The last few years have been exhausting but quite rewarding for anyone who works in employee communications. The COVID-19 pandemic thrust internal comms professionals into the spotlight, and they responded with timely and relevant communications — often daily or several times a day.
They turned their emails, intranets and executive messages into must-have news about the pandemic and its real impact on their organizations. They kept employees connected to their managers and leaders in more and better ways — yes, I’ll say it — than they ever had before.
Despite internal communicators’ accomplishments and their elevated status on the comms food chain, they remain haunted by four barriers that shake their confidence and get in their way. Warning: Serious cringing ahead.
1. “A seat at the table.” Communicators complain they’re not in the room where the big decisions get made. Instead, they are relegated to what the Italians call the “tavalo per bambini,” the kid’s table at the big family holiday dinner.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others, is credited with saying, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” Enter the Chief Communications Officer, who not only has a seat at the table but sometimes winds up at its head. The number of CCOs in U.S. companies stood at 8,071 in 2021, up from 5,021 in 2012, according to online recruitment service Zippia.
And while CCOs are expected to drive day-to-day business results and focus on their public (external) communication roles, they haven’t forgotten about the value of internal comms, either.
“Internal communications, once the neglected stepchild of the function, is arguably the most important aspect of the (CCO) role today,” wrote AnnaMarie DeSalvo, CEO of Hill & Knowlton Strategies in April 2020, just as employee communicators were mustering on the front lines of the pandemic.
Talent recruitment, retention and engagement are top priorities these days, and organizations are looking to CCOs — and their teams — to lead the way.
2. Silos. You may not be able to tear down all the silos in your organization, but you can start by eliminating them in communications. Integrated communications is more efficient, less costly — and gets results. It doesn’t make any sense for marketing, PR, internal comms and the other comms disciplines to go their own way, avoid collaboration and waste their time fighting over who owns social media.
Sounds easy enough, but old habits die hard. Start small. Here’s an exercise we recently did with one of our clients:
Gather all the comms folks in a room. Ask them to submit a handful of topics and initiatives that are important to the organization.
Divide the participants into small groups, with at least one marketer, a PR person and an internal communicator in each group. Assign them a topic and ask them to brainstorm a comms “package” as in:
A marketing campaign to promote the topic
An internal comms story to engage employees in the initiative
A story pitch or brand journalism story that focuses on the news value for your external audiences
A social post or a thought leadership video
Discuss and refine with the full group.
Add the content assignments to a common calendar, on a schedule that makes sense.
3. Approvals. This oldie is such a moldy that it makes Richard Simmons seem young again. It carries two poison darts: “We can’t send that out yet. It’s still going through approvals”; and its companion: “You can’t make any changes to this. It’s already been approved.”
Sometime around the mid14th Century, organizations lost sight of why they needed approvals in the first place: to check facts, to avoid getting sued, to ensure they’re striking the right tone.
Instead, the approval process morphed into some kind of weird power trip, where one or more people can hold up timely information for reasons no one can fathom.
So try this: Audit your approval process.
Work your way through the chain. Who’s on it and why? What do they think they’re supposed to do? Talk to them directly. In many cases, you’ll discover they don’t even realize they’re holding things up. A few may even bow out of the process. Give them all clear instructions.
4. The Cascade. It could have been one of the great wonders of the ancient organizational world, but like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the actual existence of the Cascade can’t quite be pinned down. Not to mention that it doesn’t work.
We want our middle managers — who are now called people managers, in case anyone missed the point — to carry important messages from the leadership team to their direct reports. And then we want them to report back to the leaders on how employees responded and what questions they raised.
But the managers, even those who are willing, are ill-prepared for this assignment. They don’t have time to become good communicators, at least not without help. This is a far more important task for internal communicators than planning the next awards banquet. They need to run this, like a never-ending town hall, on both ends.
Prepare the materials managers need. Keep it clear and concise. Find a better to way for managers to deliver it, and measure whether it happens. Work with your leaders to carve out a time in their meetings to hear “the word on the street.” Measure that, too.
If you pull that off, you’ll get more than a seat at the table. You’ll get the full dining room set.
Jim Ylisela is the cofounder and senior consultant for Ragan Consulting Group. He loves sweating to the oldies but isn’t a fan of Richard Simmons’ style of workout shorts. He also likes helping communicators overcome barriers to good work.
One Response to “Fixing 4 age-old obstacles to effective internal comms”
Lora Soderholm says:
The points in this are spot on and we seem to swing from one extreme to the other on the approval process and when we get bogged down it holds everything up. In addition, as you point out, the approver has no idea they are holding things up nor are they even sure “why” they are reviewing. It is frustrating.
Cascade approach: we still utilize but not necessarily with the expectation that the messaging comes from the people managers. It is more that they have the information FIRST and the collateral needed to simply answer questions and or redirect questions as they come in from employees. I can tell you having been a leader for 20+ years there is nothing worse than being “surprised” by a communication and not having any idea on how or what to provide the employees – makes an organization look poor in the eyes of the employees. We try to avoid this if at all possible. What are your thoughts?