Internal Communication: From the Podium to the Paystub

Liz Ryan

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As a corporate HR person for over twenty years, I had a great chance to observe organizations with an anthropologist's perspective. From the moment you walk through the revolving door into a business office until the time you leave, you pick up a hundred little clues as to how the organization operates and what it values. For internal communicators, it's just as important to pay attention to these subtle messages as it is to design an award-winning communications strategy. Here's why.

When you ask yourself “What are we saying throughout this organization, and what do we want to say?" you will quickly come up with a list of themes, initiatives, and values that you currently promote. You'll look at employee communication materials, internal newsletters, your Intranet site, and lots of other vehicles that you hope are doing the “heavy lifting" of internal communication for you. You'll be able to spot the gaps between what you DO say and what you WANT to say to your team. So far, so good.

But evaluating the published materials and beautifully designed website content misses the point. Employees are very sophisticated when it comes to evaluating internal messaging. They can quickly spot the difference between the Party Line and the Way Things Really Work. That's why internal communicators who focus on the formal vehicles risk missing the channels that speak most loudly to employees.

For instance, you can talk about risk-taking until you're blue in the face, featuring risk-taking employees in your internal newsletter and giving awards to people who went out on a limb. But the first time your employees hear about the CEO bashing a person (or worse, firing him) for taking the wrong risk, your effort has gone to waste. Not only that - you look like hypocrites, for saying one thing and practicing another.

So am I asking your internal communications chief to control the CEO's behavior? Of course not. That's not realistic, but what IS realistic is to call attention to the gaps between what is said to be valued, and what is actually valued, throughout the organization. Consistency (HR people call it Alignment) is the key.

This is why - speaking of risk-taking - leading the internal communications function is not for the faint of heart. If you lack the guts to tell the emperor when he's naked, you should find another profession.

Here's another example of mis-alignment in internal communications. Your company may view itself as fast-paced, team-oriented and customer-focused: nearly every company does. It only takes one old-school, preachy “don't you dare" memo from HR to blow that perception. The first time your employees read a typical, thoughtless “expense reports filed more than 30 days late will not be processed" bonehead HR memo, your rah-rah internal communications efforts turn to dust. People aren't stupid. They know where the rubber meets the road.

This is why effective internal communications go stem to stern - from the Podium to the Paystub. Every communication vehicle, from an all-hands email blast to the CEO's Town Hall meeting, should stem from the same set of goals and values. It's not hard to meet this goal, if the top leadership team gives the word. It doesn't even require the Messaging Police to review every memo and Intranet page. It just requires consistent, thoughtful education and awareness-building about the price of off-message communication.

In a typical organization, the biggest trouble spots in Podium to Paystub communication-alignment efforts are IT, Finance, HR and Facilities. These staff guys have grown up with the idea that they get to set policies and communicate them, period. Having that orientation, these managers might not immediately see that their well-intentioned, kneejerk policy-implementation efforts might derail your carefully honed communications plan.

For instance, I worked in one company that preached the virtues of global, 24/7, virtual collaboration. We're Where You Are, was the message. Except, one day the Accounting department announced that it expected invoices from all departments to be hand-delivered to Accounting in order to speed payment. As if! That edict completely undermined the “virtual" theme, and was quickly withdrawn. It takes a new mentality - one that the Internal Communications chief can reinforce in every interaction with fellow leaders - to move an organization from disjointed, at-odds communication to a set of aligned voices, singing in harmony.

And it's amazing when it happens. Employees begin to believe the messaging, and to incorporate it into their thinking. You'll see the results in customer interactions and in the speed of change efforts. Customers will perceive it. Job candidates and vendors will pick up on it, too. But it's an all-out effort: far past the language in your lovely printed pieces, you've got to touch the paystub, the podium, and everything in between.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, a workplace expert and an international speaker and writer on the new-millennium workplace. She is the CEO and founder of WorldWIT, the global online community for professional women at Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado.


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