Media, Manipulation and Internal Communication – Challenges and Directions for Change

I had the opportunity to share perspectives on media, whistle blowing and manipulation at a two day national seminar  (Media Manthan) conducted by St. Aloysius College, Mangalore on January 21- 22, 2011.

Justice N Santosh Hegde (Karnataka Lokayukta Head), BBC’s former producer Adam Clapham, Kuvempu University’s Professor Poornananda and Justice Saldanha, a recognized social activist were among the other speakers at this forum.

The Internal Communicator Today Wears Multiple Hats

To begin, I explained the evolving role of the internal communicator. From playing the role of the corporate strategist the internal communicator today has to wear many hats including those of an internal journalist, the brand guardian, the company’s conscience keeper, the culture ambassador, the  internal media manager, the message reviewer and even as the transparency monitor. However, with access to confidential information and the need for openness within organization comes responsibility.

Participating in the Q&A session

In plain speak and according to Wikipedia, a whistle blower is a person ‘who raises a concern about alleged wrongdoing occurring in a organization, private or public or agency which is expected to be operating within the bounds of the law.’ Similarly, media manipulation often involve the suppression of information or points of view by crowding them out, inducing other people or groups of people to stop listening to certain arguments or by simply diverting attention elsewhere.

Media and manipulation has been in the news lately with the Radia tapes controversy (exposing the alleged links between politicians, media and corporate players in the 2G auction) and the Wikileaks scandal. Interestingly, both these cases involved internal communication coming to the public domain and embarrassing stakeholders. To me, whistle blowing is a positive sign and a release valve for an organization demonstrating its commitment to remain transparent.

Meltdown in Trust and Credibility – a Global Phenomenon

I notice trends which point to the gradual meltdown of trust and credibility among media and organizations. In a March 2010 Readers Digest poll journalists ranked 30 among 40 professions that Indians look up to, placing it below plumbers and electricians. No points for guessing who came in last – politicians! Similarly, the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates the low ratings CEOs have within organizations placing them well below academic/expert, financial or industry analyst and an NGO representative. Also, employees are seeking transparent and honest practices and a ‘company I can trust’ in 2010 as compared to 2006 clearly indicating what shapes their thinking today.

Addressing seminar delegates at the event

The same goes for Indian media. According to the same study, Indian media has been losing its credibility and trust among the people. The study has noticed a sharp drop in trust over the past two years in television news in India. However, newspapers are ranked higher than other mediums in terms of credible news.

Media and the ‘New’ Normal

Here are some of the trends shaping how we engage with the media today, especially in India.

Media as the prey: Media isn’t the predator as most people believe it to be. I believe media is a pawn in the hands of those who know how to leverage it to their benefit. That is evident from the fact that today most celebrities engage leading advertisement, public relations and image consultants to spruce up their acts and ‘plant’ controversies to stay ahead of the pack.

Increased access to technology: With the advent of newer and more discreet gadgets finding its way into the hands of people there is bound to be more and more internal information leaking out to the public space. Privacy is a serious concern with wire tapping and content usage without permission as two key issues.

Age of sting operations: With numerous media agencies vying for news we have noticed a spike in sting operations that expose corruption, collusion and scams.

You and I are the media: One can conduct a press conference on the web, run a recruitment fair on a social networking site, sell products or services in the virtual world and yet not have anything to do with the media. During 26/11 people got their news from a photographer who kept updating his Flickr account real-time and we know how one can tweet out an update in 140 characters leaving little for the media to play a role in.

Crowdsourcing and social action takes centre stage: There is a shift in how media is leveraged by people to rally social action and even bring creative ideas to fruit. In India the Noida double murder case received a huge amount of attention not only because the media reported it as national news but because people took to social networks and a ‘groundswell’ of support kept the investigating agencies on their toes. Attempts to muzzle Wikileaks witnessed unprecedented support in terms of funding, technical expertise to keep the site running and an uprising from hackers around the world who attacked governments websites opposing the cable expose.

Social networks keep digital news alive: Today social media helps unearth ‘truths’ and keeps it in the public eye long after the news has outlived its time. Archived footage and communication in the web world ensures that there will always be a record of a person’s life and times.

There are no top secret information anymore: If organizations believe that they can maintain internal information within their walls with stringent processes and robust systems they couldn’t be far removed from reality. Sooner or later people will get to know about plans and interests of organizations with social media playing an integral role in allowing freer access to information.

Individuals and Organizations Have a Role to Play

To keep our consciences where it ought to be there are expectations from us as individuals and as corporate citizens.

As individuals we need to get familiar with technology and how media works, ask questions and avoid becoming a victim of media manipulations. Importantly, we shouldn’t be taking any news at face value and must go behind the news to get the facts right. There is a need to focus on the issue, not the personality and finally we owe it to ourselves to use media responsibly.

Similarly, organizations have a responsibility to become a role model and ethical company by protecting the whistle blower. The recent step taken by the Indian government to propose a bill to this effect is probably in the right direction. I am aware of organizations who institute strong policies and ombudsman programs internally to ensure ethics and concerns are addressed. Leaders also need to get familiar with latest trends and technologies and understand their employees’ needs better. Having early warning mechanisms always helps to preempt issues before they reach breaking point.

To summarize, personally I believe strongly that media isn’t a manipulator. It unfortunately becomes prey in the hands of those who leverage it best. Think for yourself after imbibing all the information available. Finally, whistle blowing is a good sign and organizations need to have systems that can benefit from those keen to keep the workplace honest.

I am keen to hear your viewpoints. Share them on my blog.

Internal Communication Trends for 2011

Happy New Year to you!

As we step into the New Year I wanted to share my perspectives on internal communication trends that I believe will shape the future of businesses and contribute to increased employee engagement.

 Talent management and retention will draw even more on the power of internal communication: Attrition is looming as a challenge for organizations, especially in India. With companies on the growth path again(according to a Mercer report 71% of firms are emerging from the recession and hiring is back on its feet). Unlike earlier compensation isn’t going to be the reason for employees shifting companies. Among the key drivers are avenues for growth, opportunities to learn, options to accumulate wealth, get to work on challenging projects and receive real-time recognition. Internal communication therefore will play an integral role in keeping employees aligned and focused on the organization’s goals while emphasizing staff’s role in the journey.

New beginning

 Tapping internal talent for improved engagement: Harvesting internal talent for internal communication is the way forward to manage speedier communication, improve engagement, garner acceptance as well as keep budgets in control. I foresee it leading to lesser dependence on professional agencies and communication outfits. Very often we underestimate the power of what our employees can visualize and create. Co-creation of content and publishing will improve how internal communication is perceived and conducted. The more you involve your employees the greater the chances of acceptance. The key to successful leadership communication and employee engagement is reverse mentoring. Unless leaders take time to learn first hand from ‘next Gen’ they will always feel inadequate and unsure of their efforts.

 Social activism and transparency: Employees will continue to seek even greater transparency and trust as boundaries defining organizations blur with social media access and adoption.  In this world of ‘Wikileaks’ internal communicators must be able to acknowledge that any communication shared internally may find its way out. Social activism is on the rise and unless employers understand and listen intently to their staff they will continue to be surprised when internal literature leaks out or specific company policies are discussed or appear on social networking sites. Internal communicators have the onus of closely monitoring staff’s participation in social media to gain insights and feedback on what isn’t probably getting shared in-house. All this without encroaching on their privacy. Understanding and converging energies internally to align with corporate goals will be a key priority.

 Internal communication consulting for department and unit levels: Employee engagement continues to be an issue with businesses emerging from the recent downturn. Managing engagement at the organization level will lose traction as employees continue to demonstrate closer connection and commitment to their immediate circle of peers and supervisors. Each unit lead will hold immense clout over how aligned the employee in his team is vis-à-vis the firm. Internal communicators will be sought after as consultants to draw out strategies at the micro level as well as provide resources to ‘plug and play’.

Your employee is your internal conduit: Viewing each individual in the organization as a potential internal communication conduit will be an important mind shift internal communicators will need to make in 2011 and beyond. Staff’s immense clout to add context and value to internal communication is currently underutilized. I believe audio and video usage will see a spurt with better technologies, mobile devices and increased bandwidth ensuring information sharing is seamless and faster. Empowering employees to contribute and manage internal communication channels and flow will see an uptick in progressive firms. 

Internal communicators as marketing professionals: Convergence of internal and external communication will further break down boundaries and responsibilities.  It will mean increased collaboration on projects, enhanced transparency and division of work for a consolidated brand experience. At times internal communicators will need to lead more to ensure maximum value of campaigns and promotions. This could mean having a greater understanding of marketing tricks and tools that can be internally leveraged.

Specialists sought: I foresee increased specialization within the internal communication function with professionals expected to lead cross cultural communication, manage diversity, engage in crisis management, practice storytelling, build a social organization, partner for change and drive communication leadership. What works in one country or region can now be replicated easily with a deep understanding of culture and local needs. Internal communicators will be sought after as cross-cultural ambassadors due to their access to leadership, information and the ability to influence engagement.

Internal communicators as thought leaders: Internal communicators need to create opportunities for their role and get to the table as thought leaders. Getting a seat the table has a lot to do with demonstrating consistent value, building credibility and being a thought leader. Respect for the role comes with increased knowledge of how internal communicators effectively partner with stakeholders to improve information reach, access and sharing. Contributing thought leadership beyond the organization will be an expectation from internal communicators.

Internal communication and employer branding: Building an employer brand will witness greater involvement by internal communicators to craft suitable messages and bring relevant practices for making the organization an employer of choice. Employer branding will extend into recruitment marketing, induction programs, corporate branding and alumni connection to provide a holistic employee experience.

Managing personal brands and personalities within the organizational context: As organizations become more connected and social, employees will look to co-exist their personal brands in the real world and online with their personalities within firms. There is a huge opportunity to tap the power of employees’ personal equity for brand building as well as spreading the good word about the organization’s internal practices.

To summarize, this year will only get bigger and better for internal communicators. I believe internal communicators need to dramatically hone their listening abilities. They will need to get acquainted with newer technologies and be seen as trainers and coaches who have a deep understanding of social media, multimedia and mobile applications.