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.


The Pravda Principle

The Pravda Principle: is clarifying and formalizing the “official truth” the true purpose of Internal Communication?

Back in the old days in Russia, in many cities and neighborhoods, at metro stops and bus stops, there used to be glass cases housing copies of the current issue of Pravda.

Pravda, which meant “truth” in Russian, was often mocked in the West by those who claimed that its name belied a lack of actual factual content. Yet, Pravda remained the country’s biggest newspaper, avidly read by purchasers and those souls who gathered around those glass cases.

Because for those readers, Pravda was the truth—the daily, official version of the truth, to be specific. Encyclopedia Britannica described Pravda’s mission as “seeking to encourage unity of thought on the part of its readers by stressing and interpreting the party line.” Or, more to the point, the official version of the truth.

While a whole industry has emerged to push a role for internal communicators as corporate cheerleaders, employee-wellbeing advocates and large-scale event planners in recent years, the role of working with stakeholders to analyze ambiguous issues, helping resolve them by framing coherent stories and defensible rationales, and integrating these stories into the “official truth” is the most valuable role we play, in my view.

Of course, this turns the current thinking about internal comms on its head. It focuses on the role of the content itself rather than the needs of the reader, especially when it emphasizes bits of the official truth which have high impact on relatively small groups of people. But why shouldn’t helping small groups of people align common approaches to high-value problems be as important as stimulating high readership among large numbers of employees with low decision-making authority or influence?

Large organizations are often chaotic, with lots of agendas, leaders, priorities and initiatives, relatively few with a mass audience of their own. But when internal communicators have the license to work with stakeholders and create stories that address and clarify ambiguities, we have the ability to continually create and reinforce that corporate story, and in so doing, accelerate the resolution of business problems.

Ironically internal communicators and internal communication channels are often mocked for being “Pravda-like.”

But these taunts criticize internal comms for excessive cheerleading and misplaced positivity rather than for taking on the serious business of helping stakeholders define the “official truth” and clarifying where employees stand and what they need to do.

In my view, our role should be much more Pravda-like. By focusing on clarifying “official truth,” we help leaders and employees know where they stand and what is expected of them, and provide a clear starting point for further conversation. If that isn’t the proper focus of internal communication, what is?



Ditch the Corporate “We”

When my dad, Fred Klein, a noted sports journalist in the United States, had a look at Changing The Terms, he had two observations. That it is well presented (with many thanks to Lauri Liimatta, my WordPress expert), and that it could use some practical tips for my fellow pros.

That started me to thinking: if I could give one piece of advice to my fellow internal communication pros, what would it be?


What is the “Corporate ‘We’”?

It is the inappropriate use of the word “we” by a corporate communicator, generally when treating the company or its management as a disembodied first person.

As in:

“We cherish our values, pursue our objectives with passion, and place our customers at the heart of everything we do. Signed, The Management”

For me, the use of the “Corporate ‘We’” epitomizes bad practice in the corporate communication world for four reasons:

  • The “Corporate ‘We’” is presumptuous. It acts as if choices that employees are fully capable of making can be made on their behalf without their consent. It aims to speak for people before determining whether they have agreed and aligned with what is being spoken.


  • The “Corporate ‘We’” is disempowering: Saying all employees are all already committed takes the thunder out of employees making a conscious decision to commit to something. Why should I bother if my agreement is going to be taken as given anyways?


  • The “Corporate ‘We’” deflects accountability: Rather than one leader sharing an opinion or an assessment about the attitudes and readiness of the organisation, or explaining potentially unsettling news in a human context, the “Corporate ‘We’” acts as a buffer between the leadership, the message being shared, and those being expected to accept it.


  • The “Corporate ‘We’” diminishes authenticity. Indeed, there is nothing authentic about the “Corporate ‘We’” in that corporations do not have an actual voice. If Euan Semple is right when he says, in his excellent book of the same name “Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do,” then it is equally right to say “Corporations don’t speak, people do.”

Replacing the “Corporate ‘We’”

There is one simple step to follow to replace the “Corporate ‘We’”. For every “we” that is required, find someone to express it as their own opinion. Alternatively, use the corporate name, or use “the company.” If the company is doing something, saying it in the third person does not stretch credibility. Saying it in the disembodied first person does. And as business communicators, we need to channel the credibility of our organisations and leaders as effectively as possible.

Ditching the “Corporate ‘we’” doesn’t just change the tone and appropriateness of corporate communication. It also changes the terms.


Yet Another Post on Who Should “Own” Internal Communication

As seen by this piece in London’s PR Week, the raging debate over who should “own” internal communication continues to rumble on predictable lines.

“Should it be HR”?

“Should it be comms?”

“What’s best for the ‘employee engagement’ agenda?”

I have no definitive answer. But I do have a strong opinion.

Internal communication should be owned by the leader who has the most motivation and the clearest objectives for its use.

Sure, there’s a lot of concern for the ‘employee engagement’ agenda, and that often falls under HR’s remit.

But ‘employee engagement’ is not the only important item on an organisation’s overall agenda.

And there is considerable dispute about whether “employee engagement” should be an objective for its own sake, or thought of as a collection of behaviors, attitudes and processes and interventions which can be adjusted to aid the fulfillment of specific individual and organisational goals.

As a practitioner, there is nothing like working for a motivated sponsor.

Prestige-wise, it may sound better to report to the CEO. Culturally, perhaps to Comms. Ideologically, perhaps to HR.

But if the real action in your organisation is going on in Finance, Commercial, or IT, and the organisation’s success depends on real engagement, commitment and delivery of the changes in that area, isn’t it better to work for a sponsor who has real skin in the game, and can see IC as a key to his or her success? A sponsor who will fight to give IC the resources, remit and headroom to get the job done?

Aligning Internal Communication towards the highest point of organisational need instead of the most natural organisational fit doesn’t simply change reporting lines. In setting the stage for lower resistance and higher impact, it changes the terms.