Anyone with a team bigger than two people will have, at some time, struggled with the question “how do we co-ordinate our internal communications”.
It’s a complex challenge in that the answer seems to depend on a large number of factors.
Firstly there’s the issue of strategic purpose; what is the role of internal communications in your organisation?
For some organisations IC plays mainly a distributive role. The team is mainly concerned with disseminating bits of information on behalf of the management. In such cases maintaining a consistent message can seem less of a concern. The IC function can get focused on efficient processes rather than ensuring that people think or act in consistent ways.
At the opposite pole, is the team that concerns itself with achieving specific outcomes. At the moment engagement or brand alignment seem to be the end results that everyone is aiming for. In which case you’ll quite a lot of effort invested in achieving a consistent context across the organisation.
The challenge is that IC teams are rarely unified. The common pattern is of a central group working on corporate messages and then a dispersed network around the organisation looking after the competing needs of functions, departments or geographies. It is quite normal to hear of tensions between the communications needs of say the HR department, a local site manager and operations. And once you cross national boarders you hit all sorts of problems of culture or legal requirements.
If there is no consistency behind your messages you run the risk of confusing the hell out of your audiences, undermining any central context or just spamming employees.
Options for exercising control
So what are the options for exercising control?
There seems to be a continuum of approaches running from a single point of control to a loose federation of common interests. And along the way sit a number of different techniques.
The single point of control approach seems to be quite unusual outside of small organisations. As soon as you have significantly chunks of the workforce working away from HQ the ability to manage communications in one place becomes ever more difficult.
Comms leaders face the risk of becoming either a continual supplicant to management to ensure that local messages stay on point or using up political credit by perpetually throwing their weight around. Neither is a route to good mental health.
Of course it is easier if there are a limited number of channels. If one person has a veto on what appears on the intranet or in the magazine than just blocking messages is in theory possible. However, we all believe these days that comms works best when it is done by leaders, message obstruction is going to be much tougher.
Bill Quirke introduced the idea of Air Traffic Control to internal communicators over a decade ago. The logic is that you don’t need to own everything – you just need a central point where the timing of plans, the contents of key messages and the means of delivery are co-ordinated. Digging out Bill’s writing on the subject is a good idea.
When considering your approach you need to decide how much effort you want to invest in your planning and how far do you want its reach to extend. I know of a few organisations that created and then abandoned elaborate planning and tracking systems for monitoring which IC initiatives were to be launched.
Planing takes time and resource
The problem is that solid planning takes time and resource – two commodities which are normally in short supply in internal comms teams. Good planning means you have to have a way of collating information, a reason for people to supply data and a mechanism for ensuring that colleagues stick with the plans.
Making sure people play nice can come down to the diplomatic skills of the IC leadership, but a few tricks will help.
Upskill the team
Getting everyone up to a basic professional standard of know-how is an essential pre-requisite. I know several organisations that have sat down with HR to define a common competency model for comms people and then developed a standard training programme to get everyone up to speed. The thinking is that if everyone understands similar things about IC some of the nuttier ideas will get killed at birth.
Interestingly, in a recent benchmarking interview with an IC leader with pan European responsibilities ‘providing development opportunities’ was mentioned three times as a factor in planning IC operations.
Some organisations have taken this a step further and developed a model organisation for local IC teams. This approach involves saying to local leaders that their IC function should, for example, consist of a strategist, a channel manager and a ‘consultant’.
Clear policy helps
An agreed editorial policy also helps avoid a few rows. These vary from a simple style guide (what language we use, common approaches to job titles, and acceptability of jargon) to more detailed statements of philosophy that might touch on what different channels can and cannot be used for. Involving the network in the drafting or updating of any policy is always a smart move.
The exchange of information is key to good co-ordination and control. Many air traffic control systems fall into disrepair simple because no one is filling in reports or sharing their plans.
There seem to be two approaches to this challenge.
Get them talking
The first is the IC get-together. Once a month or once a quarter, everyone involved in IC comes together to look at the plan ahead. This can be as informal as a phone conference or be a more elaborate two day meeting with workshops and social activities. The focus though is on strategic messages and on providing a sense of good practice.
The second is the more tactical ‘pipeline meeting’ often led by a channel manager such as the intranet editor.
These tend to have a much shorter time horizon and often focus on the stories that are going to be published in the coming weeks.
Although these sessions are less strategic they do provide much needed consistency and help avoid messy mid-air collisions. They tend to be popular because of their simplicity – it’s a lot easier to manage a pipeline meeting than a full-on offsite.
So is there a best approach? Clearly the answer is no – everyone has different needs and, as Bill Quirke says, you shouldn’t take someone else’s medicine.
But if our role is to help colleagues make sense of what is going on around them, and we hope to add value beyond being the internal mail service, we have to think about ensuring consistency.
Spending time debating it is always going to be worthwhile.