Why internal communicators should emulate the envoys

Internal communicators often take on many guises – planner, writer, editor, director, negotiator, policeman and magician (!) to name a few.

Diplomat is another – and maybe it’s our most important trait. I certainly think so after reading Sir Ivan Rogers’ letter to civil servants at UKREP, the government department representing the UK in negotiations that take place in the European Union, following his resignation as the UK’s ambassador to the EU yesterday.

Putting the politics of his resignation and the reaction to it to one side, Sir Ivan’s letter is a striking piece of leadership communication. While it may well have been intended for external consumption as much as for his staff, it’s transparent, credible and authentic to the outside eye. Above all, it conveys the principles and values he cherishes, which appear at odds with others’ expectations of the EU ambassador’s role in Britain’s Brexit negotiations.

“Never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power…”

“Support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them…”

“Continue to be interested in the views of others, even where you disagree with them, and in understanding why others act and think in the way that they do…”

“Always provide the best advice and counsel you can…”

These are professional parallels we should envy and emulate if we aspire to be trusted advisors. It means getting under the skin of our organisations, understanding how and why people are reacting to change and playing that back to leaders “unvarnished”, as Sir Ivan puts it, so subsequent decisions and actions are supported with a complete and correct picture.

Diplomacy is the skill of managing relations in the best interests of a country or organisation. I think it’s at the top of the list for internal communications development in 2017.

When internal communications is the greatest

Last year, to mark 100 years of the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, we asked our employees to share their best memories of working for us and put them in a special edition of our magazine.

We got dozens – enough to write 100 stories in each of our six country editions of the magazine.

The one I’ve reproduced here is my favourite by far. I share it now not just because of who it’s about, but as a reminder of the main reason I love working in internal communications: talk to people about a subject in a way that connects with them, and you’ll be amazed what you get back.

“Muhammad Ali was the headliner at a Coke event for employees in Atlanta in the early 2000s – his wife spoke for him as Parkinson’s disease had taken its toll. The interaction was truly inspiring and emotional for everyone.

When it was over, I ran around the stage to about 20 yards away and shouted at him: “Champ, champ… you’ll always be the champ!” Ali looked around to see who was yelling and we locked eyes. Instead of getting in his limousine, he made his way slowly over to me – clearly against his entourage’s wishes.

He walked right up to me and whispered in my ear: “I think I can take you…”

He put up his hands and I put up mine and for the next few seconds, me and the greatest boxing champion of all time – maybe the greatest sports figure of all time – shadow boxed, nose to nose. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

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Credit:  Pakpoom Silaphan

Some thoughts on internal communications development

Yesterday I was invited to speak at the launch in London of VMA Group’s 2016 internal communications market survey results, which outline some of the profession’s latest trends.

I spoke with Drew McMillan, who leads internal comms at Virgin Trains, and we discussed our thoughts about the profession’s development in the coming years. If you weren’t able to make it along, here’s what I shared.

Internal communications needs to evolve to take into account a multi-generational workforce. We hear lots about the rise and influence of Generation Y or millennials, those who are typically born between 1980 and 2000. But for some time to come, organisations will also include baby boomers (born between 1945 and the early 1960s), Generation X (born in the 1960s and 1970s) and, before long, the so-called Generation Z born in the 21st century.

There are similarities in each generation’s attitude to the workplace, and many differences too – including purpose, tenure and technology. It’s not the role of internal communications to address this by itself, but what and how we communicate to employees needs to be alive to these nuances and agile enough to respond. It would be fantastic to see each generation represented in internal communications teams, or at the very least indirectly through focus groups, editorial boards or other ways that we stay in touch with the way employees think and act in our organisations.

Internal communications will continue to rely on a mix of channels. While I think digital is an essential element of our armoury and makes us think more carefully about how we use print, I doubt it will ever overtake the need for strong face-to-face communications – especially through line managers. More than ever, I think we need to devote time and energy to getting this area right – especially when I read how many of us say poor line manager communication skills are a significant barrier to our success, but that few of us will be prioritising it in the year ahead.

But internal communicators can’t opt out of digital – it’s here to stay. Nearly everything we do is touched by digital and an important part of our professional development is to be well-versed enough to apply it appropriately in our organisations. Just as we should have strong allies in HR to understand how organisation design thinking affects our work, or to steer learning and development’s focus (and budget!) towards areas that help what we do, we need partners in IT to make sure we steward the latest digital effectively.

Internal communications should reflect the outside world. Our organisations don’t operate in a bubble and neither should our work. We should provide context for how macroeconomics affect our business, and be alive and sensitive to world and national events, and continue to help employees be ambassadors for our organisations. The quality of our work should also be consumer-standard. The content we create competes for the discretionary time and attention of our employees with external news and information, so it needs to measure up. Whether we produce content directly or manage it, we need to know what good looks like and we should continue to benchmark and invest in this vital aspect of our careers.

We must continue to sharpen our business acumen. It’s reassuring to read that more of us feel senior business leaders value internal communications and we have a stronger voice at the top table. To stay there, we need to keep demonstrating we understand our organisations and the general mechanics of business. While the skills and competencies we need to plan and deliver great internal communications are important, they’re a given. It’s a wider appreciation of business that will truly see us perceived as trusted advisors.

Is there anything you’d add, remove or emphasise? I’d love to hear what you think.

Employee advocacy – 3 things to think about

I’ve spent the last two days at Quadriga’s Internal Communication conference in Berlin. Leading internal communications in a corporate team covering several European markets, it’s important to look beyond British borders at the good work being done elsewhere in Europe.

The conference theme was ‘Matching Employee Activism and Internal Digitalisation’ – or to put it more simply, how digital helps your people do things better. The conference programme gives you a flavour of what was covered.

I’m a long-standing fan of using digital to help employees respond and interact with their organisation’s leaders, news and information and each other – generally to help them work easier, faster and smarter. It was especially refreshing to see some clever and creative ways that companies are using digital to reach and engage remote workforces to improve customer service, reduce costs or foster a sense of belonging.

Employee advocacy

What became apparent is the idea of employee advocacy – using the power of your people to promote your organisation, usually via social media – is becoming more mainstream. Organisations are recognising that what employees say or share about who they work for is generally trusted more than the CEO or other execs, and are tapping into that to improve their corporate reputation.

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? An army of advocates happily liking, faving, re-tweeting and blogging on your behalf – saving you thousands in paid media and giving your trust and reputation scores a loving lift in the process.

But before anyone gets started in earnest, I think there are three things organisations need to consider:

Do your employees want to do this for you? Engaged employees are a prerequisite or you may end up the opposite effect. Tap into projects where people are more likely to support your approach. Starting small is a good way to build confidence in what’s still a relatively new concept.

Your content should sparkle. Are employees really going to want to share something that’s poorly written, designed or produced? Work closely with teams and functions who have an interest in seeing you succeed, like external comms and marketing, set your standards high and think like a consumer in the outside world –because ultimately, that’s what your employees are and who you’re trying to reach via them. It’s still vital to know your audience and understand what’s relevant to them.

If you can’t measure it, don’t do it. Arm yourself with data that demonstrates the reach and impact of what employees are sharing for you. Is it supporting the goals you’ve set out to achieve? Check frequently, adjust or even abandon if it’s not working as you intended.

Are you developing an employee advocacy programme in your organisation? What tips and tricks would you add? Let me know what you think.

Corporate jargon – brave enough to ban it?

It seems reactions to corporate jargon are rising.

Forbes lists 25 ridiculous phrases to stop saying at work, there’s a Wimbledon-style draw to vote for the worst jargon of all time and a helpful flow diagram is doing the rounds to check whether you’re a member of the Four Tops if you ‘reach out’ at work.

Is revolution in the air? Have communicators finally had enough, or is this just silly season stuff that sinks at the start of September?

I’ve blogged before about the courage communicators need to confront jargon. It can be tough to convince colleagues that simpler really is better and we can all be guilty of slip-ups. Also, every organisation and industry has abbreviations and acronyms that are unavoidable to include in our communications.

What’s encouraging, though, is how some organisations have taken steps to ban jargon outright. The best I’ve seen by far is by the Government Digital Service in the UK, which has an excellent writing and style guide for civil servants and a list of words to avoid. Here’s an example of one:

Deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)

It seems to me that a formal style guide like this gives direction to communication teams and power to their elbow when they’re up against someone who’s brimming with buzzwords.

Does your organisation have a style guide with an emphasis on plain language – and has it helped stem the flow of ‘synergies’, ‘leverage’ and ‘sweat equity’? (That last one is my personal ‘favourite’ right now.) I’m interested to hear from anyone who’s been brave enough to introduce one and see the benefits.

Je Suis Charlie

Freedom of expression is a value I cherish. I work in communications because I believe people have a voice that should be heard.

For me as an internal communications leader, that means helping conversations happen between employees at all levels, so they understand each other’s perspectives – mainly on business priorities, but also as individuals who have thoughts, ideas and aspirations, even at times when not everyone sees eye to eye.

Today’s horrific scenes at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris only strengthen these beliefs. Voltaire, a Frenchman, is commonly believed to have said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates today more than ever.

#JeSuisCharlie

Are communicators ready for social business?

A former monastery deep in the lush rolling Swiss countryside wasn’t the first setting I had in mind when I joined my CIO at a roundtable meeting yesterday with his peers and other communications leaders to talk about social business in the 21st century.

No need to set your iPhone alarm here; the solemn peal of the friary bell sees to it that you’re awake early. Twitter? That’ll be the dawn chorus. And salvation is super-fast wi-fi, and a receptionist with a boxful of travel adaptors for the latest Brit who forgot that Switzerland has its very own shape of plug socket.

In these contemplative surroundings, the discussion covered the opportunities and challenges for IT and communications brought about by social business – which, in this context, is about using communications and collaborations tools and techniques to unlock value and productivity for organisations.

We talked about interactions and collaboration inside and outside of the organisation – with consumers, customers, influencers and employees. Chatham House rules mean I’m taking a vow of silence on the details of the meeting, but here are a few things they’ve left me reflecting.

Social business is growing fast, and the best organisations and teams are recognising this and adapting now. For communicators, that means becoming more agile, interactive and responsive to the needs of their customers and communities, internal or external. Flexibility is key – be prepared to think and act differently; to try new things and move on quickly if the solution’s not quite right.

Social is a mindset, not a channel. The organisations most likely to thrive as a social business are those whose leaders and culture already embrace and value feedback, discussion, challenge and change. If command, control and cascade still outweigh creativity and conversation, no amount of social tools or channels will help you to succeed.

The purpose of a social approach needs to be clear for all concerned. Goals and outcomes still matter. Social for social’s sake will be shortlived. People need to understand what you’re trying to achieve, and good change management and communications is at the heart of the matter. As communicators, we can’t forget the basics of a well-understood, well-prepared and well-executed plan in this respect.

Measurement matters like never before. If you’re not tracking and listening, it’s time to start. If you’re doing it, do more. There are more data and analytics available to business and communicators than ever. Social businesses make the most of this to ensure information is delivered, exchanged and used in a smart, effective and insightful way.

For social business to succeed, IT needs communications, and communications needs IT. If it’s not already happened, IT will soon be as important a partner to communications as HR and marketing. Regardless of their organisation’s industry, progressive CIOs are serious about social communication and collaboration and are investing in the tools and platforms to enable it. Communicators can help these come alive and thrive by creating and curating smart content, and helping the business to understand and act on the insights.

What do you think? Is your business becoming more social? Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts? Have I missed something important? I’d love to hear what you think.