The first chapter in Part III of Your Public Relations, the 1948 book we are serialising at PR Conversations, is authored by Kirk Earnshaw, industrial relations editor of Modern Industry Magazine, said to have been “a foremost authority” in the field of labour relations who offered “sound public relations procedures to industrial relations”.
Alongside sharing insight from Earnshaw’s chapter, this post offers a review of the newly published book, Internal Communications: A manual for practitioners by Liam Fitzpatrick and Klavs Valskov (with Pamela Mounter). As such it enables consideration of this specialism across a period of 65 years.
The first notable difference in these two works is that Earnshaw is an outsider; the modern authors are practitioners in the field. Next, it is interesting that Earnshaw’s chapter title focuses on relationships with employees, where the 2014 text has a more functionalist title. Indeed, in stating what IC is concerned with, the new book does not specifically mention employee relationships listing, instead saying it focuses on “sharing information, building understanding, creating excitement, commitment and, ideally, achieving a desirable result”.
Both books claim to have been written as a practical manual. Where Fitzpatrick and Valskov aim to “help people who are getting started in internal and change communication”, the 1948 book targeted “management executives, public relations directors and counsel, career aspirants, teachers and students, and all those interesting in fitting themselves into the modern pattern of human relationships”.
They agree on the importance of the topic matter, but where Earnshaw centres his focus around industrial relations (as a vital part of public relations), the contemporary function is argued to have moved from this context “to its importance in the CEO’s armoury of leadership skills”. The claim for progressive development of IC is something that Kevin Ruck and I questioned in our paper for the International History of Public Relations Conference in 2013, although undoubtedly Fitzpatrick and Valskov are right in observing the growth in IC as an occupation in the last two decades.
Personally I feel the tendency to state that public relations practice (including internal communications) is better today than in the past is a mistake as much earlier wisdom seems to have not only been lost, but denied by this stance. Earnshaw’s view of history is that that worker and management communications were easier before industrial development as relationships were stronger by being direct, although this reflected absolute power of employers over workers.
In their book, Fitzpatrick and Valskov present a well organised, managerial perspective of IC where communication is seen as important in adding strategic value by influencing employee behaviour. Earnshaw’s text is in agreement arguing for a “proper place on the organization chart” and a role in management decision making.
Both works touch on organised labour – although surprisingly this is not given much consideration in the latest book, where the authors make a passing reference to the role of IC not being “to make every office or factory work like a workers’ cooperative” and there is no listing for Union relations in the contents or index.
In contrast, Earnshaw considers the rise of the “phenomenon” of “socialized organization” of workers. He attributes this to “bad – or sorely misguided – public relations on the part of several generations of management” and while decrying “radical infiltration” by “a small, raucous, well-organised Communist minority” concludes unions are “a buffer between him (the employee) and management, when management is bad. As such Earnshaw sees the union as a competitor against which legitimate communication techniques must be used to “win the understanding, the loyalty and the cooperation of workers” without being “used to destroy or undermine an existing union”. He also argues in favour of employee representation and councils to work with management on common problems. In my own experience, the role of Unions, and employee committees, remain important for many types of organisations, and I would expect their role within internal communications to be considered by Fitzpatrick and Valskov.
In examining the importance of understanding employees, I am also surprised the contemporary authors argue in favour of the term ‘audience’ saying it is “what we believe most of our colleagues in business think is the right term for the recipients of communications”. For me, this seems at odds with recognition of the need for segmentation that is given due discussion. My dislike of the ‘audience’ term is not a reflection of favouring ‘professional jargon’ (as the authors deem in reference to ‘publics’) but that most people use the term ‘audience’ to signify those we communicate at, rather than with. It is not merely semantics to believe communications take place between people and so recognise that employees are actually people who may be belong to Unions, be shareholders, members of a local community – and active, intelligent participants in the organisation’s success, not simply a human resource to be informed and persuaded. Hence my preference for Earnshaw’s focus on building better relationships employees rather than seeing them as an audience for internal communications.
There is commonality in the texts in respect of determining employee opinions, with Earnshaw noting “thirteen well-defined methods” to do this from open-door policies to focus groups, polling and interviews (both spot and depth). Fitzpatrick and Valskov likewise champion research and evaluation, highlighting the importance of data, particularly to “win the budgets and resources needed for large scale campaigns”. Their detailed chapter highlights “the annual engagement survey” which personally I feel is over-rated and often little more than a token, or totem, of opinion research. Their construction often owes more to a ‘market research’ mentality, commonly assessing ’employee satisfaction’ and a communications channel audit rather than genuine insight around strategic issues. Indeed a once a year dipstick measure seems rather old-fashioned in today’s interconnected, fast-moving world, despite its longitudinal value as a tracking measure. They do have a section on qualitative research, although only focus groups are detailed. Research derived from ethnography, phenomenological or social-constructivism would be useful to include, not least as it is found in HR and organisational journals as well as increasingly in PR scholarship. My point is that there are more options for research today than in Earnshaw’s era, but I’m not sure the practice of IC is necessarily engaging with these.
I would also like to see more on data analysis and interpretation in the new book as from my experience as a marker for the CIPR IC qualifications, this is an area where greater competence is required (as it is for many PR practitioners). It is not enough to rely on basic statistics or external specialist in my opinion and although Earnshaw doesn’t offer insight here either, both works argue that research without action to address findings “means nothing”. To be fair, Fitzpatrick and Valskov offer additional reading sources on employee research. But I believe this is a side step, as research without an ability to robustly assess data sets (both qualitative and/or quantitative) is problematic.
Both texts provide useful consideration of channels (2014) or tools (1948) of the trade, with the modern text also focusing on messaging. This is usefully connected to various theories relating to communications and psychology and presented with a handy ‘message palette’. Again I find that practitioners often focus on simplistic messages (especially when these are being tracked in evaluation) and would like to see development into narrative and discussion at the heart of communications rather than transmission of messages designed simply to influence others.
There are several other areas of commonality from considering the relationship with senior management, the role of the line manager and competencies. Although I’ve noted a few areas where I’d have liked to see the new book go a little further, it is undoubtedly successful as a manual for practitioners. As such, it fits into the mould of Earnshaw’s chapter and the entire Your Public Relations book.
There do seem some interesting areas within Earnshaw’s text that remain problematic today. For example, Earnshaw looks at public relations tools for “better labor relations” where he is considering those in the hierarchy, typically foremen, who may act as blockers, potentially because their sympathies are with the workers, or because they are badly paid and trained, and often little more than bullies. Fitzpatrick and Valskov have a chapter called: Why line managers matter and how to support them, noting they are “often the poor relations in the communication hierarchy” who often do not receive formal training in communications.
Overall, the echoes across the decades are the most notable aspects in comparing the 1948 and 2014 perspectives on employee relations / internal communications. For me, this probably highlights two things. First, that many of the issues relate to human nature and as such remain largely unchanged. Secondly, though, I wonder if there is an issue as Kevin and I noted in our own paper (shortly to be published as a chapter in the third edition of his book: Exploring Internal Communications) with some trends or themes continuing or replicating over time, with periods when any wisdom gained is lost or ignored. As such we still have to address the need as argued by D’Aprix in 1979 for internal communication practitioners to be more foreshadowers and interpreters of change and Wright’s 1995 call for them to be recognised as agents of change in the corporate workplace to make certain organisations communicate honestly and regularly with employees on topics the rank-and-file workers consider important. These points are found in the work of Earnshaw and also in the new text by Fitzpatrick and Valskov.
In conclusion, let’s look at the Editors’ Note in the 1948 book for this chapter:
Employee relations is the most important area in the whole field of public relations. The attitude of most customers, and of practically all citizens of the community, reflects what the employee says and what is his general attitude towards the company. Employees naturally are and always should be the most important corps of good-will ambassadors for the company. If they are not, find out why and correct basic errors of policy and practice. If they are, use every available method to keep them so.
Remember the employee is on the ground and is a first-hand witness. Customers and members of the community are more likely to believe what he says about the company than they are to accept the reaction of anyone else. Good public relations techniques are practically worthless unless company policy is accepted and generally approved by the employee.