Sonia Speaks: Listen and Learn: “Skills and Knowledge of Internal Communication Professionals”

 In Comms Heroes

Since it came out this summer, the new book by IC Kollectif, Disrupting the Function of IC: A Global Perspective, has been a rich source of insight into the forces at work in the internal communications industry today. In this eight-part series, I’ll be taking a deep dive into each chapter of the book, bringing you key takeaways from 30 renowned contributors. Today I’m examining chapter two: “Skills and Knowledge of Internal Communication Professionals.”

How do we connect with our audiences? How do we create buy-in from key decision-makers? As external and internal communications networks merge, many leaders in the field are looking beyond the logistics of internal communications to consider the emotional skills required to engage employees and drive change.

According to Claire Watson, Vice President of Strategic Communication Management at Cropley Communication, strategic communication management starts with a clear understanding of the company, its leaders, and your own measurable objectives. When you have clear data supporting the ROI on your communication strategy, you can create buy-in from leaders across the company.

She also notes that the convergence of internal and external communications demands collaboration across functions to develop a common strategy, aligned with business needs. In my experience at both Gap Inc. and Amgen, the most successful communications strategies were developed in partnership with my colleagues in PR, Investor Relations, Marketing and Digital Communications. We each brought unique expertise to the table, and with an understanding of each other’s perspectives, we integrated our plans to create a common strategy that was greater than the sum of its parts.

While buy-in from other leaders is crucial, you also have to keep sight of your primary purpose as a communicator: crafting messages that connect emotionally with your audience. Unfortunately, internal messages are often written by committee with multiple reviews that sap all emotional impact. It’s our job to fight against messages that sound like they came from a corporate robot. We need to put our employees first and consider how our messages make them feel.

For Liam Fitzpatrick, managing editor at Working, one way to push through the limitations in your current communication strategy is to seek out challenges that will hone new skills. While foundational training is important, Liam notes that it is experience and exposure to new challenges that teach you how to adapt to changing business needs. Often that means throwing yourself into situations that push your comfort level. When I moved from leading employee communications to leading digital communications at Gap Inc., I had much to learn, which was both scary and exhilarating. I experienced similar emotions moving from a Fortune 500 company to a SaaS start-up. Some of the best advice I ever received from a mentor was “If you’re not a little on the edge of terror, you’re not growing.” A couple times a year I ask myself if I’m too comfortable. If the answer is yes, I actively seek to acquire a new skill that will give me an edge in achieving my goals, even if it’s a little scary on that edge.

One of the scariest growing-edges in internal communications, according to Alejandro Formanchuk, director of Formanchuk & Asociados, is the redistribution of internal communication over social networks, which has tipped the balance of power away from the formal channels of the IC department. It’s true, many of us in communications were trained to “control” the message. But modern communicators need to get comfortable with facilitating the conversation while letting others disseminate the message. That means learning to value co-created, collaborative content and finding ways to help employees articulate their own powerful messages. Managing decentralized communication is a new challenge, but it will allow us to better serve the business and, as Alejandro notes, “put the people at the heart of our practice.”

Finally, Deborah Hinton, senior strategic communication consultant at Phil Communications, underscores empathy as the key skill for successful teamwork and leadership in today’s communication ecosystem. Deborah challenges us to test our thinking by understanding employees who aren’t like us, get out of our offices and into the field to better understand our audiences and adjust our plans, and job shadow or job swap to really understand what it’s like to work in different part of the organizations. I couldn’t agree more. At the very least, we have to constantly be asking ourselves “who are the groups we’re communicating with, and what do they care about?” If we don’t truly understand our audiences and address what they care about, then we’ll never reach them.

Connecting emotionally, setting clear and measurable objectives, becoming better collaborators, listeners, and empathizers: the skills needed to be an internal communications professional today are changing. But with that change comes new and exciting opportunities to become an indispensable source of value to your organization.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, exploring chapter three of  Disrupting the Function of IC, “Impact of Technology on the Profession.”

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