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The Way I See It… Internal Communications – Mind the Gap

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The success of projects, of making people understand, learn and engage is dependent on communication. Alastair Barber, internal communications specialist with marketing consultancy Omobono looks at the issues.


Sitting on a filthy floor in your best glad-rags clenched between the thighs of a drunken stranger: that’s an experience that The Gap Band brought to a whole generation with their ode to disorientation - “Oops upside your head.”

For those of you not old enough to remember this phenomenon it’s worth explaining. In the dark and scary nether regions of the late seventies and early eighties – in dodgy night clubs and youth club discos - whenever this tune hit the decks, the dance-floor would organize itself into lines of people sitting down between the legs of the person behind them.

The line would then sway from side to side, hands in the air. Every now and then people would slap the ground, or get up and face the other way and do the whole thing again.

Bizarre it might have been, but at least it’s remembered with a smile and it makes for a graphic example of some of the crucial principles of “internal communications.” We remember The Gap Band because they got us to do something quite extraordinary.

They didn’t send us a newsletter with illustrations of lines of people sitting in beer-spill. They didn’t organize “filter down” briefings at school discos so that everyone had a PowerPoint presentation telling them when to lean to the left or the right. It started with someone somewhere doing something. People thought that it looked a wheeze and joined in.

There are some particular gaps you should be mindful of when considering internal communication approaches, and to help answer that central question: how do you get people to do what you need them to?

Gap 1 - Marketing

It doesn’t matter who owns internal communications so long as everyone understands what it’s supposed to be achieving and how. So if you’ve an HRD initiative and marketing wants to take charge of the internal communications as the ‘comms experts’ – let them.

Support their efforts in every way possible and with goodwill: just make sure that they can convincingly answer the question: “How will this communication get people to change how they behave to support our initiative?” Keep asking it at every stage and if they stutter, offer to give them some help. Whatever you do, don’t get involved in the sort of power struggle common between HR and marketing that will guarantee an unsuccessful project and the scorn of the rest of the company.

Gap 2 – The turtle gap

I’m indebted to Mark Earles, head of planning at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in London for two things. One is his insight into the world of advertising planning and the emerging evidence that advertising does not cause people to do things just because of the virtue of the messages it transmits. Now there’s a gap worth pondering when next you plan some internal communications.

The other’s a story. William James, eminent psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry, recounts a story about a talk he was giving – to what I’d imagine was exactly the sort of Edwardian parlour full of corseted ladies often described by his brother. He was talking about the universe; explaining how the planets revolved around the Sun and their inter-relationship.

“You’re wrong,” interjected one of these ladies. “That’s not at all how it is.” When pressed by Sir William, she explained: “It’s obvious the Earth is a flat crust.”

When asked upon what the crust was supported, she explained, patiently, what she took to be common knowledge, how the Earth rests upon the back of a giant turtle.

“And what, pray, is the turtle standing on?” asked the learned gentleman.

“Why, Sir William, everyone knows it’s turtles all the way down!”

On the surface this is a gathering of people who share very precise social references: how to dress, speak, sit and drink tea. But scratch the surface and you quickly learn that the ladies hold fundamentally different views of how the world works.

A large company may have its own language and a strong distinct culture. These will tend to mask some fundamentally different beliefs too. How might this gap affect communication and efforts to address these issues?

Gap 3 – The gap between the project and the communications

Most often internal communications is seen as the end point of a process. Box ticked, job done. If our communication is focused on supporting a project, strategy, plan or initiative, however, will it be more or less effective if it allows the colleagues we’re communicating with to contribute, critique and feed-back? If we aren’t prepared to change and develop the subjects of the communications then we simply are NOT communicating, we’re just telling.

Gap 4 – The gap between one 'push' and another

If someone asks you to do something – even just read something – then neglects to ask what you think, or how you’ve fared, or tell you what the result of your effort was, or tell you what other people’s experience has been for making the same effort, then…. what? What do you think of them? How do you feel about their project? Will you be more or less inclined to listen to them next time they ask you for something?

Gap 5 – Saying and doing

The most mysterious and important gap is that between what you say and what people do as a result. Most company internal communications projects focus on what the communicators are doing and saying. What’s the message? What’s the medium? The aim is to find an effective way to get their messages under the noses of the people they want to see them.

The focus ought to be on the purpose of the communication: what measurable effect will it have and how is that related to the business objective or project it’s supposed to support. How are you going to get people to ‘do’ stuff?

From start to finish, HR initiatives should be backed up by well thought out and organized communications activities, that give people a real motive and an opportunity. It’s the only way you’ll ever attain that ‘Gap Band’ effect.

Alastair Barber can be contacted at: [email protected]

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