Internal communications -
don't just do it - use it!
By David Oliver, Fourth Corner Communications
Picture a large dog laying on a wooden porch in a mid-west American house on a hot day. Imagine this dog is whining constantly. Another dog sidles up to it and says 'why all the whining?' The whining dog replies "I'm laying on a rusty nail that's sticking through the floorboards and it's digging into my side". "So why don't you move?" says the other dog. "Because it doesn't hurt enough", replies the whining dog.
The point here is that organisations are full of whining dogs - people for whom the benefits of change do not outweigh the cost of making the change. To carry on the analogy, if we are to bring about change for our whining dog, we would first of all need him to understand why change needs to take place (the pain). Then he'd need to have a vision of how things can be (the gain) if he were to move and finally an idea of what he'll need to do to make the change. And then we'll have to make sure that the cost (in effort) of making the change is worth it.
Most organisational change programmes fail to achieve all of their objectives. There's no single reason for this - lack of leadership, poor planning and unreasonable timescales can all contribute. But often the failure is down to buy-in - the inability to engage the workforce or senior team (or both) with the change. And this often boils down to poor communication.
The internal communications industry is at last shaking off its 'house newsletter' image to become a critical business discipline and a key driver of change. This shift from 'tactical' to 'strategic', from 'message dissemination' to 'people engagement' and from 'reactive' to 'proactive' is reflected in the function's increasing profile. This more holistic remit to bring about belief and commitment rather than simply awareness of the message is drawing HR and communications professionals into new areas of collaboration.
Internal communications can be a lonely function to work in. On the one hand you are expected to be the corporate mouthpiece, crafting messages and communicating the company line, whilst on the other hand you are expected to be the people's friend. It's certainly true that the ability to translate and interpret company messages into language that pleases the executive and engages the workforce is indeed a skill. But the real key to successful employee communication is not to 'do it' but to 'use it'.
Progressive organisations are realising that internal communications is not just about managing the message and facilitating the communications 'engine', it's about influencing people 's attitudes and behaviours and thereby driving culture.
There is no more important time to make the shift from 'tactical' to 'strategic' internal communications than when about to undergo change. The need to establish the context for change, provide a vision for the future and offer clarity of how to get there all require long term, planned and 'involving' internal communications.
HR professionals charged with managing the people aspect of change are advised to put communication at the heart of the process. My own approach is to follow a simple model which breaks the communications environment down into four key 'cornerstones' - the messages (what is said), the processes (the communications infrastructure), the people (their skills and behaviours) and the culture (how it's done).
Part 2 - Effective communication