From the Comms Cupboard

What do comms people do, and what don’t they do?

What do comms people do, and what don’t they do?
John and Shaun tackle the many misconceptions about communications people from the shadowy depths of their comms cupboard.

Sticky subjects include owning your own message instead of asking someone to “comms it up”. Then there’s accountability, Chinese whispers, boats, journeys, regional insight, and the power of creativity.

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Episode transcript

Shaun: So what is it comms people actually do?

John: Now there’s a question! I guess it’s all about shared objectives. How do we link what organisations do with what we need people to do? How have they got shared purpose?

Shaun: Recognising common goals.

John: Yes.

Shaun: They are the synapses that bind us together 🧠

John: 😆 I suppose so! I think it’s all about, what does an organisation need to achieve, and how does it engage the people that work with it to do that? Internal comms helps the organisation and its leadership connect with the people that work for it to deliver a shared goal; a shared objective.

Shaun: Because we all know that sometimes those connections are not there, especially for a large organisation.

John: Absolutely. Internal comms are the people who help everyone else get on the boat, and the boat sails away to where we need to be in the end ⛵ It’s a cliche, but we help people along that journey.

Shaun: There are lots of analogies … lots of metaphors I’m thinking of. You know what? I often think we bring things back metaphorically to cooking. Could we say that internal comms is like throwing a little bit of cornflour into a sloppy stew, just to bring it all together. Bring the meat, the potatoes and carrots all going in one direction. Or am I just hungry?

John: I think you’re hungry.

Shaun: I’m usually hungry.

John: So, what don’t comms people do? What are the misconceptions of what we do?

Shaun: Who would come up with misconceptions? 🤭

John: Everyone?

Shaun: People who don’t think they need to have an internal communications team?

John: Maybe. There’s probably not a business in the world that isn’t looking at cutting costs.

Shaun: And they’re often the first things to go: marketing and internal comms.

John: Yeah, perhaps. I think we’re seeing more appreciation of the value internal comms brings, so those misconceptions are maybe dying off. You can certainly say we’re not there to just send something; we’re not an internal mailbox anymore. But some people see it like that.

Shaun: What do you mean?

John: Mmmm … Can you send this? Can you comms this up?

Shaun: Comms this up. I haven’t heard that before.

John: It’s a favourite that I think a lot of us have heard out there. It’s this idea of: I’ve got something to say, so let’s give it to that comms person and they’re going to do that for me. That’s their job.

Shaun: But it’s not, is it? Whose job is that?

John: It’s whoever owns their own communication, right?

Shaun: Oh, we’re always passing things off to other people.

John: We are.

Shaun: It’s about accountability, I guess. The internal comms department is like er …

John: An expert.

Shaun: An expert.

John: Giving that advice and guidance. We’re there to help you do something better. To have more impact.

Shaun: To encourage everyone to go in the same direction. Or to control the message as well, right?

John: Yeah. And to make sure the messages all join up. That one person isn’t saying one thing while another person says another thing.

Shaun: You mean like Chinese whispers. Are we allowed to say Chinese whispers anymore?

John: Probably not. I’m not really sure what that means.

Shaun: You know, Chinese whispers. I think they call it telephone in America. Chinese whispers is when you say something, and then further down the line as it’s passed through 20 people, you ask the person at the end, what was the message? And it’s completely different. I bet the Chinese call it British whispers.

John: They probably do. We are known for whispering.

Shaun: But that’s it, right? Have a message and make sure that the 20th person at the end of the line says the same thing as the first person in the line.

John: That job becomes more complex as your organisation gets bigger.

Shaun: The job of communicating, or the job of helping others communicate?

John: Both. As you get more and more people across lots of different locations around the world, it’s going to get more complicated. You can’t just go and stand in front of them and tell them something, can you? That’s another place where internal comms comes in: How do I reach audiences in different places in different time zones? What’s the best way to speak to my team in India, or China – what do they like in the USA? Having that insight – that’s another good job of internal comms.

Shaun: So what you’re saying is that a good internal comms department also needs to know regional differences. A bit like those HSBC adverts. I used to like those. But not many people value those skills. They’re undervalued skills.

John: I think that’s something that comes with time. It’s like anything: you build up, you become an expert, you build up that bank of knowledge, and I think that’s where having experience …

Shaun: Oh, nice pun. A bank of knowledge.

John: We’re still on HSBC.

Shaun: There are other banks available. But who doesn’t want good communication? I suppose you have to possess in the first place an appreciation of communication before you fully appreciate an internal communications department. You have to see the value in communication, full stop. And so many don’t.

John: I guess. I don’t know how people can think objectives and what an organisation wants to do can be achieved if they can’t articulate what needs to be achieved, and help us to understand that.

Shaun: So they have to be the bridge between what leadership or middle management want to say or convey, and what the working majority want to hear! 😆

John: I’m sure that’s different! I think it’s more about what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear 🤣 It’s a partnership, isn’t it? The people who work for you and the people who lead an organisation – that’s a partnership. You want them to be happy in what they do. It’s not just about telling somebody that this is what we’re doing, and you’re going to do it. It’s about how you bring them along and take them on that boat.

Shaun: That boat. And it encourages transparency as well. I’ve worked with leaders and CEOs and managers who, for better or for worse, keep things close to their chests because they’re not quite sure if they should be sharing it. A good internal comms team of professionals can answer that question.

John: They can certainly provide advice.

Shaun: Yes, you should be sharing this or no, don’t share that, and so on.

John: It’s important that the person whose message it is owns the message. It’s important that the internal comms person isn’t he leader in that situation.

Shaun: That they don’t get asked to send it.

John: Although that’s a likely story.

Shaun: Passing the buck.

John: How important do you think being creative is as a communicator?

Shaun: Incredibly important. I would say that if you’re a creative communicator, you can think of so many more ways to effectively communicate; to help others bridge the gap between knowing and not knowing something. Surely creativity, in my opinion anyway, is linked to imagination; is linked to an understanding of the tools at your disposal.

John: So you would say it’s a core skill.

Shaun: Is it a core skill? Is it something you can learn? 🤔 That’s a totally different ball game. Or is a creative internal comms person a natural? Well this is a whole other episode! What do you think? Do you think creativity is an innate skill or something you can be taught by a professor of internal communications? Is there such a thing as a professor of internal communications? 👨‍🏫

John: There definitely is. I think creativity is natural to people. I think to a certain extent, you can learn to be creative and maybe put yourself into a space to be creative.

Shaun: Open your mind. Close your eyes. Think communication 🧘‍♀️

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