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.
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.
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?
- Our communications make people want to stick around.
- They show people what they should be doing.
- Internal communications helps employees to collaborate.
- Employee communications gives staff the facts they can use outside as well as inside the office.
- 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
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:
- Does it help me reach someone better?
- Will it help us to listen better to employees?
- 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.
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.
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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.