Wednesday, April 11, 2007

IS COMMUNICATIONS ABOUT TELLING THE TRUTH

Every once in a while I get to be part of an interview where no amount of preparation makes you anticipate the direction the questioning will take. One which require rapid fire thinking all under the glare of camera lights and in front of a prime time morning audience. Last week, during a round of television appearances for the International Association of Business Communicators Trinidad and Tobago (IABC T& T), I had one such interview. Both Sue Barrat and I (Sue is a Communication lecturer at UWI) had gone on the set of Morning Edition to talk about IABC T&T and an upcoming seminar that both our organisations were co-hosting. Morgan Job, the gifted intellectual, who spouts both poetry and theory in the same breath, was the host and as we should have expected immediately put us in the firing line. "How can communicators speak the truth when truth is at best subjective ," pressed Job, "and what happens to the truth when the news you have to communicate is bad ?

See what I mean about thinking on your feet.

After the interview, we were told our answers shot like a dart to the heart of the matter but it was clear as IABC T&T members criss-crossed the various television shows that the role of communications is often misunderstood. It was therefore important to get beyond the 30 second sound-bite.

In the corporate world, when we talk about communications we really mean 'persuasion.' For example, in internal communications when we say we want to communicate to employees, what we mean is that we want to convince employees of something: that management knows what it's doing, that employees should be doing X or Y, that the new benefits package isn't really worse than the old one, that the share prices will rise again. We communicate in order to induce people to change their attitudes and, ultimately, their behavior. But here is the conundrum. Imparting information is just one part of the process. But does it motivate employees to change their behaviour? No.

Evangelising the message

In my communications training a critical success factor in the learning process is to get participants to actively engage in what is being taught. For instance, at a recent training session on press release writing I had my class comb the newspapers for different kinds of releases and then dissect them. I had them think like an editor and then give me three different ways to get just one message out. This kind engagement caused one seasoned participant to exclaim that for the first time in her 15-year career she was seeing message dissemination in a fresh and new way.

When comunicating with employees, it is the same. Just thinking about an issue can be a form of active engagement that can lead to significant, long-lasting attitude change as long as the individual is given sufficient time to reflect and a framework to guide his thinking in the desired direction. As I told Morgan Job, communications is about content and context.
That framework can be built through a variety of mediums and the best corporate communicators in the business know that the messenger is as critical as the message. Anna-Maria Garcia Brooks, GM of Marketing Communications at Republic Bank, drove this point home when she addressed members of the International Association of Business T&T. According Garcia-Brooks, sometimes the message is dismissed simply because of who is communicating it.
In such a case, evangelising the mesage through varied sources can work. Communicators can help a critical mass of influencers persuade themselves of the rightness of a particular position that needs to be communicated and then let the influencers pass that message on to the mass of people. The communicator's job would be to build strong relationships with the influencers and provide a framework the majority can use to reflect on and assimilate the new ideas.
Influencers can spread the message through informal chats, face to face meeting, conversations around the cooler. They can be trainers or presenters, the employee who staff looks up to. They can be visible and vocal spokespeople in staff meetings. Their role is to target the so-called "early majority," the third of the organisation who, while not leaders, are willing to pick up on new ideas championed by influencers.

A second strategy would be to use the appropriate collateral. Just be careful that the collateral never becomes the strategy and is viewed for the purpose its name suggests i.e. it should serve as the support for the message. The brochures, magazines, envelope stuffers etc. that we spend so much time on writing, designing and printing is valuable because they all brand the message, through color, design, language, and content, in a way that associates it with positive feelings and demonstrates its consistency with the organisation's mission. Still, the problem of course lies with the engagement. People need to interact with the message in the collateral so it should be balanced by the other techniques.

And what about the message?

I am not sure how I answered Morgan Job before the live cameras but whatever I said I hope I got across my belief that all messages no matter if they communicated face-to-face or through another source, they need to have one thing in common. They need to be credible i.e. consistent with the organisation's behavior. Do not say the pension policy is better than the previous one if it is not. Instead communicate the benefits of it and state how you will work on correcting any perceived flaws. Give a time frame.

Communications is not spin. People are not stupid and they know when what you say does not match how you act. It is at that point you can lose trust.

Second, the message must be clear. Recently, at global meeting of business communicators in San Diego when the Association's new tagline was unveiled the VP of IABC T&T, Maria Mc Millan, wisely asked if anyone from the brand development team translated the new tagine into different languages to make sure that the meaning was the same for commnicators in France, Thailand and Nigeria. It was a critical point. Don't make the mistake of believing that the meaning of words is the same for everyone or that a sentence that appears absolutely unambiguous to you will be understood the same way by everyone in your audience.
Finally whatever message that we as communicators send out, it cannot stand alone. To be conducive to change the corporate culture must be one in which people are rewarded for communicating, even when the message they deliver may be unwelcome. " As marketing communicaons professionals, whether we function at executive level or not, we must be the champion and the voice of stakeholders and ensure that their needs are understood and met, and that the right decisions are made -consistently," declared Garcia -Brooks.

So you see Mr. Job, good comunication is about truth telling.

1 comment:

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