Participation is more important than Pantone…

If you are an internal communication professional, how do you describe what you do in one sentence? This was the question I posed in an article last week. The results were not shocking in the fact they were as varied as I expected, however I was fairly surprised by the negativity encountered by people in the profession.

One of my favourite responses came from Doug Shawparticipation is more important than Pantone. I wonder whether that is true for all internal communicators? I’ve certainly come across my fair share of IC pros over the years who are particularly passionate about branding and compliance with corporate colours etc.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – maintaining brand integrity is of course very important. But I think it needs to be handled with a rather large dollop of perspective, particularly if you have brand guidelines, so you demonstrate a level of trust to the organisation. If not, you will drown in comparing Pantone against Pantone – in my view,  if you want to operate as a strategic rather than tactical function, you need to equip employees with the tools to do the job and then trust them, but remain ready to guide.

Setting out your stall
One of my favourite comms writers and Director of Synopsis, Bill Quirke, is quoted as saying: “If you’re not looking at your own function and putting it under the microscope, someone else undoubtedly will, and quite soon”. In the same way, I think taking the time to clearly establish what it is you are doing and what you want to be known for is smart. Could you repeat this exercise at your next IC team meeting? What would the answers be? What do you want to be known for?

Quirke has also identified five different roles of IC professionals: distributor, crafter and drafter, technical advisor, consultant and coach. You can read more from Bill via Melcrum and I’ll write more on this in the future.

Striking the balance
Striking the balance between ‘trusted advisors’ and ‘comms police’ will vary wildly between organisations, depending on the culture of the organisation and frankly, how much importance is placed on consistency. I’ve often found that it is the personalities of those working in the comms team that determines the perception of the function as a whole within an organisation. What is it like where you work? Do you have a good reputation as individuals/a team? Two of the comments I’ve received in the past few days refer to ‘Pravda’ and ‘communists’ – not a reputation that’s deserved or desired I should imagine!

Back in 2009 I joined London Overground Rail Operations Limited as Head of Comms, to set it up from scratch, as Comms hadn’t existed before. At the time I was keeping a diary of my experience for Melcrum, and I remember in my first week I was confronted with ‘Ooh communications, that’s a poisoned chalice’ from a senior member of staff. Needless to say that comment didn’t fill me with confidence, but did make me determined to clearly identify and communicate exactly what the function was going to achieve and how I was going to do it.

It’s a struggle
So, back to my mini survey. One of the answers I received was: “Non-communication professionals tend to look blankly when I tell them the job title”. Also: “I really struggle to describe what I do in internal comms and think a good test is to see if your grandparents or parents have any idea what you do. I would definitely say my answer is different depending on who I’m talking to”. That sounds like a different take on the elevator pitch idea and I like its implied simplicity – could your family describe what you do? Would you be happy with their response?

You can see the full answers in the comments underneath my original article but for the purposes of analysis, I’ve listed them in a shortened form below. Thank you to the 19 comms professionals who contacted me via Twitter or here to have their say. You represented a good cross-section of big brands, public and private sectors and students. This was my most commented on article since starting my blog three years ago, it certainly generated a good discussion and from emails I received, I know some comms pros threw it open to their teams too, so thank you for your efforts.

The answers were:

  • allow people to connect with their organisation and drive two-way communication
  • translator, helping people to understand where they work and what they’re trying to achieve
  • internal broadcasting
  • helping staff communicate and understand what is happening within the organisation through various comms channels
  • a glorified administrator! (see the full comment via my original article, Rachel)
  •  helping a business and its people understand each other or help people enjoy coming to work
  • I was shocked the other day when I was copied in on an email that referred to me as a ‘wordsmith’ who would ‘tidy up bad grammar’
  • someone who helps hundreds of people understand the role they play in helping their organisation achieve its aims and objectives
  • #internalcomms = communists!
  • protecting and enhancing the company’s reputation with its internal stakeholders
  • IC ensures that everyone within the organisation knows what is expected of them and how their contribution fits into the business objectives and that they have all the knowledge and tools to do it
  • we are translators. Most disturbing/amusing definition: They are the team that help with presentations, you know, Powerpoint
  • communication is about facilitation, involvement and lots of exchange, so that people feel informed and a part of something. Do stuff with people, not to them. Participation is more important than Pantone!
  • when I joined Nationwide IC – 20+ yrs ago – CEO greeted me with: “Ah, you’re the new boy in the Pravda team”
  • creating informed employee voice
  • opening and maintaining a conversation with all our staff. We need to talk openly about our roles, our direction and our shared values. Although my ultimate boss is the CEO – I believe I work for the staff. Their needs are paramount
  • I think of us as interpreters: we provide meaning and context so leaders AND employees understand their role in driving the business towards its goals
  • I give leaders the tools and the confidence to engage their staff to deliver great things
  • being at the heart of a business and it’s our responsibility to ensure people feel not only informed but that they are all working towards the same goal and feel valued by their company
  • helping people in organisations hear and be heard
  • oiling the wheels of an organisation, helping people understand what’s going on and how they can contribute.

As I was reading your views I spotted a number of reoccurring themes so decided to run the answers through Wordle to create a tag cloud. The larger the word, the more times it has appeared and it is the image on this page. You will see that the most popular words were: people, understand, business, helping, organisation and staff. I think this is good as would have probably balked if the predominant answers were: newsletters, presentations and logos! They do of course have a role to play, but I’m pleased they don’t feature heavily. What do you think of the descriptions above? Do you use and agree with any of those?

Tempting as it is, I’m not going to create a one liner that I think internal comms pros should use. Your feedback showed you vary your answer according to your audience, which makes sense. From your answers, they are clearly influenced by the situation you’re in at the time, but you struggle to know what to say. I’m going to wait with baited breath to see what the output of the VMA Group survey is (you can read about it my article from last week) and wonder if there will be a definitive description of internal comms from those.

I know my answer also varies depending on who I’m talking to and what their level of understanding of comms is, but it usually contains the most popular words you generated from your responses, plus some others including coaching, reputation, change, advising and influencing.

As a final thought, one of the answers came from Kevin Ruck, of PR Academy who pointed to an academic review of definitions. If you’d like to read much more about this topic (it is paid for content), choose this link.

Thank you again for having your say. Do feel free to comment below to carry the conversation on, Rachel.

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