Does Corporate Comms need to be saved…or shifted?

Earlier this week, an essay called “Can we save corporate communication” surfaced through a variety of channels in the PR and Change Management worlds.

It was written by Céline Schillinger, who holds a senior Boston-based change position for a French pharmaceutical company, and is a member of Change Agents Worldwide, a well-thought-of collection of activists and thought leaders in the change management world, one with strong ties to many senior professional communicators.

Her piece pulls no punches.  Corporate executives are “rightly” to be tarred with the same brush soiled by Wells Fargo bank’s recent false account revelations.  Communication professionals, if competent at all, only seem to be capable of delivering tainted corporate narratives through the use of a fractured and politically correct form of jargon, rather than defining and framing a shared reality that would allow for organizations and stakeholders to flourish.  Employees and customers have become generally impervious to facts, making fact-based communication quaint and corporate messaging largely irrelevant. Instead “the community” is the source of all relevance for its members.

But for all of the punches Schillinger throws, she lands very few.  In seeking to make a case that corporate communication has become hopelessly inappropriate and ineffective, she fails to acknowledge five mitigating factors which temper all of these pressures:

  • Organizational dishonesty and corruption, while visible and unsettling, is not necessarily universal.  Many organizations continue to have, and to earn, positive reputations
  •  The organization has the right and need to speak on its own behalf and share its official version of the truth.  If that’s compatible with observable facts, it is indeed possible to form a workable common view of reality
  • Peer to peer is not new and has always been a crucial element of corporate communication. What is new is the ability to systematically identify, connect and where appropriate, mobilize key peer influencers
  •  There is no “the community” – organizations and communities are collections of formal and informal tribes, who can be best influenced through conversation with the key peer influencers therein
  •  Anti-factual movements and political campaigns, though unprecedently strong, are by no means all-pervasive, and facts do remain persuasive for some potentially influential people

Ignoring these factors, Schillinger seeks a wild swing away from the current approach, but one with little definition and no alignment with the objectives of enterprises or their constituents:

“What we need today is, urgently, a new set of communications behaviors and skills. We need activist communicators, who engage with communities at work as individuals – not as corporate loudspeakers – and support them in creating their shared reality. Today’s world calls for comms professionals who enable radical transparency and free flows of information, who coach people everywhere in the organization with communication skills. They can create huge value by connecting all actors who contribute to making the organization storytelling a tangible, creative, dynamic reality. We need comms professionals with a conscience, systemic thinking, and the courage to resist the status quo in which most organizations keep locking them up.”

Nice words.  But what do terms like “activist,” “their shared reality,” “radical transparency,” and “coach people everywhere” mean in practice?

And to what end?  Is it not the role of the organizational or “corporate” communicator to help the organization achieve its objectives, rather than serve a vague externally-imposed notion of virtue or justice?

Better fulfilling this role requires not “salvation” but a shift. A shift in attitude combined with a shift in how we drive communication in the organizations in which we work.

Communicators can better help organizations fulfill their organizations’ objectives when they take the initiative to help formulate and shape them directly and with intent.  This combines the adopting the courage of which Schillinger speaks with a fluency in the organization’s agenda, processes and customer needs. This isn’t necessarily about having a seat at the table, but it is about being able to help define what’s on the menu, how it’s presented to the other leaders there relative to other priorities and options.

A more confident attitude can then combine with a shift away from the persistent top-down, dumbed-down, one-size-fits-all messaging towards identifying, connecting and mobilizing key peer influencers, drawing on their personal credibility, connections and sense-making ability to drive communication in a more resonant and personal way that increases impact and reduces organizational friction.

I agree with Schillinger that corporate communication needs some serious work to remain relevant, credible and valueiadditive in these times.  But there is no need to start over.  It’s time to be smart, confident, and do things that actually work.


The rise of the angry voter: observations and questions for business (UPDATED)

2016 continues to shape up as a year of the “angry voter” in the West, as evidenced by such phenomena as Donald Trump’s unexpectedly high poll numbers at this late stage of the U.S presidential campaign, the narrow victory of the “Brexit” referendum to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and strong electoral showings and polling numbers for anti-establishment political parties elsewhere in Europe.

With very little academic or practitioner research on the current situation, it’s difficult to tell directly what the current trend towards voter anger means for businesses and for business communicators.  But it’s worth looking at the question – to what extent does a person’s political anger spill into his or her behavior as an employee or customer?

Here are some observations:

  • Angry voters are angry because they are insecure

Fears and dissatisfaction about economic standing and social status have long been recognized as drivers of voter anger, and that insecurity will almost certainly manifest itself in customer and employee behavior.

  • Not every voter is an angry voter

Even with the surge in popularity for anti-establishment and anti-immigrant parties and candidates in the West, they are not the majority.  Even support for Brexit was barely over 50%.  So voter anger is a strong trend but not the whole picture. It’s something to account for, but not something that is yet overwhelming .

Some practical questions:

1)   Should you adjust your tone?

Brand voice and internal leadership tone often reflect a one-way flow of power in the relationship, but employees and customers who are challenging the establishment at the voting booth may well bristle at being talked at, or in the case of the use of the “corporate We,” spoken for without their explicit consent.

2)    Is there any shared dissatisfaction that can be used to build common ground?

Although angry voters have been presented as being driven by such factors as racism and xenophobia, there may be issues of common dissatisfaction where businesses can tap into and get ahead of voter and employee anger and be seen as making a tangible contribution to address matters of common interest

3) Is this a time for organizations to be brave and challenge misconceptions?

The idea of diversity in societies and organizations is implicitly being challenged by the tone of the current political climate.  But studies show that diversity benefits organizations even when feared by some employees. Could this be the right time to make that case in a fact-based and emotionally resonant way?

4) Is it time to change the messengers?

At a time when mainstream corporate leaders as well as political leaders are being viewed with increasing suspicion, could this be a good time to think about making better use of mid-level employees and trusted peers as advocates of organizational messages? This year’s version of the Edelman Trust survey has some interesting insights in this regard (see slide 21).


Recognizing that the dissatisfaction among voters has the potential to color their relationships as customers and employees is a step that can help safeguard organizational credibility in volatile times. At the same time, the current political climate presents an opportunity for organizations to address pressing issues that could strengthen their relationships, and draw more heavily on the credibility of line employees as channels and advocates. Organizations should not ignore the changes in the political environment, and there may be opportunities to seize by looking at the broader picture.


Lesson from Brexit: never ever (ever ever) underestimate your opposition

As a dual US/UK citizen living in mainland Europe, Brexit is something I’ve watched with deep, often emotional interest.  Indeed, the personal angle – wrapped up in potentially losing the right to live and work anywhere I want to work in Europe just as I am starting a consulting business – has made it difficult to see what lessons from Brexit are relevant to professional communicators, be they internal, external or political.

But one lesson cries out: to never underestimate one’s opposition. Or, to borrow a phrase from Rule Britannia, the oft-chanted tune during England’s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign, never EVER EVER EVER underestimate your opposition.

Opposition and resistance have many places to hide these days. It can be buried in no-longer-accurate political polling based both on dishonest responses and inaccurate representation of the communication preferences of the electorate, or rumble beneath the surface of corporate cultures where stated agreement with organizational ambitions gives way to active indifference or outright sabotage.

The invisibility of opposition makes it hard to challenge, much less counter, with often disastrous results, such as the complacency leading to the woefully inadequate voter mobilization campaign of Brexit’s opponents, who were beset by low turnout among those most sympathetic to their position.

But two insights from my own experience in American politics can provide some guidance to those managing initiatives and campaigns through hostile territory:

INSIGHT 1: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”

All things being equal, emotion wins, and it certainly wins over logic.  In this case people wanting to “take back control” beat people who didn’t want to have to get visas for their trips to Paris and who were concerned about the future of the country’s financial services industry.  The fact that opponents had offered no actionable definition of “take back control” was, if anything a plus, as it afforded the opportunity to channel intense emotion towards a ballot choice than towards a set of actionable policy outcomes.

Moreover, in elections, as voters holding “politically incorrect” are less likely to share them honestly with pollsters, being able to sense an undercurrent of anger and agitate and mobilize your supporters is essential especially when the polls appear narrowly favorable.

INSIGHT 2. Identify supporters AND opponents

Even in a business situation where open dissent is not tolerated, it is still possible to identify supporters and opponents.  While in a campaign one can ask a person directly how he or she will vote, in the business world, in the business world, there are other ways to ask the question, and assess attitudes.

Two offer viable insights.  The first is to ask the employee/leader to identify and rank his or her top priorities, and the second to ask the participant to provide a definition to a number of commonly known phrases and project names.  In both cases, it is possible to gauge enthusiasm for a given initiative by seeing whether a participant gives it an “appropriate” level of importance, and whether he or she uses language compatible with a position of support.

Combining with influencer research

As the Brexit result showed, it is hardly useful to have an estimate of the eventual vote result, especially if its already known that the inputs are flawed.  Far more valuable is an understanding of whom the supporters and opponents are, and how their levels of influence flow.  For more information about conducting influencer research, download my free guide.


The End of Internal Communication?

In 1989, at the end of Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the “end of history”.

But, having just visited Russia and purchased a “Crimea is Ours” refrigerator magnet, I can assure you that history is alive and well and has a bright future.

Similarly, some say that due to certain “inevitable” forces, we are due to see the end of the internal communicator.

Some are saying the death knell will come from the blurring of the lines between internal and external communication, others claim that the adoption of purpose-based leadership, the embrace of enterprise social networks, or the ultimate, glorious triumph of Employee Engagement (depending on which definition of it one chooses, Elizabeth Lupfer’s list of 50 definitions being far from exhaustive).

But coordination and coherence rarely happens organically.  Organizations do not change and refocus spontaneously.  Purposes and values can get agreed, but then the question gets asked. “Now what?” Or, then “how are we going to do that?”  And even when leaders seize the bullhorn and take over the lead advocate role themselves, one advocate does not make a conversation. The power of the advocate’s voice becomes diminished when he is left to communicate tactical as well as strategic information in his own voice rather than as  the lead voice in an open but structured discussion.

Some may think the blurring between internal communication and external communication is what means death for the internal communicator.  But whether one regards internal communicators well as a species relative to our external counterparts, we have some advantages in this respect.  Breaking down the internal-external wall ultimately means bringing customers and stakeholders into the heart of the organisation, and it means unleashing employees as advocates and exemplars.

Both of those movements speak to the natural orientations of the internal rather than the external communicator.  Internal communication takes place within a bounded universe, whether it is a company, community or a  specific market.  The boundary is not being erased, it is simply becoming broader and more porous.  The fundamentals of identifying individuals and knowing whether to communicate directly or indirectly remain the same, and the maturation of the use of employees as an outward communication channel requires deep, robust and interactive communication among employees as well as between them, their leaders and their brands.

True, internal communication will see some change.  Lateral communication will finally be taken seriously.  Leader communication will integrate hierarchical and lateral communication.  And high-value customers and stakeholders will increasingly be treated as integral “parts of the family,” addressed from an internal as well as an external mindset.

But alignment, change, and dialogue will continue to require structure, support and coordination, regardless of technology, philosophy or organisational structure. Spontaneity and intrinsic self-motivation will not change that, or mark the “end of internal communication.”  We are alive and well, and we have a bright future.