In a nutshell: At their best Internal Communications Managers are strategic change management partners. By helping leaders and teams process internal communications requests based on audiences and outcomes we can shift from a “send the message now” mentality to achieving actual change. Here’s how…
Half-baked internal communications requests
As Internal Communications Managers we regularly receive internal communications requests from executives, HR leaders and other teams to create and send out messages. “We need to talk about X new program at the upcoming town hall.” Or “we need to send a message about Y new HR policy.”
Often these internal communications requests come to us in half-formed states, with assumptions already baked in, yet not fully thought through. Executives know they need to communicate and sometimes, in their harried states of daily productive momentum, jump to conclusions about pushing out a message.
It is in just these situations where Internal Communications Managers can provide tremendous value. By asking thoughtful and pointed questions about the purpose and hoped for outcomes, we can help our internal “clients” shift from a “get it done” communications mentality to a change management perspective. This helps to achieve actual changes in understanding and behavior, rather than just checking “communicate” off the to-do list.
Becoming trusted advisors for driving change
In these moments Internal Communications Managers level up from writers and channel managers to trusted advisors and strategic change managers.
The two most important elements of shifting executives’ communications mindsets are 1) shifting focus to outcomes rather than a specific communication and 2) taking on an audience-centered perspective.
15 small steps towards making communications strategic
I like to use the following sequence of questions to help colleagues articulate their goals behind their internal communications requests and identify the related messages, mediums and campaigns that will get them there.
- Initial download: What does the executive/team have in mind? What is their initial idea for a communication and what have they thought about so far?
- Audiences: Who are the audiences for this communications effort?
- Purpose: Why are we communicating about this with each audience?
- Outcomes: What do we hope each audience will THINK, FEEL and DO based on this communications effort, and what will be the business impact?
- Employer brand: How does this change tie in to our mission and values?
- Theory of change: How do we think we’ll get to those outcomes? What will it take? (The “theory of change” phrase comes from the realm of social impact and nonprofit work to fight poverty and injustice.)
- Risks & audience concerns: What are the audiences’ concerns about the topic at hand? What factors could hinder us from achieving the target outcomes?
- Expected questions: What will the audiences ask about this topic when it’s brought up?
- Core message: For the overall communications effort, and any specific communications moment, what is the simplified core message? If the audiences walk away thinking one thing, what should it be?
- Supporting messages: What are the secondary messages that ladder up and support the core message?
- What does good look like: Envision what an excellent communications moment or campaign would look like. What are the elements required? What channels and mediums would be included?
- Importance: How important is this to the stakeholder? How much do they want to invest? How does this compare to other efforts on their plates?
- Resources: What people, budget, tools do we have to make this happen?
- Timeline, roles, process & checkpoints: How should we actually deliver this? How does the stakeholder want to be involved?
- Definition of done: What are the acceptance criteria? How will we know when this is done? (This comes from the world of agile software development.)
We can frame these questions in many different ways, and most of us probably already do these things in some form or other. It’s not necessary to ask all of these questions each time a communications request. The main point is to step back from “write the communication” and take a moment to understand the “why” behind it.
When I apply this method I often see one-off messages transform into anything from small communications campaigns to focused change management efforts. This can be hugely gratifying for both communicators and our clients, who end up with better outcomes.
Short version, for planning a single communication
The list above provides a robust and comprehensive analysis process. In many instances the need may be smaller and more focused. Perhaps the goal is simply to ensure a pre-destined communication simply resonates with employees more.
In the cases of narrowly scoped internal communications requests a shorter set of steps can help turn “I need to talk about X” into a thoughtful communication that has more impact:
- Core message
- Supporting messages
- Talking points/first draft
This shorter checklist still achieves the needed shift and we can apply it quickly and succinctly.
Audience identification before addressing purpose
It might seem intuitive to start with the question of purpose for planning a communication. But identifying audiences is actually the first step. This is because the purpose of a communication varies by audience.
Communication is not about sending a message, but achieving understanding. Each audience has different needs and context. This means that how each audience comes to understand something and implement related change may be different.
Example: Imagine the HR department is shifting the bonus pay-out schedule. Simply sending an email to all employees will not do the trick. People managers have a different set of needs from individual contributors; they need to understand the reasoning, know how to talk to their direct reports about the change, be prepared to answer questions and address concerns.
I’ve often found that leaders start with the assumption that they have just one communication to send out to just one audience. However, when I ask about who the audiences are, it becomes clear that multiple different audiences exist, each with different needs. This is usually the critical moment when we help shift the perspective from “send a message” to “achieve a change.”
The first sign of success: Moments of realization
As we’re walking executives and teams through this process there’s one very specific thing to keep an eye on: Look for moments of realization.
Key moments of realization look like this:
- “There are several audiences with different needs/concerns, not just one.”
- “The audience is much smaller and more targeted than I initially thought.”
- “The core message isn’t what I started with”
- “The things I initially wanted to say aren’t that important to the audience.”
- “We need to coordinate with so-and-so.”
- “We need to plan the follow-up activities before we start communicating.”
Moving too fast to communicate well
We all work in a fast-paced world where the rate of change and delivery seems to be increasing. It’s easy to simply run forward with each new project and feel a sense of accomplishment by delivering it immediately. But poor communication, poorly planned, slows us down.
Life is change. Business is change. Management is change. Communication is change. Sending a message… is not necessarily change.
By applying some form of the checklist in this post we can actually achieve change through our internal communications efforts. At the same time we can become trusted advisors to our colleagues who need it the most.