3 keys to a successful communications audit

Before blowing anything up, gather feedback from colleagues and executives. Prioritize surveys, focus groups and substantive interviews with company leaders.

Let’s start by addressing the whale in your fish tank: No one really wants to do a communications audit.

Audits take several months. They cost money. Also, they’re messy. They disrupt “the way you’ve always done it.” Audits often suggest you should blow up some of your content, delete certain channels and rethink overall strategy.

They’re a royal pain in your assets.

That’s why I love them. If you truly care about effective employee communication, if you really want to engage your workers, you must be willing to challenge everything you do as communicators.

You must be willing to admit—no, shout in the company cafeteria—that some of this stuff is total crap, and that you’re determined to make it better.

For those audacious enough to pursue the most daunting communication task, here are three essentials to keep in mind as you spelunk down the audit crevice:

1. Mind the gaps. Surveys are great tools for gauging employees’ level of understanding and awareness—particularly about the topics that leaders care most about. The classic case is the strategic plan, which leaders spend gobs of time putting together and employees generally ignore. Here’s what a survey might reveal:

Question: Are you aware of our new strategic plan? On your survey, 85 percent say yes. Woo-hoo! (You had a huge kickoff meeting and road show.)

Question: Do you understand our strategic plan? Only 65 percent say yes. Hey, that’s still almost two-thirds, yet quite a drop-off. Awareness is not understanding. It’s time for some explanatory journalism.

Question: Do you know how the plan affects what you do every day? On this one, 35 percent say yes. Uh-oh. It’s time for some better storytelling. Don’t tell me about your strategic pillars; show them in action.

2. Play Words with Friends. The trick to a good focus group is to get everyone to talk. Some people talk too much and can dominate the discussion. Others may be shy and reluctant to speak out—especially if they have a different point of view.

You’ve got to bring out the wallflowers and temper the blowhards. Keep the conversation moving. It’s a tricky task, but here are some good techniques to find that balance:

• Hand out index cards and ask the participants to write down a word or two that describes the state of employee communications as they see it. Then go around the room and have everyone read what they came up with. I’m always impressed with the adjectives people come up with: Cryptic. Revealing. Secretive. Cheerleading. Plenty to talk about there.

• If you’re talking about intranets, do the same exercise, but ask people to write down the last three things they did on the platform.

3. Turn the tables. Leaders are accustomed to top-down communication. After all, they sit atop the food chain. These one-on-one interviews are a rare opportunity to make a busy executive focus on what’s happening down in the trenches. Ask thought-provoking questions such as:

How do you know your messages are getting through to employees?

How do you know your managers are good communicators?

What can you do to be a better communicator?

Can I conduct an audit myself?

Sure you can. You’re smart and capable. However, audits require objective distance from the audience, so keep in mind a basic rule of engagement: The closer you get, the harder it is.

Here’s what I mean:

  • One to many. A survey is impersonal; it provides natural separation between you and your audience. Survey design is crucial. You must pose the right questions, in the right way, to gather the data you want.
  • One to 12. In focus groups, you’ll find yourself talking directly to a dozen or so employees. Some employees are too polite—or too intimidated—to speak freely to the communicator who is responsible for the content they’re evaluating.
  • One to one. Leadership interviews are doable, but potentially quite awkward. Are you comfortable asking tough questions to the people who sign your paychecks?
  • One to yourself. Content analysis is about holding up a mirror and telling yourself how you look. That’s always fun, right? It’s hard to be critical of your own work, much less figure out what you should be doing better.

If you do want to do better, start with surveys, focus groups, leader interviews, in-depth content analysis and a bold plan for change.

Jim Ylisela is co-founder of Ragan Consulting Group. A version of this post first ran on LinkedIn.


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