Black, white and gray: A 16-year-old holds up a mirror to business communicators

“I see the world kind of black-and-white”

So says Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate change activist. Thunberg has become a global media sensation by sharing a direct if alarming message with politicians, business leaders and the media about what will be required to meet the climate change challenge.

Whether one agrees with the conclusions Greta is pushing or finds them acceptable from a social and economic perspective, Greta’s rapid emergence on the global scene highlights a trend of high relevance to communicators – a desire for clarity and specificity that has largely become absent from business communication in recent years. 

Part of this, from my experience, is that business communicators largely find ourselves trading in “gray”: in ambiguity.

Organizations take months or years to finalize changes even when the direction of travel is obvious to employees and other stakeholders. Leaders seek not to alarm, and employees often demand certainty when little can be offered before the required facts are blessed by the lawyers, shareholders and, where applicable, governments, are in place.

To a certain extent, business communicators add value to organizations by helping them and their people navigate through ambiguity. Ironically, we actually generate a fair amount of that ambiguity in an effort to avoid alarming stakeholders about decisions that some may expect but which have not yet been taken. Moreover, much of the difference between communication disciplines like internal comms, public relations and public affairs comes down to the distinct ways each positions ambiguous issues with its core stakeholders.

Greta’s rapid and precocious emergence on the scene speaks to an appetite for “straight talk” from a public that is tired of ambiguous, nuanced conversation from its business and political leaders. It also derives from her deeply held convictions about where things are headed if her pleas are unheeded. 

Do I believe business communicators should “be like Greta”? No. I think the worlds we operate in are too nuanced and ambiguous themselves, and we can’t provide definitive answers all the time. But I do think we should “be more like Greta” and not nurture ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake.

People want clarity and specificity from their leaders. They want leaders to speak with conviction. When it becomes possible for them to do so, they can benefit from being as direct, forthright and above all, as speedy as possible.

Are you vulnerable to employee activism? To find our more, email me at for my new Changing The Terms Guide to Employee and Corporate Activism.


From best practice to next practice: join us for the Gorilla Games Webinar

On 30 April, I’ll have the distinct pleasure of moderating a webinar about a unique internal communication competition – a competition which, rather than seeking approval for “best practice,” aims instead to break new ground – The Gorilla Games.

Working with Contact Monkey, the innovative Toronto-based email analytics company, we put out the call for entries that weren’t out to rewrite the record book but rewrite the rule book. By focusing not on what they’ve been allowed to do, but what they would do with the brakes off and the gloves thrown on the floor, entrants came up with strong, bold ideas that offer new insights into how internal comms pros can raise our collective game.

In addressing a scenario where internal communicators were facing a 25% across-the-board budget cut, but in turn were offered complete control over the remaining budget, Stephen Welch’s Gold-winning entry focused on developing an IC approach that employees, quite literally, would need to be willing to pay for themselves.

“Yes that’s right, we’re going to start charging employees to receive their internal communication” was indeed the “money quote” from Stephen’s entry, which took the form of a memo from the head of IC to his team at “BigCo.”

Of course, the idea of making employees pay money for IC is ridiculous.  But we all have been in the business of trying to get employees to pay attention to it for decades. Stephen’s approach doesn’t simply focus on getting employees to put their money where their minds are, it also signals an approach to measurement that’s based on how much content is valued as opposed to whether or not it is clicked or viewed.

Along with discussing the Silver and Bronze winning entries with contest participants (which are included in this White Paper from Contact Monkey along with Stephen’s), the 30th April Webcast will involve members of a judging panel which included industry all-stars Jason Anthoine, Priya Bates, Silke Brittain, Ashli Davis and Neil Jenkins and discuss prospects for growing the competition.

Award competitions are great for recognizing good work after the fact. In the Gorilla Games, we now have a mechanism for rewarding great thinking and innovation before the fact.   

To register for the Gorilla Games Webinar, click here. The Gorilla Games are a joint initiative of Contact Monkey and Changing The Terms.