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Internal comms: too much marketing, not enough meaning

Internal comms: too much marketing, not enough meaning

“Employees are cast in the role of targets that need to be persuaded, rather than partners in the business that can co-create knowledge, services and products.”

Paul Willis, Director, Centre for Public Relations Studies, Leeds Business School

Speaker at the podiumSometimes, internal communication still seems to be too focused on big events and top-down messaging. Fundamentally, people attend to what they personally believe to be relevant: ‘What do I need? What matters to me?’. This isn’t as selfish as it sounds – their needs and goals may well be based on a shared vision or respect for others, such as caring for patients, supporting customers or saving the environment. Choosing to act still comes down to the individual considering what they can do to support their team, or what they need to understand to help a customer, for example.

Given this viewpoint, too much of what comes from the IC team isn’t pitched in this way. A focus on corporate strategy, big events, mundane administration announcements and so on, leave the employee wondering what to do with this information, and consigning it to the ‘nice to know’ bucket.

IC professionals may be frustrated by this seeming disinterest in strategy and organisation developments – ‘They need to understand our mission!’ they cry, and renew their energies trying to make people care about the corporation, with more elaborate videos, viral campaigns and gamification. It works for a time, but the lure is the novelty of the medium, not the message. It remains lipstick on a pig, and too porky for people to see the relevance. If most of your intranet homepage is built around such grand corporate themes, then the intranet will feel irrelevant too.

The underlying issue is that we make people work too hard to translate the corporate perspective into information they can actually use. If you take a corporate intranet news article and ask someone ‘Now you’ve read this, what will you do differently?’, it is likely that only senior managers will do anything different at all (in fact, scratch that – they probably already knew the news anyway from other channels). If a communication doesn’t support a shift in perspective or behaviour, then how important can it be?

Two things are needed:

  1. Communications that originate much closer to individual teams.

Although middle-management may be an unfashionable idea, one thing it can do well is translate a message from on high into a communication that says ‘OK team, there’s a new announcement, and this is what it means for us…‘. Traditionally, this has been done by manager cascades, but the often inconsistent delivery and risk of distortion has led many comms pros to avoid such cascades. Using personalised intranet and social channels can help make them more accessible.

  1. An understanding of how a person’s role contributes to the whole.

Surprisingly few organisations truly invest in explaining how they work. Typically employees have a good understanding of their own department, but outside of this are fuzzy on ‘who does what’. This leads to indifference to communication about the fuzzy parts, and anxiety when changes are announced that may have an impact, but the implications are too opaque. Story maps like Cemex’s Strategy Journey or even Kaplan and Norton-style strategy maps (in the right context) can really help here. What you’re doing is laying out the context of the big picture, so that when you really do need people to understand a top-level announcement, they have a better chance of working out the impact on themselves. Just don’t fall into the trap of creating the poster and sending it down from on-high.

For more inspiration, ClearBox is building a Pinterest board of strategy visualisations. The article on Visual Thinking from Melcrum [PDF; 250KB] is also well worth a read.

Photo credit: audiolucistore.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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