New global research uncovers comms pros’ challenges

New research out this week has uncovered the realities many comms pros face in their roles today and provided 11 areas for communicators to think through.

The #11ways benchmarking database has been developed by Michael Ambjorn, @michaelambjorn, Vice Chair, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) International Executive Board and Stephen Welch, @stephenwelch11, IABC UK President.

What stood out for me was this stat: Only half of communicators say all their work is aligned to corporate strategy and goals.

Is yours? I seem to constantly write about the importance of aligning corporate communication with company’s goals. More than that, they need to be intertwined.

Michael and Stephen conducted a survey covering 81 organisations, across 10 countries, with approximately 390,000 employees.

It revealed that high performing organisations, when compared to their peers, are:

  • Twice as likely to keep language simple and jargon-free
  • 80% more likely to have a process for creating great corporate stories.
  • Twice as likely to make emotional connections to their audiences
  • 60% more likely to think about communication from the audience perspective.

“We wanted to develop a database to explore the connections between communication practices and organisational performance”, says Michael. “What are the common communication practices that have an impact on performance? And are there things that communicators do which actually contribute to organisational underperformance?”

Well it turns out there are

In their recent session at the World Conference for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in Toronto, Canada, Michael and Stephen explored these connections.

Further readingSee their Storify for all the Tweets and pictures from their session.

The session was reputedly a fun one, but the serious research came from the benchmarking survey, which reveals some of the challenges communicators face.

The know-it-all leader and the know-a-little communicator?

Michael and Stephen said: “Half of organisations say that corporate messages are generally devised by senior executives, potentially relegating the communications team to the role of a paperboy or papergirl: just delivering the message.

Indeed, some communications departments are referred to the SOS team: “Send Out Stuff”. If corporate leaders are devising the messages they’d better be good at it, but only 20% of benchmarked organisations think their leaders are good at communicating.

“There must be a lot of horrible communications going on. Or, as one organisation anonymously told us:

“Executives that think they know how to communicate with employees, but don’t!”

“So it seems that executives should listen to communicators’ advice more. But only a third of communicators admitted that their level of business know-how and understanding was high. Two-thirds of communicators, we therefore suggest, need to improve their business understanding if they want to advise business people.”

What do you think of their findings? Do they resonate with you? As ever you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC. Let’s look a bit deeper.

Think audience!

High performing companies are much better at this: 71% of them say they think specifically about things from the audience perspective, vs 45% of average organisations.

But there are other indicators too:

  • Average organisations are 40% more likely to pack a lot of messages into their comms. High performing ones are much more parsimonious about packing messages into comms. (great word! – means ‘very unwilling to spend money or resources’ aka ‘frugal or mean’ – Rachel)
  • Average organisations like to talk about themselves.  High performing ones are more balanced: only five in eight say they like to talk about themselves compared to seven in eight average organisations.
  • Average organisations like jargon: only 21% say they keep their language simple and jargon-free, compared to half of high performing organisations.

Further reading: Want to get your head around comms jargon? See my internal communication glossary.

So the typical communication in an ‘average organisation’ is full of messages, ‘all about me’, and has jargon-galore. Whereas in a high performing company, things are likely to be simple, clear and with two-way channels built in.


Storytelling has become de rigeur in organisations, but it doesn’t mean all stories are good ones. High performers seemed to have cracked it by borrowing from Adam Smith and Henry Ford: half of them have developed a process for creating great corporate stories, vs only a quarter of average companies.

Great stories don’t appear, they need to be created, to evolve and to have meaning.

“Hwæt” is the opening line of Beowulf, the epic story that has lasted 1,000 years. Which of your organisation’s stories will last half as long?

“We need to do more as communicators to align our organisations and make use of our professional knowledge. The IABC  global standard for communicators is the best place to start. Follow this and you will avoid the #11ways, and deliver great corporate results”, says Michael.

Further reading: You can see the current global standard here – Rachel.

Stephen adds, “When only half of communicators say their work is aligned to business strategy and goals, and less than a third admit to understanding the business, the profession has a serious problem. Luckily these skills are easily taught – I teach them all the time – so there is hope.  But our research tells us that – for many communicators, it is a case of ‘step-up-or-ship out’”.

What are the 11 ways? I’ve summarised them below, but do contact Michael and Stephen if you’d like to find out more.

You can download the full benchmarking report here.

1. Eleven is too many
Solution: align your organisation around a  maximum of three key messages.

2.  Monologuing
Solution: Take time to listen and be more audience-centric. It’s about dialogue not monologue.

3. Jargon-free
Solution: Technical language has its place, but remember that the writer of the corporate communication isn’t always the target audience.

4. Audience analysis
Solution: Think audience!

5. Shiny tools
Solution: Consider what you are trying to achieve and whether you are likely to get a return on your investment in shiny tools.

6. Channels
Solution: Finding the right platform and using channels correctly is as important as getting the messages right. Think through the channels from an audience perspective.

7. Credibility
Solution: Think about who is the best interlocutor for your audience, them make sure they are effective communicators. This might mean training and investment, for example in senior leaders, so they can communicate to inspire their teams.

8. Not being paperboys or papergirls
Solution: Business partnering skills are easy to teach and easy to learn. A one-day investment in your communications people can help them become much more credible with senior execs.

9. Hwæt!
Solution: Don’t assume that stories will burst forth randomly. They might need nurturing.

10. Engage
Solution: Your key audiences are humans (we assume!) so take time to appeal to both their head and their heart.

11. Align
Solution: Be sure that your team focuses on the things that deliver value, not the thing that create confusion.

If you’d like to talk through the full analysis or talk about solutions to these issues, contact Stephen or Michael.

Post author: Rachel Miller.

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