internal communication

Can you keep a secret?

Most people can't keep secrets.  It goes against the grain of human nature to keep information to ourselves and yet so often I see senior management naively assume that bad news won't get out or that gossip leading to speculation and insecurity won't proliferate.  In case you are in any doubt about this, let me spell it out for you: PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK.  

There are three primary reasons why people in companies or large organisations spill the beans.

  1. The fear factor - because they are worried and are fulfilling the basic human need for comfort by sharing a worry or a woe.
  2. The simple truth that information is power – and the opportunity to disclose and display knowledge overwhelms  the sense of right and wrong.
  3. Vindictiveness, anger or frustration with a pending decision and the desire to cause damage to the people making those decisions by exposing their pending announcement to drive a negative reaction.

So what should business leaders do when it comes to passing on sensitive information?  My golden rule is quite simple: Be deliberate in how you release information and have a plan.  I've lost count of the number of times leaders blithely assume that information won't get out.  It will and sooner than you think.  Once you've made a decision that is going to eventually need to be shared you need to sit down and think about the nature of that sharing process.  

Clearly there are times when legal impediments loom large – as is the case with stock market rules about disclosure.  But so often, the focus on other operational imperatives means that discussions about when and how disclosure will occur are left to the last minute.  You need time to prepare your messages and make sure you are talking to the right people with the correctly targeted messages.  Most critically, you need to ensure you are anticipating the likely questions and ensuring you have thought through how you will answer critical questions.  What will this mean to our jobs?  How do timing, cost and other consequences need to be considered?  Ultimately here we are talking about issue management planning, which companies like mine can help you with.

The critical thing is to assume that information will get out and it is far better to have a plan for an ordered release than to pretend those around you will keep their mouths shut.  Many years ago I recall a client whose most senior executive was notorious for warning his management team about keeping sensitive information in the board room.  Time and time again, though, the information would find its way outside.  Months later one of the other executives told me precisely the nature of the problem.  While the boss was good at warning others to be discrete, he had an alarming habit of letting the cat out of the bag over a few drinks.  Read a couple of espionage books if you don't believe me – people like to talk – even the guys at top.  So plan to be found out, because it WILL happen.

The long or short of it

I am not a big rules guy when it comes to successful communications.  You know those people who will present you with the magic formula.  Every message needs to be delivered in less than three sentences.  Or the opposite – staged delivery where you trickle feed the audience over a much longer period of time.

Who is right here?  The truth is…it depends.  There are occasions when people need, even demand, detail.  When a company needs to take a new direction, for example, that is going to result in significant disruption to people’s jobs, a three paragraph email is simply not good enough.  You need to tell me why you are doing this and how the final decision was made.  What’s likely to happen next and how will that affect me?

On the other hand, there is a risk in going too far the other way.  Sometimes I need you to get to the point quickly.  For example, if you are announcing a highly anticipated result.  This is where the selection of the communication medium can also be important.  For example, the 15 minute video that sets the stage might be great for delivering detail in an engaging way, but when it comes to specific results, it can frustrate the audience who will, if they can, fast forward through your critical scene-setting.  On the other hand, a short, snappy email can ensure the key information and critical context are delivered much more effectively.

I am a great believer in what I call “glance communications” and newspapers are the best example.  We all know the way most people read print media is to scan for the bits that interest them – and so headlines and sub-headings are crucial.

As with just about everything in communications, it comes down to getting inside the heads of your intended audience.  What is likely to be their mind set and mood when they come to view, read or listen to your message?  It’s not about what you want to say – it’s about what they are prepared to hear. Long or short?  It’s their choice. 

A brand tragic makes the connection

This article was originally published in The West Business on December 10th 2012.

I spend my days advising companies on how to win their case in the court of public opinion and so have to confess: I’m a bit of a brand tragic.

Why is it that some companies manage to keep their customers coming back even when things go wrong or prices rise? 

Just talk to the guy who owns my local café.  I doubt he’s ever read a marketing text or gone to a business school but somewhere along the way, he’s uncovered the secret to a brand that drives customer loyalty in spades.

There’s nothing particularly special about the place from the outside: the wooden floors are worn, the furniture is chipped and it can get quite noisy.

The difference? The people. Yes, know you’ve heard this all before but wait, let me explain.

One day there was a new member of staff, young and a bit nervous but trying hard to do a good job.  Leaning over the stainless steel bench, she took my order – carefully writing it down and then handing me one of those table numbers on a stork.  From the corner of my eye something happened that was pure brand magic. 

Tu, the guy who owns the store, gently leaned over the bench, and very quietly and respectfully whispered in the ear of his new employee:  No, no. This isn’t Number 23 – this is John…and he always has a weak flat white. He smiled, she smiled, I smiled.  I knew right then that I’d never go anywhere else.

This is the secret to customer loyalty that Tu remembers and many other companies forget:  a commitment to company leadership that helps their employees understand the emotional connection between their jobs and the company’s purpose.

That’s why internal communication is, in my opinion, the one element of brand building that most companies get wrong. 

Recently my consultancy surveyed Perth workers and one in four told us told us their employers are not doing enough to keep them informed. Of course, some are doing it brilliantly.  But I am staggered, however, by the number of senior managers who simply don’t see employee communication as a priority. 

Please understand: this isn’t just about building a better office intranet, or starting a boss’s blog.  It is about helping employees creatively connect their role with their organisation’s ultimate objective and it’s nothing new.

In the late 1960s, John F. Kennedy visited NASA and ran into a worker sweeping the floor.  What do you do around here? the President is reported to have asked.  Leaning against his broom, the worker didn’t hesitate: I’m helping to put a man on the moon, he said.  Not long after, that’s exactly what happened.  The world watched in awe as that dream became a reality. The seemingly impossible becomes possible when leaders help employees connect with the mission.  That what’s truly great internal communications should be all about.