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.

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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.