What Is Really Expected of an Internal Communicator?

 “My students are obedient”, explained the Director of a well-known B-school that I recently visited for a campus recruitment initiative. She spoke in the context of students living up to the expectations of the industry by doing what is expected of them. It sounded strange to me and indicated a widening gap in what the corporate world expects and what students are asked to demonstrate. Does the industry expect people who conform to rules? Aren’t students taught to challenge the status quo?

My fears were confirmed when I attended a user design experience over the weekend. I heard experienced designers ask speakers how they could play a role in the evolving landscape and participate in the digital revolution.  I could feel a palpable sense of helplessness among the audience on how to navigate the changing environment.  Somehow it seemed like they believed that someone needed to tell them what to do and how they must go about looking at their work. No one had a point of view – quite odd for people who usually have opinions about politics, sports and what have you!

The industry isn’t expecting people who conform but those who can challenge the status quo and add value to systems, people and processes.

When I relate it to the world of internal communicators how do we know that they are able to think on their feet and ‘get’ it for clients?

In a recent report the VMA Group identifies the top 5 skills (most lacking) among internal communication professionals and they include influencing, coaching leaders, strategy setting and crafting messages.  Simon, an internal communicator took a turn of creating a profile of an internal communicator as desired by a hiring manager and what struck me is the gap between the perceptions internal communicators have of their role and what is expected of them.

However I believe there are fundamentals which every internal communicator needs to have to be effective in the role.

Ability to clarify the need: Whenever an internal client seeks to communicate a message it is expected that the internal communicator will probe and ask the right questions to take the right decisions.

For example, questions such as the following can guide the conversation to a point where the internal communicator knows how to intervene appropriately: can you tell me more about the need? Is there a plan to communicate your message? What are the outcomes you want to achieve? What are you trying to solve? How will you know that you have succeeded?

Help stakeholders understand the process: It is expected that the internal communicator will educate stakeholders on what it takes to craft effective internal communication. Very often, there may be gaps in understanding the role or the process of internal communication.

Lead with a point of view: The internal communicator is expected to be the subject matter expert and therefore must have a point of view on how communication needs to be done. Sometimes, the individual may need to take a tough call on NOT doing a communication especially if he or she strongly believes it will not add value to staff.

Partner with internal teams on communication management: There will be situations where by asking for inputs or a plan can help you coach the internal stakeholders on the right timing or the right placement. By intervening early the internal communicator will be seen as a consultant and less as a doer of tasks.

Think from the end-user’s perspective:  Putting your end user’s perspective in mind while creating or approving content can make a world of difference when it comes to influencing communication strategy and managing clients.  You can take feedback from a sample set of employees so that you catch issues or errors before a rollout.

Take a stand: Sometimes since we know best about what will work from an internal communication perspective it is important to explain the rationale to our internal stakeholders so that they are aligned. Very often, such decisions can be unpopular and we need to stand by what we recommend.

Gain consensus: The internal communicator is expected to lead the way in terms of arriving at a common ground so that all stakeholders are aligned and stay on brand. Helping them see a common vision is a crucial role of the internal communicator.

Present thoughts and ideas coherently: It is expected that the internal communicator will invest time to think through how ideas can be presented in a way that is lucid and easily understood by stakeholders who may not have the entire context. 

.Recommend practical solutions that work: it is expected that the internal communicator will work through requirements and recommend practice solutions that make sense for staff.

Have another point of view? Share them here.

Message First – Design Next!

My last post got some interesting viewpoints. Adam expressed the need for blending tone, consistency and image into the communication. Excellent perspective. Rishu talked of involving staff in the conversation and preempt questions they may have. Valid points. Annie highlighted the importance of including the ‘what’s in it for staff’ and also adding visuals that match the intent. Lastly, Pingle emphasized the need to focus on the positive outcome from the move. Very relevant inputs and thank you all for taking the time in sharing your insights.

Back to our case. Pramod is probably like the parent who believes that the best way to appease a child is to give it a colorful toy irrespective of the need or the outcome.

 While good design needs to go hand in hand with equally sound content the communicator is expected to think deeply about the objectives that the communication is trying to address.

 For one, while Pramod has a great story on a ‘new office’, for this specific communication (informing staff on a not-so-popular office move) and to this specific audience (staff who will be inconvenienced due to the move) he needs to do something different. Not every communication requires a mailer and not does every mailer fill a communication need.

 This move is sensitive since Pramod may end up with disengaged staff and business can suffer in the long term. He is only looking at it from his perspective and ‘cool’ interiors aren’t what motivate staff to come to work. They expect to be consulted, partnered with on change and leaders to be sensitive.

 Pramod will need to get his leaders aligned on the messages – that the move is unpopular yet important for business. He will need to think about how to cascade the messages – either via a face to face conversation or a Town Hall briefing by a leader in the office impacted. The messages also have to cover why and what the organization is doing to ensure business continues as usual and how we are taking into account staff’s travel constraints.

 I got pointed to Jacob Nielsen’s resource recently and an argument on why great content is better than cool design especially for intranets and internal communications. The emphasis is on what he calls as “wow vs delight” – as in you can impress your users with funky design or support their understanding by giving them information that they seek.  While the former is temporary the latter is enduring.  

 By appreciating that our audiences are mostly time crunched we need to be sensitive to the time it takes for heavy designs to load vis-à-vis giving them the information to get their jobs done sooner.  Staff pretty much wants to do their work effectively and making a mailer cool may not be the solution.

 Just how people scan for information (based on eye tracking studies) when they read online likewise staff look for information instead of reading all that you have given them.

 Here is another resource for why content wins over design. Hopefully, it will give you ammunition for you to sell your content next time!

The mailer’s design sucks. We want something funky!

As an internal communicator is can be difficult dealing with clients who believe that cool design wins over compelling content.

Indu, the hard working internal communicator of TPR Bank discovered much to her chagrin. Pramod, the HR Head needed a campaign to get staff aligned on the recent office move and he believed that a great looking mailer may help. They discussed the need and here is how it all netted.

Pramod: “Our office and employees will move shortly to our new SEZ premise in downtown Bangalore and this is something to communicate well and with a lot of fanfare.”

 Indu: “Pramod, this is exciting news! Can you tell me more on what it means for the organization and our staff?”

Pramod: “With this move we will be able to centralize our functions, get a better deal with real estate and save the organization a lot of funds.”

Indu: “So, what’s in it for staff?”

Pramod: “Well, they get a nice workplace, lovely looking interiors, a lot of space to walk about and a cool area to unwind. You know how cramped our current place is – we don’t even have good meeting room to hold 10 people.”

 Indu: “But, doesn’t the location make it tough for most of our staff to get to work?”

 Pramod: “We can’t please everyone. It is a given that if you need to move to a better place we need to go to the outskirts of the city. That in turn means our staff will have to travel a bit more than usual.”

 Indu: “Then, what do you want to communicate with this change? That we have to move and we haven’t carefully considered our staff’s access to our office? It is bound to create noise and upset a lot of staff.”

 Pramod: “That is where I need you! You are the expert. Please do some nice funky mailer with the new office photo that convinces the employee that the next place is great!”

 Indu: “Pramod, you can’t be serious! Staff will see through this. You need a compelling story and design can’t help here. You need strong content and messages.”

 Pramod: “Indu, you are being difficult.  Can you create a funky design please?”

 Indu decided to go back and think more about the ask. It didn’t make sense to her. On one hand it seems like Pramod had a good story to sell but he was focusing on the design and less on the message?

 How can you help Indu relook at this communication and get Pramod to appreciate the outcome?

 Share your thoughts here.