How communicators can avoid the ‘telephone game’ effect

Thoughtfully segment internal audiences, create worthwhile content, and prioritize employee feedback.

How comms can avoid the telephone effect

Corporate communication often devolves into a frustrating—and costly—rendition of the “telephone game.”

Executives communicate a message to upper management, who share their interpretation of the message with middle management, who then communicate with frontline supervisors. By the time employees get wind of what’s happening, the message has often morphed into something entirely different from what the execs initially conveyed—or at least meant to convey. Sound familiar?

“Telephone” is a great icebreaker for kids, but this sort of “pass it on” miscommunication can cause dire dysfunction for organizations.

Based on a recent case study of a government contractor suffering from “telephone game syndrome,” try following these suggestions to get a clearer, more consistent cascade of information flowing through your workplace:

1. Internal audiences must be researched, understood and segmented.

In the agency we studied, the internal audiences were lumped into binary categories: management and non-management employees. However, there are many more meaningful ways to segment internal audiences, such as by demographics (age, gender, job type or physical location), psychographics (personalities, attitudes, values or cultural interests) or behavioral preferences (media consumption habits or interests outside work).

This requires practitioners to investigate the needs and preferences of internal audiences—and then creatively segment based on the research.

2. Content and sources should be meaningful, useful and helpful.

You can conduct years’ worth of research on your key internal audiences, but if your content is bad—or if it’s sent through inappropriate channels—your messaging is bound to fail. Craft compelling based on employee preferences, not on management’s assumptions.

For example, new employees may require or prefer different types of information from what your more established workers need or want.

3. Employee feedback is essential.

Companies typically cascade information downward, like a waterfall—which means feedback rarely makes its way back up to top management.

This power dynamic leaves employees feeling unheard and undervalued. Substantive, anonymous feedback channels should be available to all staffers, and communicators should ensure that execs see raw, candid employee feedback.

Of course, gathering employee feedback is a useless exercise unless you do something about it, so make sure execs take it seriously. That’s a crucial component of crafting more employee-centric—and effective—communication.

Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at A version of this post first appeared on the Institute for Public Relations blog.

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