Stop with the hocus pocus – employee communications is for muggles

A European internal communications veteran explains: In order to help organisations use communications to get results, practitioners should call on simple skills and experience—not a book of runes, silver bullets or magic fairy dust

By Liam FitzPatrick, FCIPR

The first time I saw a Harry Potter film I had a strange sense of déjà vu. Where else had I seen people listening raptly to unintelligible men and women in strange outfits? Why did the concept of using a magic wand to solve problems seem so familiar?

Then, on my very-mortal bus ride home, I remembered: It was at an internal communications (IC) conference 15 years ago…and at almost every similar event attended since then!

Maybe it’s my age, but it seems that people keep lapping up the quasi-mystical pronouncements and potions derived from people not embarrassed to wear the “guru” outfit.

Do I have to be a wizard to do my job or is it OK to be a muggle?

Do I practise a dark art?

I’ve sat through convention and forum talks where various oracles pronounced that:

  • employees just want to be loved
  • we have to have a PhD in cognitive psychology
  • it’s all about bringing mindfulness/yoga/Jungian trait theory to the workplace; and
  • all of our workplace problems can be solved by a magic formula for reducing email loads

Moreover, some internal communications expert soothsayers are shameless, bowdlerising or just stealing other people’s work. Just look at the many different ways Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on death and dying, and her change curve turns up in jolly presentations about employee motivation.

Crucially, these fake revelations and unsupported claims are not the preserve of seedy and friendless men and women. In fact, they are practised by some major corporations—selling everything from enterprise software for collaboration to video conferencing, from strategy consulting to office furniture.

Create for your personal use a Google or Talkwalker alert for “Internal Communications” and watch a steady stream of chancers and tricksters served up in your browser.

Alas, it’s a continuous flow….

In September of this year one excited guru announced an amazing employee communications innovation…it turned out to be something I’d “discovered” on Angela Sinickas’ website 11 years ago (I remember the exact day). I didn’t stick around for the inevitable sessions on “Crystal healing and better customer service” or “Revolutionise your internal communications with telephones.”

We need to shed some light on employee communications

Once upon a time, our ancestors had ways of dealing with people like this: They had ducking stools. They had stocks for restraining charlatans while they pelted them with rotten vegetables.

Perhaps Melcrum or the IABC could bring back medieval penalties for those purveyors of snake oil in the internal realm at their 2015 conferences.

What we do is actually very simple. There is no need for an initiation or a ritual at midnight held in the nude in a forest glade (although likely this could make IABC meetings a bit livelier!).

We help organisations use communications to get results.

How do internal communications specialists do this?

  1. Our communications make people want to stick around.
  2. They show people what they should be doing.
  3. Internal communications helps employees to collaborate.
  4. Employee communications gives staff the facts they can use outside as well as inside the office.
  5. Finally, we work to excite them around the need and direction of organisational change.

In addition, we call on simple skills and experience to do it—there is no book of runes, no silver bullet and no magic fairy dust….

Be pragmatic about what to do

Years ago, I was lucky to work with Sue Dewhurst to create the Black Belt training programme for internal communicators for Melcrum. She truly is the most practically minded person I have ever met.

As we discussed what we needed to include in the course, Dewhurst kept me on track with the comment, “Yes, that’s all very interesting, but what do I do with it?”

Since that experience, this has been my own essential test for internal communications.

I cannot claim that I’ve always met this standard myself, as I’m not above a bit of theatricality when pitching an idea or trying to score free drinks. Nevertheless, generally, it’s a good test.

Now, when I read or hear about an amazing new finding for internal communications, I find myself musing how I might apply it inside a real organisation. They say that in Formula 1 racing every conversation begins and ends with, “Will it make the car go faster?”

The equivalent, fundamental questions for internal communicators might be:

  1. Does it help me reach someone better?
  2. Will it help us to listen better to employees?
  3. Does it actually work?”

I am a fan of great research and original thinking.

For the book I recently wrote with Klavs Valskov, I needed to return to some original sources to justify my own prejudices and ended up losing days! During this quest, I revisited sites and found writing that helped me rethink—among other things—how we approach line managers, how we work with senior leaders and what to consider when planning messages.

I came across writing that was properly researched, tested and presented.

Admittedly, finding the original references for things I thought I’d known for a long time gave me a few shocks. For starters, I owe Bill Quirke an apology; I’ve been misquoting him for years—he’s even more brilliant than I realised.

And I’m stunned at Quirke’s patience—how many times has he sat through expositions of his own work delivered badly and without attribution? Perhaps he compares notes with Roger D’Aprix, who is equally abused and misquoted.

But the real punch came when I realised that people like Quirke, D’Aprix, Shel Holtz, Kathryn Yates, Sue Dewhurst, David Grossman and the Larkins as a group have quite nicely covered the core concepts in our canon.

Core concepts in our forces-for-good canon

If corporations want motivated, focused and flexible staff, they need:

  • to have clear messages
  • deep audience understanding
  • communicative managers
  • channels that work; and
  • opportunities for employees to get involved

I’m simplifying the list for effect, but my points are straightforward: Stop looking for the new or the quick fix and work harder on the basics.

That’s it.

Nothing clever; just basic skills like writing, planning, project managing and listening.

Add in the ability to serve as advisor and you are almost there. You just need a brain that is capable of:

  • understanding how your organisation works
  • adding in a touch of creativity; and
  • demonstrating an interest in people and how they think

Think about the speeches you’ve enjoyed at past conferences or articles most valued from Melcrum, et al., and you’ll keep coming back to the fact that they showed you how to do what you do already, but better.

British cycling fans may recall coach David Brailsford crediting team success on a simple principle: The aggregation of marginal gains. In other words, in eschewing drugs, the team members understood they could not depend on one or more superhero performances. Instead, their only hope to win was for each member to get better in a multitude of small ways.

Likewise, when it comes to effective internal communications, we shouldn’t hope for intervention, chemical, divine or mystical magician spells or potions to attain our objectives with employees.

Spelling out the IC recipe for success

In my experience, great practitioners focus on a few key skills and practise them. They don’t dream of grand or instant solutions, rather they get on with making the basics work for the long haul.

No bubbling cauldron on a midnight heath required.

* * *


Liam FitzPatrick, FCIPR, runs London-based Agenda Strategies and is one of the authors of Internal Communications; a manual for practitioners, published by Kogan Page. He works with communicators who need to explain complex change.

He is a member of the IABC’s global communications certification council and is a Fellow of the UK’s CIPR. Outside of work he rides a bicycle silly distances for fun.

Ideas from the agency practice and book are explored on the company blog; you can also find IC thoughts from Liam FitzPatrick published on Melcrum, Simply-Communicate and in books edited by Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley.  On a smaller scale but more-regular basis, Liam tweets about employee communications and engagement, as well as some of his other passions.


(Updated) magical post image created by our own Heather Yaxley, using copyright-free elements from PhotoShop.

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9 Replies to “Stop with the hocus pocus – employee communications is for muggles

  1. A group of my MA PR students and I discussed this very topic today- think of us as a version of your jury, Liam. Their verdict was definitely “guilty as charged”- and that social media used by the university had all the bells, whistles, spells and wizard jargon- as well as really shockingly poor levels of engagement by nearly every audience. The issue of trust was raised. What possible incentive can there be for genuine two-way communication in an environment where honesty by a staff member will be seen as negative or career limiting? Students at least were in a position of being a customer and so could “use it to complain”, but employees didn’t even have that option.

    The result is content that does appear is sychophantic sucking up, cheerleading or bragging in front of your managers. The sad fact is that all too often employee communication in hierarchical structures is inherently asymmetric.

    So, for channels to work, a deep understanding of the culture of communication in an organisation is needed. And no amount of expensive “toys” can change that, if the content and the trust is not there in the first place.

    This is such a thoughtful post!

    1. Thanks for your comments Catherine.

      I really hope we can do better with digital and social media inside the organisation – which is why I avoid saying bah humbug!

      I think I have two issues with it now though.

      First, too many people hope it is a silver bullet that will absolve them from addressing the IC fundamentals – good planning, clear strategy and managers that engage with their people.

      Second, its implementation is so often quite inept as you illustrate. Judy has elsewhere raged against people who see digital/social as a cheap trick to get staff sounding like they drank the kool-aid or an excuse to spam people with whatever drivel happens to be available. The next time I hear someone say ‘content is king’ when they mean ‘I need to feed this beat with any old rubbish I can lay my hands on” I think I shall start weeping!


  2. I love Heather’s comment. I have a copy of Michael Bland’s Employee Communication in the 1980’s’ which is equally striking as it predates the human relations school of people management, Talking to staff was good for your external reputation and avoided strikes in those days!

    With regard to social media we have tried to avoid nailing colours to masts but I think I have said in a few places how I feel at the moment about it. I am expecting to be proved wrong one day but right now I see digital media as being a great enabler for internal communications but is it a fundamental game changer? For me the jury is out.

    However, I do have a bit of an issue with some of the folks out there who have a messianic attitude to social media. I fear there are too many people with little experience of either corporate life or of actually doing the job of running IC who are willing to tell us how this tool or that app is going to be the answer to all our problems. I have said before and will say again – there is no silver bullet.

    And furthermore, when people try to to tell me that I have a problem (which I didn’t realise I had) and that they have to tool to fix it, it’s time to run them off the property. Social media pedlars are all around us redefining IC as a handy cash cow.

    I see the possibility and am waiting to see the results.

  3. I think this is such a solid post, Liam, in terms of having an overall internal communications vision or strategy, including the statement of what specialists do (and how success is measured), the Dewhurst acid-test question and other fundamental ones you pose, plus obviously the core concepts.

    And of course all of these things are channel neutral.

    I know Klavs Valskov and you cover social media (and employee communications) in your Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners, but readers not familiar with the book might think that all of your thinking and practice is of the “old-fashioned” variety.

    So, my question to you is: At this stage do you think social media platforms and channels have had ANY impact on the fundamental concepts and strategy of internal communications…or rather does social media simply enhance the possibilities (maybe numbers) of tactical channel delivery and collaboration options, etc.?

  4. Liam – I’m currently reading a chapter in the 1948 book we are serialising here at PR Conversations on ‘Better Relations with Employees” as this is our next post. It is surprisingly free of snake oil and other magical spells, seems remarkably pragmatic and argues in favour of employee participation.

    One amusing technique is worth mentioning here as it is notes how “an alert public relations man” who found senior management to be a barrier in passing on information stamped ‘confidential’ on his weekly reports to which resulted in them being shared, in secrecy, as “top drawer” papers on a regular basis. Seems a little spell was quite effective back then.

    What I find most sad is summed up in the statement by the editors of the book in their endnote to the chapter: “Employee relations is the most important area in the whole field of public relations”. This was known – along with much common sense that you would applaud – almost 70 years ago, yet somehow forgotten amongst the subsequent hocus pocus…

  5. Liam,

    Thanks for an entertaining and educative post. It ranks up there in the wizardry of ” edutainment.”

    As a seasoned attendee of conferences originally in the computer industry and now in communications, I can attest to the mumbo jumbo from assorted magicians in a number of fields.

    My take from your post is this: …you’ll keep coming to the fact that they showed you how to do what you already do, but better.

    I’ve never worked in IC, but I can imagine how galling it must be to have these snake oil salesmen hired by head office come to spin their yarns about how best to do your job…

    Thanks for summing up my years of attending conferences in one succinct sentence.

    1. Thanks for your kind remarks.

      To be honest, it’s not just external suppliers who try it on. I’ve met plenty of people who amazingly bamboozle their way through life in nice corporate jobs. The trick seems to be to work for a really big corporation where you can keep moving jobs every 18 months saving anyone the embarrassment of firing you!

      In IT they came up with the concept of ‘Slideware’ or ‘vapourware’ to describe the practice of selling a promise that no one had quite worked out yet how to deliver… seems quite apt!


  6. Liam – thanks for an entertaining column. I hope that the snake oil peddled as wisdom doesn’t have as much impact as we all fear. It’s certainly true that the modern IC practitioner is bombarded by attempts to make us feel inadequate – the external comms people are paid more than we are on par, the marketers keep trying to cast our role as mere mouthpieces for features and benefits, and there’s no strong underpinning for where we should reside in an organization. As Ana Tkalac (, then Ward White (, then I ( aver over at, we well should be further along in successfully articulating our value proposition than we are. Hence, the “internal social media” wave, the “software” wave, and the insistence on pigeon-holing us as internal propagandists.

    As I’ve written before ( tying our communication objectives to business outcomes through good strategy and planning gives us more credibility and respect than merely stepping through the tactics. In my career and my practice, this gets borne out all the time — yet too many of us, in seeking some sort of exotic solution, miss the boat entirely.
    Thanks again, Liam.

    1. Thanks for responding.

      I know – it’s such a no brainer really. If you start with what the business needs to happen everything becomes a lot clearer.

      This article was born out of the thinking that I outlined here:

      I suspect the problem is that many of the pedlars of snake oil are not really interested in business results – they are in love with the technology or the idea they are promoting. The hard reality of having to explain it to the CFO doesn’t really trouble them.

      But your point is a really good encapsulation. If you can’t say to the boss “This is what you are trying to achieve and this is what we can do to help you get there” then you shouldn’t have ‘manager’ in your job title. And if your mindset is about that hard statement you are more likely to be sceptical of the wilder claims being made of the latest fad.


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