in the last few years, but the “tired and true” one-way formula of cascades, town halls and e-mails has proven quite resilient so far. The extent to which communication professionals can move in a more interactive direction without a huge amount of initial sponsorship, and then the ease with which they get sponsorship for more strategic approaches once they’ve proven their value will be key.

The Happeo reports point a clear pathway to a desirable 2024 future, but whether the industry follows that pathway is still an open guess.

Please let’s know what it takes to be a successful Internal Communication professional?

That’s a loaded question.

Until now, an agreeable personality, good project and event management skills and, maybe, a bit of writing ability was enough to sustain success in many corporate settings.  But fluency with data, and getting the right data that makes executives sit up in their seats, is becoming more critical. The ability to define lean but powerful interventions and empower employees as advocates internally and externally will likely score more points in the future. The project managers and event planners will still be around. But more strategic types may land the key roles going forward.