Sunday, 17 May 2015

The state of Internal Comms – Academically speaking

Kevin Ruck is the Co-Founder of The PR Academy and course leader for the CIPR Internal Communication qualifications delivered by his institution.

He is the editor of Exploring Internal Communication, a textbook for students and practitioners, which is now in its third edition.

Through 2012 Ruck was chair of the CIPR Inside group for internal communicators and launched their first annual awards. He also ran their first measurement summit leading to a framework for measuring internal communication. Last but not least he has been awarded the Arnoux bursary to undertake a PhD in Internal Communication at the University of Central Lancashire.

I wanted to talk with him to explore the state of internal communication from an academic perspective. In this interview, Ruck shares his view on the strengths and weaknesses of the profession, its opportunity and challenges, employee engagement and advocacy, career development and the impact of new technology on practice.

Gloria Lombardi: Based on your studies, what are the most remarkable changes that internal communication (IC) has faced for the last five to ten years?

Kevin Ruck: There have been two major forces. The first one is the impact of internal communication on employee engagement, which in turn is influencing the practice of the profession. We all know about employee engagement now - at least, it is a familiar term. But, ten years ago it was still emerging. What David McLeod and Nita Clarke of Engage for Success did in 2009 really highlighted the relevance of strategic narrative and employee voice. This has had big effects on the internal communication practice toward engagement.

Secondly, all the changes in technology, especially enterprise social networks (ESNs). They are transforming the way internal communicators do their job.

GL: Tell me more about the last point. How does an ESN change the role of internal communication?

KR: The functionality enables more conversations. It gives employees a better way of having their say. Going back to employee engagement, voice is a big component of it. We have been talking about it for a long time. Now, the technology allowed by an ESN makes it easier for people to have their opinions heard, interact much more and give feedback on content.

This challenges the mind-set of internal communication practitioners - it moves them away from just producing content that is very corporate into having to facilitate dialogue and curate content.

GL: When I interview and speak with both organisations and social media providers, I often hear that IC is not always making the most of this opportunity. Practitioners may be afraid of losing control of the message, something they were used to in the past. 

KR: Yes. This is right. Both IC practitioners and senior managers are concerned about the way an ESN can open up a dialogue. They may feel it is 'too much'.

Some organisations are keener on adopting these tools than others. It is difficult to say whether there is a particular sector embracing them more than other industries. You may find examples of strong social collaboration from businesses that you may not necessarily anticipate.

Interestingly, while someone would expect technology companies to be the most advanced users that is not always the case. A piece of research conducted a while ago with three telecoms corporations looked at their internal social media usage. The results showed stark differences: one organisation was widely adopting its ESN; another one was not using the platform at all. The third enterprise was in the middle road.

Most of time, success and failure come down to the attitude of the IC teams and senior management. When both of them embrace the opportunity offered by ESNs, then it is more likely to see real benefits emerging. In contrast, when they use those networks as just an additional one-way broadcast channel, adoption efforts do not fulfil their potential.

GL: I'd like to explore the career development of the IC practitioner. What are the skills and expertise required by to work effectively in today? 

KR: There are ten knowledge areas that I strongly suggest them focusing on. And, there are attributes and attitudes, which need to be considered too.

Firstly, practitioners need to understand leadership communication. How do leaders communicate? What are the best approaches for leaders to take for a specific topic or situation?

Secondly, change communication. How does IC ensure that the changes are effective?

Thirdly, the sophistication of understanding different needs of employees in different situations is emerging. For example, it is about knowing how to communicate with colleagues who don't have access to the intranet or email. This goes down to individual level - each person has his or her needs and preferences. My research shows that some employees still like email briefings; others want face-to-face meetings and some favour video communications.

This leads to the fourth knowledge area, which is channel management. It is about using strategically all the available channels depending on people's needs as well as the nature of the content.

The other areas include employee voice, employee engagement, measurement, planning and research.

GL: Those are nine. What's the final knowledge area? 

KR: Community Management. This is relevant to the conversation around ESNs. It is a move away from the old technical skills - like event management or video production if you like. Indeed, those skills are still required. But community management is different altogether. It has to do with facilitating conversations through the network.

GL: You also mentioned attributes and attitudes. What do you mean by that? 

KR: A robust academic study conducted for a European communication and innovation programme in 2013 highlighted the top three attributes for IC practitioners. First, there was empathy. Secondly, courage. Thirdly, curiosity.

All three make perfect sense, but, what stands out for me is courage. It reflects some research that I did a few years ago: IC came out with the need to be more assertive.

Internal communicators need to have the courage of their convictions to be able to coach and challenge senior managers. It takes courage to say to leaders to have conversations with their employees, to blog about what is happening inside the organisation rather than doing the usual 25-slide Power Point presentation. It takes courage to teach them that sometimes they have to be prepared to receive comments that may be a bit challenging. It takes courage to start going away from your comfort zone, and really listening.

GL: Building courage. How can IC practitioners start being more courageous?

KR: They need knowledge and confidence. Each plays a part in developing courage.

To prove the validity of their position, they need data - robust research that shows what employees require and want.

But, they also have to have the ability to coach senior managers. And, to say to leaders that they need to communicate differently, it takes confidence. It also includes building trust by developing a deep relationship with them.

GL: Another interesting area that you have been researching is employee advocacy. How do you see the role of IC in that respect? 

I am particularly fascinated by the fact that IC can go beyond the traditional remit of the profession and its internal channels. Going out to external social media; then bringing back added value inside the organisation. 

KR: It is an interesting time to explore that. IC has always been seen poorer in relation to Media Relations inside organisations. Getting involved in advocacy gives IC the opportunity to raise the importance of their profession, influencing the way employees talk about the company outside of work on external channels.

Interestingly, this may start shifting the balance between IC and Media Relations. At least, IC would reach parity.

But, there are some traps that IC professionals need to avoid - they are in danger of losing the credibility of what employees say. Research shows that customers believe what an employee says far more than what the CEO or an official company release says. However, IC is in danger of losing that credibility if it just force feeds employees with corporate information to use in their social media posts.

GL: You mean the danger of demolishing authenticity.

KR: Yes. If it is not an authentic act, if it is not an employee's own words, their Facebook friends will spot that in a matter of seconds. If that happens on a large scale, then customers will think the same of employees as their think of the corporate release.

GL: Following this observation, how can IC support employee advocacy without getting into that trap? 

KR: By having employee engagement in the first place. Employees are not going to be advocates of the organisation if they are not engaged.

We have to go back to what makes employees engaged. According to my research, this comes down to two things: keeping them well informed and giving them a voice. If organisations focus on those factors, they are more likely to have employee advocacy.

GL: Anything else?

KR: Another thing that IC can do is to make very clear to staff what they should and shouldn’t say on social media. I am not referring to rigid rules. It is about making clear that there are some boundaries, behaviours that employees are expected to adhere to when talking about the organisation on digital channels.

Presently, too many employees feel unsure about what they can and cannot say on Twitter, Facebook and so on.

GL: To move forward we need to know where we are coming from. What are the current strengths and weaknesses of the profession that we need to acknowledge and be aware of?

KR: The main strength is that today's communicators are good at keeping their employees informed. Research indicates that in the majority of organisations, up to 75% of the workforce are aware of what is going on at corporate level. This may not sound a particularly positive score. However, taking into account all the changes happening today inside any business, that number is not small. In fact, we can say that IC is doing much better than in the past.

However, the weaknesses are two: research and measurement are still poor. The same applies to employee voice.

We live in a TripAdvisor world where everyone comments on anything - it feels strange if that is not the case. It represents a deep change in society. Yet, when it comes to the workplace employee voice is still limited.

I am talking in general here. Indeed, there are organisations that are doing much better than others. The Exchange program from HSBC is a great example of giving employees a voice. We should see more of that.
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This article originally appeared on simply-communicate