Yesterday, a colleague and I spent a great, uninterrupted 60 minutes talking about one thing— organizational communication to both internal and external audiences. Here are three observations I thought worth sharing. You may think the topic of organizational communication doesn’t apply to you, but you’re wrong. Every job interview, every weekly company meeting, each of those interactions is organizational communications in action.
Communication Policy and company decisions
Too often, perhaps usually, communications staff are excluded from, or at least not invited to, policy discussions and planning meetings that culminate in some sort of direction for the organization. I generally doubt that’s necessarily any intent to be hyper-secretive about corporate strategies (though it could, indeed, be a matter of trust, and if that’s the case, then you need a new communicator, or you need to realize you’re probably wandering into the world of ethical or moral dilemmas). In most cases, it’s simply a matter of failing to consider what communications representatives could add to the discussion.
Your communications team—both internal and external communications—are excellent sounding boards in the most important policy and planning discussions. Why? Ultimately, you’re going to communicate, for one reason or another, your policy-related conclusions. Waiting until it’s time to announce to call in the communications experts is a mistake, because that might be when all the good questions start, questions that might be hard to answer in a candid, transparent way.
In any meeting or job interview, consider yourself as a problem solver and not just a participant. Ask the right questions, the right way. For instance, why are we doing this? How long have you known this problem existed? How does this decision serve our customers? How does it serve employees? The best communicators will go after the context, interview those surrounding the issue, and find the answers.
A problem in perpetual motion
Perpetual motion is a myth. Whatever you’re spinning is going to stop spinning, and these days it’s going to stop spinning sooner rather than later. And when it does, then you’ve not just got a communications challenge. You’ve got a communications crisis. Crowds and cameras start gathering out front. Word spreads on Twitter. And suddenly there’s panic, fear, anger, frustration, rumors, criminations and recriminations, none of which makes your brand more trustworthy.
I’ve learned again and again from some the most successful leaders that there are really only a couple of ways to respond to or explain mistakes, oversights, or malicious acts. First, an accurate, honest, detailed, well-articulated explanation of the background is right. That is, yes, there were significant mistakes associated with X. Those mistakes have now become evident. As soon as we discovered the mistakes, here are the steps we took to correct them, and here’s what we’re doing to make sure we avoid those sorts of mistakes again. What are your questions?
Of course, that approach—healthy for leadership, for employees, for customers—only works if you’re telling the truth. Remember, plain facts are the parasitic friction of spin. That approach will work once, twice, maybe several times responding to different problems, especially if a new leadership team is in place. In other words, own the problem. Acknowledge it, and embrace it, and that’s better done before it becomes news, because when it becomes news on its own, then there’s that series of questions that begins to unravel things: when did you discover the problem? Why did you wait until now to address it? Why didn’t you tell us about it sooner?
The myriad methods of communications are rocket science—from social media to blogs to podcasts to news gaggles to press conferences to on the record, off the record, background, deep background. Effective synchronization and coordination among all those platforms and up and down the many levels of a large organization can be rocket science, as well, or at least a genuine, sizeable challenge.
Composing the message, that’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of telling the story in a memorable, convincing way. And as long as you can be honest about the how’s and why’s of the story, about how the decision advances the interests of the organization—because, when you were making the decision, that was the reason for the action—then it’s easy, and the explanation writes itself.