Fixing Internal Communications

Have you ever noticed how hard it is for companies to get the word out to its employees? Talk to almost any senior executives or any HR leader and you discover that in companies of 5 or companies of 50,000 getting the right information to the right people at the right time is a persistent problem. Talking with and among ourselves is much more challenging than talking with customers, partners or investors.

And yet if you work inside a company and truly analyze the issue, you quickly discover that companies are their own worst enemies when it comes to cueing their people about everything from marketplace strategy to company holidays to the availability of flu shots.

Here’s why …

Too Many Messages

In most organizations employees get official messages almost every day. Employees are bombarded with everything from statements of strategy or policy to changing details about parking or benefit programs to IT alerts to schedule changes for blood drives and softball games. The vast majority of these messages are ignored and possibly deleted before they are read because employees see no value in them. In fact, most employees get so much e-mail that unless it’s from their boss or their immediate team members, it automatically gets less attention.

Nobody seems to be in charge of editing or prioritizing messages. There is no contact strategy in place that would dictate how many contacts are too many contacts for effective communication. Most firms don’t have a publishing calendar in place that could cue employees that C level stuff is announced on Mondays and HR announcements always come on Fridays.

One-Size-Fits All

Most corporate messages have one text and one flavor. Any given message may or may not be applicable to everyone but usually it’s easier to blast it out to the entire company than to target the message or to write variations based on relevance or receptivity. The global blast also instantly satisfies a C level query about getting the word out.

But if you ask anyone they’ll quickly tell you that finance people understand process and prefer to get their information in ways that are distinct and different from sales guys or engineers. But hardly anyone acknowledges or acts on these known differences when crafting or transmitting internal or employee messages.

Similarly even data-centric companies don’t seem to be able to sort employees on the basis of relevant facts. Most can’t just ping everyone who has a particular laptop model or quickly isolate those who have taken a certain option in the dental plan. So instead everyone gets all messages which in turn trains the cadre to ignore all messages.

No Priorities

If you look at employee communications everything is top priority. Few companies use different names or different fonts to distinguish between really important messages and routine information. As a result everything is important and nothing is important. Employees treat the corporate messenger like the kid who cried “wolf.” As a result changes in pricing or new product introductions often get the same weight and attention as birthdays, service anniversaries and bake sales.

Too Much Spin

Too many companies ignore the reservoir of goodwill, willingness to believe and need for belonging that exists among their work force. In an over-regulated, litigious and spin-doctored environment, the leadership rarely talks straight to the rank and file. Every word is processed and the result is a transparent “party line” which is instantly discredited by the people who really know what’s going on because they show up for work each day, pay attention and care much more than you think.

No one really believes that “right sizing” and “re-engineering” benefits is good for them. Everyone already knows which products are hits and which are misses long before any official announcement. Anyone vaguely paying attention has a pretty good feel for the interplay of profits, politics and personalities within their own organizations, even in mega global ones. So why isn’t there more straight talk to and among the people who inevitably have to bear the burdens and implement the changes?

Usually the leadership feels it has to process internal messaging to protect security and to avoid any appearance or potential claim of “insider” trading. But there are very few real secrets other than intentions and timing. And most of them are usually already on the minds of employees interested in the future of their companies.

Alternative Networks

In every company there are individuals who have credibility or tenure who informally connect people to other people. These are the people who have lived through a thousand policy changes, who help you figure out how to get stuff done, who know which person can expedite your expenses and who have friends and information sources spread out all over the organization.

The “rumor mills” or “jungle drums” are informal communication networks that talk plainly, transmit faster and have more credibility than any official form of internal communication. They not only edit, filter and assess information, but they play to our need to know and our desire to have the real “skinny” on events unfolding in front of our eyes. Sometimes these neural networks are connected to each other. Often they are limited within a facility or within a team or business unit. Nonetheless they almost always trump the official employee communications system.

So what’s a forward thinking company to do?

Leverage what we’ve learned in direct and online marketing and apply it to internal communications.

Consider these first steps.

1. Segment Audiences. Priority

Separate out groups of people to get relevant messages rather than send the same message to everyone. Build separate lists to get separate messages. Write different versions of the same message aimed at presenting information in different ways to distinct personality or work group types. Establish contact strategies that govern how many messages each employee can get per month. These can be based on location, rank or work assignment, but less is definitely more.

2. Get Opt-ins & Set Preferences.

When people choose to get messages they pay more attention, open them quicker and act on them faster. Allow employees to opt-into messages and to specify either the frequency on which they are contacted or the medium used. Some people still prefer the phone or a flyer to e-mail. All the research shows that when marketers ask for opt-ins and facilitate preferences and then deliver on them, they breed strong loyalty and greater customer lifetime value. It’s a lesson easily applied to employees.

3. Use Different Formats.

We’ve learned from countless Internet retailers that different formats, headers and copy can instantly cue readers about the urgency, import or significance of a message. Eliminating frequent messages by grouping information by topics and/or establishing an easy-to-follow publication calendar will also increase awareness, attention and open rates.

4. Map the Neural Networks.

Marketers and information architects have made remarkable strides in network mapping and analysis so much so that it is possible and even easy to map the informal networks within your organization. Understanding which people are influencers and key opinion leaders gives you a high priority target audience to educate, inform or persuade about important company issues.

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