26th Apr 2021
3 Min Read

Power to the people: Busting internal comms out of corporate jail

Elle Bradley-Cox
Elle Bradley-Cox
IC & Engagement

The genie is out of the bottle. Once the preserve of the powerful, publishing isn’t just within our reach – it’s a daily occurrence.

Whether you’ve got 21 Facebook friends or three million Instagram followers, you’re publishing. And today, you don’t need an old university crony in the TV commissioning editor’s chair to get your face on millions of screens. Go viral and you’re flavour of the month. Become an influencer and you’re an instant brand darling.

Social media – and peer review sites such as Trip Advisor – has given us all a voice, and we want to be heard. Not only that, we want to listen to people who feel authentic and unvarnished.

Is IC stuck in the past?

So with influencers and YouTubers attracting more eyes than the BBC, typically top-down internal communications is looking increasingly anachronistic. Can we really claim authenticity in magazines that feature only carefully-chosen colleague voices and photography that’s been stage managed by a comms colleague so there’s not a name badge out of place?

How about the Town Hall? If ever there was a throwback situation, this must surely be it. And if anyone thinks passing the mic round is a democratic move, you’ve got to be kidding. The focus groups we run for comms audits regularly confirm that taking the floor in a Town Hall is reserved for the very outgoing, the terminally annoyed or the extremely ambitious.

Power of the peer

Enterprise social platforms such as Workplace and Yammer are beginning to loosen the top-down comms stranglehold but they’re still company-owned and often highly regulated by the corporate noose.

Outside work, we’re used to democratisation. Don’t like Murdoch? These days, your options are much broader than buying the Mirror instead. Looking for a non-domestic news agenda? The BBC fades to become just one news provider from a long, long list.

TV shows have been forced to build formats around Insta influencers or YouTubers, in a bid to stay even vaguely relevant to anyone younger than Gen X.

And peer recommendation is paramount. We don’t buy a vacuum cleaner without checking the reviews. We’ll plan a meal out around TripAdvisor and a TV series isn’t on everyone’s lips until it’s all over Twitter.

External marketers know the power of the peer. Why else would there be such a black market in gold stars, with brands using underhand techniques to buy positive reviews?

The aforementioned BBC is a good case in point. Our cosy trust in Aunty Beeb is largely lost in a bygone era (whether that’s deserved or not). And when the then US president sprays legitimate journalism with a thick layer of ‘fake news’ accusations, it’s hardly surprising that we turn to ‘people like us’ for verification.

Out of sight …

There’s a wealth of data around the benefits of a workforce that trusts the employer, but how many businesses are really brave enough to trust?

Earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic, research by the Edelman Trust Barometer put people’s trust in their employers above everyone except health authorities. But as the crisis dissipates, and employees no longer frantically seek truth in a confusing world, there’s a danger we’ll see that workplace trust leak away.

Many employers who watched their frontline staff run towards danger at the peak of the pandemic vowed to support them in the inevitable mental health backlash. Heartfelt pledges to amplify the colleague voice increased even more when Black Lives Matter finally and viscerally seared its way to the top of the agenda. Male, pale and stale boardrooms made pretty promises about listening to lived experience and becoming advocates for colleagues of colour.

But as the pubs reopened (with restrictions), #BLM slid back down the mainstream metropolitan news agenda, fomenting instead on social media, often out of sight and mind of the white privilege of the typical British boardroom.

Democratic leadership

Just because you’re not looking at it, doesn’t mean it’s gone away. As I said, the cat really is out of the bag. Even if your own use of peer to peer comms is as innocuous as reading the reviews on the John Lewis website to help you choose the best coffee machine, ultimately, we’re all at it.

In IC, though, the business still calls the tune. Strategy drives comms, IC teams know which side their bread is buttered, and it takes a confident (or kamikaze) colleague to call out bullshit on Yammer.

And of course, much of that is as it should be. Without strong leadership, businesses fail. The impending recession is threat enough, without metaphorically handing the head office keys to the post boy.

Purpose over perks

But in a tough marketplace, organisations need to attract and retain the very best. If the Zoom revolution has signed the death certificate of the commute, all but the very frontline are facing a very much wider landscape of employment options.

Corporate social responsibility, purpose and culture may be the new beanbags, ping pong tables and sweet trolleys, as a surge in remote working prompts employees to seek purpose over perks.

Google – king of the perk – might hit the headlines for free haircuts and access to nap pods, but its blog re:Work reveals a focus on people that goes much deeper than a generous entertaining budget.

For example, when its employee survey revealed that fewer than 50% of teams understood why changes were made and that less than 50% were inspired by their leaders when changes were made, they, well … changed things.

Management democratised the change process, talking about new ideas earlier, involving a wider range of employees and being brave enough to frontload difficult conversations, to engage colleagues in finding solutions, not problems.

Loosen the grip

So if you really want to engage, why not take your cue from the world beyond the workplace? How could you underpin strong leadership with strong listening? Where could you truly let employees lead the conversation and shape decisions? How could you create psychologically safe spaces for open discussion? How could you genuinely harness diversity of thought – understanding that people not used to being listened to might find it hard to speak up?

Even if the business leaders start conversations, how could employees finish them? Voting on the charity you’re going to support, or paying lip service to 360 appraisals may not be enough any more.

The thought of loosening the grip on comms might give you sleepless nights. It’s a dangerous precipice to leap from for organisations hidebound by hierarchy. But if you’re really committed to inclusion, equality and halting the pattern of hiring in your own image, it could be the secret. Setting staff free could be the oxymoronic path to genuine engagement, harnessing the imagination and experience of people who bring an unimaginable wealth of diversity to your business challenges.

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