Well-intended, locally relevant and mostly delivered without the knowledge of the IC team; shadow communications may seem harmless but, left unchecked, they can wreak havoc on your messaging. Cultural anthropologist Dr Alex Gapud shines a light on the risks, rewards and ways to make the most of them.
While you may not have heard the term ‘shadow comms’, if you work in internal communications, you’ve definitely encountered them. You’ll no doubt be familiar with the operational messages, colleague engagement stories, the employee resource bulletin or endless streams of departmental newsletters.
Shadow communicators aren’t formally part of the IC team. Some do this full-time; others work more broadly in operational communications and engagement and many do it in their own time, from the side of their desk.
They often emerge in large companies when different teams work in silos but their leaders still need to communicate. They often tailor business-wide messaging to make it relevant to their area or their strategy, especially where they feel communications resource isn’t cutting it.
And can you really blame them? People love self-relevant messaging and so when they feel their comms doesn’t match the experience they see around them every day, there’s a disconnect and often lack of meaningful engagement, leading to some taking matters into their own hands. And leaders often want their own newsletter so they’re in control. But most IC teams don’t have the resource or capacity to do that for every team or leader in the business, as we’ve discovered in recent research for a large corporate bank.
Our work surfaced the strengths of these shadow communicators as well as some of the challenges they inadvertently create. Findings indicate that these shadow comms are here to stay, but whether they help or hinder is up to the smart internal communicator. Because once you start to understand a group, you can align, channel and tap into its potential.
Shadow comms show that people are passionate about engaging with their audiences and can find creative ways to share information with their local community. Their proximity and nuanced understanding is also an advantage. The opportunity comes with harnessing and aligning their messages with your wider IC objectives.
In our research we found that people prefer information about the performance of their function, people stories and community initiatives from their area. In some organisations, this is done by shadow comms; in others, these messages are handled by stream-level communicators who are part of the IC team. Both shadow and official stream comms reflect the increasingly democratised nature of IC, where everything isn’t cascaded from the top-down.
Equally we see the roots of these communications – often born out of specific communities – are purposeful; they get things done, share knowledge locally, access expertise and create pockets of culture based around hobbies and interests.
This is also where shadow channels make their entrance with communities in WhatsApp chats, Miro boards or via WeTransfer documents, when the organisation doesn’t have the infrastructure to support them. People can be resourceful when their perceived needs aren’t met, but those ad-hoc improvisations come with their own risks.
Challenges arise when boundaries aren’t clear and shadow communicators duplicate messaging, especially when some messages – such as vision, strategy and ESG – are best handled by central IC. At worst, shadow communicators can misalign or miscommunicate key messages, creating confusion.
In our audits across industries, people tell us that they’re getting too much from IC. But the central team is often limited to one newsletter a week and a daily intranet article. But add in a swathe of separate (and often disjointed and noisy) shadow comms and you can understand why people feel overwhelmed.
When the communication that people read, hear and see doesn’t look or sound in line with the brand or strategy, it presents an inconsistent employee experience and undermines confidence in direction.
In many organisations, shadow communications can happily cohabit the IC space – particularly where there are communities of interest and people want to communicate about topics – for example, ERGs and DE&I networks.
In others, there’s a conscious intent to collaborate and align with the shadow communicators, with some organisations even bringing their role into the central IC cost centre to make it happen.
If shadow communications are an issue for your IC team, here are some positive steps you can take:
As external researchers and experienced IC professionals, we can use a wide range of academically grounded research methodologies from our IC audits to help surface and unpack how shadow communications works in your organisation. To find out more, get in touch at email@example.com