The power of language and human connection – the Communications function states its case

Another communiqué from the front line, with insights, anecdotes and quotes derived from a number of interesting conversations with senior communications and HR executives as well as consultancy leaders.

Until this crisis arrived, it is probably fair to say internal communications was some way from being an established business discipline. It is also not unreasonable to state that many companies would still not know what good internal communications looks or feels like; and why it matters, perhaps beyond conveying corporate news and information.

The fact that internal communications leadership and capability, if it exists, comes in so many different forms and sizes, indicates that there is still no universal view of its role and purpose, or whether it is even necessary! It is not unusual to find it as a peripheral function (if one Internal Communications Manager can be counted as a function) and activity.

At the other extreme, some organisations have huge internal communications teams, but size should not be confused with impact and effectiveness...or perceived value. More headcount often correlates with additional clutter, noise pollution, as well the delegation of communications by leaders and senior managers. Greater resource does not therefore necessarily equate to better internal communications, just more of it.

In both the above instances it is likely that the function will lack much internal influence and clout. In such companies leaders and managers don’t tend to prioritise communications and engagement with their people. It’s not a day-to-day consideration for them – and if and when they do engage it is on their terms, often for specific and short term purposes. 

Fortunately, there are a number of companies with strong internal communications leadership and capability, but even so, it has probably taken this crisis to make it unmistakably visible and truly valued.....and integral to a company’s positioning and response. But it is nonetheless a very welcome development.

Leaders in these companies have understood that the face and persona an organisation takes with its employees is critical, and speaks volumes about corporate character. They are also aware that corporate character, and the way they look after employees, will be one of  the principal lenses through which they will be judged, and they don’t want be found wanting. They only have to open the newspaper to see stories of CEOs being vilified or lauded for their leadership communications style and content. They know that they could be tomorrow's news if they get this wrong, so they are understandably more receptive to advice. They don’t need this broader reputation dimension pointed out to them.

If they did, then how about the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer survey which revealed that “76% of people believe that how a business treats its employees is a key indicator of trustworthiness”.

Those companies that have no real internal communications leadership and capability to speak of, particularly those with employees WFH or furloughed, must now feel very exposed by this expertise gap/deficit; it could not really have been more glaringly revealed.  

It explains the fact that several have turned to their communications consultancies for support. I have spoken to the leaders of a number of consultancies who say that they have seen a significant increase in internal communications related mandates from CEOs, and these are consultancies that don’t have a recognised internal communications/engagement specialism.  

“Companies want more internal communications support. CEOs are asking us for advice on how they use communications to lead their business”.

Having spoken to a few internal communications leaders who have found themselves at the epicentre of their company’s response and crisis planning, I have identified ten features of their capability and insight that (they believe) have been most valued by their leaders and colleagues:

-         Thinking more creatively and empathetically about the challenge of keeping employees connected and engaged – simple but often neglected things such as recognition, gratitude (thanking people), interest in and concern for their welfare, respect, a listening ear etc. Human interaction and interventions which surprise, surprise, are the main drivers of engagement and the overall employee experience. Interestingly higher productivity levels have also been noted by some.   

“Helping create a sense of belonging. It’s not easy in a company of over 45,000 people to stay connected. It has been our role to hold that together”.

“People are connecting with each other in a much more rounded way now”.

-         A much more conscious effort invested in active (as in daily) operational leadership communication (not quite yet the time for the bigger picture stuff).  Leaders are a lot more present and their communications more intense, and the internal comms team has played a key role in shaping this and orchestrating it.

-         With broad oversight of what different managers and leaders across the organisation are saying or want to say to their own colleagues, the internal communications function is helping identify opportunities to join up and connect different communications activities, or indeed stop them. The “linchpin in the middle” as one director of internal comms leaders described herself, further illustrating the point as follows: 

“I have conversations with colleagues about something they need to communicate and I say ‘you want to say that, but i know x also wants to say something similar, so why don’t you go and talk to each other?’”.

It is another manifestation of the all important connecting dimension of the role – the ‘chief dot joiners’ as the function is sometimes known.

-         Getting the narrative right and then ensuring there is a consistency of tone and message. Nothing new, but in a crisis such as this, where leaders and managers are physically separated from the company and their staff, and urgently need to communicate with them, it is all too easy for inconsistency to occur, especially in the mayhem of the early weeks. Strong internal communications leadership can help prevent this and regulate it, although some governance has to be already in place.

-         Building communications capability amongst managers who previously got away without it and now recognise that it is non-negotiable. Even better, engendering an eagerness to learn and improve. From “not overly bothered” to “love it, help me do it better” in less than two months, another example of the accelerator effect of COVID-19.

-         Carefully framing messages and choosing the right language and thereby ensuring that they are sensitively delivered and that tone of voice is on point. Here internal communications teams have had a huge impact and provided both skills and leadership that have helped shape perceptions of both the character of a company and its values.

“Managers acknowledge that we need to work our magic on a piece of information, whereas before they often thought they knew best”

We have been much more humble and if we are getting things wrong we ask employees to tell us”

The function has been the catalyst for another important development – ensuring that formal, prosaic language has been subordinated to a more informal and often unpolished style of language, which resonates more powerfully with employees and forges a stronger connection.

“We have dialled up the power of language and it has had a fantastic impact, which has slightly surprised some of our leaders!”

-         Thinking about a message or piece of information from both a colleague point of view but also how it will play out externally.

 “We put a multiple lens on a piece of information. We shouldn’t be guided by how it will play out externally, but it is really valuable to have someone who can factor that in”

-         Generating and sharing positive stories and content, not about the company, but about they have helped each other, how they have helped customers. Interestingly they have also found themselves providing a news service to their employees as well.

“What has been really interesting to me has been that while Government and the news media remain credible, we are seeing employees increasingly turning to us as their employer as a more trusted source of information for issues that are important to them”.

Echoes here again of the Edelman Trust Barometer survey whose findings included the following quote....”People have low confidence that societal institutions will help them, so they are turning to a critical relationship with their employer. 75% trust ‘”My Employer”– 19% more than business in general”.

-         Putting in place weekly pulse surveys to help understand how employees are feeling. This then helps inform the communications and engagement approach for the week ahead.

-         Helping the company stay one step ahead and as much on the front foot as possible. In this respect, information is key. If, for instance, you have insight into the government agenda and guidance for the week ahead (via public affairs colleagues), then you can more effectively prepare a colleagues' communications plan for the week ahead.

“My HRD relies on me to be one step ahead, helping her think through what our colleagues are going to need next week”.

There is much to celebrate here - communications leaders have helped shift their organisation from its more formal, rational and mechanistic engagement space into a wholly different modus operandi, a change which some leaders have clearly found very liberating and that employees have welcomed.

Cultures have changed, mostly for the better it seems, communications again playing a big part, and much learning has been compressed into a very short period of time.

People have thrived on the combination of greater accountability and support and care from above (as opposed to direction)”.

Companies have begun to think in terms of how employees feel, why they feel the way they do (hence the interest in pulse surveys) and how those feelings can be managed, influenced and anticipated. This is a significant development, and the Internal Comms function, whose role in this transition cannot be underestimated, deserves all the credit and plaudits that it appears to be getting.

Hopefully those leaders and managers that have seen and witnessed the power of communications and engagement when it is employed in a more empathetic and informal way, will now realise that Internal Communications is much more than an activity and a business communications function . This has always been sub optimal as some of us have been arguing for far too long.

There should be enough evidence by now that the scope and purpose of its role can and should be far wider. It is not only key to organisational effectiveness/connectivity but also instrumental in shaping the employee experience and influencing culture. Above all else it is a connecting discipline, not just connecting across silos and management layers but connecting employees to purpose, culture, brand and leadership. There is a much more strategic role here that has been germinating in our minds for a few years.

Finally there may now be the appetite there for this thinking. Several people I have spoken to believe that this could be some sort of inflection point, marking the arrival of a more strategic and business critical Internal Communications function; one that requires leadership of the highest calibre, as well as a new blend of skills and expertise.

There is certainly going to be a need for it. Having got through the initial phase of keeping employees informed, connected and engaged during a time of enormous tumult and rapid transformation, we are moving to an even more challenging phase, one that also comes with a big opportunity for internal communications. It is an opportunity that could pivot the function into something that has a much more enduring value.

But it requires a rethink and a reset of internal communications.  Even some of the stronger functions, that have helped their companies navigate through their response to this crisis, will need greater clarity of purpose, very clear deliverables and possibly greater heft.

1.      Short to medium termReopening and getting employees back to work, which requires some understanding of the psychology of communications. Obviously the transition back to work has to be done in a way that shows overwhelming regard for employee safety and well being. But many people probably won’t want to return to work, either because they are not convinced it is safe to do so, or because they have elderly relatives living with them, or because they prefer WFH. This is a huge communications challenge and TRUST, not coercion has to be at the heart of it. The role of communications should be insight-led and will involve reassuring employees, addressing anxiety issues, energising and painting a picture of the new ways of working and gently coaxing them back. This is charged with potential bear traps and reputation risk.

"The size and scale of the challenge of bringing them back is much, much greater. Employees are in a different psychological state, having seen friends, relatives and colleagues die, and many are saying they won’t go back, period”

“If people don’t trust their leaders to make a workplace safe, they won’t come back.”

A further short term challenge is how do you paint a picture of the future when there are still so many unknowns – yet it has to be painted to address uncertainty and anxiety.

How to retain employee trust, and get leaders to continue in the same vein (i.e. more human, informal) as the economic backdrop becomes increasingly grim and tough decisions have to be made – these two quotes neatly capture this challenge and dilemma:

“This new found trust that has now emerged is endangered by economic realities that force decisions to be made on financial priorities, rather than people priorities. The danger then is that leaders revert to the safety of corporate jargon and trust will diminish”

“Being candid, I believe a real challenge for us is going to be how we keep that compassion at the forefront of our internal communications as the economic and commercial realities require tougher decisions about our operations”. 

2.      Medium to longer term –The relationship and social contract with employees has changed, witnessing in many cases a greater mutual trust. But ways of working will have to change, new thinking around culture(s) will emerge (how does culture become something people feel at home?), and a different employee experience is likely to emerge. Internal Communications, which has already shown how it can shape engagement and the employee experience, should play an integral and strategic role in this debate, positioning itself as the connector, the glue, the linchpin, the chief dot joiner.

As an executive search consultant who has long championed the function and long tried to elevate its status to a more strategic level, it would give me great pleasure to work with a few companies who now realise that they cannot do without heavyweight IC leadership/capability, but don’t quite know what this looks like and therefore need advice.

Likewise, for those who are more ambitious and progressive in their thinking, I hope I will be helping some of them think through the redefinition and repositioning of the function and its purpose and desired impact.

We have to make the most of this opportunity. It could be a defining moment.

 #watsonhelsby #NickHelsby #InternalComms #coronavirus #covid19

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