Internal Communications Missing Link

The Black Sheep

I must admit, I am one who still finds the function of internal communications within the organization extremely compelling if not absolutely vital to the success of a corporation. Albeit the function has changed somewhat with the advent of social media and the way in which information is disseminated to employees, but nonetheless it still has a seat at the table.

As a former IC leader I spent a lot of time honing my understanding of the best practices of writing styles for different audiences, analyzing delivery mechanism methodologies and even attending conferences hosted by Jakob Nielsen, Ragan and had even sent several employees to attend Black Belt training through Melcrum. Still, I was finding it difficult to not only get the proper executive buy-in but also to get employees to respond.

Countless times the organization did internal communication polling and the results always said the same thing, employees get too much information from too many sources. The comments of the surveys always had the best nuggets: “If my manager doesn’t tell me, I don’t listen”, “Stop sending emails” and my personal favorite “yeah, I didn’t read this one either.” Cynical? Maybe. But you cannot solve the problem without listening. There was no realistic chance we were going to eliminate the amount of emails being disseminated simply given the organizational structure. HQ controlled the intranet and they had their own agenda, unfortunately, it wasn’t that of the employees but rather making sure the execs had real-estate on the web.

Change or Tick the Box

I was at the “tipping point” of turning from an active agent of change management into a check the box guy after several years of hitting the wall of change. Only so many years of the same thing one can endure… and then it happened. The Marketing Department came to me and said, “we have some extra hours our advertising agency hasn’t used and they’re all yours”. My eyes lit up like they hadn’t in quite some time. You mean I get to put actual creative behind everything I had been doing? Now I need to make a point here that in-house creative, as good as you think it is, cannot hold a candle to external creative. The point of view is always skewed on internal creative and frankly if they were that good, they would freelance or work for an agency. So I went back and thought of everything that I could impact with creative…. it was mind-boggling. So much so that I decided to engage the agency for only the large heavy-hitter projects and leave the rest to in-house. The engagement that was soon to follow was mind blowing and changed the course of my career forever.

The Future is in the Past

Now let’s go back a few years to a Ragan seminar I attended in Seattle with Jim Ylisela and Steve Crescenzo. Both fabulous communicators in their own right but I cannot remember anything else in the seminar after Steve spoke the words: “There are things employees want to read, things they need to read, things they have to read and then there is your stuff…internal communications.” Bullseye. It was at that moment I had decided that we are force-feeding the employees bran when they want a Gordon Ramsey-esque meal. So how do we get ours to become the “want to read”? Both Jim and Steve had said as communicators we’d be lucky to get it to the need level. I firmly believed, and still do, that you can obtain the “want to read” in certain circumstances. At the time we had developed an underground “Onion-like” newsletter that we would print off a few and leave them in the offices creating an artificial demand. It did rub the execs all sort of wrong at the beginning but at the employee level the appetite was insatiable. We had also developed an employee program designed to get all of the verticals to be saying the same thing about our products (to friends, family and customers). Lastly, we had a sales incentive program in the works but it needed tweaking.

The Minsky Moment

I’ll never forget the first video the agency did for our employee program. It was like watching something you’d see on TV, but geared towards our employees. It was a long shoot and a lot of creative changes but we had the right premise… we nailed it. When employees saw this they had two thoughts that hit them like the ALS ice bucket challenge, 1) this is going to be cool, how do I get involved and 2) the company has ‘backed’ this program (because of the investment of this video). You see when you walk through the revolving doors of any company you do not leave your experiences and brand training behind. I mean, everyone can complete the 1-800 Empire jingle for carpet. But for some reason really bad videos are acceptable and considered a part of the media mix of internal communications. If you were to put ANY of those videos I am talking about on TV you would laugh, then change the channel. Yet they are done ALL of the time in Corporate America. Put the executive against a blank wall, add in a fake tree for color or my favorite, use a green screen and then insert an awful digital background to simulate a studio. There is no story telling, no secondary b-roll, no sound editing… point, record, distribute and tick the box.

Shinny Things

In order for true internal communication change to take place we need to bring the outside, in. We have learned through various sources HOW to do the right thing but what is missing is the execution portion of the formula, typically lack of budget is the reason. Without those agency hours none of this would have happened and a lot of companies do not have the luxury of getting an agency dropped on them. I can tell you first hand by increasing the visual appearance of a solid program, the engagement level increased significantly. Now what I am NOT saying is by simply adding a dress to a pig it will dance, it will not. It will look like a dress on a pig. IC professionals should look at the large projects with a different eye, one that incorporates the professional final output rather than doing it themselves with go-pro’s and handy cams. This will change the way you approach the project. We all know executives like shinny objects, it’s those little things we do with hi-gloss factor that get their attention. I compare it to seeing a Monet in the midst of a Russian Winter…ahhhh color.

I have 8 different bosses Bob.

When we take on large projects we typically have to address our 3 masters, if we do not it will lay on the floor floundering until it eventually dies. Our Master’s are in this order: Executives, Content Providers and Employees. Man does that sound awful, but it is reality in a lot of companies. It should be employees first and grass root it up… yeah (refer back to the survey section of this post). However, that’s not realistic, as the employees don’t allocate budget. In order to secure budget you need executives, in order to secure content on the scale you need it you need to not burn your content providers and lastly, you need to craft the message for the employees and in a way they can absorb it.

Brand, brand, brand

Finally, when doing a large-scale project with a professional appearance you must remember the project brand is more important than anything else. With the new found attention of doing something that looks nothing like what has been done in the past you will get all sorts of ‘advice’ and ‘suggestions’ from executives, channel directors, peers and people who you only know by facial recognition. Stay true to the original design, which means you will be saying “no” more often than you are used too. The reason American Idol has run for over 13 seasons is that it has combined the factors of a good unchanging show structure where viewers know what to expect combined with excellent presentation and story-telling in a professional format. There is no reason your project can’t do the same. I’ve seen it, and it is a sight to behold!