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Communicating change | S2 E29

First published: 9 November, 2021

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Engaging Internal Comms Series 2
Engaging Internal Comms Series 2
Communicating change | S2 E29
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‘Engaging Employees Through Strategic Communication’ is the new book from authors Mark Dollins and Jon Stemmle which is aiming to act as a modern-day guide to employee engagement. The pair bring their extensive knowledge of communicating change to the podcast episode, discussing the challenges and best practices of overseeing change within an organisation.

Having worked with companies such as DuPont and PepsiCo, Mark has over 30 years of experience in change management. He now sits as president for North Star Communications Consulting, which focuses on employee change and communications talent development.

Jon also has a vast background in the industry, currently operating as Chair and Professor of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, primarily teaching public relations and advertising classes. On the research side, the bulk of his work stems around health and science communication and how this can be done in a way the public can understand.

Both Mark and Jon recognised the need for a book that could be used by both practitioners currently working in communications and students looking to break through. The textbook-like format the pair have created combines their know-how with other pieces of research to investigate topics such as storytelling, competencies and measurements. The book finishes by talking about today’s podcast topic, communicating change and where the industry is heading.

The connection between communicating change and internal comms

After Craig draws upon his own experiences of communicating change in internal comms, Jon begins to look more closely at some of the reasons for why the two are linked. From the rise of the internet and social media to a shift in stakeholder and customer needs, Jon says that the comms industry has undergone a transformation in recent times. He believes this is the sector’s only constant.

“The last 20 years may have seen more change in the industry than the previous century,” Jon said.

All of this has helped accelerate the professionalisation of internal comms according to Mark, which he says is an essential part of any successful organisation. Be it a digital change, a cultural development or a shift in working arrangements, these are always occurring.

The problem for managers and HR representative is they are ‘jumping in the deep end with both feet’ when it comes to learning about and practicing change management. Mark draws upon the distinction between this and change management communication. He says often those in internal comms end up being the drivers of these developments because there is no specific discipline for this in most organisations.

This is something which is becoming more prevalent now however, as HR people and managers look to become further educated in this. Communicators can benefit from this as well, as they can assess the speed and efficiency of their comms channels using the same disciplines as their change management counterparts.

“There is now an inexplicable link between the importance of change and the importance of employee communications,” Mark said.

Following on from this, he explains why change and communication are so intertwined. Mark says both should be viewed holistically as they always involve people. Communication is what drives these people to understand and believe in this change.

Training and development is another component of communicating change which is vital to making it possible. Giving employees the means to get behind a change can only go so far says Mark, with knowledge and skills being the driving forces after this. Reinforcing this change with multiple communications is also important for this, with Mark saying it is ‘the thread that binds all these efforts’ together.

Jon adds to this by discussing how research can play a role in helping the change process. Pulse surveys, both internal and external, are examples of this as they can help guide the effort and better serve an organisation’s employees. He believes that businesses are now one of the most trusted groups for communications, far more than the media. This gives them a chance to fill what Craig describes as a ‘vacuum of trust’.

Driving personal accountability

Craig draws upon some examples explaining how some of the best change he has seen is that which promotes personal accountability from employees. This is to give them a sense of empowerment and is something Mark agrees with. He admits that this does not often happen on an enterprise level. Those in management positions need to be given the tools to have those direct conversations with their employees, as broad communications on their own simply won’t be as effective.

Furthermore, these is an emotional side to tackling change that needs to be addressed. Communicators need to be connecting the efforts and activities of their teams to the organisation’s broader picture. Storytelling is a good way to tap into this says Mark, as it can help connect all the individual pieces of change to a ‘master narrative’.

The significance of storytelling

Something Jon is constantly telling his students when it comes to using storytelling as a way of communicating change is it must have purpose. Often stories can help reinforce popularity within an organisation, but this means it lacks impact when it comes to onboarding employees.

Through his work within health communication, Jon says he has noticed many organisations not truly listening to their employees and the people they serve. Finding out what these groups want is usually the best place to start when it comes to creating these stories that will really have an influence on them. These should also play into this idea of the organisation’s ‘master narrative’.

“Whether it’s an internal newsletter, for social media or for our websites we as communicators need to have content,” Jon said. “There is always a wealth of content at your fingertips if you’re willing to listen and look for it.”

How to build a master narrative

When organisations are undertaking a significant change, having a broader narrative that points employees in the same direction can improve outcomes. Creating a story for employees that shows where they fit in and how they contribute in a compelling way is something Mark has proven experience with.

From here, communicators can show their worth by showing the rest of the organisation where the company’s narrative fits in and how those across the business can use it in their day-to-day activities. Leaders should be empowered to be better storytellers and communicators should consider how this can be made possible when looking to reinforce these narratives.

Mark says communicators should always be open to improving their storytelling abilities, which will make it easier for them to use the narrative they have set up across their work. He says the most effective stories when it comes to communicating change are those with a long shelf life, as this is the guide that should be used across a change effort.

Capturing and curating the moments that embody the values of an organisation’s master narrative is a very powerful tool for communicators and has a much greater effect than other less personal methods. Afterall, as Jon says, people are interested in people, and therefore storytelling will resonate with them.

“The more that we can take a company which may just seem like a box and turn it into something that is humanised, you gain affinity with both your internal and external audience,” Jon says. “They think about you in a different way, and you get people who can then become brand ambassadors and talk to you about the good you do.”

Valuing internal comms as a critical business partner

The rise of internal comms as a valued profession over recent years has not gone unnoticed by senior leaders within large organisations. Mark admits that these people only have a certain bandwidth when it comes to learning all the aspects of a business, which is where communicators need to show their worth.

He says that those in internal comms should look to teach leaders about their work and display why they should be valued as a trusted advisor. This must be done early and often and is a topic Mark and Jon deeply explore in their book. It is something they want to see discussed in places like business schools so they can be educated on the true value of employee communications.

Jon follows on from this by saying communicators should work to help leaders achieve their goals. Working in an academic environment, he believes research can play a role in this push for value saying people always want to see proof that their plans will work to effectively engage employees.

Building capability in change and internal comms

In their book, Mark and Jon outline a competency framework to show what communicators should be considering when they are looking to build up this capability. Mark says the first place to start here is to assess how your organisation approaches change.

Adopting certain models such as the ones discussed is common, but people in internal comms should look for the ‘centres of excellence’ within a business which are leading this change. If there is no commitment to a methodology, then employee communicators should look to places like HR to find a trusted partner and create this centre.

This should be seen as an opportunity to be a leader and drive this change according to Mark. Finally, communicators should look to understand the change that is occurring and why it is important.

Useful links

Jon Stemmle LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jon-stemmle-6729467/

University of Missouri’s School of Journalism – https://journalism.missouri.edu/

Mark Dollins LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/markddollins/

North Star Communications Consulting – https://www.northstarcomms.com/

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