When I was editor of the weekly communication trade publication The Ragan Report in the 1990s, all I had to do to get a raft of letters was refer to an employee publication as a "house organ."
The operative phrase was: You just set employee communication back 30 years!
Silly, I know, to think you could set a whole profession back 30 years just by using old terminology.
But I do miss the underlying assumption, that this was a profession progressing. Progressing in all sorts of ways—from top-down to interactive, from "babies and bowling scores" to strategic, from corporate platitudes and stilted language to human candor.
These days, if you were going to set the profession back 30 years, in which direction would you push?
Aussie communicator Paul Murton remarked on a blog the other day that he was talking to a colleague, and they came to a discouraging conclusion:
while the importance of ’strategic’ internal comms (linked to business strategy and engagement) started rising in management eyes (say) 5-10 years ago, it now seems it’s now more often taking a back seat to tactical communication that just keeps people informed as an afterthought. External comms, PR, investor relations, marketing comms are still where the investment goes and internal comms teams are being depleted (and paid less in less-senior positions) in companies all over the place.
Is it just two people in Sydney who think this, or is it more widespread?
Ah, yeah. It's more widespread.
In 1996 on Ragan Communicaton' behalf I launched a thing called the Journal of Employee Communication Management. In my first editor's letter, I called it "The Harvard Business Review for internal communication." It came out six times a year, and each issue contained six practitioner-written essays, of 3,000 words each. These case studies, confessions and clarion calls would generate rebuttals, spark year-long debates and serve as the bases for keynote conference sessions with titles like, "Employee Communicator's Manifesto."
Sounds like 1896, doesn't it?
The journal thrived in the first few years of publication, remained profitable for a number of years after that, and lasted until about 2008, when it died, not because the Internet made such journals obsolete (the Harvard Business Review is still coming out). Mostly, it died because there weren't enough people in the whole world who were actually thinking about employee communication to write 36 decent essays every year, let alone read them.
And now I see the former publisher of that journal promoting its 20th annual Corporate Communicators Conference by promising, "No abstractions. No pie-in-the-sky theory. Only: practical tips and strategies that you can use tomorrow."
Reminds of what my dad used to say, when the family seemed at a standstill, "Let's do something, even if it's wrong."
But he was joking.
Communicators, where are you going?
And for the love of house-organ cheesecake*, why?
* A free tube of Preparation H to the first geezer who can tell us to what I am referring here.
james green says
Cheesecake is the equivalent of today’s “arm candy”
David Murray says
Green, you may be onto something, but I’m going to need you to be more specific, about what exactly “house organ cheesecake” was. (Otherwise, no Preparation H for you.)
james green says
I assume that “house organ cheesecake” would be a photo of an attractive woman in a company’s internal employee publication
David Murray says
An attractive woman EMPLOYEE–usually somebody’s secretary. It was a common practice for many years.
When I started reading these publications in 1992 there was one employee publication still coming out that featured such photos. It was The Carbider, published for some Union Carbide facility in West Virginia or some such, and the back page always had woman employees in bathing suits.
So yes, the profession has come a long way. The question is, where is it going?
Jim, the Preparation H is in the mail.
Liz Guthridge says
Well, if I were a betting person, I’d wager that change management professionals will take over many of the responsibilities that now rest within internal communication. Many change management/change leadership professionals understand the importance of informal communication, facilitation, coalition building, role modeling, leading by example, etc., which are all critical actions in today’s networked, far-flung organizations. From what I can gather, change folks haven’t adopted curating, but not many internal communication people have either.
Sobering post and discussion, Dave. Yet an important one to raise.
Peter Dean says
Did employee communications ever really use cheesecake? Or was it just cheese?
Actually, I think a return to something more earthy is long overdue. Employee communications? The moment you say it you know you’re on to a loser. Change management? Ditto.
Bring back the canteen manager in a bikini. Enthuse the gay groups.
David Murray says
I have nothing to add to the diverse and yet unanswerable posts of Liz and Peter, except to point out that each contributed essays to the august and erstwhile Journal of Employee Communication Management.
Sean Williams says
I come not to praise but to bury? Et Tu, Davidian? Let’s not write the epitaph for employee comms just yet. The death of the Journal might simply be that much of that sort of thoughtful content is available in many other places, for free. Sad for “ahem” professional editors, but for consumers, perhaps not so bad. That said, I’m mortified that “no useless theory” seems to mean “no theory.” Are we the only profession with such a thin body of (and understanding of) theoretical underpinnings?
Also, isn’t Melcrum still publishing a journal-like publication? PRSA? IABC? There’s also good free stuff at Institute for PR (mostly external though, present company excluded).
And, I was proud and delighted to have TWO articles published in the Journal, under your expert editorial tutelage. Merci!
David Murray says
Sean, you make a good point about those other publications. But it begins to erode, as you reveal your uncertainty.
You’re one of the most serious employee communication practitioners I’ve ever known–your approach is a fine mix of practice and theory.
And you’re not quite positive about the Melcrum thing (either am I). And I think we both know that IABC’s thing oughtn’t be called a professional journal any more than a paper airplane should be called transportation.
Most employee communication people I bump into these days don’t even understand the CONCEPT that they work in a profession that could have intellectual, theoretical, philosophical basis beyond whatever Their Particular Management Thinks Employee Communication Is.
I’m telling you, man, we’re fucked.
(And I’m hoping you’ll talk me out of that conclusion.)
John Onoda says
While I agree with your assessment, David, I also think the need and value of strategic internal communications is as great as ever. In this era of transparency, what is said to and by employees is transformed into the same bits and bytes as news releases, speeches, ads and everything else and bounces around the same echo chamber, so how could it be any less important?
And today, the private sector in particular is trying to rebuild lost credibility and trust, which must be done from the inside out.
Interstingly, there seems to be a boom in hiring for top internal comms positions. A colleague of mine speculated that this is because CEO’s are now focused on regaining employee loyalty now that the economy is starting to revive and talent has more options,….
Jon Weedon says
David – those people you’ve been bumping into? They know full well they work in a noble profession underpinned by intellectual, theoretical and philosophical precedent. They know the theory.
Their problem is they prefer to kneel at the altar of “Whatever Their Particular Management Thinks Employee Communication Is” because like so many other senior managers in modern corporate existence they believe that sucking up to the Big Toe is what will keep them from getting the boot.
If I were going to set the profession back 30 years I would stop pushing back.
Because if I didn’t push back I’d soon find myself crushing the biscuit base for the cheesecake to accompany the next half-baked quarterly house organ.
Terry McKenzie says
An excellent, thought-provoking and depressing post. I thought it was just me who found myself increasingly detached from internal comms conferences and their repetitive content. Too much on tactics, too little on risk management and competitive advantage. I think Liz G. got it right – change management is swallowing us up.
Frankly, should be the other way around. But perhaps I’ve become a cranky old geezer…
David Murray says
@ John: Internal communication is conceptually as relevant and important as it ever was. But this field is marginal, and wholly dependent upon practitioners with brains, deep commitment to the cause, courage, creativity and political know-how. Those people have been discouraged or scared over the years, and they’ve either left the business or, as Jon Weedon suggests, remained in it, ineffectually.
Fifteen years ago I could have ticked off a dozen people in the business whose intellectual independence, whose temerity, whose culture-challenging achievements knocked me out every time I talked to them. (John O., you were at the top of that list, but there were others.)
When Joe DiMaggio retired, the Yankees made sure Mickey Mantle was there. When John Onoda disappeared from the employee communication profession, management shrugged. If they didn’t actually say, “Good riddance.”
Now they’re desperately looking for internal communicators to restore credibility and trust? From what farm system?
Mike Klein says
I think it’s a triple edged sword. On the first edge, internal communication consultancy is truly on the ropes, excepting a relatively small number of “stars” who built their firms, reputations and contact lists while the getting was good and managed to survive the downturn. On the second, there is the dumbing down of in-house roles, driven mainly by overspecification (as in the creative strategist who also knows html, dreamweaver and sharepoint programming) as well as depressing salaries. The third though, is more hopeful, and that may speak to a fusion of internal comms with change management.
In a time of perpetual change where change management is increasingly seen as crucial, maybe a mass repositioning of internal comms pros as change communicators, or indeed, change managers, may well be the ticket. If there “is no business as usual”, why shouldn’t IC folks reposition themselves and the profession as a core part of the change arena? Conversely, maybe a push is in order to get the big change consultancies to see good IC people as potent potential assets?
As usual a thoughtful piece, and your pessimism is well founded, but there is room for optimism as well.
Mark Lucas says
David – This was a great post and some of the more productive comments threads I have seen of late (no trolls:)). As one of your readers had mentioned, I also noted VP and executive level IC roles are proliferating. From my experience working with Internal and Corporate Communications executives in various stages of an Internal Communication Solution’s sale cycle…CEO’s are looking to Internal Communication not only to communicate strategic and operational changes (Change Communications)but to Engage Employees in the Strategic plan so Internal Communications has an Actual Impact business and financial results…Thank you for the great Post, I look forward to reading more of your content, well executed and a fun read.
David Murray says
@ Mike: “why shouldn’t IC folks reposition themselves and the profession as a core part of the change arena?” Because employee communication people are at their most effective when they are nurturing what IS permanent and long-term about the organization: its culture and its brand. In my opinion.
@ Mark: As my little niece used to say, “You’re talkin’ jelly beans, mister.”
Mark Lucas says
@David -…”if you can’t talk jelly beans, Don’t talk Turds.”
Bill Walters says
I’m a Gen Xer and I remember (and miss) the late, great JECM. Just sayin’.
David Murray says
Damn you, Bill Walters, now you’re gonna make me cry.
Peter Dean says
>>I think we both know that IABC’s thing oughtn’t be called a professional journal any more than a paper airplane should be called transportation.<< Well said. IABC people are great but the organisation resembles a Tupperware party. From centuries of experience I remember only one useful management theory: "walk the talk". And that is just what most communicators do not do. They sit somewhere and send out stuff.
Becky Doughty says
@David: “Because employee communication people are at their most effective when they are nurturing what IS permanent and long-term about the organization: its culture and its brand.” But shouldn’t change management operate within that framework?
I may have been lucky but when I’ve been involved with change comms (as an Internal Comms person) it’s been to link the change to the overarching business model, the vision for the organisation and the culture; giving a coherent picture for employees.
David Murray says
Becky, that’s definitely the ideal, and it sounds like you have had some good fortune.
Of course employee communication people should have a big role in change communication.
It’s just important that employee communicators, the keepers of the culture, differentiate themselves from the comparatively nihilistic change management fighter pilots.
Sean Williams says
David, thanks for your kind words. I do attempt to bridge the theory-tactical gaps and am grateful that it comes through. I wonder sometimes whether I’m a dinosaur for attempting such serious matters instead of giving up and joining the hoi polloi, and not just about internal comms, but about measurement and strategy, too. It’s a slog.
The intellectual heft required to carry a peer-reviewed journal takes economic heft, too. It takes courage — getting academics to study internal comms effectively needs organizations to cough up their data and permit it to be identified — neither of which they seem to excited to do. The Corporate Executive Council does some interesting work, but their clients pay for the privilege, and they won’t share with “outworlders.”
We need the research, content, publishing, et. al.
But first of all, we need practitioners who’re willing to invest their personal capital.
Jonathan Champ says
Wow. It is not every day a post can generate this level of internal conflict. Thanks for a fantastic topic David (via the ever controversial Mr Murton). I’ve tried to cut down my long response, but couldn’t so have posted a long reply here:
The profession needs the curmudgeons…[cont]
Paul Murton says
What an amazing array of responses to your original post, David. I’m impressed that there’s such a depth of feeling about this among practitioners. It certainly offers hope that internal communications is, indeed, ‘not dead yet’.
While my original observation stands, it doesn’t reflect my personal hopes for our practice. If anything, I’m an idealist. I’ve been fortunate in my career in seeing both sides of this argument – I’ve seen the very real business results that can be achieved by internal communication when you’re working with a supportive, trusting, believing management team.
I’ve also worked places where the environment ain’t so friendly and where it’s not quite as simple as just pushing back.
I’m encouraged that others see a different industry – and perhaps my observations merely reflect the Sydney market at the moment. It’s great to hear there are organisations taking it seriously, and hiring internal comms practitioners at an executive level (and, in fairness, there are a couple in Australia doing that right now). I just wish there were more.
Still, on balance, it’s clear we’re not doomed. With that in mind, I’ll close by repeating Mike Klein’s comment: ‘Your pessimism is well founded, but there is room for optimism as well’.
Rachel Miller says
Fascinating variety of responses here, thanks for sparking such an interesting topic.
@Jon – keep pushing back!
@Mike I think you offer a glimmer of hope with your repositioning idea.
However it’s not all doom and gloom people! We have a choice whether to work in Comms or not, and equally whether to choose to follow/read associations or not.
I would encourage us as a profession to look forward, to not start tolling the bell to bring out the dead, but to strive for whatever it is that you feel is missing. I feel like our profession is moving forward and gaining recognition and that can’t be a bad thing.
I think it’s quite healthy to have a forum like this to mull it over, thanks again for the post.
David Murray says
This from communication consultant Deborah Hinton (www.hintonandco.com/deblog), who had some technical difficulties with posting (but none with thinking).
Thanks everyone and especially David for starting this discussion.
Our profession is not alone. I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a growing desire for rethinking the “what” and “how” “we” do things, all kinds of things, over the past year or so. I attended a conference on architectural curation last year [part of my diversifying and exposing myself to other ways of looking at the world]. Their focus? Rethinking the role of the Curator and all that implies for the profession. Tim Brown’s latest post http://bit.ly/lgBr93 talks about rethinking how we get things done and what that means from a design thinking point of view.
I’ve also noticed that some closely related professions to ours are rethinking and working to reinvent themselves – Gary Hamel and the folks at Management Exchange http://bit.ly/jb13qg are rethinking management. Bill Jensen is hacking work as a way to change the workplace http://bit.ly/jN9B9f . I can’t put my hands on it but I read a rethink of marketing yesterday with a call for more systems thinking… . All of this creates an amazing opportunity for us as internal communications professionals to refocus, reframe and reposition what and how we do what we do.
But are we up for it? David, you said that: three years ago “…there weren’t enough people in the whole world who were actually thinking about employee communication to write 36 decent essays every year, let alone read them.”
What about today? Has it gotten better, stayed the same or gotten worse? Do we know why? And, if it’s the same or worse what could/should we be doing about it?
I love comms [especially internal comms]. I think it’s an amazing platform for getting the right conversations going with senior leaders around values and strategy and brand: “You plan saying what?”. Relationships are at the heart of every organization’s success or failure. As the “relationships people” we need to raise our standards if we are to better support our institutions in achieving their goals. I guess that’s what made David’s conclusion so hard to hear.
David Murray says
Now my response to Deborah and Rachel and other communicators who are by nature or training unable to consider that hope may indeed be lost:
You may be right that there is reason to hope, and I hope you are. After all, if employee communication is indeed moribund, then as a commentator on the subject, I my role in life is diminished.
Here’s why I think employee comms–and lots of other fields to which Deb refers–is losing steam:
Employee communicators and their audiences and even their bosses simply care much less about the institutions they are working for than they once did.
And how could they care as much as the IBMers and the AT&Ters and the GMers and all the rest of those downsized, rightsized, laid-off, empowered and then castrated people of yesteryear?
They have either been hearing or saying for two decades now that loyalty is dead, that the only constant is change, that they shouldn’t wed themselves to an organization, only to their career. They shouldn’t live to work, they should work to live.
And now we need them all of a sudden to bring their courage, their commitment, their intellects, their energy to a deeply difficult task inside an organization.
It’s hopeful to expect that people–from CEO down to line worker, including the communicator in between–will ever care enough about their institutions to lay it on the line the way they once did.
It’s embarrassingly naive to expect it to happen anytime soon.
Deborah Hinton says
I’m an optomist at heart David. And sadly I think you are in touch with reality. Now what? Pack our bags and leave the stage. Or try to do… what? Cause we care. Cause it’s right. And cause internal comm’s is sometimes in a very privileged place to influence those that can change things. [OK the optimist again]
Ron Shewchuk says
Thanks for sparking this conversation, David, although it’s kind of like the sick fondling of a bruise, isn’t it?
What we’re all witnessing (and having to live through) is the period of uncertainty and anxiety that comes just before a new paradigm begins to emerge.
In the next five years we’re going to see a fundamental restructuring of the internal communications function. Finally, our profession will be dragged out of the HTML hell it’s been trapped in for so long. Information architecture, corporate journalism and social media are about to come together to form a new kind of workplace in which great communications — and great communicators — are valued like never before.
Or maybe it’s just the painkiller talking; it’s three in the morning and I’ve got a bum knee that’s keeping me up.
By the way, it’s nice to stumble upon this JECM alumni support group. Sorry I’m so late to the party.
David Murray says
THE FOLLOWING IS FROM BILL BOYD, A LONGTIME PRACTITIONER AND OBSERVER OF EMPLOYEE COMMUNICATION. He may be reached at bill at billboydgroup.com
I agree with your general premise—that things certainly aren’t what they were 10 or 15 years ago. But I look at it more as a matter of changing with the times.
Internal communications (the discipline) came into its own during the smokestack era. Corporate Communications departments ran the printing presses, and for good reason. Communicating was expensive, and companies had to get the most out of what they spent. Corporate Communications assembled the copy and art, ensured accuracy of the content, hunted down typos, and generally made sure that the news was, indeed, fit to print. Oh, and there was a bonus: the Communications department served as a convenient choke point enabling senior management (via the review process) to keep unpleasant news away from employees.
Now it’s a different world. Everyone’s a publisher. Every employee has access to free tools that enable him or her to tell their story to the world. Instantly. We’ve just crossed the line where more than half of all mobile phones sold in the U.S. are smart phones.
Access to social media from corporate networks will soon largely be a non-issue (except for HR). NYU professor Clay Shirky points out that the filtering that used to take place before publication (see above) now takes place afterward. But it’s often not very effective.
So the content comes cascading down on all of us. And that’s another problem. We’re expected to consume and act on more information than we can possibly process. As Intel’s corporate anthropologist Genevieve Bell put it recently, “we’ve got to the point where the demands of our devices exceed our ability to meet them.” http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/mobiles/iphone-therefore-i-am-are-gadgets-stealing-our-humanity-20110531-1fdi2.html#ixzz1NtrL6XqN. I agree with many of the people she cites that the current communications environment is not necessarily an improvement. It impacts everything from personal productivity and satisfaction to the quality of organizational decisions. But we’re not likely to change it.
So in that environment, what’s the role of carefully crafted feature stories? Who has the time to write—or read—thoughtful analysis? Where’s the space for the kind of four-columns-wide-packs-a-punch photojournalism we used to do?
Fifteen years ago, I gave a presentation about how internal communicators had evolved from town criers to jungle guides (this was in the early days of corporate intranets). We need to evolve again (and a lot of us are). The best analogy at this point may be “communications engineer.”
We will not recognize internal communications by 2020 (and maybe a lot sooner). I believe the action will move to enterprise social networking platforms like Yammer, Chatter, Moxie, Jive and others. Those provide status updates, collaboration capabilities, location of expertise, the ability for communities to self-organize, and a whole lot more. They’re not yet the “norm” in the majority of organizations, but they will be. And they will constitute a huge share of “internal communications.”
We need to figure out how we can bring value that IT can’t—and what we contribute in an environment where anyone can easily publish content—or it will be “welcome to irrelevancy.” Here’s where I think we fit in:
We won’t be prized for our ability to tell stories. 22-year-olds with Flipcams (or whatever’s next) who work in Operations can put together videos that we can’t top.
We may not be asked to help other organizations within the enterprise communicate their content. If they don’t already, they will soon have the tools and talent to speak to their audiences without our help.
We may not even be paid to be “communications strategists,” as that term has been understood for decades. John Perry Barlow once said, “Email goes through an organization chart like meat tenderizer.” Social media does the same for communications strategies.
So what unique value do we add? I believe it’s this: We adjust the signal-to-noise ratio in favor of the signal. By virtue of who we are (the kind of people who want to do this work) and what we’ve studied, we understand how communications land on an audience and how the audience processes the inputs. We know what there needs to be less of. And we know how to make the most of the short bits of attention that employees can spare.
That sort of thing has always been part of our job. In the coming decades, however, it will be practiced very differently. We’ll be steering conversations (in person and online), finding new ways to influence, and helping shield employees from low-value information. It will require all the skills we currently have, and then some. It will involve complex and holistic thinking—not simply cranking out deliverables. We will need to help organizations build, maintain and constantly evolve the systems that communicate, engage employees, promote ever-increasing change, and foster collaboration.
If we do that really, really well, there might just be a place for us on the payroll.
It’s all about the partnerships in my view, David.
I don’t see the relentless rise of the interim market as a good thing in the long run; or the endless tug of war over “engagement”. I also sympathise with Jon and Mike’s views, above as have often seen the IC dept have the role of “message manager and crash test dummy” thrust upon them by “what part of “give me a bloody Powerpoint deck don’t you get”?, mob.
At least consultants have some bullet proofing and license to generate new ideas. Much trickier to be brave and persistent when your pay and benefits are on the line.
Where there used to be a difference between the strategists and the tacticians, there increasingly appears to be slide down the slippery stick towards channel management (good for some folk, not great for the £s).
Having been around this space for some time, agency, client and in-house-side, and having seen one recession and recovery period in the past, I can’t see far past the rise and rise of HR over the next few years.
Might not be what people want to hear but strength lies in numbers and by partnering with HR rather than fighting or avoiding will at least ensure that Internal comms has easier access to influence and a chance to shape the behaviour/engagement agenda.