In a rare break – thanks to the UK elections – I was able to explore the changing role of internal communication with Russell Grossman, the Group Director of Communications at the UK Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) – a tireless supporter of the profession and all who work in it.
Grossman wears a number of significant communication hats. He is also a Director at Engage For Success and this year’s International Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and last but not least he is a Director of the Government Communication Service (GCS).
I took the opportunity of the political ‘Purdah’ period that suspends ministerial work in the run-up to the election on May 7th to dive into the world of internal communication in the UK Government. Grossman shared his view on the changing role of the profession in the digital age, the distinction between internal communication and internal communications, leadership, Yammer and the importance of authenticity.
Gloria Lombardi: You are heading a project across the UK Government, which is looking at creating excellence in internal communication and engagement.
Russell Grossman: You will recognise that engagement is something you get and internal communications is something you do. Our approach here is to say that internal communication is a three-legged stool. It only takes place if all of these three parties are included: the staff of an organisation, the practitioners – the ‘internal communicators’ but I don’t like to use that term – and leaders.
GL: You don’t like the term ‘internal communicators’. Why?
RG: In Government we believe that a rounded communicator is someone who has done some of Public Affairs, some Marketing, a some Media Relations, some Internal Communications, and so on. People who are only practising internal communications throughout their career are not maximising their potential.
At the end of the day there is no real difference between Media Relations and Internal Communications, professionally. Only the audience is different. The basic questions remain the same: Where is your audience? What insights do we have about them? What are the objectives that we are trying to achieve? How do we influence them? What’s the implementation? How do we know that we have done it?
Those questions are the same whichever your audience is. That is why I don’t like the term internal communicator – it gives the impression that that person only understands internal communications.
GL: You make a clear distinction between internal communication without an ‘s’ and internal communications with an ‘s’.
RG: I define ‘Internal communication’ as the act of intercourse that takes place throughout an organisation. ‘Internal communications’ is the function that helps that happen.
In every organisation, no more than probably 10% of internal communication is a direct result of internal communications – the rest takes place autonomously. So, internal communications’ principal role is to function as the catalyst between the organisation’s staff and the leaders – to help leaders communicate better.
GL: The Government has recently created The IC Space, a dynamic vehicle and resource for the circa 600 people that are practising internal communications in Government. And of course, because it is on the Internet it is used all over the world and it can be a valuable platform for everybody.
On The IC Space we can find The Internal Communications Standard Operating Model. What’s it exactly?
RG: This is the internal communication model that we use in Government. It was produced last year, as part of the project I’m leading, by a group of practitioners who were keen to know how all the different operating units in Government – and there are over 5,500 at the unit level – could align on the same principles.
The model has been developed for professional communicators and trusted advisors, working in partnership with leaders, to engage staff in delivering the Government’s and departmental or arm’s length body priorities and supporting organisational and cultural change.
It defines the role and remit of the profession. This includes:
• To positively influence staff engagement – not to ‘do’ staff engagement. Internal communications does not ‘do’ staff engagement but it influences it. This distinction is very important to understand.
• Ensuring internal alignment with organisational goals;
• High quality, relevant counsel and intervention based on audience insight. There is no difference between internal communications and any other branch of communication in terms of how you run a campaign – you always start where your audience is, not “what the managers want to communicate”.
• Help drive high performance;
• Apply the latest communication theory and tools and evaluate all activities.
GL: So, every single internal communications unit across Government adopts this model? How does that work in practice?
RG: We are working towards this. The ‘how’ is based on the Engage for Success organisation’s four principles of engagement: vision and leadership, engaging managers, employee voice and organisational integrity.
Organisational integrity is an interesting one. I was at a conference last week for local government communicators. One CEO of a Council said he calls it ‘Just do it right’. And I also agree that this is what organisational integrity is – Are we doing it right? Are we doing what we said we would do?
GL: Could you explain more about your earlier point that internal communication doesn’t ‘do’ staff engagement but influences ite?
RG: It is the staff that ‘does’ staff engagement. Practitioners help to create it; they are the catalyst to make it better.
This is also why I am not a fan of job titles like ‘Head of Employee Engagement’. You cannot be the head of employee engagement in my view because employee engagement is something that you get – it is not something that you do.
The problem is that too many organisations think that internal communications people will sort the engagement out. But, the act of saying to somebody that ‘you are responsible for staff engagement’ cannot be right.
GL: What steps are the Government undertaking to create a more digital way of working?
RG: Quite a lot, actually. We are insisting that people working in Government be much more digitally aware.
For example, here at BIS, everyone in my team has a digital objective in addition to his or her own goals. This differs from role to role. In internal communications it may be to maximise not only your own personal use but also to encourage staff use of Yammer. Or, it may be to encourage people to have the confidence to tweet in a way which is responsible and sound. It would also, certainly, include developing the skills to use new measurement tools like Google Analytics or Twitter analytics, all of which would help you understand your audience better. It may also extend to managing aspects of our new WordPress-based intranet.
GL: Tell me more about the latter.
RG: The days of complicated sites to create and navigate are moving on. Our new intranet here at BIS is based on WordPress. It was really designed to be as simple as possible. The design itself is built to make creating, reading and finding content easy.
People no longer have the time to negotiate complicated pages. In the digital age, time is one of the main things that communicators need to consider. Your audience has far less time now.
GL: How does ‘the time thing’ change the role of the communicator?
RG: We used to produce long-form press releases. Now, we create news releases with no more than typically two sentences comprising each paragraph. Psychology tells us that people scan copy text and would make an opinion on it in less than 10 seconds. Much less for a website. Then, they decide whether or not they want to read the piece in more depth.
GL: Leadership. What attributes do make someone a good leader?
RG: On the IC Space we have created the series ‘Engage and Inspire‘ and published several examples of good leadership. We did some interviews with the heads of organisations that made the Sunday Times ‘Top 100 companies to work for’. Names include the CEO of TalkTalk Dido Harding, William Rogers of UKRD, Justin King who was Sainsbury’s CEO until last year, PwC’s Chairman Ian Powell, and more.
Being yourself is probably the best tip that I would give any leader. The more that leaders feel confident, the more they will be competent. If they act in a way that is unnatural for them, most people will see and feel it straight away. So, it is better to suggest them doing more of what they are good at, and less of what they are not so good at.
Essentially, the key to that is authenticity. When leaders are enthusiastic and confident they will be more competent at connecting. And part of the communicator’s role here is to help leaders connect.
GL: All the leaders you mentioned are CEOs. Can leadership be found elsewhere in an organisation?
RG: Certainly. Some of the best leaders that any particular individual would think of, often, are a long way from CEOs. Normally, they are positive people who give others constructive challenges.
They are good at listening. During a conversation, there will be a point when they pause to check if you heard what has been said, check if you really listened to it, check whether you reflected on it or not, check whether you acted on it or not, and what the result of that action was.
One of the things that communicators should advise any leader to do is to talk, then listen. And, make your response appropriate to the listening. This is particularly important in change.
GL: You mentioned Yammer. How has it changed internal communications at BIS?
RG: I introduced Yammer at BIS nearly four years ago now. The worry at the time was that people would say certain things that as a government organisation you would expect to be kept secret. But, that has never happened. People are intelligent, sensitive and articulate.
The employee social network (ESN) is important from internal communications viewpoint. It is an easy way to promote dialogue, demonstrate listening and provide feedback on topics that are not controversial. Of course, Yammer itself is only a tool. The real conversation base comes with the people operating it.
So, we do encourage using the platform. Currently around two-thirds of the organisation is on it. We have a group of people – mostly facilities, HR and IT who are always available there and answering discussions We use it quite a lot for removing the burden on the management of lower level stuff. I’ll give you a small example. Lift 12 of this building has been out of service for 4 weeks now. So, I wanted to know when it is going to be in service again. Before having Yammer I’d probably send an email. Yesterday, I went on Yammer and found that someone else had already asked that question. And indeed, the facilities staff had also already answered that – lift 12 will be in operation by next week.
A final observation, which is important for communication: On Yammer, sometimes you can spot grammatical mistakes. While I don’t like them, I also say that they don’t matter in that context. The typo doesn’t diminish the meaning of the message, which was given in real-time – hence, was not polished. Of the contrary, it increases authenticity.