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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Internal Communications – Time to Get Ahead of the Curve

Note: I attended this seminar on behalf of my agency, but the content below is my own and does not represent my agency’s official position on any subject.

A great seminar

Yesterday I was fortunate to have a front-row seat at an internal communications seminar that I have been working on for awhile on CBP’s behalf. We planned the event, featuring Jeff Smith, a partner in the Chicago office of Prophet Brand Strategy, in conjunction with the Federal Communicators Network/Government Printing Office, and the International Association of Business Communicators was kind enough to sponsor breakfast. (Although I have to shun 700-calorie muffins from Costco, it was nice to see that others were enjoying them at least.)

A lot of people—particularly Jeff Brooke, who leads the FCN—cooperated to make the event happen, and I was holding my breath that it would work out. So it was a great relief that it ultimately did, although unfortunately some people could not attend due to a tragic accident on the Red Line that morning (condolences to the families of the Metro employees who lost their lives so tragically).

Future events of this kind are being planned and I’ll announce them here and on GovLoop.com when that happens—in the Forum, on the main page, and in my groups.

Why it matters

I was so thankful that the seminar worked out—it was an opportunity to bring outside internal communications and branding expertise to a large federal audience in D.C. that could then bring the information back to their respective organizations.

Of course, it is kind of sad that we only listen to common sense when it comes from a third party. But that aside, the presentation really hammered home the message that that we are wasting our time if we overload employees with uninspiring messages that lack context. Why does any organization do this, when they could in fact be using every communication opportunity to build up their engagement with the organization—and in turn boost the effectiveness their interaction with the public?

The event was also chance to hear input from federal communicators in other agencies, which I truly enjoy because they are such a smart, talented, and really decent and dedicated group that is frequently underappreciated.

What the speaker said

Here are my notes from the presentation, rendered as close to the original as I can. (Some of the content here resulted from interaction between Mr. Smith and the audience.) The Federal Communicators Network may receive a condensed copy of the slides for public viewing—will post those later if possible.

1. Internal communication begins with the brand – your organization’s personality, reputation, the set of expectations that people have, etc.

2. (My comment: Useful image, seen in the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis”: Brand is like a picture frame within which every message should sit.)

3. (Participant comments: 1) For federal agencies, where it is sometimes difficult to persuade leaders of the importance of communication, discuss with leadership as an operational need – something that facilitates mission effectiveness. 2) Think about how the employee feels when he or she get the news about the agency from the outside rather than the inside – not good.)

4. Some benefits of a strong brand – increased sales, price premium, customer loyalty.

5. (Participant comment: For federal agencies, infer benefits that are applicable in an agency context.)

6. Benefits of a strong brand to agencies with respect to workforce – increased pride (and therefore stronger retention rates), a boost to recruitment, enhanced alignment/focus around the mission, increased acceptance by employees of new programs

7. A brand is a consistent idea that can be implemented flexibly – just like a song that can be sung in different languages and dialects – messages do not have to be robotic in terms of using the exact same words all the time nor do employees have to act like robots to represent the brand well.

8. You do not control your brand. It is not what you say, but “what others say behind your back.” (My comment: Getting this wrong is an extremely common source of communication mistakes.)

9. You build a brand through strategy, conveyed through the customer’s (stakeholder’s) experience (My comment: add accountability and transparency when you mess up.)

10. (Here the speaker described Prophet’s model of branding but I don’t think I will do it justice by summarizing it here – the discussion went too quickly.)

11. How do you develop a brand? Start with data – do your research – but you can’t ignore creativity either.

12. (My comment: Effective branding is like effective parenting – work hard to instill the right values, and then set the child free – giving advice but not telling them what to do every minute.)

13. Employees are the connection between the strategy and the delivery of the experience. Yet they are frequently neglected when it comes to communication and it shows in their interactions with the customer.

14. (Speaker and audience commenter agreed: It is ideal for organizations to solicit input from internal communicators along the way – not ask for help at the end.)

15. The goal of strategic internal communications is to persuade employees to be fans of the organization—don’t use words like “advocates” or “ambassadors” because they don’t have the same power and sound phony. The right word is fans because fans are passionate about their organization, they share a common connection/community, they support each other, they are emotionally invested in the organization, their enthusiasm is infectious, they are knowledgeable and interested in learning more, they want to tell others about the organization, their interest cross typical lines such as age, and they are supportive of the organization in good times and bad.

16. (My comments: First, remember that the more you engage people the higher their expectation that you will be accountable when you make a mistake – so a commitment transparency is very important when embarking on this kind of initiative. Second, organizations commonly make the mistake of thinking they have to present themselves as perfect in order to gain support. That is not true – they simply have to be honest, accountable, and responsible for their actions.)

17. Key success factors for internal communications: have a strategy and build your employee fan base; make sure communication is both top-down and bottom-up; and be clear, consistent, and simple.

18. It is important to listen to employees and anticipate their reactions before communicating. Think twice before you hit “send.”

19. (My comment: In the future it will be most important to get employees to communicate with each other and that will be the area of focus – meaning internal social media. What leaders say has less and less relevance as the younger generation enters the workforce; Generations X, Y, and the Millennials are heavily reliant on their peers for information.)

20. Start with the mission objectives, translate them into key goals per specific audience, create messages accordingly, and deliver them with a specific tonality and a specific look and feel.

21. Create a template that leaders agree with so that all messages fit into the same song sheet.

22. Survey results showed that internal communication was seen as a separate function that belongs at the most senior leadership level of the organization—not in human resources or marketing. (My comments: 1) Organizations need to staff and fund the function for it to work well and 2) I disagree with the assertion that internal communication is not marketing—I see it as a combination of marketing and organizational development.

23. The flow of good internal communication is that the employee hears, understands, believes, and then lives the values of the organization (the brand).

24. To get senior leadership to take internal communications seriously, show them what is at stake – the business results that will be compromised without it (echoing the participants’ comment at the beginning of the presentation).

25. Conclusion: Take control of internal communications with a systematic approach, strategy, and framework. Manage to objectives. Link to the mission every time. Demonstrate progress to win management support. Consider the potential of every communication request to help or harm the strategy. And be relevant, clear, and consistent.

26. And one more time, repeating #18: Think about how people will react BEFORE you hit “send.”

Note: Crossposted to Govloop.com