Mirror, mirror on the wall – who is the fairest communicator of them all?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrummer based in The Netherlands

To hold up a mirror, we Internal Communicators are human.  We like our comfort zones, we have strengths and weaknesses – and more to the point, we have egos.   I speculate that Internal Communicators who trumpet that the core of their discipline is about channels, or employees, or change, or influencing audiences, or leaders, or line managers, or knowledge… (as so deftly identified by Kevin in the previous Commscrum posting) …are simply pushing areas in which they feel the most interested or experienced.

Surely our discipline has potentially any of those aspects at its core, depending on the needs of the contexts within which we work at a given point in time.  We don’t need to keep defining Internal Communication, we just need to be informed about the full range of its scope and possibilities, then make choices about which activities we will pursue.  A model I put together outlining those spaces is linked below (along with a few example activities).  I use this a lot to explain that my current role sits mainly in spaces above the pink line:

Communication Spaces

But making the best choices about which activities to pursue requires a good look in the mirror.   With such a broad discipline, I speculate that all-rounders are a rare breed.  What does your organization / client need and truly, what are your shortcomings?   We need to hold up the mirror to our working contexts as well.  We all know that perfect organizations don’t exist: what are the limitations of your organization / clients?  For example, if your audience are a bunch of IT nerds and really don’t want to know what is outside of their own objectives and targets – don’t waste your time trying to change them by pushing news of developments from other teams.  Similarly, if you’ve never pioneered a Conversation Café between teams to stimulate innovation – but think that’s what your sponsors need – then get the support to find someone who can help.  If you have positioned the scope of internal communication and your ‘specialist areas’ within it, then getting that support will be much easier.

This all sounds like Communication 101 but still, are we really taking a good look in the mirror?

Kevin Keohane – CommScum London

The mirror analogy is good (so I will stretch it to breaking point.  Is that 7 years’ bad luck?), since I also think there are often things in the mirror besides the person gazing into it — what’s in the background?

There is a direct link to situational leadership theory. In other words, great leaders (and thus great communicators) know that there are different models for different moments and situations.  The trick is being able to identify when to use what, and of course to have the competence to do so.

The tension is between the need to specialise (which makes you valuable in an ever decreasing space) and the need to see the bigger picture (which, again arguably, makes you valuable in perhaps a more limited number of relatively senior roles)?

One thing seems clear: the game is changing, more than ever before in my 20 years’ experience.  From the “professional environment” perspective, the frontier/horizon is getting ever closer, ever faster, and it’s all about joining things up.

I wholeheartedly believe that the days of nicheguru holed up in their inch-wide, mile-deep towers are coming to an end.  The nicheguru will always have their place, but will find themselves drifting (probably quite happily, since I don’t think their compensation will be negatively affected) downstream, simply because they will become instruments of those capable of taking the more strategic, systemic, broad business perspective.

Maybe natural self-selection will take place?

Dan Gray – CommScrum London

You’re a bugger, Keohane! The link to situational leadership was the first thing that sprang to my mind too, but you’ve beaten me to the punch!

What’s particularly interesting about that observation – as you’ve both alluded to – is that it forms a brilliant bridge to both previous posts on the CommScrum. (A strong theme emerging?)

Not only does the central tenet of situational leadership (that there is no “one best way”) tie in perfectly with Kevin’s IC taxonomy from the previous post, but its emphasis on leaders’ (and similarly communicators’) ability to diagnose and understand context goes right to the heart of what I was saying in my first post too. In an increasingly complex world, that (strategic) understanding is becoming infinitely more relevant and important to the outcome than the (tactical) craft of communicating.

I’d add, also, that situational leadership is something of a misnomer, insofar as it’s more about understanding the dynamics of followership. To that extent, I think it also ties in very neatly with Sam Berrisford’s excellent observations on self-selecting audiences.

Mike Klein–Commscrum Brussels/Brussel/Bruxelles

My overweening thought when looking first at Lindsay’s piece was that it was simple and perhaps even “nice”.  And for the most part, it maps onto executional reality in an undoubted majority of cases.

But what is missing from this approach is any accounting for philosophy, or for the communicator’s role as a leader in the organisation as a whole.

Sure, it’s mightily helpful to be a multi-skilled generalist when there’s plenty that the organisation is asking from the communication function–supporting change initiatives A, B, and C, manning the intranet, setting up the press conferences and top-200 hootenannies and fine-tuning the Senior VP’s Powerpoints.  Indeed, it is unlikely that the vast majority of in-house practitioners could survive without being able to do all of those things simultaneously, and, often a communicator’s broader credibility is often linked to consistent tactical success.

Still, a major problem with organizational communication is the gap between what the leadership asks for, and what the business actually needs. The Melcrum “Black-Belt” approach to internal comms “competency” is great at giving practitioners the skill and confidence to say Yes to their managers when asked to handle specific tasks.  But in an environment where the business is exposed to potentially existential threats from inside and out, a higher level of knowledge and confidence is required that transcends mere skill.

Definitions play a role as well.  If internal communication is seen as a delivery discipline, no matter how well we execute, our importance may be limited and perhaps not worth the investment.  If communication–and its internal importance and mechanics–are appropriately defined and seen as being on a par with marketing, finance and operations, there’s a different game to be played.


18 thoughts on “Mirror, mirror on the wall – who is the fairest communicator of them all?

  1. From Montreal on a March-like day [global warming?]

    Again, a thought provoking series of posts. Thanks. I think both Kevin’s initial foray into typologies and Lindsay’s analysis by purpose are interesting and Dan’s references to situational leadership are useful for raising our own awareness and thinking about what we do/should/could be doing to better support the organizations we work with.

    And, then Mike’s comment about internal communication being seen as a delivery discipline. Who’s doing the seeing Mike? Our clients? I think there’s an assumption in our discussions on Commscrum so far that clients are looking for more than a delivery discipline even if they don’t know it. That by being more strategic we can add more value. Help them be better leaders/employers/organizations. If that’s true, then can we assume that once our clients experience the difference they never go back? And, if that’s so, then… “We have seen the enemy and it is [may be] us” — Pogo [me]

    • commscrum says:

      Where am I seeing the emphasis on delivery over strategy? Two places.

      As I am straddling the barrier between job-hunting and establishing myself as an independent, nearly every internal comms job posting I see emphasizes old-school delivery skills (intranet content management, powerpoint, publications, cascades) and very few mention the stuff like social media, lateral communication and internal-external comms alignment that we see as the real raison d’etre for workplace comms.

      My recent in-house experience was a variation on the same theme as well. Even though cascades are a slow, imprecise and ineffective way of communicating information, they still work excellently at reinforcing perceptions of hierarchical power. And so, many organizations have attachments to cascades that exceed their mere communication value.

      I see CommmScrum as being about thought leadership–but I believe the market is still a while behind embracing the strategic and tactical ambitions we articulate here.

      Mike Klein–The Intersection, Brussels

      • Indy says:

        Short response for now -I agree with Mike, my experience with clients is that we are much more likely to be in a “systems thinking” position if we’ve come to the work from the change management or innovation angles than if we made contact through our comms work. Of course, I generally wrangle things around to a systems-type perspective but there’s more resistance from a CxO or non-comms senior manager to thinking about wider issues when you start from a comms angle.

        Will that change? More quickly for consultants/agencies… Internally I think it’s a longer process, because most companies have a structure which puts the generalists in those fewer senior roles at the top and expects them to come from particular backgrounds (finance, strategy, occasionally ops…)

    • Dan Gray says:

      Great comment, Debbie, and you’re right to draw attention to what is a pretty massive assumption! I’d say in response that if leaders/organisations aren’t looking for more than a mere delivery discipline, then they bloody well should be if they still plan on having a successful business in 20 years’ time.

      Infinitely smarter people than me have suggested that we are on the cusp of a ‘New Normal’, and I happen to agree with them. Marty Neumeier, in particular, makes a great case in The Designful Company that – since we’ve pretty much Six Sigma’d everything to death – it’s establishing and nurturing a culture of innovation that now becomes critical to sustainable competitive advantage.

      That ought to lead to a seismic shift in the role of communicators for – whereas the total quality movement (at least to some extent) seeks to take human judgement out of the equation and reduce heuristics to simple algorithms – innovation puts inside-out strategies that leverage the unique combination of resources at an organisation’s disposal absolutely front and centre.

      • Sean Trainor says:

        I agree with systems thinking approach and I also agree that the C-suite should be looking for more than delivery to survive the next 20 years. In addition, I constantly hear the perception from the C-suite that there is a lack of delivery from “discretionary” functions like comms. It’s that lack of delivery (real or perceived)that has led to a lack of credibility (and therefore influence) over the previous 20 years. sadly,I concur with Debbie’s analysis that the undisputed seismic shift that is required is more likely to become a gentle tremor within most organisations and that tackling the issue or conversation from a comms angle is unlikely to move it up the Richter Scale. I believe in speaking their language and find conversations with senior leaders more productive when I use the “D” word and not the “C” word.
        On the algorithmic approach to management, I couldn’t agree more. Dan Pink provides a nice angle on why these approaches don’t achieve their goals in his new book “Drive” worth a read..http://www.danpink.com/

      • Thanks Sean and Dan for your two book recommendations. I know Daniel Pink – though I haven’t read his new book Driver, but had not heard of Marty Neumeier. On this -18C Montreal Saturday [with windchill -32C, so much for March like weather] a couple of juicey books are just the ticket. I just have to figure out how to get them without going outside.

        It could be a cold brain talking here, but I’ve been noodling on a thought for the past day or so… It seems that the underlying challenge is that our clients just “don’t know what they don’t know”. As Mike mentioned in his experience they just keep asking for delivery expertise. So, how come we’re not making more headway in educating them? Showing our clients that what we believe to be true – and, based on the animated comments on Commscrum and elsewhere we all seem to agree on the what – is good for them and their business. Maybe we should be spending a little time talking about the how? How do we demonstrate that what we’re proposing is going to make things better for them and their business. Or why we’re not making headway. Our clients aren’t stupid, so… Cheers.

      • Dan Gray says:


        I think you’re right. What we have is a major perception problem, typified by Kevin’s various IC priesthoods and certainly not aided (as I argued in my original Commscrum post) by the ‘specialist’ credo of professional associations like IABC.

        Indy’s answer above provides a valuable hint as to the solution, and it’s something that Kevin and I have been writing about on our respective blogs for ages. The way to shift the perception of employee communications from ‘craft’ to strategic business tool is for communicators to broaden their outlook. We need to up-end the hourglass – from being communicators who may understand a bit about other management disciplines to being well-rounded business managers who know a lot about engagement as a key driver of value, both by and for employees.

        Essentially, moving upstream requires a shift in our personal knowledge systems – our stance as professionals, the tools and insights we apply and the experiences we seek out:

        Stance – engagement is a delivery mechanism, not an outcome. Whether or not employees’ happiness scores went up half a percentage point in the latest survey is a matter of supreme indifference to the C-suite. What they care about is what that engaged state actually delivers. So, if I derive competitive advantage through innovation and product leadership, for example, how does engagement help me to bring superior products to market, quicker than the competition? (And if it doesn’t, why am I doing it?!)

        Tools – stance informs the knowledge, skills and tools we need to accumulate and apply. In my case, it’s what drove me to pursue an MBA, which has proven invaluable in being able to see a given brand/communication challenge from multiple perspectives, and apply a huge range of models across strategy, operations, anthropology etc. (not just brand and HR) to organise my thinking and generate meaningful insights. (Aside from an appalling sense of timing that saw me emerge back into the job market in the middle of the biggest slump in living memory, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done!)

        Experiences – tools, in turn, then shape the experiences we seek out to sharpen our skills. Kevin’s already given a great example in previous comments, i.e. internal communicators can gain infinitely more value from attending conferences and events on other disciplines that they can from listening to the same five ‘gurus’ spouting forth on subjects they’re already familiar with.

        (And of course the process works in reverse too – i.e. as we gain new experiences, we add to and sharpen our tools, which in turn refines our stance. The whole thing becomes a virtuous cycle.)

      • Well Dan did go out in the cold and have finished The Designful Company. Some thoughts. You and others have talked about empathy in this string of comments and that certainly comes up in Neumeier’s book… small nuance is that the empathy is about understanding motivation. Now it gets juicey because Neumeier has given us Ten Wicked Problems that the execs in their study said were keeping them up nights [and I must say I think the order may have changed in a year or so, but generally they sound familiar to me]. He takes these [page 170 and explores the solutions from a design point of view]. Of course communications is part of design from his point of view, but can we push this analysis even further… Think there could be some important insights… What do you think?

        And that leads to another thought. Since commscrum is a thought leadership forum, wonder if there’s a way to use Google Wave and/or Wiki so we can build on each other’s thoughts/inputs more easily. I’m no techie so take this for what it’s worth.

        Now to Daniel Pink’s book Driver… Cheers

      • Sean Trainor says:


        Enjoy the book. Here is the audio of his presentation…


        Another one when you have 1/2 hour here is a great speech by J.K.Rowling at Harvard Commencement. She makes the link between imagination and empathy…



  2. Sean Trainor says:

    What a breath reath of fresh air – you ARE the fairest of them all!
    Horses for courses is what I’ll always maintain. There are no right ways but ther are ways of doing it right. If that means the focus is channel management or change management or influence then fair play, for most organisations 1 out of 3 ain’t bad. Call that situational leadership or call that common sense.
    It amuses me when folks talk about the place for social media when they never really understood traditional media. It amuses me even more when folks talk about engaging Gen Y when they could never enage Gen X.
    I have a view on the changing game – it’s all about delivery – the skill is understanding what is the best thing to be delivered, not delivering what you understand best. So actually, the game hasn’t changed, it’s just got tougher for the ‘specialists’

    • Amen Sean! I get infuriated by people going around presenting at Conferences on “How to apply Social Media to internal communications” who have actually never applied social media to internal communications.

      Those who can, do. Those who can’t, speak at conferences about it.

      Just kidding. Sort of.

      • Sean Trainor says:

        Kevin, you should know by now that you can never kid a kidder 🙂
        You might not have to be a practitioner to talk with authority on a subject, if you did surely this would challenge our education system (and my point is?) Well, wouldn’t life on the speaker circuit more interesting if the ‘doers’ only had the time to speak.

        …line managers talking about line manager communications
        …employees talking about the value of employee communications
        …leaders talking about leadership communications.

        Now that would be a good gig. Hallelujah.

  3. Mike Klein says:


    The question of whether comms practioners, and especially internal comms folks, can get a hearing with senior management on issues of strategy, messaging and in some cases, even on issues of tactic choice, can be difficult.

    A major driver of this is when one’s reputation is derived from identification with a single tactic–being known as the “newsletter guy” or the “PowerPoint lady” is usually curtains for one’s strategic credibility.

    Better still to focus on three items: confidence, competence, and connections:

    1) Confidence–given the internal and external environments communicators face, the clearest path to building confidence is building one’s knowledge–about the business and its operating environment, and about the range of tools, strategies and approaches that are being used successfully elsewhere. Case studies are good–but last year’s or even last month’s case studies may be obsolete given the situation.

    2) Competence–not just old-school tactical competence, but the competence that comes from successfully trialling new approaches on specific issues and in specific parts of the organization. It’s much easier to propose a change of tack if you can demonstrate you can successfully execute using “new” tactics and tools.

    3) Connections–internally, finding some managers and leaders who are interested in comms and are willing to take your advice may be easier than converting the more recalcitrant C-suite members directly. Engage some of them in fighting your battles. Externally, have a small network of consultants and experts who have the right kind of focus who you can engage as budgets allow–it may be worth engaging a consultant to provide air cover for major changes in approach or intent.

    This is a big and pervasive problem. It’s a problem that requires not only outside-the-box thinking (which communicators tend to be good at) but outside the box acting (which tends to be scary for most).

    Mike Klein–The Intersection, Brussels

    • Sean Trainor says:

      Hi Mike
      I absolutely agree on your three areas of focus (or influence). Building on those I believe it is important to understand the level of confidence and competence of the managers themselves. On connections, nobody can deny the power of alliance and using indirect influence, although I wonder if you are looking at this from the wrong perspective. Is it about finding managers who are interested in comms and are prepared to fight YOUR battles? or is it about finding those who are curious about how comms can help solve THEIR problems? It brings me to a fourth area of influence – EMPATHY. (Which in itself will probably prompt thoughts on other areas of influence.)

      Q.How often do communicators search for new ways to deliver effective comms that further the leader’s objectives compared to how often communicators have the objective of searching for new ways to influence leaders to deliver effective comms?

  4. Mike Klein says:

    I don’t think there’s a wrong or right perspective. Sure, being proactively empathetic and seeking solutions to stakeholder problems can be very effective–particularly when one is fairly new to an organization.

    At the same time, when one is a long-time incumbent, there may be easier ways to gain traction–such as working through natural allies, than in attempting to reinvent relationships along the lines you suggest.

    • kevinkeohane says:

      … particularly “empathy” in its truest definition — that is, being able to put oneself in another’s situation and truly understand their position and perspective (not just “softie empathy” i.e., being “a good listener”).

  5. Sean Trainor says:

    Thanks for the challenge Mike, personally, I think empathy is a stronger asset for long-time incumbents than newcomers, on the basis of credibility. My comment was more about building relationships rather than reinventing them.

  6. kevinkeohane says:

    In terms of the shift we’re describing, it’s up to people like us to drive it and make it happen! As Indy says, we are often (agency/consultancy) side in a great position to influence the agenda. I am finding easier now that it was in the past, with “easier” meaning a shift from “not even on the radar and impossibl” to “If you can get the time to make the case, they might conisder thinking about it.” Still, I am optimistic; a couple of my clients, FT100 organisations, are well aboard.

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