Friday, 17 April 2015

Internal Communications - new digital skills required

There is no denying that the rise of social networks in the workplace has changed the role of the internal communication (IC) profession forever. The old days of crafting a polished piece of corporate news, pushing the 'send' button and believing that employees have been magically informed and engaged are over.

But, what's the replacement for those traditional activities and mind-sets? Above all, what new types of skills and expertise do today’s internal communicators need to develop?

I met with Michelle Morgan (pictured below), the Lead Consultant in Digital Communications at VMA Group, one of the most remarkable Comms recruiters in the UK.

Gloria Lombardi: How much has Internal Communication changed over the last five years?

Michelle Morgan: Until a few years ago, Internal Communication was not seen widely as a profession in its own right. Graduates did not come out of University saying that they wanted to become an IC Manager.

This is changing. Today, educational institutions provide communications focussed degrees and courses that have substantial elements of internal communication. Hence, people are considering it as a career when looking for that first job.

This is why we launched VMA Direct in 2014 – our Direct Consultants, graduates themselves, recruit for entry to mid-level communications individuals supporting their first steps onto the communications career ladder.

GL: You have been working on a new piece of research about digital skills and job market. Which findings are striking you the most? What should communicators be aware of? 

MM: It is now very much the era of the 'generalist'. Communication Directors are asking for digital experts and enthusiasts who have a background in communications internal and external and marketing comms experience.

In terms of salary, it is striking that the profession is still so much undervalued – usually between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds per year - when such a diverse skill set is required: technical understanding coupled with relationship building underpinned by content creation and management skills!

I think many Communications Directors believe they need somebody young, fresh and good at social media. But, that is far from the truth.

What they really need is someone who can navigate the complex corporate communication environment, and do so strategically ensuring social ways of working (it is not about systems in isolation, it's about positive behaviours and building better businesses). This requires building very strong relationships up and down the organisation, influencing senior leaders, negating risk, negotiating and coordinating resources, inspiring action - that is not the role for someone who has just stepped in the company after University. They add value, certainly – they are comfortable using technology, bring a new perspective and increased energy. It is where there is true diversity where companies excel. Just because young employees use social tools in every day lives, it does not mean that they will be able to apply that to supporting the business.

GL: This is an exciting time to be in IC: the role has grown to include driving an enterprise social networks (ESN), supporting social media in and out (e.g. employee advocacy initiatives), and facilitating online communities. 

What attributes define a good internal communicator today? 

MM: I have thought and talked about this quite a lot over the last year and come up with 5 new Cs of Communications.

One is Credibility. It is the ability to stand up, be confident and deliver. It includes being able to use analytics to build the business case and show the ROI. Internal Communication is still very weak in that respect. Professionals should be looking at what their Marketing counterparts do - they fully research their audiences, using data to inform their strategies, to segment and target effectively and to develop their creative campaigns.

Does the employee audience not to warrant the same level of attention? Who are they? What are their motivations? What interests them? How do they like to be communicated with? What outside companies do they admire? Why? We can better engage an audience we understand.

If we agree outcomes and put measures in place at the outset, then we can demonstrate an increase in understanding and engagement. Hence, a return on investment for the time and effort put in.

I suggest that IC Managers, who are not already doing so, talk with their colleagues in Marketing to find out what analytics tools and tactics are available.

Next is Coordination. This is about having a good understanding of your resources and being able to coordinate them accordingly. Resources can be both internal and external – from employee champions to external agencies.

It is not just about coordinating your own communication team but a multitude of people who could potentially provide you with the right content, stories and ideas, or who could help you move your project forward.

GL: We need to build Credibility and look after Coordination. What else? 

MM: Content. Everything is content now, for both internal and external audience. It requires reframing knowledge in a new way, and coming up with rich and engaging material that speaks to the audience.

Visuals and other forms of rich media are essential- everything from videos to infographics. We have been talking about the importance of visuals for internal communications for a while, but generally speaking it hasn't been widely applied yet or at least not well – still too many stock images of stiff looking people in suits.

Then we have Channels. This is not about knowing every single channel in depth, but much more about having a very good understanding of how to integrate all of them, knowing which to introduce and why and then managing them effectively.

GL: Like a conductor, is it about holding a big picture of all the instruments and orchestrating them accordingly? 

MM: Yes! That's exactly the way I would put it. You need to have a very good eye and ear(!) for that. The best internal communicators that I know, utilise a mix of different channels, new and traditional, on and offline, to ensure true two way communication, sharing information and gathering new insights all of the time. Ultimately, this helps them to inform the overall business strategy.

GL: What's the final C? 

MM: Courage. It is the courage of your convictions, the courage to stand up and say what you think. It’s not about being always right - this is not the point and never good business! It’s about being informed and having an opinion and not being afraid to challenge the status quo, but, of course, doing so constructively.

GL: We know that digital exists and that is imperative to businesses today. But actually having someone in internal communications who is aligned to that is still coming forward... 

MM: In terms of integrating digital with internal communications, there is so much value still to be added.

Face-to-face whilst still recognised as the best way to communicate is not always an option. How do you get your employees’ voices heard when you have global teams, a dispersed workforce, and no office spaces in the traditional sense? Having new tools as part of your communications mix is key in keeping people together – informed, engaged and motivated.

We are all used to smartphones and social media. Yet, it isn't rare to hear of professionals asked to turn their devices off as soon as they enter the workplace. And often the technology that is provided to them it is either outdated, not fit for purpose or not set up to make best use of its functionality.

GL: What is happening there? It is about the culture? 

MM: I believe so. It’s about the fear of losing control and management still wanting to maintain power. But businesses should be moving beyond this to enable true collaboration, innovation and engagement.

My advice, as a recruiter, is to hire people you trust, give them the tools and the knowledge to do their job and then let them do it!

It’s about creating an adult-to-adult environment.

GL: Hopefully, we are moving towards that. Digital has helped move the boundaries.

MM: Digital has been democratising information and democratising our companies. We are in a knowledge economy. Social media has opened up new dialogues, and developed networks among multiple communities. In more traditional cultures, people are still often afraid to challenge the status quo. But high performing businesses are recognising the big opportunities in allowing their people the freedom to collaborate and innovate.

GL: We saw the 5 Cs of Communication earlier. What else can we add? Is there the demand of any new specific skills or maybe attitudes in IC? 

MM: There is more and more demand for internal communicators with journalistic skills - to be able to spot a story, whether this is from inside the organisation or from the external market, and quickly come up with robust and accurate copy that aligns to the overarching business strategy and for that content to be compelling.

Storytelling is also key not just to help create context for the corporate narrative, but as a way of bringing new information and ideas into the business, bringing the best and most interesting stories to your people. And, those can come from any and everywhere.

This is the thing: it is about mind-sets. Internal communicators have had their heads down for too long; they were perhaps too internal facing. We need to be looking outside our own discipline and organisations for inspiration. That way we can become the catalysts for positive change inside the business.

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This article originally appeared on simply-communicate