Employee Communications Refresh

I’ve been thinking a lot about employee communications lately, mostly due to some work I’m doing with a client but also from things I’ve read and from attending my pal Steve Crescenzo’s excellent “Creative Communications” seminar.

The theme that keeps running through my head is that we communication professionals — and the clients we serve — need to hit the “Refresh” button on employee communications from time to time. Organizations, technology and the business environment are changing so rapidly that it’s a good use of time to just stop from time to time and do a gut-check.

Rather than try to weave the various thoughts together, let me just throw them out and get this community’s reactions:

  • It’s increasingly difficult to grab and hold the attention of employees, so it’s more essential than ever to be creative in communication. One of the most powerful moments in Steve’s seminar is when he demonstrates the huge contrast between popular media — using the cover of Cosmopolitan as a rather extreme example — and typical corporate communication. His point is valid: Cosmo is what we’re competing against. I once edited an employee publication in which our mantra was to make it “buck-worthy.” Make it so compelling that employees might be willing to pay a buck for it.
  • Headlines, teasers and leads are more important than ever. Following on the previous point, written communications must grab readers, pull them into the story and deliver the goods — quickly. One of my colleagues recently wrote an intranet story teaser so compelling that in one day it attracted 20% more unique views than the average story attracts in its online lifetime.
  • The right communication vehicles for one company might not be right for another. Back in the ’90s, everybody wanted an intranet. Why? Because “everybody” was getting one. Never mind whether or not the intranet served a useful purpose. Never mind if the organization would embrace and use it. Today the same is true of social media. It’s the employee-communication darling of the moment. I’m a big believer in social media, but I don’t believe every social medium has a place in every organization. I have a client where the use of social media as an external communications tool would be a disaster. Due to specific challenges facing this company, it cannot afford to engage external audiences in this way. However, some — but not all — social media might have a place in employee communications. Smart communicators understand social media and traditional media are all just tools and we need to be deliberate about which ones we use.
  • Jargon and corporate-speak are dying. Social media are killing them. Today’s audiences are less tolerant of corporate BS.
  • Find out what’s working and make the most of it. Especially in the social media age, we might overlook communication methods that are really working well. Every organization should do a communication audit to get valid information about what’s working and what isn’t. Yes, it’s an investment — but one that leads to greater efficiency and better decision making. I have a client whose use of face-to-face events gets off-the-charts ratings from employees. Who knew the world’s oldest communication medium still had such power?
  • The two-way genie is out of the bottle. As if there ever was any doubt that organizations must practice two-way symmetrical communication, social media have brought us to the point of no return. And remember the symmetrical part — that means employees must have ways to initiate communication upward.

Those of you who work primarily in employee communications: Do you have anything to add to the list?

Those of you who are on the receiving end of employee communications: What do you think?


12 Responses

  1. […] more here: Employee Communications Refresh « Communication at Work This entry is filed under Communications. You can follow any responses to this entry through the […]

  2. Robert – I don’t have anything to add, but I do have a question – are you truly finding that “jargon and corporate speak are dying”?

    Don’t get me wrong – I’d be thrilled to dance at their funeral, and while I am certainly seeing an increase in savvy organizations trying to cull it from their communications, I still seem to see an awful lot of, well, awful corporate-speak out there.

    Could you highlight any organizations you’ve seen or (if allowable) work with who are making good strides in this area? And if so, how have they been successful at removing corp-speak from their conversation?

  3. Kristen, I think I might have made that sentence a bit too declarative. Most organizations are definitely not there yet. But I do see strides in the right direction and I believe it’s being driven by social media.

    People who use social media in their personal lives (and that number continues to climb) are even less tolerant of corporate speak than the previous generation was. Social media nearly demands — cliche alert — transparency. (Sorry, but that word fits here.) It’s conversational in tone, short and to the point in style, and if there’s no substance, readers ignore it.

    I do have an example. Remember the client VP I wanted to jump up and hug and kiss? Part of the direction she gave me that day was to cut out the corporate jargon. Have real people speak in their own words and if they slipped into corporate speak, challenge them to say it another way. Her tolerance is low. That’s a good sign.

    There are other examples out there. Our friend Steve Crescenzo uses lots of them in his excellent “Creative Communications” seminar. Maybe he’ll jump into this conversation and share one or two.

  4. Hi Robert — we are just beginning to talk about an employee newsletter at my nonprofit, where many of the staff don’t even earn $12/hr and can’t afford to participate in the health insurance plan that’s offered. Many of the employees are young — age 18-25 — with relatively little education. Many don’t even bother with e-mail! So you are right on target that the right comm vehicles for one organization won’t necessarily work for another.

    My natural inclination elsewhere would be to develop something you and I would consider “professional” — but that likely won’t work with this group. We are going to have to “ask around” to find out what would compel them to read the first issue, and then keep on reading future issues. I feel like I’ve re-entered the Dark Ages!

  5. bj, I know what you mean. It just goes to show that even within the various genres of employee communication, one size does not fit all. A high-end glossy “professional” publication might work in one organization while a lower-end, “nuts and bolts” approach is more appropriate for another.

    I experienced this in my corporate career. My first corp-comm job was in a manufacturing facility. The newsletter I produced there was pretty basic — I might even define it as “gritty.” Working for another company years later, the approach was more like People magazine in order to attract and retain readers.

  6. It ties into eliminate corporate jargon, but please, please make it short and to the point. The increase of tools, devices to distract us demand this. Just look at how many kids are on Ridilin for ADD–these kids are our future employees.

  7. Great post, Robert.

    I don’t think jargon and empty corporatespeak are dying . . . but I do think there is less tolerance of it all at the employee level than ever before.

    I think when I broke into the business, employees (and others) just sort of accepted it all as “the language of business.” Why say “we need to change the way we do business,” when you can sound so much more important by saying, “We need to shift our fundamental business paradigm and reevaluate our core competencies.”

    I think people are looking for more plain talk, more regular words. I think Social Media is, in a way, driving that. When two normal people talk (or 100 people talk on a blog or on Facebook or a message board) they don’t speak in businessspeak. They talk like humans.

    And I think as more and more conversations move into the Social Media space, people have less and less tolerance for the B.S. corporate stuff.

    BUT . . . there’s a difference between saying it’s dying and saying people have no tolerance for it.

    It will die a long, slow, painful death, because the last ones to get it will be the middle managers and senior executives who hide behind it, or who are afraid to give it up because that’s the way all their colleagues (and bosses) talk.

    Steve C.

  8. Great points, Robert! We’ve lined up Steve to do his Creative Comms workshop in L.A. end of August, and I can’t wait.

    I think a comms audit is a must, and personally, I have no tolerance left for corporate jargon – most of us switch off after about 3 secs nowadays.

    It’s a bit of a paradox though: businesses are now supposed to be ‘authentic’, but authenticity only goes so far. Steve C. shared an example at IABC 09 of an exec that wanted to tell staff: “we’re in tough times right now, and it’s not our job to make you, our employees happy. It’s our job to make a profit and survive.”

    Now, employees at this company will be out the door the minute they can find another job – who wants to work for a company that doesn’t care if you’re happy/satisfied or not?

    As an Internal Communicator, what would you do? Point out to the CEO that he’ll get a backlash in the long run (and ask him to change what he says, less authentic)? Try to truly change his mind (good luck)? Or be fully authentic. (And set up a Forum/Comments so employees can talk back….)

    One thing I’d like to add: communicators need to understand all their delivery channels, push and pull, define what kind of content is appropriate for each, and stop abuse by others in the org! So many companies are in a rut where each dept/group pushes more and more and more, trying to get a few secs of attention, without analyzing what’s most important/urgent/requires action and finding different channels for the rest. We’re working on this…

  9. Steve!! Thanks for joining the discussion, my friend!

    Yes, I agree there’s a big difference between saying jargon is dying and saying people aren’t tolerating it as much. I also agree that the last stronghold will be in the walled offices of corporate America.

    Today, an executive VP for one of my clients reminded the people in his organization — which includes PR and communications — that they must lead the way in writing well. And he specifically called out jargon as something that must go.

    So there are hopeful signs. But I know that’s the exception rather than the rule.

  10. Hi Paula! Thanks for joining in. You’re going to love Steve’s seminar — but I know I don’t have to tell you that. 🙂

    You make a great point about communicators needing to stop abuse of communication vehicles by others in the organization. I worked with a company last fall on this very issue. This particular department was sending out a ton of information using various channels — and they didn’t realize how much they were pushing on employees. I tallied a year’s worth of communications and they were shocked. Then we got to work on streamlining and making wise decisions about what to send, to whom and how.

    The paradox you mention is a tough one. I think there has to be a balance between “telling it like it is” and being tuned into what employees are feeling. I don’t think being authentic and truthful about what the company is facing necessarily means you can’t also acknowledge the pain people are going through.

    I think I’d advise the CEO about the potential backlash if he follows his first instinct. I’d advise him/her to acknowledge that times are tough right now — right up front. But I also think it’s appropriate for a CEO to remind people that the reason the company is in business is to make a profit or to provide a good return on shareholders’ investment.

  11. Is corporate speak dying or are we just adopting new words to say the same thing? Remember when ‘corporate mission’ and ‘vision’ were shiny and new? Suddenly every group in my business had to develop its own vision. We printed it out on nice paper, posted it in the conference room, and glanced at it occasionally. Today, re-tweet means share the news, and google means do your research. It’s all jargon with generational differences. We’ll know we have really begun to reach people when one generation understands exactly what the next is saying–and the folks in the front office know exactly what the CIO is talking about.

    • What I’m really getting at is the need to say things clearly, in plain language and not in jargon that is used so much as to become meaningless. I should not have declared “corporate speak is dying” because that’s not really what I meant. Rather, the point I was trying to make (and apparently was unsuccessful! :-)) is that employees are growing less patient and less tolerant of corporate speak. Social media, I believe, are making people who use it more accustomed to everyday language. Yes, you are right that a new jargon has arisen in the world of social media, but I still maintain that because of the personal nature of communication using social media, audiences today are less tolerant than ever of corporate speak.

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