Employee communicators know not what they do

If you’re too busy doing your job to think about why you’re doing it in the first place, take five.

There’s been quite a conversation going on at the LinkedIn group of the International Association of Business Communicators. Communication guru Roger D’Aprix started the ruckus by asking the employee communicators there, “Is our profession intellectually lazy?”

He forgot to mention morally bankrupt and emotionally dead.

At least it often seems that way to me.

I’m getting pretty bored with the subject I’ve studied for more than 20 years, the subject to which I’ve given more of my energy than any other.

I’m bored by so much talk of technology. Since the advent of intranets 15 years ago, about 75 percent of the conversation in this business has had to do with “integrating print and online” communications, e-blasts, CEO blogs, employee blogs, podcasts, internal social networks, online video, Twitter, Yammer, macrosharing and microsharing.

If I had wanted to kibbitz all day about gizmos, I wouldn’t have become a communicator, I’d have gone to work at a Radio Shack.

I’m bored by the pitiful excuse for the mission of most employee communicators: the violently persistent transfer of the soulless jargon-laden PowerPoint deck that exists in the CEO’s head, into the heads of every employee.

That’s not communicating, it’s information-insertion, and it would be more traumatic and offensive if it wasn’t so damned boring.

And I’m even tired of the most ambitious communicators, the ones who are trying to create something called “employee engagement.” These communicators may be onto something, but they know not what.

Of course, a lot of people have always thought that employee communication is boring—that this just isn’t a business that one should spend one’s life studying, one’s career working on.

And I have always disagreed. But now I’m starting to think that’s just because of the strange path that brought me into the business.

I majored in English. The year I graduated, the market for poetry was pretty lousy. I tried to get into advertising, but the competition was fierce, and I didn’t have the heart for it. I applied for work as an editorial assistant at Bowler’s Journal magazine, but they didn’t hire me because I didn’t have much experience—as a bowler.

So I answered this blind ad and went down and interviewed at this nutty little company called Ragan Communications that published newsletters for people who … wrote newsletters.

Employee communications people.

I didn’t even know there were such people.

It was a bit of a comedown from T.S. Eliot.

But since they were paying $17,500, I took it.

And then I started reading the writing of the founder, Larry Ragan. Partly it was because he was such a good writer. He made employee communication seem interesting—a series of subtle battles between democracy and autocracy, between courage and fear, permission and forgiveness, idealism and realism.

Employee communication was easy to study back then, too, because it existed largely in employee publications—internal newsletters, newspapers, magazines—and we had stacks of them in the office. In those publications, you could see gutsy practitioners taking big chances with candid stories, controversial letter-to-the-editor sections and bold headlines, like “Morale: Whose fault is it?”

(Can you imagine seeing a headline like that in an employee publication today?)

The employee communicators in those days were ex-journalists, and they were practicing a kind of journalism inside organizations.

Their instincts were mostly good. Just as mainstream journalists strove to make the world comprehensible for citizens and give voice to the voiceless, so did these employee publication editors try to do so inside the social microcosm of organizations.

You can say these people were misguided—just wanting to keep practicing journalism, but for a bigger salary—but they were right to see organizations as social institutions.

“Each organization has its own government, religion, education, economy and family,” wrote Ron Shewchuk, an early influence of mine. “Many corporate leaders ignore this and think of their businesses more like a plow that can be endlessly dragged through the ground rather than a society that needs to be nurtured and maintained.”

If those communicators from 20 years ago did nothing else, they had this mission, separate from management, to nurture that corporate culture. There was a hint of the subversive, there was a whiff of Robinhood.

And it was interesting.

That was then, you say. This is now.

And I hate to tell you this. But in order to start talking about the future, I’m going to have to go back even further into the past—way back—before the 1980s and 1970s, before the 1960s, back down through the 1950s—all the way back to 1942, the year the first book ever written on employee communication was published.

Written by a long-dead corporate employee relations executive named Alexander Heron, the book is simply called “Sharing Information with Employees,” and the employee communication philosophy it articulates is just as plain as the title.

Heron begins his book by alerting us to the notion that “employee engagement” has been a problem since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which specialized work and made employees cogs in the wheel. Surprise! They started acting like cogs!

But Heron sees employee engagement as a natural thing, as employees’ natural response to work, rather than one more thing to be somehow wrung out of a worker.

He paints what he calls “an image that will remain with us throughout our troubled study of the misunderstanding in industry today.”

It’s a picture of the workforce before the Industrial Revolution. It’s a picture of a fully engaged workplace.

We might find our picture of the old understanding in a wagon shop, a grist mill, a cotton mill, a pottery or cutlery shop. Let us find it in a furniture shop. Perhaps eight men work there. One of them is the boss. He owns the shop, but he works there, visibly. The other seven receive wages. The work done by the boss is not all done with tools; sometimes he uses a pencil. He draws designs, writes occasional letters, puts down figures about wages, costs, and prices.

The other seven know, quite closely, how much money the boss had saved up from his earnings as a journeyman before he started in business for himself; in other words, how much “capital” he had and how long it took him to save it up.

The shop or factory is on the same lot as the house where the boss lives; he owns it. The other seven know how much his taxes are each year. They helped to build the ten-by-thirty addition to the shop last year, and they know how much that cost. They were all in on the discussion before the new lathe was bought, and they remember the price and the freight. They remember how the boss borrowed some of the money from his wife’s sister.

They know that the dining room “suit” on which they are working now is for Jane Winton, [who] used to be Jane Carey, the schoolteacher, before she married Bill Winton, the banker. They know it has to be as good as the furniture she saw in Buffalo, and that if it is good Bill’s mother is going to give the boss an order for another lot which will keep them all busy through the winter.

They see the finished job emerging under their skilled hands, day by day. They know how difficult it was to get the seasoned walnut, and what it finally cost, what price is to be paid for the finished job, how much the boss will “make” on it, and how much of that will go to pay off the loan from the sister-in-law.

They know that the boss has gradually built a reputation for honest quality and skilled workmanship and that they are part of that reputation. They know why once in a while they have had to wait a little for their wages-when the taxes had to be paid before the money came in for the new counter and fixtures at the drugstore.

Above all, they know the boss. Their attachment to him is basically not sentimental but practical. He is the salesman who gets the orders which bring work to them. He collects the money which pays their wages. He manages to accumulate the working space and the equipment. They are realistic enough to know that they can get their full and fair share of the income of the business. They laugh at anyone who talks of the conflict between labor and capital, between them and the boss.

They know. Because they know, they understand. And in that full and simple understanding they “put themselves” into every job.

Now, of course Heron understands that corporations are not furniture shops. But he argues that, to whatever extent possible, they must be made to feel like the shop he describes. Employees need an understanding of the basic economics of their business, who the customers are, who the competition is, what the expectation of quality is and what kind of person the boss is.

That is our job—and it’s a big, tough, endless job.

Those of us who are tiring of it or failing at it often dismiss most employees as just wanting to get through their workday so they can collect their paychecks and go home.

Alexander Heron heard that talk from his own peers. And he didn’t like it.

They say that some people are just born that way, and they will go on to imply that this is in accordance with some divine plan. It seems to them inevitable that human society be classified and stratified, in the same manner as a hive of bees: If all bees were workers, there would be no organization under qualified leadership. If all were queens, there would be no honey. If all human beings were endowed by nature with keen, alert, understanding minds, none of us would be satisfied to work for wages or at manual tasks; we would all want to be bosses.

This attitude has a lot of history behind it. It is the idea of both ancient and modern tyrannies under which conquered enemies became the slaves of the conquerors.

That’s pretty strong stuff, and maybe it’s even a little hyperbolic.

But what underlies his claim is the commonsensical notion that a democratic society in a capitalist economy utterly relies on an informed populace … and a huge part of an informed populace is an informed workforce.

The deliberate effort to share business information with the great majority who work for wages corresponds closely to the deliberate plan to make education freely available to the people.

… we have all of us, every adult citizen, been jointly and equally entrusted with the government of our nation, state, and city. That government is increasingly engaged in the protection and regulation of the economic interests of all of us. It is inconceivable that the … millions of us who work for wages can do a good job, or even a safe job, of governing by votes, without knowing more and more about our economic interests.

The American idea has no place for a class predestined to be wage earners incapable of understanding a world beyond the workbench, no place for a class which is denied the opportunity to reason its conclusions on facts which it helps to create, no place for a class which is happier because ignorant of anything beyond the daily task. And those whose sense of superiority leads them to believe in either the necessity or the desirability of such classes are themselves enemies of the American idea or ignorant of its genius.

Do you hear what he’s saying here? He’s saying that employee communication is as important to democracy as public education.

I know it sounds big, I know it sounds heavy—but how can we argue with it?

Toward the end of his book, Heron talks about what real employee communication can accomplish:

If our program of sharing information with employees, through all the channels and methods named above, is completely successful, the result—and the evidence of success—will be questions!

The supplement we must provide is an adequate plan for meeting these questions. Meeting them does not mean parrying them; it means answering them.

Some of the questions will be annoying or embarrassing. Some of these will drive us, the employers, into fields of thought which we have avoided. Some of them will test the completeness of our willingness to share information with employees; they will force us to ask ourselves if we have really meant it. …

But if employee communicators succeed, Heron wrote almost 70 years ago, they will have achieved something great.

Without destroying the efficiency of modern big business, the pooling of capital, the productiveness of great industrial plants, we shall have restored the living, understanding relationship … into which our grandfathers put their strength and interest, because they knew, and understood!

In other words, employee communication can do great things-for the company, for employees, for society—and the world!

Assuming you agree with that, how should we go about making that wonderful impact.

What I’m saying is that communicators ought to go about their work with a few attitudes:

Employee communicators ought to agree that all human beings want more meaning in their lives, and because work is a hefty part of our lives, people want their work to have more meaning too. “Work-to-live” types are made-sometimes quite consciously, by companies who want their brawn but not their brains-but they are not born. And rather than dismiss huge swaths of the workforce based on the bogus studies of communication consultants eager to look like authorities, we should agree that the attitude people have toward their work can be affected by employee communication.

We are not servants. Yes, we have to satisfy management’s needs. But we have goals, methods, a philosophy and a perspective that they don’t share. It exaggerates but doesn’t distort my point to compare us to a doctor, who has a code of ethics and a set of methods that he or she takes from one healthcare organization to another, and in fact from any country to another. Your ideas about employee communication philosophy don’t have to agree with mine—but they shouldn’t always agree with the CEO’s, either.

And they should be rooted in something deeper than the latest webinar by a communication consultant. Our field has been around for more than a century, and too often it feels like we’re just making everything up as we go along. The trouble with that is that our colleagues notice it—our colleagues in HR, marketing and the C-suite notice that we have an even less philosophical tradition than our cousins in PR. They can point to Edward Bernays, P.T. Barnum and Ivy Lee. Who in the C-suite has ever heard of Angela Sinickas and Roger D’Aprix? Those fields with strong sense of purpose seem more technical, and their agendas are given more weight.

We need to know what, exactly, we are doing. It was Roger D’Aprix who told us 20 years ago that our main purpose was to “turn all eyes outward,” converting many of our employee communications from inside-baseball updates about corporate policy changes into industry analysis, customer profiles and windows to the marketplace.

Do you believe that?

Other observers think that at least a third of employee communications’ energy should be devoted to helping management listen to the workforce—bringing back opinions, attitudes and ideas from the factory floor and the cubicle farms.

Do you believe that?

Still others see employee communicators as facilitators of conversations all over the organization, rather than as information delivery people.

Do you believe that?

Even if we can’t reach a consensus as a profession, we each ought to know where we stand on these key issues, we each ought to have a compelling, quick answer to the question: What do employee communicators do?

We need something to err on the side of in our communications. Do we err on the side of candor, or caution? Too much communication or too little? More raw humanity or more corporate control? More organic, responsive communications or more strategic discipline? Do we err on the side of hiring more writers or more technologists? More “people people” who can act as great facilitators, or more business thinkers who can talk convincingly with management?

We’ve got to know which way we lean.

Finally, mostly, I want employee communicators to work with a sense of purpose, and a sense of pride that comes with the knowledge that we have an important purpose not just within the PR department, or the division, or the corporation, or in business in general—but in all society.

When citizens understand the economic reality surrounding their work lives, it’s a smarter society. When workers have a way to express their good ideas to management, it’s a more just society. And the more meaning people find in their work, the happier people will be.

Including you. Including me. Including Roger D’Aprix.

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