Corporate Communications: Talk or Tell?

“Communication” is a powerful word with a multiplex of meanings. The dictionary throws up definitions like “…a document or message imparting views, information etc…”; “the science or process of conveying information especially by electronic or mechanical means…”; which in the world of corporate communications, its all about crafting and sending the message. But if we look at some other definitions we see a concession that communication can also mean a two-way interaction “… the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions or information…”.  Now we often hear from corporate communications and their sponsors of wanting to ‘engage’ with their stakeholders, whether they are external or internal. The complication with this however is the sheer number of stakeholders that have to be ‘engaged’ with.

I recall many years ago, when working for a large corporation, I was asked to attend a ‘focus group’ being conducted by the corporate communications folks. The organisation was going through some significant changes at the time and corporate communications had been enrolled into the whole ‘organisational change management’ effort. As we were ushered in to take our seats in the meeting room one of my fellow attendees asked of the organisers as she was taking her seat: “Is this a Talk or a Tell Session?”.  I was initially amused by the question and I expect the organisers were less so. But there was a serious side to the question. If this was a “Tell Session” then basically we could just sit back and ingest the carefully crafted PowerPoint slides, perhaps ask some clarifying questions, and then quickly go back to our workplaces feeling better informed about what our leaders were looking to do. Corporate Communications could tick the box on another focus group having been ‘communicated to’. On the other hand, if it was a “Talk Session” where we were genuinely being engaged for our opinions, with a realistic expectation that actions might be changed or adapted because of our feedback, then this would be different. Our hearts and minds would be elevated to another level and we would actively look to engage in constructive dialog with our corporate communications brethren, who would then faithfully report the results back to the leadership for review and action. Unfortunately in this case it was the former, rather than the latter.

The above episode was before the age of social media and social networking. There were some practical reasons why the Corporate Communications staff at that time was more about crafting and sending the message with little or no feedback opportunities. Today social technologies are facilitating a real interchange of thoughts and opinions. We have seen corporations seriously damaged by negative feedback from their clients.  We have seen Governments overthrown with the help of social media. As public social networking migrates into the corporate world, with the advent of Enterprise Social Networking systems, all of a sudden the vast numbers of staff that Internal Communications is tasked with ‘communicating with’ now have a voice. For the Internal Communications officer it is no longer simply about publishing. It really is now about engaging in two-way dialogues. In other words its now “Talk, not only Tell”.  As intimidating as this may seem to someone who has mainly dealt with the publishing side of communications; it can also be seen as a real opportunity for Corporate Communications to become the key change agents in organisations.

The opportunity exists for them to become the critical link between senior leadership and both internal and external stakeholders at large. It will however require a significant change in perspective and capabilities; “from Teller to Talker”

Specifically here are some insights/indicators that I think the Corporate Communications folks should take notice of in making this transition:

  1. Social Media and Social Networking are here to stay and will give a substantial voice to the organisation’s stakeholders; so embrace, don’t ignore.TorT growth graph1TorT Growth2

If you are of the view that social media/networking is a passing fad; then this data might influence you otherwise:

  1. Staff ‘Engagement’ cannot rely on ‘Top Down” communication. Our research indicates that staff engage, and are influenced by, a multiplex of peers and leaders, far in excess of their own line manager. The trick is to identify the real influencers at all levels of the organisation; and target them for engagement. The chart below shows an extract of a social network analysis we conducted recently, showing the networks that exist at only the bottom two layers of a financial services organisation. TorT Network MapTypically, staff at this level are the most client facing and therefore should be a clear target for internal communications. The network map shows the peer connections. The larger circles represent people who have been multiply nominated as influential by their peers. The chart on the left shows the 80/20 power law of networks in operation, whereby engaging with the most influential 20% only can potentially reach the remaining 80% through a trusted connection. Hence they are important people for Corporate Communications to target.
  1. Communications professionals need to assess their own personal networks. Are you truly acting as a link between the leadership and staff/clients? Or do you find that the majority of your connections are within your own function? Ideally Corporate Communications professionals should aspire to be the corporate ambassadors, or at least very effective agents.TorT Archetypes
  1. Do your stakeholders see you as an authentic individual, or simply a mouthpiece for the executive?

Its no longer enough to plead “don’t shoot the messenger”. Corporate Communications needs to be viewed as a “conversation leader”, facilitating an authentic interaction between the leadership and their stakeholders.TorT Engage

  1. How balanced are your ‘sends and receives’? Researchstudies have shown that productive conversations (Talk) would see a 50/50 spilt. Whereas “Telling” is 100% Send. Try monitoring your own conversations. What proportion of the time are you “telling” versus “listening”.TorT conversation

So what’s it to be ….Talker or Teller?