How to construct an internal comms narrative

By Liam FitzPatrick,

Don’t confuse messaging with spinning – being persuasive begins by understanding what your audience really believes already.

At the heart of every communication plan is the essential message that needs sharing. Who hasn’t experienced the joy of debating the nuances of words with project teams, or attempting to draw together the diverging opinions of stakeholders who must sign off carefully-crafted statements?

However, we have to avoid falling into the trap of thinking of messages as a slogans or messaging as the act of purely spinning. The art of messaging is fundamentally about the creation of shared meaning; and that can never be a one way process.

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of employee communication.

At work, our colleagues have a developed understanding of context and background. They have a pretty good idea of what is really going on, they know the characters at the top of the organisation and they have an insight into what has been tried and failed in the past. When we bring news or attempt to explain change, we have to be aware of people’s frame of reference. Whether our message connects with their world view is the difference between success and failure.

Start by understanding where your audience is

If you don’t understand our audiences’ frames of reference, we are probably about to waste a lot of time. If staff think safety is not an issue, your latest campaign about hazards at work is going to fall on deaf ears. If your CEO is seen an overpaid fat cat, her speech about cost control will be potentially inflammatory.

And we know from the increasing body of work by neuroscientists that how we choose to frame issues is hardwired in to our brains. Staking our hopes on a few fancy posters and a piece of well-crafted copy isn’t going to cut it – we have to see world through the eyes of our employees if we want to create share understanding and influence behaviours.

There is no substitute for actually talking to people. Anyone who has ever worked on a merger can tell you that even seemingly identical organisations can have widely differing ways of seeing things. Assuming that workers in one place will have a stereotypical mindset can be dangerous territory.

Communicators suggest frames

Of course, it is our job to help people interpret the world; as communicators we suggest the frame that should be applied to an issue. Left uninterpreted, a programme of change could be seen as cost cutting to maximise profits rather than a strategic drive to serve customers better.

As I said earlier, this isn’t to advocate ‘spinning’.  Only an idiot hopes to get away with duping employees; you always get exposed sooner or later. Rather it is about aligning the thinking of leaders with the beliefs of the wider workforce.

This is only possible if we see our role as an interpreter, advising management and workforce on the perceptions and views of the other. When leaders want to make an announcement, it is our role to explain how it might land. Importantly, this means that we should not only advise on the shape of the message but also on the policy behind it.

For example, when thinking about better customer service, it might be the communicator’s job not just to craft materials but also to point out how powerful it would be to invest in training or remove a procedure widely seen as a barrier to helping customers.

It’s about listening

All of this hinges on listening. A good communicator uses a variety of sources and methods in their intelligence gathering and knows that without an understanding of employees’ frames of reference they will struggle. If we apply unschooled assumptions about how workers see the world, we run the risk of being seriously off target.

Better internal messaging therefore doesn’t begin with smart word play. Asking how employees will interpret an event or a fact will always guide you and our leaders to communicate with impact. Before we open our organisational mouths, we need to open our ears.

Successful Employee Communications, the new book by Liam FitzPatrick and Sue Dewhurst (published by Kogan Page), is now available. CIPR members save 25% with code CIPR25 when you purchase the book here.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

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