Ageism and the art of internal communication

Is ageism rife in internal communication? Today Mark Shanahan has written a guest post looking at this subject and drawing on his own experiences. I’m interested to know your take on the topic, feel free to comment below or tweet him.

Mark became an internal communicator in 1989. He has worked in-house for Nationwide Building Society, Barclays Bank and Forte Hotels where he headed up internal communications. More recently he has worked as an interim and communication project consultant for Diageo, Unilever, Orange and the BBC. A fellow of the IoIC, he writes about engagement at and tweets as both @leapfroginsider on professional matters, and @leapfrogmark on everything else. Over you you Mark…

Ageism and the art of internal communication
Ageism used to be rife in internal communication. Those entering the profession were generally older, either well established in a career in journalism or design, or on the move into a comfortable internal posting towards the end of their corporate career. Promotion was slow to come by – you had to earn your stripes in the trenches and couldn’t possibly be put in front of the Board until you had at the very least a few grey hairs. More likely you had to show the vivid battle scars of a troubled merger or at the very least a corporate IT upgrade.

By the time I was running my own team in my early 30s in the mid-90s, first at Barclays and then at Forte, there was the sense that times were changing: the email revolution had already taken place and my life was largely split between major events – the genesis of what are now Town Hall gatherings, and the emergence of the intranet. Back in those days intranets were pretty basic and reached only through the clicks and whines of a dial-up connection.

Team of all the talents
However, I felt I had a team of all the talents – a tech expert in his mid-40s, two women returners, a young guy with a natural grasp for the intranet and two regional comms experts who were valued and respected in their local management teams. Age, like gender was simply not an issue. We used an external writer who was pushing 60; our design agency mixed youth and experience and our print broker found us the deals that only someone with decades of inky fingers could aspire to.

Lately, the situation has completely flipped. The new generation of IC professionals tend not to come from the journalism or design crafts and if they move from another function, it’s more likely to be as a graduate trainee than as the boss’s PA shunted sideways (and yes, I worked for one of those). In terms of bringing energy and innovation into the function, that’s great, but for me, it raises a couple of concerns.

Old dog can learn new tricks
I’ve been to a couple of meetings recently where the assumption is that I’m terribly old school. In both cases I was told straight out that the focus was on social media, and therefore it was outside my skillset. Luckily in a face to face, there’s a chance to put my side of the story: to explain that I’m well versed in social media tools and use them every day in a personal and business context. I may not be a digital native, but this old dog has no problem learning new tricks.

My other concern is the lack of recognition that IC teams are communicating with three generations in one workforce now. Only by successfully integrating social media into a more traditional mix will we ever have any chance of connecting across the whole organisation. For me, that means having a blend of communicators attuned to the needs of all their audiences – making the most of the experience Gen X brings and blending it with the fervour, enthusiasm and energy of Gen Y. Each generation should not be scared of the other or dismissive of our different experiences.

Is the new generation of IC pros is too quick to denigrate what’s gone before? I hope not. No organisation can afford for that to happen.

Post author: Mark Shanahan

Thank you for sharing your views Mark. What is your take on what he’s written? You’re welcome to comment below. If you have an idea for a guest article, do read my guidelines and get in touch with your thoughts.

Shout about your talents!
If you’ve done something in internal comms that you’re proud of, don’t forget the deadline for the CIPR Inside awards has been extended to 24 December, so do take some time between Christmas comms (see my survival guide), wrapping presents and waiting for the white bearded man, to put your entry in. Full info can be found on the CIPR Inside website. Thanks as ever for stopping by, Rachel


  1. Jessica Bull says:

    Hi Mark,
    Interesting post. There is a definite assumption that, ahem, more experienced employees do not ‘get’ social media in the same way.
    However, I think there is also an assumption that younger employees are more naive in the way they interact with social media. Perhaps being far more likely to blur the boundaries between professional and personal, leading to indiscretion? Also, a view that for younger IC professionals social media is the answer – no matter what the problem is
    Both assumptions – one probably no more true than the other.
    Really, we, in IC, need to make the business understand that social is just another channel. A new channel, which can lead more to interaction and listening than our more traditional ones. But just a channel, not a communications strategy in itself.
    Jessica Bull
    Strategy Communications Officer (Parliamentary ICT)

  2. Thanks for your comments Jessica. I particularly think your point about highlighting social as a channel not a comms strategy is spot on. How many brands ‘are on Twitter’ yet don’t respond to tweets from their customers? Neal Schaffer wrote an excellent article on that today which I think you’ll like:

  3. Hi Jessica – I love the point you raise about how, for some people, whatever the problem, social media is the answer. Clearly it isn’t, and while we still have a majority in the workforce who have not been brought up in the electronic age, it won’t be. For now, it is a channel, though it’s likely to become more of the framework for communication in the future. However, this will be a natural evolution rather than the revolution that the social media snake oil merchants are currently peddling.

    It’s only just over a decade ago that the intranet was being hailed in the dsame way – an internal democratiser that would flatten management layers and open the way to shared experiences that would speed innovation and decision making. It has sort of happened…in some places – but top down email remains the dominant channel for comms, while in my experience face to face is still preferred by all but the newest entrants into the workforce.

    Social media offers great possibilities particularly around speed and creating multiple dialogues (as such, it’s a bitch to manage and changes the paradigm for IC pros). But until it becomes a norm in organisations it also risks alienating large swathes of workers who don’t share the new evangelism.

    Age, of course, doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom. However, those IC pros who have stuck with the profession through its development have the benefit of experience and hindsight that can be brought to bear on the issues we face today. The fundamentals of our profession haven’t changed – but both the toolset and thinking around it have evolved. That’s why in creating IC structures I favour a ‘team of all the talents’ approach that blends enthusiasm and experience rather than say, putting together a team of ‘me and mini me’ types. It’s easier to recruit in our own image: more effective to recruit to address the issues.

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