Injecting a dose of strategic rigour into internal communications

With COVID on the march again, along with the PM’s U-turn on encouraging office workers back to their desks, companies will inevitably be communicating their updated quasi lockdown guidance and policies to employees.

They will also be redoubling their efforts to support and protect employees and to support their mental well-being, something that most companies have put enormous effort into since the pandemic began.

But while it is important that employees are made aware of these guidelines and that companies ensure that employees know that they need to know, they need to be alert to the danger of retreating back to a point where internal communications (IC) becomes little more than a means of disseminating news and information.

Though IC clearly has a responsibility for informing and for managing the channels and content that communicates important corporate policies, news and updates, it is not its primary purpose. As the best internal comms and engagement practitioners know, IC is an insight-led function. Employees are no different from external stakeholders, in that they have a set of assumptions and beliefs which will inform their attitudes and their behaviour and these need to be understood; hence the need for rigorous research and insight. Monitoring and understanding sentiment is important, but in itself it is not enough.

Only when these assumptions and beliefs are properly understood can they, along with the behaviours that they give rise to, be influenced and shaped. Employees may have a different relationship with their employer to that of external stakeholders, but they share many characteristics with external stakeholders.

Just as you can’t tell investors, government or media what to think or do, so you can’t tell employees what to think or do. Similarly you can’t tell a culture to change – it only gains traction through persuasion, influence and emotional connection(s).

The IC function should therefore have the same purpose and role as external communications/relations and it needs a leader that can champion this approach. It should employ the same techniques of persuasion and influence (identifying opinion formers and influencers, campaigning, etc….) and it should be underpinned by the same rigorous insight/data and strategic analysis

These leaders exist, sometimes because they have moved from external communications into an internal comms leadership role, and they have brought this thinking and methodology with them.

For instance, the team should be able to provide advice and solutions to the same types of problems, and the questions they pose, encountered externally, such as:

-  Why don’t employees understand what we are trying to do and where we’re trying to go? What is at the root of this misunderstanding and how can it be addressed?

-  Why is there a lack of conviction or excitement about our purpose and direction for the business? 

-  What conversations are going on internally whilst people are wfh, why are they going on and who is influencing whom?

-  How can we increase levels of trust? What lies behind the deficit?

This requires a more sophisticated and scientific understanding of employee behaviour and also has implications for the leadership of the function, along with the expertise and knowledge that it can draw on. Although channels, content and messaging are all important, the function also needs a leader, or the capability within it, who really understands how and why employees are influenced and how they influence each other and how to integrate communications planning into this dynamic.

It is certainly this type of thinking, along with the evidence to substantiate it, that we, as head-hunters in this function, look for when we are assessing IC leadership.

Peer-to-peer influence, for example, is exceptionally powerful and every organisation will have a small number of people who have a high level of influence with peers, who are well connected and whose behaviours are likely to have an impact on others. It is worth reading a book entitled Homo Imitans by the ‘organisational architect’ Leandro Herrero, who in the book observes, “Ignoring the social network is ignoring the organisation”.

This introduces behavioural and social science thinking, which some organisations are beginning to embrace. It entails an understanding of how movements appear, how ideas spread, how behaviours are copied and new norms appear. It can help provide better insight into how and why employees behave and make decisions, and how to ‘nudge’ them into different behaviour or towards different decisions, such as through very subtle changes in the use of language.

If IC is to evolve into a more rigorous, insightful function, with the ability to help effect changes in motivation engagement and behaviour, it needs to at very least have access to this research and the ability to integrate this into its planning and content development. Measuring sentiment alone is not enough.

#watsonhelsby #nickhelsby #internalcommunications #corporatecommunications #internalcomms #corpcomms #injection #rigour #strategy

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