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Q&A with Steve Knight: Internal Comms and the State of the Nation

Steve Knight is a journalist, editor and consultant who has been at the forefront of the internal communication sector for more than 20 years. He has edited the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) magazine for the last decade and trained hundreds of IC professionals. He is also one of the people responsible for creating and launching the IoIC Foundation and Advanced Level accreditation programmes, both of which are administered by his company, Knight Train & Consult Ltd. We interviewed Steve after an evening of lively, informed and often humorous and provocative conversations at the recent Workworld Media Awards, taking the occasion to explore a range of internal communications issue with an experienced and dedicated professional – you’ll find his responses to our questions below.

Read Steve’s full biography and his Personal Learning Profile.

Q1 When we met recently (at the Workworld Media Awards), one of the topics you raised was professional training and its role in instigating a level of standards. As both of us have copy-edited a wide range of material, your anecdote about communicators struggling to correctly amend copy gave us a shared moment that combined déjà vu with cringing. (I also couldn’t help but think of Dan Quayle and his infamous ‘potatoe’.) How aware do you think organisations are about the impact of basic literacy on the credibility of communications (and, by extension, communicators)?

A1 Firstly, please let me stress that, although I am closely connected with the Institute of Internal Communication and have been a proud member of the organisation for more than 20 years (and a fellow since 1995), the following comments are very much my own views and should certainly not be in any way attributed to the Institute.

My personal view is that I think many organisations are unaware, or don’t care, that they have a basic literacy problem and they have no idea of how it damages their credibility – both with their staff and with customers. When managers are not literate themselves, they simply don’t know whether the people working for them are literate or not. Also, a lot of managers don’t like to ‘rock the boat’ by giving someone their work back and telling them to do it again. The standards will continue to decline until someone, somewhere takes a stand – but I don’t see too many management figures standing up to be counted.

Q2 To me (and I hope most others), literacy is about more than grammar, syntax and punctuation. (As George Bush memorably said: “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”) Communicating – as a job – has a purpose, whether it’s to inform, inspire, challenge, or rebuke: how easy – and how important – is it teach ‘literacy’ at this higher level?

A2 It should be a ‘given’ that anyone employed in a communication role has an excellent grounding in basic grammar and punctuation, is confident in their abilities and can project themselves well both verbally and by their force of personality. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Many people struggle with the basics – like correct use of the apostrophe or properly punctuating quotes etc – and that lack of knowledge damages their confidence to such an extent that they are then more deferential to, and less effective with, their peers in other business areas. The true comms professional – the person in a career rather than the one just doing a job – will do something about this situation either by getting some training, taking night classes or possibly, even, simply going on to the BBC website and improving skills by doing the grammar quizzes there.

Q3 How important do you think it is that the communicator can put themselves in the shoes of the audience? As someone on the receiving end of internal communications in previous roles, I’ve been struck by a number of reactions: that much of it tends to ‘broadcast’ more than communicate; that the human tendency towards scepticism or mirth is increased by a lack of humour or emotion in what is being communicated; that tone of voice – and approachability of style – are almost as important as the literal content in not just commanding attention but retaining respect. Are these aspects of communicating that can be truly taught, or do communicators also need to learn from experience – and from feedback?

A3 You couldn’t be more right about tone of voice and the lack of humour etc in much corporate communication. This is often because the real comms professionals are hampered in their work by people who might be excellent engineers, IT professionals, accountants, scientists or whatever, but who have no clue about communicating with ordinary people. Too often managers with little or no training and experience in comms get involved in the process and, frankly, neuter the communication. It is incredibly frustrating – you wouldn’t ever employ an engineer as a newspaper reporter or editor in the outside world, so why are these people allowed to comment and get involved in comms internally? Interestingly, experience shows that the higher up the company you go, the less interference is experienced. Talk to the MD or the chairman and everything works brilliantly but go down a couple of levels to managers who are watching their backs politically or who have been promoted beyond their usefulness, and these are the people who cause the most problems. The best thing you can teach this sort of the manager is to stay out of the way and let the professionals get on with it.

Q4 For many organisations, a key communications challenge can be that of ‘the elephant in the room’ – the topics that aren’t being discussed. Often these are issues where more open discussion might shed light on processes or behaviours that it would benefit an organisation to change or even abandon. How do you see the role of internal communicators – and their editors – here? (I’m thinking not just in terms of their own responsibilities, but the working relationships they may – or should – have with other functions.)

A4 A lot of companies pay lip service to open, honest and frank communication. They talk about it but then, when push comes to shove, they shy away from it, preferring to put a rosy “spin” on everything. Employees are not stupid. They talk about their problems (many companies would prefer they were called challenges) with their workmates all the time. Too many companies treat their workers like children and the result is that, in many cases, the workforce responds in a childish way. Many comms professionals understand the problems and would like to tackle them in a much more up-front way – sometimes by engaging with the employees, having a dialogue, and persuading them to come around to a particular point of view, and sometimes, where appropriate, by telling them the brutal truth. Every situation is different but the comms should be in the hands of a real professional, not managers with other skill sets who, frankly, are often out of their depth. Of course, this presupposes that the person in charge of the comms function is a top-notch communications professional. In many cases this is the case but in others companies have employed people who are simply not experienced enough or who don’t have the gravitas or business acumen to do the job.

Q5 A related question, in some ways. In most contexts, effective communication is a two-way process: it involves listening and reacting as well as speaking and telling. Telling, however, is less demanding – and less challenging. Do you think organisations often have a need to recognise that top-down tools – emails, newsletters, magazines – have a place, but are not a complete strategy? And do internal communicators have a professional responsibility to address this if and where it is an issue?

A5 Of course they do but, in many cases, comms professionals simply don’t have access at high enough levels to effect a change or challenge the status quo. I believe every big company should have a real comms professional on the Board – not an HR person or a marketing director – an actual properly trained specialist communication professional who can help advise and steer the company. In truth, I would like to see HR and marketing reporting in to comms rather than the other way round. Comms is about people and companies are only groups of people. No-one knows more about how people tick than the comms professionals – they should be given the credit for their expertise and promoted accordingly.

Q6 Internal communications have an important role to play in motivation and engagement, but they also have a role in building and reinforcing an organisational culture and values. This can be a difficult challenge, and striking the right tone is a key part of getting it right. What advice would you give to help internal communicators in doing so, particularly those working in organisations that may be spread across not just many functions but often many sites (or even countries or continents)?

A6 Set yourself high personal standards of honesty and integrity and make sure that you live up to them – you will be judged by your actions, not the company’s words. Always tell the truth, or as much of it as you possibly can within operational business limits, and don’t be frightened to challenge the status quo. Lead by example but don’t try to be someone you are not – people can spot a phoney a mile off. Also, set the bar high in your expectations of yourself and other people. Finally, if you see other people – particularly managers – saying one thing and then doing another, challenge them. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, bad things happen when good people do nothing.

Q7 Internal communication does not just mean text – or, for that matter, print – any more. We now have email, intranets, video, social networking, discussion boards and much more to contend with, and each medium has its own strengths and its own nuances. How do you think internal comms, as a profession, is responding to this expansion of the number of channels available to it? As well as the technical skills required, are communicators becoming literate in the best use – and the potential pitfalls – of each medium or is there a danger of the ‘magpie tendency’ (ie the easy lure and surface excitement of the new) compromising the content?

A7 Technology can be a great benefit but there is always a danger of the boys’ toys syndrome where people use new channels without much research or evaluation but simply because they are available. I believe a number of comms blunders were made both when e-mail was first introduced and, more recently, with the ‘dash to intranet’ publishing. Many companies still haven’t worked out the best way of using e-mail or the intranet – they may be cheap but are they always effective forms of targeted communication? The next big challenge will be company social media and, I predict, many companies will fail again because the senior executives are not switched on to the arguments for and against and have little or no knowledge of how such systems could or should work – or the resources needed for a truly successful outcome. Ironically, many internal comms professionals have done a tremendous amount of work in this area but I fear that their knowledge and advice will be ignored by people who think they know better. I hope I am wrong – but I bet I’m not.

Q8 As the media we use become more interactive, and allow for greater participation by the audience (by posting comments, replying, clicking ‘like’ buttons or applying ratings), how do internal communicators need to respond and change their practices? Studies in employee engagement routinely show that ‘having a sense of voice’ significantly increases their engagement with their organisations, but how ready are internal communicators for the challenges to their traditional practices that this brings? Do you see this as something that we are still adjusting to until we become comfortable with it, or have the ground-rules already changed fundamentally

A8 The ground rules have certainly changed fundamentally. The genie, as they say, is out of the bottle and won’t be put back. Comms professionals will now have to live in a world where everyone has a voice – whether we want them to or not. The old command and control type comms is over and the sooner we get that message through to senior management the better. We are now in a 24/7 comms environment with people tweeting, twittering, Facebooking, texting etc with little or no thought as to how their posts are being received or, indeed, who is viewing them. Now the crucial role for the comms professional is to be leading (and therefore controlling) the process rather than being merely reactive. Employing real experts who are able to stay two or three steps ahead of the game will be ever more vital in future. Some comms professionals are pretty switched on to all this – others are still in the starting blocks.

Q9 One of the scourges of most people’s working lives – and one we’ve criticised several times on this blog – is the curse of ‘business speak’. Most people don’t actually review their available windows so they can mindmap their alignment priorities: most people just wonder when they can spend five minutes focusing on finding out what’s going on and what they need to do next. Even a ‘good story’ – something attention grabbing – can be turned into verbal Horlicks by jargon-laden prose. How much internal communication do you think falls on deaf ears (or, more literally, into waste bins or Delete folders) because its creators fall at this first hurdle?

A9 Lots of company comms is, indeed, very poor. I actually believe that company comms should be so good that if it wasn’t given to people, they would be happy to pay their own money to receive it. Staff deserve the best, produced internally by true professionals and treated on news value in the same way as it would be outside the company – if something is only worth one paragraph, why write a double-page spread? It is one of my great sadnesses that I see bright, intelligent, humorous people reduced to little more than robots when they are asked to write anything on behalf of their company. There is this feeling that company comms has to be important and, therefore, it can’t contain anything but very serious information written in a very serious (and often boring) way. A little less deference and a little more humour would certainly go a long way to getting company comms at least read by the people for whom it is intended.  I would also like to see much more of a mix of skills in the comms teams – journalists, HR people, business specialists, marketeers all working together. Of course, for the comms to be truly effective, the journalists would probably have to have a very major say.

Q10 PowerPoint time! It might be foolishly reductive exercise, but … if you could pass on some essential advice to today’s internal communicators in no more than five bullet points, what would that advice be?

A10 

  • Never sacrifice your personal integrity – once lost you will never get it back;
  • If you are a real IC professional get yourself properly trained and qualified;
  • Join your professional Institute (the IoIC) and network like crazy;
  • Get good people around you and work with them;
  • Never, never use PowerPoint!

Q 11 And finally … as interviews can be a two-way process too, what’s the question we should have asked you, and how would you answer it?

A11 The missing question is: Do managements take internal communication seriously enough?

The answer: In many cases definitely not. Too many managements make comms decisions based on short-termism and economic expediency rather than identifying their workforce as their prime resource and operating accordingly. All the time staff know that no matter how hard they work and how many times they are told “people are our greatest asset”, they will be fired if it means that the shareholders will get another 3p bonus next year, they are unlikely to remain truly engaged. I’m not saying that, for very good business reasons, jobs will never have to change, evolve, move location or, in some cases, go out of existence, but the organisation that asks “how will this affect our people” before it asks “how will this affect the bottom line” will, in the long term, be much better off. Good comms professionals understand real people and how they react to things – that’s what makes them so valuable.

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Filed under: authentic leadership, communication, HR, leading performance, line managers, management, motivation, relationships, talent management
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