Fresh ideas for internal communication in the current economic scenario

I’ve been wanting to write a post about the importance of internal stakeholder management or internal communication in the current scenario of economic recession for a while. Now, after having participated at the 4th Internal Branding and Employee Engagement Conference, here are some fresh ideas.

The issue of how Internal Communication is acquiring a more and more important role in the current scenario is not new to this blog. Recent studies point to that, but the question is how is this translating into practice and changing the panorama of internal communication.

This was precisely one of my main questions when taking part at the recent Internal Branding and Employee Engagement Conference in Amsterdam, a forum with internal communication managers and brand managers and specialists from consultancies. Though most of the case studies presented at the Conference are still from the pre-bubble period, late 2008 or early 2009, they translate a concern in adapting and adjusting tactics (or launching new ones) to deal with the economic downturn.

Here are some of my main takeaways:

1. The economic crisis doesn’t mean direct cuts in internal communication – All participants revealed that they are not experiencing strong cuts on their budgets, but in some cases they are redirecting their budget more to the “listening mode” of communication rather than to the “speaking mode”. A participant explained indeed how the budget of a product advertising campaign was converted into a corporate advertising campaign (including internal activities), thus in some cases investments might be increasing.

2. In the recession, employee engagement can be leveraged through significant participation in the corporate strategy – Peter Jones from British company BUPA revealed important data from an internal survey demonstrating that 83% of people declare that the future of the company is one of the issues that engages them the most. (Note to readers: Do you have similar data from other studies confirming this?) On the other hand, if companies believe they have to earn their “license-to-operate” why not start internally and why not start with employee’s participation in the corporate strategy? Inspirational example from Budapest Bank in creating an internal change agents network to facilitate the engagement in corporate identity renovation campaign. Also, in the current scenario, companies seem to be giving a lot of attention to communicating their values in innovative and consistent ways to employees.

3. Going too fast on the action/ communication regarding the economic downturn can create you more trouble than help – The effects of communicating the crisis and some unpopular cost cutting measures – including employee’s wages and benefits or strong travel restrictions – took HP’s European Imaging and Printing business to deal with another problem. As explained in a brilliant presentation by Rupal Ulrich, a strange silence and a sharp reduction of employee’s participation through the normal channels, demotivation and rumors where the consequences of the company’s reaction to the crisis. Folks at HP found their way to at least invert the negative tendency (“We got our employees back”, Rupal stated), but the problem is far from solved. I wonder how many of you out there are facing similar situations in your company or clients which still haven’t been properly addressed? What are the risks of a “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” workforce in a time when simply waking away is not an option due to the difficult economic scenario?

4. Impacts for the future: more professionalism in Internal Communication and the end of “Do Me” Departments – Already now but more in the future to come, Internal communication cannot be a service to get brochures, events, e-mail blasts, newsletters or whatever (illustrated here by the “Do me this, Do me that…”). Peter Jones gave a very good hint explaining the experience of the positioning of his Internal Comm. Department under the premise that there are no fundamental differences between internal and external communication in what regards the need to take decisions based on numbers. Know the demographics of your people, measure the results and argue for your budget based on numbers are some of the basic assumptions of his work – valid not only for internal communicators I would underline.

5. Lessons to be applied: written policies on Internal Communication – In the times of crisis, seems pivotal the need for written internal communication plan and the need for a written policy on internal communication (Peter Jones mentioned to it as a code of conduct, but I prefer this idea). Because you cannot fail on communicating issues due to manager’s will to keep their reputation internally; because aligning internal communication with business objectives requires a consistent and legitimised approach; because manager’s should commit to internal communication through their own MBO schemes. Is this something that your organization or your clients have?

Please share your views!

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32 Replies to “Fresh ideas for internal communication in the current economic scenario

  1. Brigit, thanks for participating and for a very insightful quote. At the conference I was impressed by a quote from the 60’s from Sodexo’s founder in which he mentioned that he had started his company as a community with key stakeholders. Today it has 350 thousand employees around the world. I guess this has to do with what Judy mentions.

    I think your point about “Democratic Innovation” connects with the potential that internal communication has to manage change management programs and (nowadays even more) knowledge management programs. This is clearly about action!

    Thanks again to all for participating. I think this reflection makes us think that there are many ways to be sucessfull but over the long run those organisations who can balance the interests of the different stakeholders have a competitive advantage to which PR can decisively contribute. As Paul and Toni rightly put it, stakeholder’s importance (including also shareholders as a type of stakeholders) is a situational concept and varies with the specific context.

  2. From today’s announcement by Nestlé: According to Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, “the financial crisis which has resulted in the current deep recession revealed once more a basic business axiom: if you fail to work on behalf of the public interest and take shortcuts that place the public at risk, you will also fail your shareholders. We believe that to have long-term business success you must simultaneously create value for shareholders and for the public. At Nestlé, we call this Creating Shared Value, and it is the fundamental principle behind the way we conduct business at Nestlé.”

    “At Nestlé we recognize that our success depends on creating value for people – from the farmers who supply our products, to our employees, to our consumers and the communities where we operate”, said Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.

    I would agree with this view and see it as an and-and situation. Shareholders and Stakeholders relations are interrelated and equally important.

    Very interesting debate. Thank’s for initiating it Joao!

  3. Paul, for many years (without question) the concept of “shareholders” did rule in corporations. But the tide has been turning of late. (Canadian) Professor Henry Mintzberg has been arguing for years that company’s must return to interaction with various stakeholders (including employees). I have a paper he wrote, Beyond Selfishness, which argues this way. (I’ll send you a link to an online version; fascinating reading.)

    I’d also point out that the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates a movement to stakeholder (over shareholder) relations, too. In all sectors, not just government and NGOs. I had the privilege of hearing Richard Edelman speak in Toronto in February (specifically on Canada Findings) and he spent a great deal of time on stakeholder relations.

    I do admire your passion and commitment to debating the issue, though. And now you have Toni’s love to boot–that’s a significant accomplishment! 🙂

  4. In the light of Heather’s input to the discussion, I would like to bring up the role of Internal Communications in establishing ‘Democratic Innovation’ in organisations. To engage employees and help top management through this economic crisis, everyone will have to be able to think and talk along and come with new and fresh ideas. Internal Communicators need to provide inviting and open channels and instruments to allow a healthy flow of ideas and get people to listen to eachother and help the organisation to innovate and climb out of the negative spiral of bad figures and redundancies. So, less corporate speak and strategy, but more action.

    Brigit Law

  5. João, where we differ is over accountability. Managers of corporations should not be more accountable to stakeholders than they are to shareholders or principals. But I am not against using the concept of stakeholders as a useful PR planning tool for engagement with a corporation’s audiences.

    I agree with all that Heather said in her comment.

    João, it has been a great discussion – thanks!

  6. Fascinating discussion. I think one of Toni’s points about engaging employees as brand ambassadors links into Paul’s perspective of PR practitioners focusing solely on achieving organisational objectives.

    Toni mentions “using” employees and Paul seems also to see those who do not have a recognised “stake” as needing controlling rather than engaging with.

    Organisations do not have a right to exist in (democratic) society and do so only because the public enables them to do so. This general public has the power to take action and affect any organisation’s achievement of its goals. Such people should not be viewed as passive receivers of corporate messages nor should they be seen as open to manipulation by PR or management.

    Specifically, although employees have a dependent relationship with employers (particularly in the current economic situation), any attempt to use them as a fake ambassador is unlikely to be either successful or sustainable.

    Surely the best form of public relations is that which is credible and which stimulates genuine support from publics, not coerced transmission of corporate speak.

  7. I’m not going to add to the different views expressed, but I’d like to state a few points regarding the very interesting (for me) topic of the stakeholder theory of the firm:

    1. “The stakeholder model of the firm” was conceptualised long ago. Freeman in 1984 was one of the first to address it. But Post, Preston and Sachs in 2002 also added to the process of “Redefining the Corporation”. According to these and other authors, saying that ‘CEO’s serve shareholders interest first foremost’ is wrong since managers are agents for the corporation and not for its shareholders. Their first and foremost concern should be to create value for the organization, not for the single or specific shareholder, and how to distribute this value.

    2. Independent and unsuspected organizations like the Dow Jones, through its Sustainability Index, continuously research on what business success over the long term looks like. And they don’t argue for a primacy of the shareholder over other stakeholders.

    3. But we all agree that profit is a measure of success. However, short-term profit and satisfaction of the shareholder can have little to nothing to do with sustainable success.

    4. If stakeholder involvement is seen by the company as a rhetoric strategy, I agree with Paul that involvement is a mere lip service. But, on the other hand, I suspect from the utilitarian idea that if and only if the organization involves the stakeholder with the purpose of achieving a business goal does PR work as it should work.

    5. Corporate governance models are also diverse, as a debate from the 30’s demonstrates. On one side, Prof. Adolf Berle’s model of strict governance claims that all powers of the corporation are to be used for the benefit of the shareholder. On the other, Dodd’s broad Corporate Governance model sustains that society my request that a business is conducted in such a way as to safeguard the interests of those who deal with it even if this curtails the proprietary rights of its owners.

  8. Toni, sorry about my touchiness. I seem to have had a momentary sense of proportion failure. I’ve been rereading your comments with even more attention than first time round and now have more sense of them. To err is human, I erred.

  9. I’m sorry that you keep mocking. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I do claim to be prepared to consider and explore all the questions and issues we face. And I also believe that the ancient art of polemic sharpens the mind, produces clarity of thought and benefits all involved or observing.

    Right now PRs need to question all of their past assumptions without underestimating the insight that our elders and betters handed to us. But it seems you, Toni, are reluctant to engage other than in a contemptuous tone.

    Debate and discussion should not be threatening; it shoud be exhillarating.

  10. Toni, when you say you “fail to understand the rationale of my earlier points” you mock me. Actually, there was total consistency in my various posts, which replied to the responses they received. So I ask you what exactly do we agree on?

    I repeat, PR needs a reality check. Much of our thought, theory, practice and advice is still rooted in boom-time complacency. The world has changed and will change more still, but PRs are not yet ahead of the curve. So it is no wonder that our industry’s reputation is low at a time when our professional services have never been more needed.

    Am I the only person to observe that while most leading PRs are good writers few write in a clear style when they discuss PR? Their chosen convoluted language is surely a matter of choice, rather than an accident – I hope. My aim is to bring transparency back to the table. If we get it right we shall discover, I believe, that our existing business will more than double because restoring confidence is all about restoring reputations.

    The PR industry’s declining fortunes is a great shame because we have the talent among us to make a real difference at an order magnitude more than we do right now.

  11. Toni, you misunderstand and misrepresent me. My points stand whether we are discussing the private sector, the public sector or the not-for-profit one

    All three sectors are to a large extent organized into corporations of different legal standing. But, I accept, not all corporations are businesses, and most businesses are not corporations.

    But all corporations share something in common with the limited companies you refer to and the partnership and family businesses which you don’t mention. That is simply that they are all slaves to their owners, their shareholders, who determine the objectives and purposes they exist to fulfill. PRs are always on the side of their paymasters, also

    Corporations exist in the public sector on a grand scale: BNFL, Northern Rock, for instance. Universities are increasingly run on a business-like basis. British schools within the public sector are being turned into middle-sized businesses as if they were private schools.

    Charities are increasingly run like efficient businesses to maximize the return on donated funds. Mutual societies versus bank PLCs? Can we spot the difference in practice? Perhaps only in the advertising.

    What you seem to miss in your comment is that all three sectors have more in common with each other – which make them alike – than they have differences that separate them.

    For PRs that means their experiences and expertise can be transfered and made relevant across the different sectors of modern society.

    Toni, I fear you are drawing distinctions that barely exist.

  12. Bill Huey makes an insightful point about the role of HR. But let’s go further and do what most PRs loathe to do and speak plainly about the roles of HR and internal communications.

    On the whole, HR departments and even the junior ones amongst them are presumably understood to be conducting business on behalf of management and not on the part of employees. In other words, only a naïve employee thinks the HR department is on his or her side, at least not when push comes to shove. Similarly, the PR is doing internal communications for the good of the bosses.

    Now it is of course true that good PR is often a two-way process. The PR is often required to get messages from outside society into the bosses. (Just as a country’s diplomats are.) Similarly, presumably an internal PR will be reporting to the bosses about perceptions amongst staff. In this case, the PR becomes a sort of spy. In short, internal communications can be deeply invidious.

    It would be quite wrong for PRs to allow any other sort of impression to gain hold, PR, like HR, is not in the final analysis, for the general good.

    I add – before I’m attacked – that the greater good PRs actually contribute to is the success of their clients who pay for advocacy. Hence, a certain distrust is always going to be in the air in any company.

    Contrary to liberal opinion, that stress or tension is no bad thing in terms of determining a positive outcome within any firm. The trick is to channel the feelings that exist in the right direction. But internal PRs are not therapists and should not pretend to be everybody’s friend either.

    Let’s not forget that the world has just found out what happens when the profits our clients and the rest of us depend on stop being made: recession, perhaps now depression, sets in. Misery prevails.

    None of what I’ve said is an argument against corporate responsibility or even CSR. Contrariwise – I believe I’m putting the case for positioning both of them credibly.

    I say PRs won’t be trusted so long as they appear to be slippery and dishonest about their role in the world – serving their bosses, their paymasters, professionally.

    My case is that the realities of life and of business responsibilities in particular are something to be celebrated rather than shied from. I detect that many PRs are uncomfortable with the work they do and attempt to disguise it – shame on them.

  13. You are only confirming what I gathered. You seem to underestimate that more than 60% of our colleagues around the globe do not operate in or on behalf of companies, but on behalf of public and social sectors. So, we ahve a clearly different perspective: I take an organizational one and you an ltd one, which is only a small part of the former.
    Of course I agree that public relations is always part of the problem. That is why we make a living….
    Our worst and probably most effective critics say that we are the problem….

  14. Toni, let’s go back to basics to examine what the purpose of a business is and how it is defined. Otherwise I fear we will not nail the substance of our various differences on PR best practice.

    1. A corporate purpose is something other than the purposes and objectives of various shareholders.

    So when PRs talk about aligning the values of shareholders and stakeholders that is mostly meaningless garble because their various motivations, views, education and levels of risk-taking and opinions etc. are so diverse that no such alignment is possible. Walter Lippmann argues that symbols unify audiences but in reality disguise rather than reconcile their differences because each person sees his own thought in the symbol.

    2. The corporate purpose is set out in the Memorandum of Association or document of same intent but of different name. This document sets the expectations and limits of what a corporate business or charitable corporation exists to accomplish.

    3. Corporate governance refers to the means of ensuring that corporate actions, assets and agents are directed at achieving the corporate objectives established by the corporation’s shareholders.

    The danger is that the likes of Gordon Brown and stakeholder advocates will reduce corporate governance to “box-ticking’ structural corporate governance mechanisms. When what actually matters is making the right strategic choices and operational actions – that’s why IBM and Apple are still profitable and the banks are bankrupt.

    My point is that our starting point as PRs in everything we do is to achieve corporate purposes.

    The problem with Joao’s “stakeholder model of the firm” is that it all too easily it turns into a diversion from achieving corporate objectives.

    Most of those groups defined as stakeholders would be better defined as groups having an interest in a firm’s activities. Take Greenpeace. It is not a stakeholder of any firm so much as an interested party we sometimes need to consider. But when I was in the nuke industry some twit put them on the stakeholder list. Is the terrorist Animal Liberation Front listed as a stakeholder of any firm? I wonder.

    I’m not against the stakeholder notion if it focuses on achieving corporate objectives. I accept that businesses need to take account of the needs and concerns of shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, lenders and society. Otherwise the firm’s plans might run aground. I accept also that we must mostly align our clients with whatever zeitgeist predominates – certainly in symbolic terms.

    However, once PRs put stakeholders who have an interest in the firm or who are affected by the firm’s activities on an equal level with those in whom the firm has a stake, the focus on objectives is all but lost.

    I argued in my WSJ (E) column that during the boom years PR professionals didn’t look after the quality of the messages and narratives of their clients properly. I said that just as business said it was consulting and building consensus, it was indulging in double-speak and euphemism.

    I argued that PR became part of the problem. We were the froth on a frothy time, a party to the trivialization of business.

    I said that there’s going to a new nastiness at the heart of business. Bankers will be saying “no” more often. Lots of employers will be sacking people. This can’t be made nice, and everyone will have to resist the urge to try to fudge what’s going on.

    So, I have declared war on shallow PR thinking. But don’t get me wrong – l love our trade, respect its best practitioners and its history with passion and pride.

    Please note: I took some material above from a 1998 Social Affairs Unit Research Report entitled “Stakeholding – Betraying The Corporation’s objectives, by Elaine Sternberg (I wish you to know that I am not in full agreement with Sternberg’s complete dismissal of modern stakeholding theory, but believe that she is more right than wrong).

  15. Joao and Paul, your responses to my question are interesting in that their differences mirror a divergence which emerges in your respective stakeholder/shareholder approach.

    While Paul clearly agrees with my point from the opportunistic perspective that if you overexercise your push approach into getting employees all hot about their ambassodoorish role, you risk having them dead against you when you most need them (the case of British Airways is very telling); Joao agrees with my point from the normative perspective that if you use your employees as front organizations on your behalf your are entering into dangerous ethical territory.

    This, in parallel, implies the Paul’s shareholder approach is more material and descriptive while Joao’s stakeholder approach is more symbolic and normative.

    I am sure you will not agree with my oversimplified reduction of your positions, but I do this only to say that I do not agree with either of the two perspectives, and suggest another.

    Basically if you are in the business of helping your organization to develop stakeholder relationships (shareholders of course being, on certain issues, paramount)you will want to develop effective relationships with your employees (who on other issues are also paramount) so that business objectives may be better achieved.

    This is the only justification for a serious and concerted effort to develop relationships with employees.

    Now, we must analyse the extent to which using your employees as external multipliers of organizational objectives is effective and helps the organization achieve its objectives.
    I have no doubt that this is so.
    Yet when our decision making process leads us to opt for one policy rather than another, we must always estimate the potential consequences of that policy on all stakeholders as well as the general public interest, and not only on the one stakeholder segment you are focussing on, otherwise you are in caos. Right?

    If so, other internal management functions (not only, but mostly, human relations or pesonnell) will not necessarily be very happy if you engage employees beyond their line of duty, as organizations are full of programs designed to occupy employee time in other activities which do not relate to their contractual obligations… and this may upset negotiations and union relations.
    Also, I have often heard people lament the obsessiveness of their friends and relatives working in some of the ‘great place to work’ companies.

    So it is not so much a instrumental approach which leads you to be careful in overdoing your employee engagement program and it is not even an ethical one (although I do agree that it is unethical to believe that you don’t do something because if you get caught you will suffer severe consequences…also taking into consideration that, on average, only ten out of 100 criminal acts get prosecuted, and this is very optimistic…).
    It is a pure managerial question of overall effectiveness in helping the organization achieve its objectives.
    It is not moral or immoral to use employees.
    If overdone it is countereffective.

    What does overdone mean?
    This is why the director of public relations who exercises this responisibility cannot take it lightly and needs to study, to research, to learn and to be competent.
    Not an easy task.

  16. Toni,
    Please strike “departments” after the first reference to Human Relations. I inserted it and caused an agreement error. So difficult to write coherently in these little boxes sometimes.

  17. Joao, I perceive that internal communications practitioners do form a kind of “second league.” Particularly in the United States, where they often report to Human Relations departments, which typically has a seat at the table only when the legs are being sawed off. HR departments are also a major source of “Do Me,” because that’s how they interface with upper management.

    The way to remedy this is to stop it, and to insist on an integrated approach to external and internal communication. It’s a bit like the recent discussion here about teaching social and mainstream media separately or as one, which is a bit like asking whether sailing should be taught separately as freshwater/saltwater or as one complete set of skills.

  18. It was not so much stakeholders that corporate CEOs let down in the boom period, but shareholders. CEOs “forgot” that they served shareholders’ interests first foremost

    So, given all the talk in recent years about the “stakeholder model of the firm” and not the “shareholder model of the firm”, I think the time has come to bend the stick where it belongs. After all, not every “stakeholder” can be a winner; the world is a tough place and shareholders come first pure and simple.

    That does not mean that I’m against the concept of stakeholders, but that I fear it is used as a wooly meaningless term mostly. The tough job facing most businesses right now is staying in business.

    Regarding Steve Jobs, he made Apple in his image. He was once fired because his leadership-style was adjudged bad for their image and staff morale. The company nearly collapsed after his departure. He returned to the top post as robust as ever and made the company great once more.

    My point here is, please save us from the Steve Jobs-sacking PR image experts. And, yes, Apple has an army of fans, including me, who are satisfied customers.

    My message is that there are many ways to run a business, do PR and provide what shareholders demand: profit. But we are all under-going a reality check experience. Our future success depends upon clear thinking and setting the right priorities on behalf of our clients.

  19. wow, this is real time chatting not blogging 🙂 Thanks!

    Paul, I’m not arguing that an inclusive approach to decision making in organizations leads to success while an authoritarian or top down dictatorship prevents success (I don’t know Apple’s reality but would very much like to know more about why you describe it like this).

    I’m saying that any organization practising “The public be damned” approach will have more difficulties in implementing decisions – mostly increasing the time and cost of the implementation. I also add that my point of reference is the “stakeholder model of the firm” and not the “shareholder model of the firm”. Your description of Apple’s success makes me to think that we are commenting based on different paradigms. I can see both sides, but prefer to show my point.

  20. Toni, your diagnosis is very much on target and I agree with the ethical problem that you pose. As always, the answer to your question isn’t simple or straightforward.

    In my view, often employees mobilize on their own to create relationship spaces to meet others from the organization (for all those out there a simple exercise is to check out for facebook groups related with your company)and defend it against accusations or even to accuse it(create a twitter search with your company’s name and check it out).

    I think that most who participate in this type of initiatives does it voluntary because they are proud/happy or angry/raged of working in their respective companies. Would they do it if they had to? If the organization would somehow request or include this as part of their contractual obligations? I don’t think so. And probably it wouldn’t be right to demand this from the organization point of view.

  21. João raises too many points to answer. So let me give you an example of what success looks like that challenges his one-sided view.

    Apple is a top-down corporate dictatorship if ever there was one. It was before he stepped down Steve Jobs’ personal empire. Today, an admittedly Steve Jobs-less Apple continues to defy economic gravity. Announcing its first quarter 2009 sales to Wall Street last Wednesday, Apple revealed a net profit of $1.2 billion on overall sales of over $8 billion.

    That success was not down to democracy and the things you talk about but good leadership from the top – set by Steve Jobs in his own autocratic style.

  22. That’s an Insightful comment from Toni. Yes, “organizational ambassadors” are a double-edged sword. We love it when they say what we want, and sometimes sack them when they don’t.

    The classic case study on the edgy nature of “organizational ambassadors” was British Airways. It put its cabin staff at the centre of its PR and then just after it spent a fortune promoting this image faced an unprecedented backlash in an industrial dispute led by that group who denounced the company in no uncertain terms. Image and reality clashed; a corporate reputation was trashed.

    A more honest approach was taken by Richard Branson. He said to his moaning cabin staff in a similar industrial dispute – take the offer or work elsewhere, but those are the terms you are stuck with from this great company. He cut the pretense.

    These are tough times, we should try hard to avoid humbug and shooting our clients in the foot.

  23. Thanks to all for weighing in on this. If I got Paul’s point in saying that all ideas are connected to the context in which they are produced, I must say I agree. Sociology of Knowledge is one of the fields of science which has long been studying the relationship between knowledge and the context in which it is produced.

    In fact, when trying to explain to our students, for example, the origins of Vanderbilt’s “The public be damned” one has to frame it into the boom-time context and refer the particular historic aspects that surround it.

    However I disagree (please clarify if I misinterpreted) if you intend to say that the economic recession should lead us to an approach more “pragmatic” in which “top-down” should be privileged and involvement and optional feature.

    I also don’t agree if you meant that the bottom line of employee’s involvement in the corporate strategy is to build trust in internal communication. Employees have to be involved in the corporate strategy because otherwise organizations will have more difficulties in achieving their business goals.

    Having said that, I must agree that it’s fundamental to have internal communication seat at the top table, that a lot of uncertainty is going on at those levels, and that “naive frankness” can generate some pretty rough problems (in fact, the point 3 refers to a case similar to what you are describing).

    I agree also with Bill in identifying the danger of the “Do Me” mentality. Some at the conference argued that this approach is related with the lack of specific preparation by many of those working in internal communication. As if these departments were a kind of “second league” in corporate communication. In my view Internal Communication is probably the communication area within organizations working closer to the business and with a direct capability to influence the achievement of organizational goals. I would also add that the implementation of “social media like” tools to internal communication brings another competitive advantage in terms of speed of monitoring the internal mood and managing collective knowledge to the benefit of the organization. Could this mean that internal communication could move from being “the last to know” and become the first to know?

  24. Having the privilege of reading this exchange as a follow up of Joao’s very interesting post.

    I would like to probe all on an issue related to employee relations which has been bothering me for these last weeks and which I now believe is the right time to express.

    I had yesterday in class with me Peter Debreceny and John Paluszek tlaking about public relations in America with my students and, as the debate was nearing the end, I posed this question:

    while research demonstrates that employee relationship governance is increasingly ending up under the umbrella of the public relations department and growing in relevance, particularly in this depression for all the obvious reasons, I question if public relations directors really understand that if they continue to ride the edelman trust barometer findings which indicate that employees are much more credible with external audiences than organizational leaderships and their official spokespersons, they seriously run the risk of using (abusing?) their own employees and drive them to focus on being organizational ambassadors rather than what they have contractually agreed to do for their employers.
    I question if we are not slowly sliding to using employees as front organizations or as astroturfers (given the relevance of social media in this context) and whether we should not take this seriously before it begins to backfire.
    While John diplomatically allowed Peter to reply and then declined to comment as time had run out, Peter indicated all the good reasons why public realtors have the right to be concerned about how employees diffused with external publics their opinions on their respective organizations, but did not address (maybe because my question was not sufficiently clear) this issue directly.
    Your thoughts?

  25. Of course there was such a thing as boom-time thinking. Once IBM promised jobs for life. Gordon Brown said boom and bust were toast. The banks were a clear example – but so were automobiles and much more. PR promoted froth. Today, we must stay in touch with reality and people’s experiences. Otherwise we will look silly and will not be trusted as professionals

    I put the case robustly late last year in my WSJ (E) column “No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

  26. There is no such thing as “boom-time thinking.” There is only good, straight thinking and bad, sloppy thinking, or not thinking at all.
    I have seen good communicators manage through good times and bad by resisting the urge to “service” internal clients with ad hoc solutions and instead guide them toward more durable and effective communications. This suppresses the “fill ‘er up and check the tires” approach among managers and reinforces the message that communication is a very large and often neglected part of a manager’s job responsibilities. Those who get this will prosper, those who don’t will remain in the large and perennial category of “last to know, first to go.”

  27. I’m not surprised that in the midst of a recession “83% of people declared that the future of the company is one of the issues that engages them the most.” The challenge for internal communicators is to win trust at a time when job losses and cut backs are rife. How do we marry negatives with positives in a time of uncertainty?

    If we want employees to trust internal communications it will have little to nothing to do with involving them in developing corporate strategy: that was a boom-time deceit. If ever it were more than a lie then the workers – employees – in many industries would have to share with their bosses responsibility for the recessionary mess we are in.

    The first step – in my view – should be to give internal communicators a seat at the top table so they really get to know what is going on. However, it is likely that they will discover that top management of many companies is fearful, uncertain, cautious and defensive; perhaps even clueless about what will happen next.

    More frankness is part of the solution. However, total frankness would end most conversations and demoralize most workforces. Capitalism is a system built on risk and uncertainty – as British prime minister Gordon Brown has just found out to his cost.

    In my view, your approach is based too much on boom-time thinking. At the beginnings of a reality check, we need to toughen up our approach and ditch the BS. Do others agree?

  28. An interesting and concise report, thanks. Point 4 is particularly salient, because the “Do Me” mentality is the number-one enemy of effective communication and the driving force in keeping public relations a concierge function rather than a management function. It should be resisted at every turn.

    Bill Huey
    Strategic Communications

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