We asked Brad Whitworth — ABC, SCMP, IABC Fellow and senior communications manager at Hitachi Vantara — about the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to internal communication. He said that one of the most common IC errors that communicators make is not customizing messages based on employees’ needs, habits and positions within the company. Here’s what he had to say:
Retailers of all sorts have known for a long time that one size rarely fits all. It’s a lesson that most of us learned at an early age when we had to wear a sibling’s hand-me-down oversized sweatshirt. Or when we watched Disney’s animated Anastasia and Drizella try to squeeze their oversized feet into stepsister Cinderella’s dainty glass slipper.
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Yet most internal communicators still follow a one-size-fits-all approach to sharing important information across their organizations.
While we willingly acknowledge that our workforces are diverse and their information needs can vary widely, our default habit is to create a single lengthy message that we subsequently email to an all-employee audience. Or we stage an all-hands meeting that we webcast to every site around the world. We cast our nets wide so everyone is informed.
Why Do We Follow Mass-Media Rules in Internal Communication?
We usually take a stereotypical mass-media approach to companywide communication. We’re emulating the best and brightest media professionals.
It’s the way journalists around the world deliver the news and we want to be just as professional as they are. It’s the way many of us were trained, often by former journalists. And when the results come in, we scratch our heads and wonder why our employees didn’t read our prose. Or watch our webcast. Or click on our intranet site.
Yet the next time, we go out, follow the same pattern and repeat the same mistakes. Why do we keep going down the same path over and over again?
Let’s explore the three core reasons why we continue to try to get everyone to wear the same size t-shirt … and then uncover three ways to break those old habits.
The 3 Biggest Internal Communication Mistakes Businesses Make
1. We Don’t Customize Our Internal Messages Enough
By the time you’ve created your communication masterpiece and moved it through approvals by legal, HR, brand, compliance and executives, there’s no time left to tailor anything to meet the specific needs of your multiple audiences.
Does the software engineer need the same information as the accountant? Does the new employee want more data than the 25-year veteran? Yeah, but who’s got that kind of time?
As communicators, we can barely get one complete version of our story approved. And trying to get multiple versions approved? Fuggedaboutit!
If you’re staging an all-hands meeting for a global employee audience, you usually schedule it at the most convenient time for the participating executives, not your viewing workforce. You might bravely suggest to senior leaders that they should do three live webcasts to catch employees during the prime work hours in their different geographies.
The likely reaction: “Just let them watch a replay of the meeting we hold for the Americas region. We’re too busy to do this three times in one day. Especially the one in the middle of the night.”
Time is a precious resource.
Faced with pressure to do more with less, employees find they can now get all the news they actually need from a quick instant message conversation with a co-worker. Or from a summary in their Twitter feed. They don’t need to scroll through screen after screen of sanitized corporate speak in an email. Or watch a 90-minute town hall.
If communicators feel they don’t have the time to create tailored versions of important messages, employees in return know that they don’t have the time to pore over lengthy, jargon-laden tomes that you dump into their overloaded inboxes.
2. We Love Our Internal Communication Channels!
In a world where new social media channels spring up like daffodils after a spring rain, employees’ expectations of and preferences for information sources are changing radically and constantly.
Outside of work, employees are avid consumers of social channels like Facebook, YouTube, Whatsapp, Messenger, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, WeChat, Snapchat and whatever 2020’s new shiny object may be.
And at work, they show an appetite for communication through all sorts of new and innovative enterprise social network technologies. They pick and choose channels based on what fits their working style, their preferences and what their co-workers are embracing.
The proliferation of platforms and the shift from email are also splintering the generic all-employee audience. Salespeople who live in Salesforce much of the day may gravitate away from email. Groups that rely on tools for quick collaboration and file sharing may shun lengthy webcasts.
The hardest pill for communicators to swallow is that employees are abandoning the simplest, traditional channels that corporate communications used to control. Or thought that they controlled. The number of employees who regularly read lengthy email newsletters, watch polished corporate videos or tune in to executives’ town hall webcasts is plummeting.
3. We Have a Sender-Centric Approach, Not a Receiver-Centric Approach
Many communicators have deluded themselves into thinking that employees can’t wait to consume what executives have to say and things that we’ve written, distributed, posted, webcasted or blogged on their behalf.
And too often communicators take their marching orders only from senior leaders and forget about the responsibility they have to their diverse constituent audiences and their needs. For many reasons — real or imagined — these communicators don’t push back and fight for their employee audiences.
When you fall into the trap of routinely creating messages that are sender-centric rather than receiver-centric, you forget who wields the ultimate power in the communication formula. It’s not the sender … it’s the receiver.
The DELETE key is extraordinarily powerful and can quickly obliterate any message that doesn’t meet a receiver’s needs. “It’s too long.” “It doesn’t answer my questions.” “It’s obtuse.” “It’s incomplete.” “It’s filled with jargon.” DELETE. Hundreds of hours of your team’s work can be wiped out in a nanosecond with a single keystroke.
3 Ways to Take your Internal Communication to the Next Level
1. Share the Right Messages with the Right Employees
Your employee audiences are diverse and so are their information needs. Two employees who perform similar jobs in the same department may have completely different communication diets.
One may want to receive short text messages to his mobile phone the instant something happens. The other may prefer a daily or weekly digest delivered to her inbox that she can peruse during her hour-long commute on public transit.
All the employees in the finance organization probably want to receive information from the chief financial officer about the department’s goals, accomplishments and challenges.
That means the communications team should definitely create and maintain a distribution list of all the employees who report up through the CFO. That’s easy enough to do from most active directory programs.
But what about the employees in HR who support the finance organization? Shouldn’t they be able to see what’s happening in their client’s department? For too long internal communicators have built distribution lists that simply reflect corporate org charts instead of the audience's information needs.
It’s time to let individual employees subscribe to the information that they feel they need to do their jobs. You need to step out of the list-maintenance business and let your employees subscribe — and unsubscribe to information. The technology exists today to give that power to employees. And getting out of the distribution list biz can free up countless hours for your team. Perhaps enough time to begin to tailor messages for your diverse employee groups?
And what if employees choose to unsubscribe to distribution lists — especially those for their home organization? It means you must do a far better job of providing information that is relevant, readable, concise, clear and memorable.
Remember, you don’t have to cede total control when you let employees subscribe and unsubscribe to information and channels. You can still manage one or more all-employee channels that give you the power to get essential information to everyone anytime. Just use these channels carefully and for truly important messages.
2. Meet Your Employees Where They Are
Unless you work for a relatively small and/or slow-moving organization, you’re going to face an uphill battle trying to get all employees across the organization to use just one communication platform.
If you lead communications, you should embrace diversity. You should let different organizations use different platforms, knowing that they will serve as pilots for the whole company to see what platforms and technologies meet their needs.
Rather than forcing all employees to move to a common platform for your convenience, you need to find ways to disseminate messages across all the applications that your diverse audiences use. Again, the technology exists today to integrate these discrete platforms and share fast-breaking information quickly both internally and externally.
Even if you could choose just one or two, there’s bound to be a spiffy new replacement in the wings that can offer more features and better performance. So long before you would be able to move everyone to a single platform, you’ll have the cutting-edge crowd chomping to move to something else.
3. Add Front-Line Power to Your Internal Communication Team
It’s time for internal communication practitioners to harness the power of user-generated content.
Rather than making it difficult for employees to disseminate information within an organization, you need to build an environment that encourages all employees to share ideas, stories, photos, videos and more across the organization. And with proper skills training as social ambassadors, beyond the company’s borders.
There are far more of them than there are of you. And they’re closer to the real action. Is their prose perfect? No. Do they make mistakes? Certainly. Are their videos of network quality? Unlikely. Are they more credible than you? Probably so. Ouch.
If you look at the results of the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, you’ll find that employees rate “a regular employee” and “a person like yourself” as two of the most credible people in a company … significantly ahead of the ratings for the CEO. And ahead of you. And this “average John” or “average Jane” became even more well-trusted in 2019 than in 2018. As communicators, we must find ways to tap the power of our diverse workforce and embrace them as members of the communications team.
How Do We Get There?
Making such big changes can seem overwhelming. But it’s well within your reach.
Your first step is to build a coalition of like-minded, open-minded colleagues who can help you implement the necessary change. You probably need friends in IT, HR and finance for starters.
You’ll need to recruit a champion … an executive who recognizes the potential positive impact of your new IC strategy on employee engagement … and who’s willing to help you fight for the change and for the necessary resources for internal communication.
Some pieces of the new puzzle will be easy to implement while others will require intense collaboration and a bit of patience. Start today by finding allies who can help you overcome the obstacles and implement your vision for the new era of internal communication.
About Brad: Brad Whitworth, ABC, SCMP, IABC Fellow, is senior internal communications manager at Hitachi Vantara. Before that, Brad led communication programs at HP, Cisco, PeopleSoft, Micro Focus and AAA. He holds undergraduate degrees in journalism and speech from the University of Missouri and an MBA from Santa Clara University. Brad is a past chairman of the IABC’s international executive board and one of the authors of The IABC Handbook of Organizational Communication.
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