Best Practice

If Internal Communication was a football how hard should you kick it?

OK, first up, full disclosure. I don’t and never have worked at the employee communications coalface. 

I can’t begin to quantify how much I’ve read about the sector over the past three years – though it’s been pretty enormous – and I’ve spoken to and worked with so many wonderfully talented and progressive people involved at all levels, but I’ve never soldiered at the frontline.

But that doesn’t stop me thinking if the sector was a football how hard should you kick it?  Just a deft touch to guide it towards the goal? Or a proper whacking to shake up the game?

When the same old same old list of challenges facing internal comms come around again, year after year after year – strategy, measurement, line managers,  budgets – it’s hard not to think it’s way beyond time to shake things up. And vigorously.

Hard to resist crying out:  time to get your act together, people. Get on with it!

 

 

Like how you’re reminded of this when you stop and think it’s taken until this year for business acumen to make it onto the excellent Institute of Internal Communications (IOIC) skills map for IC.

As Janet Hitchen astutely remarked in response to this development: “Let’s hold that thought for a moment. It’s taken until 2020 for business acumen to make it onto the map. I believe understanding the business and tailoring your strategy and approach to match the needs of the business are vital. How has it taken this long for them to make it onto the map?”. Quite. 

As for strategy and measurement, don’t get me started. 

Incredibly, and I would say unforgivably, while internal communicators complain about not having that talked-to-death seat at the table and not being involved enough in strategic decision making, the number who have a  long-term internal comms strategy is actually in decline, down to 33%. Go figure.

While Poppulo’s Employee Communications Report 2020 shows a dramatic and very welcome rise in those involved in strategic decisions early enough to have an impact on their communications (60%) and the Gatehouse’s State of the Sector 2020 reports an equally overdue decline in those who see lack of strategic involvement as a barrier to IC success, only a third of global communicators have developed a formal internal comms strategy. 

That statistic should be as shocking as it is worrying, but the stark reality is it’s the same as it was four years ago in Poppulo’s  2016 Global IC Survey, which prompted us to publish a whitepaper aimed at helping communicators overcome difficulties in formulating and implementing comms strategies: The Ultimate Guide to Internal Communications Strategy. 

Sorry, I can deeply empathize and sympathize with many challenges internal communicators face –  lack of investment, budgets and resources, inadequate technology, etc. – but there’s no excuse for not having a strategy. None.

Thankfully, I’m far from being alone in this view. Paul Bennun, VP of Internal Communication and Involvement at DAZN finds the fact that two-thirds don’t have long-term comms strategies “staggering”.

“I cannot comprehend why you would not or could not create a strategy for a team – whether for wider use and influence/buy-in from the organisation, or simply for direction and purpose for the team. Mind-boggling,” he wrote in a superb commentary on the State of the Sector (SotS) survey.

“In my eyes, if you don’t have a strategy then you can never take your internal comms work past the level of tactical or operational. You can make a difference, but you’ll never become a fundamental part of business change and future success.”

— Paul Bennun

The authors of the ever-interesting SotS survey comment that they’ve “spoken to plenty of executives over the years who have expressed frustration at their ‘reactive’ rather than ‘proactive’ IC functions – and then those same leaders have declined to give IC a seat at the table when making decisions”.

But how can leaders be expected to give that seat at the table to communicators who don’t have a strategic plan and who, in large numbers, don’t measure their communications? After all, measuring the outcomes and impact of your communications is the rock on which business value and reputational worth are built.

That’s the received wisdom anyway. But in a stand-out SotS finding, 44% of those surveyed said one of the main challenges they faced in measuring their impact was because of  “no interest from the business”. How can that be? Go figure, again.

It beggars belief that an organization isn’t interested in measuring the impact of their internal communications.

Still, it doesn’t make any less dispiriting the result that 1 in 5 internal communicators don’t, or very rarely, measure their internal comms, while  58% said they surveyed “only occasionally” used data or metrics to check how they are performing.

Again, in fairness to communicators, blame for this risible state of affairs cannot be laid solely at their door. Both the Poppulo report and the SotS survey respondents find measurement difficult due to a combination of not having the right tools/technology and time pressure. 

You couldn’t have expected Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel without a paintbrush, or a scaffold for that matter, so business leaders cannot legitimately  demand performance and outcome metrics from their comms teams if they don’t provide them with tools like Poppulo.

On the upside, there are very solid reasons to be optimistic about the increasingly pivotal role of internal comms. Just look at how visibly central the function has been shown to operate in the global coronavirus crisis. 

 

 

Poppulo’s 2020 report shows twin positives of a decrease in unplanned and ad-hoc communication activity and an increase in the number of respondents who find it easier to gain the support of the senior leadership, though ominously, budgets remain pretty static.

Likewise, the SotS report underlines the acknowledged influence of internal comms in organizations, with just under 70% of those surveyed saying leaders understand the value of the function and see it as a key driver of the employee experience. Progress, indeed. Another plus is that for the first time since the launch of the SotS report, a small proportion of communicators (2%) said they report into a strategy, transformation,  and innovation team.

But when the Gatehouse survey shows that “line manager communication” is one of the top three challenges for effective internal communication – for five years in a row! –  it’s hard to not think of the need for a good whack at that football to shake up the game rather than a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Five years in a row, and nothing happening to change it? For the single most influential layer of people in any organization? Come on, people! 

And that’s not aimed at internal communicators alone. This is first and foremost a leadership issue, one that focuses on putting the proper resources and structures in place to support their line managers to become effective communicators, including the resourcing of IC and HR to assist them in any way they can. 

Paul Bennun has an interesting take on line managers constantly being seen as the problem child by internal communicators:

“Rather than repeatedly listing line manager communication skills as one of our biggest challenges, we should be listing our inability to effectively support line managers as the challenge.”

– Paul Bennun

And on the issue of pointing the finger of blame at line managers, I think Paul would agree with Liam Fitzpatrick, who wrote in Poppulo’s How to Help Line Managers Become Better Communicators:

I think there are five questions a communicator should be asking about line managers…

  1. Have I explained what their job is – in general, and on specific occasions? 
  2. How have I communicated with them and given them enough context to translate high-level stuff into terms that matter to their teams? 
  3. What training have I organized? 
  4. What tools or materials am I providing? 
  5. How have I shown that they are being listened to? 

Instead of complaining that middle managers are resisting being treated as animated notice boards let’s see things from their point of view instead.”

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