There are many misconceptions about the importance, impact, and operations of a communication team. Perhaps the most misguided assumption, though, is this: Communication is a soft part of the business. We don’t move the needle or support the bottom line.
Thankfully, that image is finally starting to change. So here’s a new word to describe the emerging role of communicators in the modern enterprise:
That’s why when we launched our second-annual ThinkTank Road Show series, we thought the theme of “Fearless Communication with Modern Employees” was perfect. Our goal was to bring together communicators from leading organizations for intimate, thought-provoking conversations around our shared challenges, winning strategies, and – most importantly – to collectively discuss actionable ways to demonstrate our impact.
Now, after events in five cities with nearly 100 senior-level communicators, marketers and HR professionals, I can say one thing with certainty: Communicators are finding – and using – our voices. It was incredibly empowering to be in these rooms with confident, assertive leaders who are working tirelessly to transform how their organizations engage with employees to ensure they feel valued, boost organizational productivity, and create alignment across the entire company.
Yes, there was some venting about shared frustrations. (#DySiThink definitely has a group therapy component.) However, there was nothing timid about our discussions. These gatherings featured like-minded peers sharing bold, intelligent ideas.
There was universal agreement that the traditional (that’s a nice way of saying “antiquated”) methods of connecting with employees aren’t good enough anymore. Everyone talked about raising the bar with great content that’s relevant, timely, personalized and delivered directly to employees in a way that makes sense for the way people work.
Jim Cockin, Head of Internal Communication at Sky, captured that sentiment at our London event when he said that if something isn’t good enough to be published externally, then it shouldn’t be shared internally.
“You’re trying to tell a credible story,” Cockin added. “Authenticity shouldn’t be a special thing. It should be a starting point. Modern employees will see through that pretty quickly.”
There were fabulous discussions in every city. Here are just a few highlights.
Cockin and Siobhan Walker, Managing Director, UK Corporate Client Division for ING, led a session that zeroed in on the massive challenge of reaching large, widely dispersed workforces. One communicator of a multinational conglomerate said they have to beg people to visit the intranet, adding: “It’s like pulling teeth.” Another communicator at a shipping company conceded that they have no way to connect with 22,000 employees who work at sea. “We have just given up,” she added.
The way to change that, communicators agreed, is to persuade at least one member of the leadership team about the bottom-line impact of poor employee engagement and the need for more budget to secure new technology that makes it easier to connect with workers.
What does “fearless” mean to European communicators? For one, it’s greater transparency and authenticity with employees. It’s also accepting that they no longer can control the message and must learn to trust employees on social media.
Adam Schair, Global Colleague Communications Leader at Mercer, helped moderate a wide-ranging session that delved into how communicators are dealing with too many platforms, overwhelmed employees, and an overall lack of trust in brands. One communicator described their organization’s challenge this way: “People don’t know where to turn for the ‘important message’ because we keep changing the source of the content.”
There was a great discussion about how we need to be more data-driven and use more accurate metrics to prove the impact of communication efforts. As one attendee said: “It’s about shifting from output to outcomes.” There also was a comment from one communicator that especially resonated. She said that the most important metric for her is less about “do people like it?” and more about “do people understand it?” Does a message drive the desired action?
Kristen Rabe, General Director, Internal Communication at BNSF Railway, was our guest moderator and led a fantastic session where communicators shared hands-on tactics for improving engagement. Rabe talked about the success BNSF has seen by emphasizing the “why.” Their employees, she said, generally understand messages about safety and daily tasks. When they don’t have the context, though, employees lack an understanding about why they’re being asked to do something or how it impacts the company. Explain the goal and they will respond better, she said.
Another excellent conversation point was the idea that communication is only a means to an end. Sure, you can be exceptionally creative in how you engage employees. Sheer creativity, though, is not a substitute for driving the desired outcome.
Finally, there was considerable discussion about the need for organizations to share what they know with employees in a timely fashion, even when it’s not the whole story. Employees expect leaders to share “what we know right now” because they’ve become accustomed to receiving news in small doses in their everyday lives. One suggestion was to bucket information into several different categories: What we know, what we don’t know, what is likely to happen.
At this ThinkTank, there was an overwhelming sentiment that organizations aren’t doing enough to modernize employee communication – and there’s a financial cost to the status quo. One communicator made the point that there no longer is “internal communication.” Rather, there is “confidential” and everything else. Oh, and I loved this insight from another attendee: “Communication doesn’t need to be complicated. But it does need to be authentic.”
Part of the solution, they agreed, is that we must become more consultative. Instead of waiting for leadership to determine what to say to employees, they need to create communication plans and offer insights in crafting a narrative.
Maybe it’s because we were on our home turf of Silicon Valley, but much of this ThinkTank focused on taking advantage of new technologies and channels to deliver content like video to employees.
One communicator at a Fortune 500 company said they’ve seen success using video that highlights employees, what they do, and how it impacts the company mission. The challenge, though, has been persuading leadership that it’s OK for videos not to be perfect. There was agreement that scripted videos can erode trust. “We’ve found that employees don’t want overly produced videos,” she said. “They want them to be more real.” Also, they’ve learned that it’s critical to put video content where it’s visible. “We place them on pages where we know the eyeballs are flooding,” she added. “You have to get it right in front of them.”
Finally, there was the suggestion that podcasts could be the next big thing for employee engagement. “Podcasts can seem really old-school,” said a communicator at a leading clothing manufacturer. “But there’s something about them that captures people’s attention.” (We heard this in New York, too!)
The commonality among all the ThinkTanks is that the world has changed, and we all need to adapt. The challenge is getting our leadership teams to understand that employees expect work-related communication to be similar to how they receive information in their personal lives.
In other words, it’s time to get fearless.
Missed out on our ThinkTank series? No problem! Our first full conference, Summit by Dynamic Signal, will be on Oct. 11 at The Pearl in San Francisco. It’s a can’t-miss opportunity to be surrounded by peers who, like you, are searching for innovative ways to connect their organizations and employees.