How to Find Fulfillment as a Communicator

When I think about the times I’ve felt most fulfilled in my work as a communicator, several situations come to mind. One was when I managed a small team who really seemed to click, thus producing some excellent work for our company. At that same time, I was producing a monthly employee publication that allowed us to try fresh creative things. At other times, I’ve been fulfilled by the things I was learning or the fact that I was growing in my profession.

Hands down, however, the times when I’ve felt most fulfilled is when I knew my work was strategic.

Strategic is one of those words that seems overused but is truly important if you want your work as a communicator to be meaningful — and if you want job security. There is a lot of discussion these days about being creative in our communications, which is also important. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive; corporate communications can be strategic and also be engaging and even entertaining. But without a connection to our organizations’ strategic goals, our communications are ultimately a waste of resources.

Connecting communications to strategy starts at the outset of an assignment. Ask yourself:

  • What organizational goal are we helping to achieve?
  • What initiative or project are we helping to advance?
  • What are the messages we will communicate, how and to whom?
  • How will we know we’ve succeeded?

That last question is vitally important. Failing to answer it correctly can derail the entire communication plan, or set it off in the wrong direction. I’ve always believed that the measure of success for strategic communication equals the measure of success for the projects and initiatives our communication supports.

I was the sole employee communications resource in a manufacturing facility early in my career. One day a process engineer came to me and said he needed me to join a team that was working on an important project for the plant — a plan to become ISO certified. ISO certification would mean that the plant meets stringent standards for quality assurance and cost effectiveness. Our customers demanded it, so failure was not acceptable.

We could only achieve ISO certification if everyone in the plant — from the engineering staff to support functions to production employees — were prepared for the inspection that was part of the certification process. The need for effective communication throughout the project was obvious.

My goal for the communication plan was not simply to produce information about ISO certification. My goal was ISO certification itself. If my communications reached the right people with the right information through the right channels, the chances of successful certification were much greater than if communications were ineffective. Of course, communication was not the only factor, but as the process engineer made clear to me, it was a critical one.

The plant achieved ISO certification on our first try. Customers were happy and our manufacturing processes were better than before. Clearly, communication had made a difference. That project remains one of the most fulfilling of my career.

What is the real purpose of your communication? Is it tied to a strategic goal for your organization? If it is, you can bet your leaders will take notice.



Well-Timed Words: Free and Effective

When I worked as the employee communications specialist for an AT&T manufacturing plant in the 1990s, the general manager asked my help in communicating with employees about the need for heavy overtime hours around the Christmas/New Year holidays. While employees generally liked getting overtime, they were not thrilled about working so much at that time of year.

The general manager and I talked about the issue and focused his message around the business need while acknowledging the sacrifice of family time during holidays that are so focused on families. We decided it would be appropriate — and a nice touch — for the general manager to write a letter to the families of employees, explaining the reasons for the overtime but mostly thanking them for giving up their family members at Christmas. We worked hard to make sure the letter sounded sincere (because he was sincere in his sentiment) and gracious.

It worked. While there was still some understandable grumbling, the general consensus was that the letter was well-received and that families appreciated the gesture.

That story illustrates the importance of business leaders acknowledging the social contract that exists between employees and organizations. We often think first of the monetary contract and many business leaders believe money is the greatest motivator for employees. While money is important, it is not the only factor at work in the workplace.

Scott Keller, a director at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, co-wrote a book, “Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage.” In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Keller says his research for the book found that the social contract — the understanding between employees and their employers that is predicated on meaningfulness of the work — is more powerful than the monetary contract. He mentions hand-written thank-you notes from the CEOs of Wells Fargo and PepsiCo as examples of social gestures that provide tremendous motivation to employees.

“Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures with at best a limited impact,” Keller writes. “In keeping with the significant body of evidence from the social sciences, employees on the receiving end would beg to differ. They say that the resulting boost in motivation and connection to the leader and the company can last for months if not years.”

And he quotes Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, on communication’s vital role in the social contract: “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free — and worth a fortune.”

I often hear resistance from managers, supervisors and even business leaders when it comes to providing those well-timed, sincere words of praise. Old-school managers who weren’t raised in such an environment dismiss words of praise as soft psychobabble. “They get a paycheck, that should be enough,” they grumble. Others simply blame their own lack of interpersonal communication skills or discomfort. “I’m just not comfortable in one-on-one situations,” they say, or “I get nervous in front of groups.”

Well, guess what. Being a leader sometimes requires us to stretch our skills and to do things we’re not entirely comfortable doing. In this post-recession, 21st century work environment, it’s time for leaders — at all levels — to get over their fear of real, organic communication and see what good comes from such an inexpensive investment in employee motivation. This is “small-c communication” at its best, a way to help re-engage a disengaged workforce for the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for every organization in this economy.


Birth of a Tumblr

Oh, to be 25 again. And rich. And the founder of one of the fastest-growing social media platforms in the world.

David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, arrived 10 minutes late to speak to a sizable audience of students and professors at VCU’s School of Mass Communications on April 2. Nobody seemed to care that he was late. Dressed in black skinny jeans, a plaid shirt and a gray hoodie, Karp looked more like one of my son’s friends than the leader of an Internet upstart. Actually, maybe this is what leaders of Internet upstarts do look like.

One student tweeted that Karp “looks like the long lost 5th Beatle.” (You can read more of the live-tweets in this Storify account of the event.)

But all similarities to either my son’s friends or to the Beatles ended there. The guy is brilliant. He started selling computers at 15, dropped out of school at 16, learned the ropes of web development here and in Japan (to which he escaped after a girl broke his heart), and caught the blogging bug in 2005. The problem was that he didn’t like the limitations and the “big, empty text box” of standard blogging platforms. So he created one of his own that emphasizes the sharing of multimedia — photos, videos and music.

Today, Tumblr has more than 50 million users who post 600 new items every second. There are creators and there are curators who share the creations with the broader audience — 9 out of 10 posts are shared items. Although unintentional, communities began to pop up across the platform and today Tumblrs of all ages can be found all over the world.

Two principles guided Tumblr’s creation and growth: let people share anything and customize everything. So simple, yet so effective.

The takeaway for me was that David Karp identified a need and found a creative way to meet it. And it made him a millionaire. It’s a formula that has worked millions, if not billions, of times over the years. It’s just that most of us don’t tap into such an enormous need with such a creative solution before the age of 20.

If We Can’t Define PR, Congress Will Do It For Us

For many years, public relations professionals have wanted to be taken seriously, to be known for more than the stereotype of “spin doctors.”

We might get our chance, but first we have to survive the spotlight of the U.S. Congress.

William R. Murray, president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, writes on the Institute for PR’s blog that Congress is increasing its scrutiny of the profession through investigations into government spending on PR. The inquiries are likely to shine a lot of light on the profession and it will probably get pretty ugly before all is said and done. That’s how Congress operates these days.

Of course, PR professionals who go about their work ethically have nothing to worry about. As Murray points out, “Such scrutiny — if conducted fairly and objectively — may prove valuable for public relations.”

He could be right. This might be an opportunity for leaders of our profession to explain what ethical PR practitioners do — which brings to mind another recent kerfuffle around the definition of PR. PRSA recently put forth three options for defining the profession and a public vote determined the final one. Critics came out of the woodwork. Many ridiculed PRSA for the process and for even attempting to provide a definition, saying it was a waste of time and money.

However, at a time when the PR profession needs to explain itself and how ethical practitioners do their jobs, we need a succinct, accurate definition of what we do. If we can’t provide one, the upcoming congressional circus will define the profession for us. And I don’t think we want that.

Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?

5 Things Every Communication Plan Should Have

I’ve been reading about strategic communication lately as I’m helping a client develop an internal communications plan. It’s a topic with which I’m deeply familiar, but it’s a good idea to go back and get a refresher now and then, just in case we become so focused on the work before us that we fail to remember the broader principles that guide it.

There are many models of strategic communication planning out there. The one I like to use is the one outlined by my friend and mentor Les Potter in his book “The Communication Plan: The Heart of Strategic Communication” available from IABC.

I won’t get into details of that planning model here. But as I’ve read and thought about strategic communication plans, I’ve noticed that successful plans must include these things:

  • Clear, measurable objectives that align with organizational objectives. If you aren’t clear on the purpose of communication and if communication activities don’t support the business’s goals, there is no reason to waste resources. If the objectives aren’t measurable, there’s no way you’ll know if communication is providing any value.
  • Research. Unless you understand the current situation, there’s no way to measure the effectiveness of a communication plan. You also must understand the audiences’ information needs, senior management’s expectations and current best practices in communication. All of this comes through research. I believe a communication audit is the best value in research.
  • Executive support and involvement. You are developing a communication plan to support the achievement of business goals. Your organization’s senior management must believe in the value of communication for your planning to happen in the first place and they must play a role in the plan’s development. In addition, senior management must be willing to accept a significant communication role in the implementation phase.
  • All-way communication. A successful plan must include strategies and tactics that promote all-way communication — up, down, and laterally. Communication today is about relationships and conversations that promote information and ideas flowing freely in all directions. This is a significant change brought about by social media.
  • Trust as a foundation. No communication plan will succeed if trust does not exist in an organization. In the context of employee communications, senior management must trust employees enough to share business-related information with them. As employees demonstrate their trustworthiness (by using that information to improve productivity and business performance), business leaders must become more transparent and open. In return, employees will come to trust management enough to act on the information they are given. Trust takes time to build and only a minute to destroy. It is the most critical element of a healthy communication environment.

I believe these five things will enable a strategic communication plan to succeed. Do you have more to add? Please comment with your thoughts.


5 Things Employees Want from Communication

I’ve worked in employee communications, both on the inside and as an independent consultant to Fortune 500 companies, for 23 years. Throughout that time, I’ve done my share of employee surveys and communication audits, so I have a pretty good idea by now of what employees want when it comes to communications from their employers.

It’s interesting how the same issues come up now that came up 10, 15, even 20 years ago. Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here are 5 things employees want from their companies’ communications, gleaned from the surveys and audits I’ve done as well as from simply talking with people in offices, manufacturing floors, call centers and elsewhere:

  1. Employees want to be treated like adults. This is perhaps the most consistent theme, but one that is largely ignored by business leaders. Employees are not naive, not easily swayed by trinket giveaways and audience-participation games, and they are able to think for themselves. Business leaders sometimes complain that employees behave as childen, but perhaps that’s because they’re often treated that way. Deliver truthful information with honest analysis and a clear call to action and see what most employees do with it.
  2. Employees want a variety of communication vehicles. Not everyone likes to read online. Some people would rather work than attend a face-to-face meeting. The best communication programs are those that serve up information in a variety of ways. This doesn’t mean you have to provide every possible medium. Conduct a communication audit and find out what works best in your organization. And please: giveaway items are not effective communication vehicles. Most employees see them as a waste of money and would rather have that money spent on bonuses.
  3. Employees want corporate communications tactics that mirror the real world. This means they want intranets that look like the best news/information websites out there, publications that look more like People magazine than the high school newspaper, and they expect their employers to know how to use social media to reach employees who are into it. After all, the greatest competition for your employees’ time and attention are those external media.
  4. Employees want access to executives. There simply is no excuse for not having face-to-face events. Yes, they can be difficult to pull off in some organizations, but business leaders should at least make an attempt at regular face-to-face contact with employees, even if it is informal. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from employees is “We never see those guys. It’s like they’re trying to hide from us.”
  5. Employees want to get information from their direct supervisors. It’s one of the tenets of effective employee communication. People want to hear news from their bosses. A good employee communication program includes processes and systems for arming supervisors with information and training in how to deliver it. Communication, after all, is a human event. There is power in personal interaction and storytelling.

Of course, every organization is unique. Your results may vary. But after all these years of hearing so many of the same comments from employees, I believe they’re trying to tell us something.

UPDATE 4/6/11: Veteran communicator and Writing Boots blogger David Murray links to this post today and asks the next logical question: Assuming these are the things employees want from communication, what do they want to know? His response is worth reading and contemplating if you’re a corporate communicator.