Employee CommsLeadership

Focusing on what leaders want is one thing, but it’s what employees think and feel that matters.


 — December 17th, 2019

Focusing on what leaders want is one thing, but it’s what employees think and feel that matters.

During 2019, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people involved in internal communication.

I’ve attended at least a dozen conferences, seminars, and workshops. I’ve listened to podcasts and read innumerable white papers, blogs, and hints and tips sheets.

Reflecting on all of these, two insights strike me as most noteworthy – and both have similar characteristics.

Firstly, there remains a stark dichotomy between the priorities of the leaders we work for and those ‘on the coalface’. While those in the boardroom obsess with vision and strategy, those on the shop floor are still most interested in their day-to-day reality.

The operational pain points they have to endure are what defines their employee experience. Without addressing these, they will never engage with ‘the bigger picture’.

For the two decades I’ve worked in IC, there has been a constant clamor to gain our seat at the top table. We’ve jostled and cajoled and persisted to the point where few can ignore us.

This is great. But one of the tactics too many of us have adopted is to be a facilitator for our senior leaders. Give them the mechanics and the infrastructure to deliver their messages. But our short-term gain masks long-term pain, on two fronts.

Firstly, our audience craves authenticity. They are increasingly skeptical, and by default will suspect the motives and meaning of corporate content. They will marry up what they are hearing and what they are experiencing, and if these don’t match, they will quickly lose trust.

Secondly, our leaders themselves need to know what their audiences are feeling. We are doing them a disservice by not presenting our insights and helping them develop the empathy they need to be credible and sustainable.

So, as internal communicators, we need to not only align our content with strategic objectives, we must also be aware of the niggling grievances that our audience obsesses with. And we have to impress on our leaders why addressing these is of paramount importance.

Employees will never buy into an abstract purpose or a cultural transformation if they don’t have systems and processes that help them do their job better, or facilities that are comfortable, or a culture that is respectful, where they feel recognized and rewarded.

The second insight, controversially perhaps for someone who has spent more than thirteen years in agencies, is the growing split between client needs and (some) agency focus.

I see loads of adverts for courses on Neuroscience. More still for briefings on Artificial Intelligence. How can chatbots transform internal communications? Will the digital workplace herald an era of unprecedented collaboration? I hear a lot of hyperbole about this being our time, that IC has finally arrived.

Yet, for all too many, in-house IC teams continue to fight a pernicious battle against perennial issues. Lack of resources. Lack of respect. Lack of core skills. Ergo, the downward spiral continues.

I’ve been disheartened (though perhaps not shocked) to speak to clients who still have to navigate first-generation digital platforms to host messages that are never read.

Who are not trusted to create content without it being mangled and morphed into something they know audiences will not believe. How they have no strategic direction and are therefore unable to quantify progress (or lack of). Talented, passionate people who spend careers ticking boxes and keeping busy.

Surely, the job of the agency should first and foremost be to help our clients get the basics in place?

It may be sexier and more exciting to be looking beyond the horizon. And there is a place for that. But it will always be beyond the horizon if we cannot give our clients the tools, techniques, and talents they need to prove their worth and build on solid foundations.

There is a real danger that many agencies could make themselves irrelevant to many clients. If they push products and services that do not address the immediate, basic needs of in-house practitioners, they will be given short shrift.

So, in 2020, it is beyond time for us to listen to all of our stakeholders. To our audiences and to our clients. Let’s make internal communications a customer-centric discipline.

A profession that has a keen focus on addressing the needs and priorities of our practitioners and audiences.

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