The Six Levels to Strategic Internal Communications

paul barton strategic communication

Many employee communicators are cast in tactical support roles, and they find themselves struggling to achieve a more strategic role in their organization so they can make a greater impact. Internal communicators must work their way up the strategic pyramid to achieve their strategic goals.

Fast Food Internal Communicators

At the bottom of the pyramid are Fast Food Communicators. Those cast in that role wait for communication requests to come to them and then react to them by creating information and disseminating it. Many of them become quite adept at fulfilling requests quickly and accurately, and their internal clients often report high satisfaction with the job they are performing. But the communication they produce often doesn’t produce the best results possible because they lack strategy and integration with other communication opportunities.

The internal client who is not a professional communicator and may not even be aware of other more effective communication channels or more effective strategic approaches often decides the communication channel to be used. For example, internal clients often suggest lengthy newsletter articles as the solution to their communication challenge because it is the channel with which they are most familiar. The longer the article, the better because it will have more impact, they incorrectly reason. They’ll pepper articles with manufactured quotes from management using all the buzzwords that will please the organization’s senior leadership. The communication team may turn around this request very quickly, and the internal client may be very pleased with its work. The work may be just what the internal client wants, but it may not be what he actually needs. The result most likely won’t be as impactful as it could have been with a strategic multi-channel coordinated campaign approach. What’s more, the client most likely won’t know whether the communication was effective or not because the “Fast Food” approach probably didn’t include any measurement plan to determine success.

Fast Food communications are typically fragmented and uncoordinated. The inconsistent tone and format inherent in such ad-hoc communications create many voices all vying for attention. Priorities are unclear. Instead of seeing how each individual organizational initiative is part of a larger plan, the “one-off” approach of Fast Food communications creates the perception that a hundred unrelated projects are going on simultaneously. Fast Food communications create a climate of confusion and contribute to employees feeling overwhelmed. Typically, the “Fast Food Approach” doesn’t target specific audiences with tailored messages and doesn’t include feedback mechanisms. The type of information communicated in the “Fast Food” approach typically falls into one of the following categories:

  • Data Reports: Typically data are presented in a spreadsheet report. Such reports usually lack any context as to why the data are important and how they relate to the big picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.
  • Directives: Directive information often is presented as step-by-step instructions on what to do, but it usually lacks why the action is being requested and how the action ties to larger organizational priorities.
  • Informational Messages: Informational messages typically are presented in an objective news tone, which lacks context and credibility because no one believes the organization’s leadership is actually objective.

In the fast-paced environment, most organizations are in, it is tempting just to react to what internal clients want and to keep them happy. In most cases, internal clients are simply unaware how much effective communication can do for them. In addition, they may be unaware of how a specific communication could be tied to a larger communication strategy and help support broader organizational goals. Being helpful to these internal clients in their short-term requests might actually be doing them and the overall organization a disservice in the long run.

Reactive Internal Communicators

Internal communication teams seeking to break out of the “Fast Food” approach usually do so in incremental steps. The next step up from “Fast Food Communicators” is “Reactive Communicators,” who don’t always wait to be told when or how to communicate, but they still find that they are reacting to events as they unfold. Reactive Communicators can become very good at evaluating opportunities as they occur, but they will still fall short of maximum effectiveness. They are, however, poised to reach the next level, “Proactive Communicators.”

Proactive Communicators

At this level, the communicators are adept at identifying needs and recognizing opportunities. They likely are still fulfilling a lot of lower level reactive communication requests as well, but they take a more proactive approach to more meaningful projects and thus position themselves to move up to the next level, “Integrated Communicators.”

Integrated Internal Communicators

At this level, the communicators are coordinating various communication channels to work together on messaging. They are likely partnering with other teams to ensure consistent messages are disseminating throughout the organization. They may perform highly visible tasks for senior leadership such as producing charts and PowerPoint presentations. They are making a more meaningful impact than ever before, but more still needs to be done for maximum effectiveness.

In the first three levels of the pyramid, the emphasis is on the tactics involved in getting information out and not on the strategy of getting information through. The measurement in this phase is most likely on the tactics, such as how many newsletter articles were produced, and not on the measurable impact of the communication. Those who are focused on tactical communications are more interested in the saturation of messages than on their effectiveness. They value activity over actual results. It is difficult for teams to break out of these tactical levels for numerous reasons, including a heavy workload and demands by internal clients who are often seeking a “silver bullet” to solve their communication challenge. Internal clients often believe a single communication channel such as a video, a payroll stuffer or a newsletter article can fulfill complex communication challenges such as improving employee morale or gaining employee acceptance of an important organizational change.

Strategic Internal Communicators

Over time, with patience, perseverance and by consistently demonstrating value and showing measurable, quantifiable results, employee communicators can move to the Strategic Communicator level where the communication strategies are clearly linked to the organization’s mission. Strategic communicators combine planning and action. They develop written communication strategies and constantly seek to improve upon those plans. If they don’t have a large enough staff to do everything, they choose projects that are meaningful to the organization’s leaders. When they engage in a meaningful project, they produce measurable results. They make time to plan and think about what they are doing. They use their plans to set priorities and guide their daily work. They focus on what’s important, not just what’s urgent. They use communication strategies to solve non-communication challenges the business is facing and the organization’s leaders believe are important.

Strategic Communicators often act as internal consultants. They speak the language of their business and understand what factors drive success in the organization. They approach every internal client meeting with intellectual humility. They seek input from their clients and respect the expertise they bring to the process. They engage in active listening, and they listen more than they talk. They listen to understand, not to respond. At the same time, they take every opportunity to educate their clients about the value of their work and they provide compelling evidence. They keep the organization’s senior leadership abreast of new technologies and new approaches to employee communication.

Strategic communicators focus on not just what’s urgent, but also on what’s important, and they prioritize accordingly. But, as writing coach Ann Wylie points out, sometimes what’s important isn’t particularly interesting. The job of the employee communicator is to make the important interesting. Remember the Six Cs of internal communications? No. 6 was “compelling,” and making what’s interesting also important is yet another way of looking at that.

Strategic communicators gain credibility by focusing on what their organization’s leaders believe are important and by calling their attention to what they may not be aware of that also may be important.

Internal Communicators as Executive Counselors

Over time, Strategic Communicators can position themselves at the top of the pyramid as “Executive Counselors.” In this role, they help create the organization’s vision and help set the direction. They have a seat at the decision table, and they offer advice from an internal communication perspective on important matters to the organization. They are constantly thinking about questions such as:

  • How will employees react to this news?
  • What questions will they have?
  • Will the message be credible to them?
  • Will it be understandable?
  • What will employees perceive to be the negative aspects?
  • What does the organization want employees to tell their family, friends, and neighbors?
  • What else is going on in the organization that might affect employee perceptions about the communication?

Achieving the “Executive Counselor” level doesn’t mean communicators are no longer performing day-to-day tactical work. But it does mean those routine tactics are done in support of broader communication strategies. Even simple, seemingly insignificant communications can contain a branded look and language that supports larger organizational strategies. In fact, it is the repetition of communication in even the smallest of tactics that help make the strategies work.

When internal communicators reach the top level of the pyramid, they are performing many tactical and strategic functions all at once. In a broad sense, they are (1) integrating all communication activities, (2) formulating processes and procedures for effective communication and (3) partnering with the organization’s leadership and other functional areas to provide a broad range of communication services.

It will take time getting there but the climb to the top of the strategic pyramid is worth the effort.

The preceding was adapted from Paul Barton’s book, Maximizing Internal Communication: Strategies to Turn Heads, Win Hearts, Engage Employees and Get Results, available on Amazon or right here on our website.

Special acknowledgment to Bill Hiniker of MessagePoint Communications who was the inspiration and the genius behind the concept of these the strategic levels.

 

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