What qualities do you most dislike in a PR practitioner? “Being absorbed with ‘The Message’ and forgetting all about the specific context of the communication that is needed.” Gregor Halff’s response to Q8 of the PRoust Questionnaire
I have long been a believer that “language shapes consciousness,” primarily in regards to deliberate words chosen, particularly when reasonable, more-inclusive and dynamic terms exist.
For example, mindfully using gender-neutral titles, such as chair rather than chairman or firefighter over fireman. Gender-inclusiveness aside, there’s a plethora of other areas that need similar “consciousness” in communication. To wit, including ethnic diversity and values, physical and mental health challenges and sensitivities, generational accommodation, and so on—embracing and respecting the human spectrum in its entirety within workplaces and communities at large, rather than marginalizing or patronizing with messaging and tokenism.
One would hope that a similar consciousness of respect is at the heart of most corporate communications functions, particularly when companies are large enough to commit resources not just to HR but also staff (or a team) dedicated to internal communications. Even in smaller organizations, many recognize that “employee engagement” (related to where staff feel their individual contributions are valued) results in healthier work environments and trust in leadership, higher job satisfaction, increased productivity and staff retention.
In her book, Our Turn, Kirstine Stewart writes, “Good communication practices that are successful are built on mutual respect and a commitment to strive to meet each other’s goals. Good relationships start with a thorough understanding of what it is your stakeholders value the most.”
Relationships with employees should be much more involved, intimate and long-term than similar ones with consumers and even B2B partners. Consciously think of it as in-sourcing communication and employee engagement.
And yet, so often today what is read and heard is self-identified “internal communication specialists/strategists”—not just millennials but also “more seasoned” practitioners—mimicking marketing-driven language concepts, such as audiences and messaging, and targeting and activating.
Who talks to (and about) colleagues like that?
Even when couched in terms of employee empowerment and collaboration, many of these concepts and words hark back to old-fashioned, established workplace hierarchies and perceived authority, whereby information is centralized and controlled. And even though employee “advocacy” is a new term used for programmed engagement, “activating” staff or encouraging their ”gamification” move them in “social” speak to a new type of en masse command-and-control that is downright creepy. Anyone else remember Captain Jean-Luc Picard being captured and trapped in “the collective” of The Borg, in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
In the 21st-Century, it is the rarer scenario to witness internal communications in workplaces that are genuinely transparent and two-way engaging.
Staff may be a collective “stakeholder public,” but surely communicators don’t need reminding that employees also comprise many thinking and feeling individuals, not dense and placid sheep for driving or herding like commodities.
As Kirstene Stewart states, “Homogeneity is a creativity killer.” I would suggest not just for employees, but also for communication teams.
Stage-managing communication to internal performers and audiences
Here are some exaggerated scenarios in terms of composite encapsulation, but less so regarding words used far-too often by communicators and marketers in industry articles and reports, podcasts and Twitter chats.
Picture a (pious-sounding) internal communicator catching Francine in the hallway as she leaves early (conscientiously not wanting to be late due to heavy traffic) for an external meeting with building contractors, with whom she’s had long-term and fruitful relationships.
Francine, the communication department plans to target operations staff with employee talking points on how to express our company’s values when dialoguing with external partners. Given some recent negative insinuations in the media about possible code violations, we expect everyone to be great ambassadors for our corporate culture and customer experience.”
Later, a different (equally self-important sounding—perhaps a bit more hipster, as one internship was at a startup) corporate communicator also completes a team assignment. This social media and community manager specialist corners Omar heating up lunch in the staff room (to take back to eat in his small office, so he can continue to go over the next two quarters’ financial projections the CFO requested by end of week), to seed him verse and script on a “program” being introduced.
Omar, on the advice of our social media marketing guru consultant and the contracted vendor company [which pays him to write white papers extolling company benefits of its software program], internal communications thinks your team and you are the right audience for messaging and implementation of our new employee advocacy program. We hope to activate the accounting department first. This should give us an advantage over our competitors, as peeps on social media sure don’t expect enthusiastic marketing and promotions to come from introverted numbers people. If not the boring traditional media, we anticipate that our brand community and identified external influencers will eat it up and amplify the automated canned awesome sauce messages we provide to you even more!”
Separately, both team members finish their communication stage-managing with a disclaimer,
When you share these messages, HR mandates that for legal protection, you should tell your employee audiences their participation is optional….”
[Then the voices drop to conspiratorial whispers]
…. For their own good, do make sure to inject a subtle implication that not participating could affect their career trajectories in terms of activating them for other employee engagement assignments—or job promotions—in future. After all, as salaried staff with some modest benefits, we’re all in this together as a team of employee advocates, so shoot out that pride externally to make some impressions, especially on your family and friends who trust you!”
Francine, with a decidedly fixed smile, murmurs something non-committal. Mentally rolling her eyes, she begins to reconsider the competitor’s offer of employment—a higher position, autonomy and salary than her current scenario—first heard about from a recruiter who had researched her reputation, experience and abilities quite thoroughly.
Omar politely thanks the internal communicator (recalling the person’s hiring six months ago, immediately after completing a one-year digital corporate communications certificate program at a local college). As he’s been quite good at a “balanced” approach to work and life for the last 18 years, Omar starts thinking how he can use this “awesome sauce material” at the next Second City “open mike” evening in front of his community of other wannabe comedians.
(Go ahead and laugh at my “creativity” because if you think too hard about it you might just cry instead.)
Trust and respect are at the beating heart of effective internal communications
In Our Turn, Kirstene Stewart writes that trust and respect from employees aren’t things you can demand—they have to be earned. She posits that they are most likely to be earned when you embrace the knowledge economy within (and to a certain extent outside) the organization, held by its collective stakeholders.
Not to forget the personal capital earned as an effective communicator and/or leader, particularly when using emotional intelligence to connect the dots of business goals and individual contributions towards them.
(The knowledge economy, personal capital and emotional intelligence are three areas of extended focus in Stewart’s book on female leadership.)
Stewart elaborates that trust encourages constructive criticism, disagreement and healthy debate. In general, Stewart feels transparency is necessary for healthy teams and workplace environments.
However, can an organization claim to be treating colleagues with honesty and decency if your employee communications mindset thinks in terms of a passive audience for broadcast, targeted messages, rather than reflecting its true knowledge economy? Alternatively, stage-managing employees to be “activated” to use their own personal capital (i.e., social media accounts) to tell a “brand story” fed out on an automated conveyor belt (most likely shaped by marketing staff) pretending to be authentic communication?
Trust relates to feeling valued, including what is volunteered at the table for discussion and consumption, both good and bad; it’s the ability to communicate what’s working and what is not.
Trust is earned by allowing staff to (feel they) make meaningful contributions, and belief in the organization’s licence to operate—including each employee’s own stake in the company in regards to work done.
Finally, (ideally) having a certain amount of autonomy in how the work gets done, and the ways staff can communicate their roles, externally if, and only if, they want to do it.
Needing to explain the specific context behind the communication of this Message
I believe that when you read media and industry-related books, reports, articles and blog posts, listen to podcasts and participate in things like Twitter chats you should be in a continuous monitoring and “testing” mode regarding your existing knowledge, experience and beliefs. That’s why the timing of Dana Oancea’s interview, James Grunig: Conventional wisdom is the principal enemy of the public relations profession, in March 2016 was fortunate, as I glommed on to a few of Grunig’s “conventional wisdom” cautions, such as:
Public relations practitioners have long been producers of messages, distributed through the mass media, advertising, or other sources. They generally believe that their messages will affect the way people think about the organizations they represent. These messages generally have been one-way and asymmetrical—i.e., designed to make an organization look good or to cover up behaviors that members of publics object to. This is what Cees van Riel of the Netherlands has called buffering activities, activities that are supposed to create a protective cognitive buffer (abstract favorable thoughts) so that organizations can behave, as they want without interference from publics affected by organizational behaviors.”
It was also providential I read Kirstene Stewart’s book, Our Turn, shortly thereafter.
Not to mention the current chair of the Global Alliance, Gregor Halff, completing PR Conversations’ PRoust Questionnaire, and providing his own take on The Message and other areas that succinctly articulated beliefs similar to my own or added to my knowledge.
The American academic rock star’s interview for PR Romania, the successful (in old and new media) Canadian female business leader’s book and the professionally and personally multi-faceted Dutch-born global association official’s PRoust Questionnaire…all addressed expanding and moving forward the process, mandate and mindset of our profession, industry, craft (whatever you want to call it).
Their words and thoughts move away from conventional wisdom and “communication” command-and-control lip service towards a more respected, engaging, multi-hued, emotionally intelligent and successful outcomes-oriented areas of practice, including the specialization known as internal (or employee) communications.
Ideas that could contribute to trust building, regarding this important stakeholder public.
Not to get all mawkish, but inherent possibilities of different aspects of all three documents swelled the beating heart of this communicator.
Communication contractions and disengagement
But then there are the things read, witnessed and heard that dishearten me.
For example, during one of my current favourite Twitter chats, Wednesday’s #commchat, I suffered palpitations when I was informed,
Internal/corporate communications participants in the IABC staff-led chat use words like “audience” “messaging” and “targeting” far too frequently for my equanimity—seriously, I can’t get my head around the idea of going into work each day as an internal communication specialist thinking of colleagues as an audience that is a target for specific messages.
Be honest, were how Francine and Omar communication stage-managed in my fictional scenarios really that far from reality?
I posit that it is far more likely that agencies, software vendor company reps and independent consultants—whose mindset often revolves around communication and employee engagement, particularly in social media, as commodities for sale—to be the marketing-language perpetrators.
Here is another example. I occasionally listen to the EE Voice FIR podcast, produced by Sharon McIntosh and Sharon Phillips. Together (and separately), they possess a wealth of in-house experience regarding “employee engagement” (EE). But sometimes things they say in their newer lives as independent consultants give my communicator’s heart pause.
For example, their apparent embrace of the employee “advocacy” concept and mindset, which I wrote extensively about quite some time ago. Alas, this idea has not gone away as hoped; quite the contrary, as the active #employeeadvocacy hashtag demonstrates.
A few EE Voice shows ago, “the two Sharons” advised to avoid having staff “sound like parrots” in social media; that is, repeating verbatim canned messages for advocacy. Hey now, how about simply letting employees express their own considered thoughts and words (or not), rather than being programmed? Particularly as most employers are not a “cause” as the advocates/advocacy words suggest.
Their March 20, 2016, EE Voice podcast, In Employees We Trust: Key Findings from the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, featured Tamara Snyder (senior vice president at Edelman where she leads the agency’s Chicago employee engagement team).
It’s an interesting segment, and it’s where I found a link to information about Edelman’s new employee engagement-specific study revolving around trust, produced by Nick Howard and Dr. Andy Brown.
I will get into some concerns about the seven-step recommendations in a bit, but for the moment will focus on the podcast itself. I think Tamara Snyder does a good job giving the study some context for the end-user, particularly in terms of how trust in the CEO and company is related to employee engagement.
What kind of in-house corporate communicators seek out consultants for help on how to “activate” their staff colleagues? Seriously, can teams not communicate, collaborate, influence and engage on an individual basis, instead of trying to trigger some figurative collective switch?
Language shapes consciousness….
2016 Edelman Trust Barometer Employee Engagement missteps
On page 4 of the 9-page Executive Summary, the authors indicate the following findings,
…. Many leaders still believe that they speak and their employees follow. That the hierarchical, non-democratic structures of the organisation result in obedient employees who toe the party line and automatically extol the virtues of their employer.
The truth could not be more different.
What the TRUST BAROMETER data tells us is that leaders have lost control over the provision of information about their organisation. There is now a disconnect between authority and influence. The employee is the most trusted spokesperson for your business. And as long as employees don’t trust their employers, employers cannot trust what their employees say.”
As I was reading this executive summary, I was thinking back to Kirstene Stewart’s take on respecting the thoughts and opinions of employees and building trust through earned personal capital. Not that far off the mark from this research…but then the specific contexts of the two pieces of communication (book vs. trust report) diverges quite a bit.
This chart (from page 5) on employee engagement related to trust, Company Importance vs. Performance, is useful. Note its footer line:
There is a significant gap between what consumers expect and how companies are performing. Employees have a pivotal role in influencing many of these areas.”
The summary continues right after,
Ethical business practices are another area that consumers feel is important and leads to them being more likely to trust a company. Again, who do they trust as the most credible source of information about a company’s business practices? The employees.
…It’s surprising how many companies have not realised this powerful, trust-building link. Treat your people well. Support them to talk about the kind of employer you are, how you value your customers and the kind of business you are. Consumers will trust you. And, as the TRUST BAROMETER also shows, when consumers trust you they are more likely to buy from you and recommend you to others.
The Edelman TRUST BAROMETER 2016 suggests that this link extends to the way people communicate and the communications content they create. That there is a significant opportunity to harness the trusted advocacy status of employees who are ‘people like me’ through peer-to-peer and social communications.“
The final pages (7-8) focus on “Harnessing employee trust.” My consciousness shaped by specific language immediately thinks of employees being harnessed like animal commodities being driven to market….
The executive summary ends with “A seven-step plan” on how to “harness” your employees, in this case putting them to work as advocates in the marketplace. Steps 1, 2, 6 and 7 are reasonable and respectful in both intent and language; however, I’m of the opinion that “stage-managing” missteps are at the core of these middle three, with #5 being the most egregious:
Develop an easy to remember and repeat story that has this positive force for good at its heart. Don’t settle only for describing your strategy to employees. Show them how this strategy delivers something truly worthwhile to the world, beyond corporate profit.”
Bringthis story to lifewith real proof points that are evidence of your good work. Make sure these stories recognise your employee heroes—those whose actions and behaviours are evidence of the value you bring to the world.”
Help your employees to share your story and proof points with each other and the wider world. Give them shareable content and a simple platform that lets them seed it onto their own social networks where they can advocate you with pride.”
Losing a bit of my Trust
As I’m a long-time reader and supporter of the well-established annual Edelman Trust Barometer, I admit to feeling disappointed that the Edelman agency has jumped on the employee “advocacy” train (or band wagon), promoted by so many consultants and related vendor companies. Particularly under the guise of research on “employee engagement” best practices, when it really comes across as another way to turn communication (and people) into commodities.
Language shapes consciousness.
Think on this, not only are most employers not a “cause” to “advocate” for help (as one might about chronic medical conditions or societal injustices), but from a conscientious-and-respectful internal communications point of view, it seems a pretty weak correlation that you can inspire more trust in companies and employee engagement by #5’s
…developing, repeating and helping employees to share YOUR story to seed on to their own social networks where they can advocate you with pride.”
For that matter, if employees are important internal stakeholders, is it not THEIR story?
When I shared the Executive Summary, and my thoughts on the missteps, with internal communications specialist and educator, Dr. Kevin Ruck, he agreed and refined the observation further:
The missing step is how to put practices in place that enable employees to trust senior managers, so that when shareable content is created they can decide, objectively, whether to share it or not.”
(Look for more thoughts from Kevin Ruck on responsible communication leadership, in terms of effective employee communications very soon, here on PR Conversations.)
A contextual conclusion
This post was supposed to be a short rant about the erroneous use of a handful of words being bandied about in internal communications-related documents and forums that were enraging me; the end result is decidedly not a succinct effort.
Brevity may indeed be the soul of wit (and increase the odds of something getting shared in social—even if not read at all or merely skimmed), but generally it doesn’t allow for “the specific context of the communication that is needed” per Gregor Halff’s observation.
Even if my context is excruciatingly long, here’s hoping those who think of internal communications as a specialization and vocation, rather than just a job, understand and appreciate (and think even more upon) this Message, when talking to a Francine or Omar in your own organization.
Respect them as individuals and as internal stakeholders, and you are more likely to be trusted, particularly in regards to your task of communicating employee engagement programs to enhance the workplace.
Feel free to engage and make the communication discussion even more dense and rich, by adding your own “constructive criticism, disagreement and healthy debate” in the comments section below.
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Hooked rug (woman driving a cart powered by a sheep) from the St. Lawrence Valley, Quebec, after 1936 (artist unknown). Photo taken by the post author during the “Home Economics: 150 Years of Canadian Hooked Rugs” exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada.