A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 7: Channels

Posted on August 1, 2017 9:06 am by | Channels | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication: Channels

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders. In this post, we continue examining the final segment of the outer ring of the model with a look at channels.

Revised Employee Communication Model


The series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Overview
Part 3: Alignment
Part 4: Listening
Part 5: Consultation
Part 6: Branding

The outer ring of the model represents the work that employee communicators engage in every day; they are infused in all communications. The channels segment is where most communicators spend most of their time: crafting content for distribution through channels.

The Channels used to be the easiest part of communicating with employees: They were few and pre-determined. My first corporate job was as assistant editor of a weekly employee newspaper. It was the all-employee channel. Managers got a quarterly internal management journal. Locally, employees could check out postings on the bulletin board (the analog kind). In each subsequent job, I inherited existing channels I was expected to maintain.

This worked fine since employees had limited alternatives for staying in the loop. The intranet, which debuted around 1994 (the actual term was coined in 1995), didn’t change things. Instead of a printed publication, employees were expected to visit the intranet home page or news page (unless you didn’t have computer access in your job).

Today, channels are one of the biggest employee communication preoccupations. The idea that we can reach employees through a single channel—or even a primary channel with a few secondary offerings—is quaint and naive. Several issues have propelled channels to the top of communicators’ minds:

  • Technology democratization—Remember when you couldn’t use the software you needed because IT didn’t support it? Now, IT departments are frustrated when teams and individuals find their own solutions through mobile apps, the cloud, and software as a service (SaaS), authorized or not. No file sharing solution in the company? No problem, we’ll use Dropbox. Is the enterprise collaboration tool clunky and difficult to use? We’ll just use Slack. Employees don’t think they need IT help with software anymore; they like what they like and they know where to get it and how to use it.

  • The marginalization of the homepage—As most companies define them, intranets—at least as primary employee communication channel—are all but dead. Visiting a website to get information was the way of things when the web was new, but social media and the rise of mobile have changed everything. The major media outlets recognize this, distributing their content in multiple forms through all manner of channels. NowThis, a new-media video news outlet, says on its website, “Homepage. Even the word sounds old. We bring the news to your social feed.” Other than a careers page and links to its presence on social channels, that’s all you’ll find at NowThisNews.com. The behaviors that have driven news organizations to social feeds exist inside the enterprise even if communicators haven’t accommodated them. Continuing to drive employees to a homepage guarantees only a sparsely and inconsistently informed workforce.

  • Social media—As long as we’re talking about the demise of the homepage as a news source to visit, it’s worth noting that social media news feeds have become a primary source of news. A Pew Research study from mid-2016 found that 62% of U.S. adults got their news from social media, a number that has no doubt risen since then.

  • The mobile shift—If people increasingly get their news from social media news feeds, odds are they’re doing it on their smartphones, since most people access social media from their phones. If they do follow a publication, it’s probably through an app like the visually arresting Washington Post app or (more likely) a tool like Flipboard that curates and aggregates content from multiple sources, categorizing it based on your interests, and presenting it in a beautiful, easy-to-read, easy-to-share format.

The situation has become so complex that some employee communication leaders have added a channel expert to the staff, someone dedicated full-time to evaluating the most appropriate channels, ensuring they’re implemented correctly, and guiding the development of content so it works with each channel’s capabilities. It’s not a matter of reformatting the same content for each channel, which just creates repetition that makes employees tune out. Rather, we need to repurpose content so we can deliver engaging information through the channels employees actually use. A data-rich article can also give rise to a data visualization for digital signage, a talking point for an all-hands meeting, and an infographic for an image-sharing app (to name just a few). In other words, we need to adopt the principles of content marketing inside the organization.

Thinking about channels goes beyond listing tools. It starts with understanding the requirements that will help you select the right tools.

Channel Strengths and Weaknesses

Some communicators are overwhelmed by the range of options available to them. We need to stop thinking of these many channels as an either-or choice. Outside of work, employees use more channels for news, information, and communication than they are probably able to list. There’s TV; billboards they see on the road, in subway stations and elsewhere; the newspaper many still get on their doorsteps, the magazines that come in their mailboxes; email from friends and brands they follow; the connections they have on Facebook; the images they see on Instagram; the videos they watch on YouTube; the messages they get via Snapchat or Messenger; the alerts that come to their phones.

There’s a reason people get information from so many different sources: Each channel is better at delivering some kinds of information than others. Some are lean-forward channels, others are lean-back. Some are good for push, others for pull.

Related: Why I call it employee (not internal) communication

In researching for this post, I discovered a wonderful piece by Cheryl Lester of Digital Workplace Group. Lester listed the tensions between different kinds of information, helpful when deciding which channel(s) to use. I’ll list the pairs here with my own observations about them:

  • Campaign vs. Evergreen—Do you want employees to internalize information or just know about an upcoming event and then never have to see that content again once the event is over? (How many times have you searched your intranet only to find an article about the upcoming 2008 company picnic?)

  • Global vs. local—One of the worst things about an intranet home page is having to scroll through content about facilities or regions where you don’t work that has no relevance whatsoever to you or your job.

  • Push vs. pull—Is it something employees must know or something they should be able to find when they search for it?

  • Micro vs. macro—Are you just sending out the headline or tweet-length notification or is a longer article or video needed to provide context? Or both?

  • User-generated vs. official—The waters get a little murky here, but it’s still worth discussing. When it’s official, I still advocate for corporate journalism with the employee communication department serving as the official voice of the company to employees. As noted earlier, though, these official missives wind up getting shared on internal social networks and collaboration platforms, usually with a link accompanied by some employee-generated commentary. On the other hand, if you’re taking advantage of internal influencer networks, you also hope influencers will share their own content in support of your message. Employee-generated content can also become a source of information that employee communication can use; I know several companies that surface interesting or important content from employees and extend its reach by featuring it prominently in the appropriate channel.

  • Internal vs. external—While many channels should be strictly internal (as long as you recognize that doesn’t mean the content distributed over them cannot be leaked externally), there are external channels that can serve internal purposes. Many companies have benefits-focused Twitter accounts (so family members get access to important information), some companies have set up private Facebook groups for employees, and I promise you, if your CEO is active on a Facebook page, employees will follow it religiously.

  • Actionable vs. informational—Items that require an employee to take action should make it easy to take that action directly from within the channel through which it was delivered. Informational items, conversely, can be shared via something static (like digital signage or a printed newsletter).

When strategizing communication, don’t assume any one channel is your default channel (like, as I’ve noted, the intranet homepage, although the traditional intranet certainly can become a hub for current content and an archive of older content, making it easy to search for something published weeks, months, or years ago). Rather, select the channel(s) that will best accommodate the nature of the communication.

Channel Categories

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but I want to make sure we’re on the same page about the main channel categories available to us. Apply these strategically based on their strengths. Start with the core messages and themes (and visual assets, if you have them). Determine the outcome desired for the message (is action required? is it push or pull content? is it of company-wide interest or does it matter only to a subset of employees? etc):

Face-to-face

Face-to-face communicationFace-to-face is still the most important form of communication. We humans are hard-wired for face-to-face communication, and any communication that is not face-to-face loses something in the translation, whether it is the signal sent by body language, the sincerity (or lack of sincerity) we hear in the tone of voice, or the subtle subtexts we detect in facial expressions. Face-to-face allows us to assess the authenticity of the message and the sincerity of the person delivering it. Face-to-face is also the most inspiring way to communicate. (Imagine if King Henry V had delivered his St. Crispin’s Day speech by email.)

Mobile apps

As mobile becomes cemented as our portal to the world of news, information, and engagement, apps the tools for accessing much of that world. There are apps for distributing notifications, articles, images, videos, and audio (and also let employees share content and submit their own), through channels to which employees subscribe for better relevance; examples are SocialChorus and Sparrow. There are apps that designed to emulate Instagram inside the enterprise (e.g., Foko). Slack and HipChat are among the apps that enable team collaboration while Yammer, Igloo Software, and other internal social networks are increasingly designed for mobile use. HSBC developed a proprietary app for employees to share videos on a specific theme (e.g., diversity); every employee could see what every other employee has created.

Print

PrintCompanies abandoned print too quickly in their rush to embrace all things digital. Proof of that haste can be seen in the resurgence of printed books. If strategy precedes tactics, some communicators might find that print is still the best way to reach a specific audience. For example, several hospitals distribute print newsletters to nurses who have no time to read company communication while on their shifts and are constrained from using their phones for work activities outside of their contracted hours. Nobody has a problem, though, when they grab a copy of the newsletter to read on the way home. If your goals and objectives point to print as a solution, don’t shrug it off as outdated. It still has its place and can be a powerful way to focus attention.

Marketing-like collateral

—When building awareness, marketing collateral can be particularly useful. This includes things like wall clings, posters, banners, and table toppers. I once helped a company relaunch its intranet using a movie theme. We printed promotional information on popcorn boxes, filled them, and had them on every table in the cafeteria. It wasn’t high tech, but it worked beautifully.

Intranet pages and sites

The intranet’s decline as the home of all communication content does not mean it has no place. Communication platforms like SocialChorus work as well on a desktop as they do on a smartphone; companies like Whirlpool have replaced the intranet homepage with the desktop iteration of their content. Intranets can also be home to microsites and landing pages dealing with specific issues or initiatives (such as the company’s corporate social responsibility activities, a milestone anniversary, or a safety awareness program).

Internal social networks and collaboration networks

As noted above, it would be hard to find an internal social network or collaboration network product that isn’t designed primarily for mobile use. Through these networks, employees share information with each other through global messaging or within defined groups. These can be great channels for amplifying messages, getting feedback, and listening to employees’ voices about issues, and engaging them in two-way communication.

Video

Video has become the most important content category externally, driving higher levels of engagement and achieving greater reach than just about anything else. While consumers are watching a lot of video on their phones, it can be delivered through multiple channels internally, including the intranet, apps, internal social and collaboration networks, and digital signage. Companies are investing in regular news videos employees can watch in a few short minutes, even with the sound off, like “Paypal in 90 Seconds.” Here’s an example from the financial services company, BBVA:

These weekly wrap-up videos are just one among many categories you can explore, from interviews to features, from overviews of live events to employee-generated video.

Email

Many of us may wish email would die. For many things, it is woefully inefficient. Social channels (messaging apps, social networks, collaboration networks) offer vastly improved features that leave email—now over 50 years old—in the dust. Yet it is firmly embedded in most organizations and still works well for some communication tools, notably newsletters (though I would rather see companies shift the newsletter concept to a dedicated channel on a SocialChorus-like app). Sometimes, nothing is as powerful as an email from the CEO or the head of a business unit. With add-ons like Polite Mail (an Outlook add-on that improves the look of email, manages group distribution, and delivers useful metrics), you can elevate email so it works as well as marketing emails, which continue to deliver results that blow away social media channels.

Digital signage

Digital signageMost communicators shrug it off. Employee communication departments with responsibility for digital signage often delegate it to an intern. Yet those companies that understand it and employ it strategically are measuring solid results. I spoke with one communicator who reinforces culture via digital signage; another uses it for data visualization to breathe life into numbers. At UPS, communicators know the only time they can get messages to drivers is when they are loading up their trucks in the morning; digital signage is a critical channel for that huge audience. As the technology advances (did you know there is a Digital Signage Expo?), its capabilities expand.

External communication channels

As I mentioned earlier, you can use external channels to communicate with employees as long as (a) you can cordon off a section of the channel only employees can access, like a private Facebook group, or (b) you don’t communicate anything proprietary over the channel (most of our content undergoes legal approval specifically to ensure it won’t cause any problems should it be exposed externally). I have seen employee communication departments use Instagram for employee photo sharing and photo contests. I have seen teams use WhatsApp for intra-team communication and information sharing. PepsiCo and American Airlines are among the companies using closed Facebook groups for employee groups. Netflix employees undoubtedly read every post CEO Reed Hastings shares on his Facebook page. Cisco Systems has a Snapchat account—We Are Cisco—that employees take over every day as a way to share the company’s culture.

Complications

Make no mistake, configuring content for use in a range of channels each of which is designed to produce different results based on what they do best is hard work; it’s a lot easier to throw content onto the intranet and check off the “it’s been communicated” box. In addition to the time and effort required to bring the most effective communication practices inside the organization, employee communication leaders face two particularly challenging problems.

  • Budget—As I said at the beginning of this series, employee communication departments are under threat from leaders who can’t see the value they get for their investment in the function. That makes it hard to bring new tools—some of them costly—into the organization and then undertake the process of building high levels of adoption. You don’t have to start with the full suite, however. Use what you can and based on the metrics you collect that demonstrate their effectiveness, you can make the case for the next one.

  • Staff—It takes time and effort to produce, repurpose, and distribute content through these channels. Many employee communication departments are understaffed as it is. Again, start small and build based on success. Another challenge is that few departments can claim their staffs have all of the competencies required to manage all of these channels (and few have taken the BBVA approach of hiring an internal communication-focused channel manager). You should conduct a competency audit (a service I provide with my colleague, Richard Binhammer) to figure out where your skills gaps are and where they align with your communication strategy, then determine how you’ll deal with those gaps. (There are only three competency solutions: train existing staff on new competencies, hire new staff that has those competencies, or outsource.)

Next Up: Culture

This post wraps up the review of my employee communication model’s outer wheel. Next, I’ll dive into the four inner circles, each of which represents one of the core dimensions of business where communication can have the greatest impact, starting with culture. I will offer an overview of the relationship between culture and communication in the next post, then cover each of the five key elements of business culture: visions, values, practices, people, and place.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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Comments

  • 1.Could'nt go to part two (link disfunction?)
    Thies are very valuable pieces. Is there a possibility to get all together in one pdf? I am a teacher and would like to put your statt in a reader for my students.
    Best Andreas

    Andreas Jäggi | August 2017 | Zürich

  • 2.Andreas, I could not duplicate your problem. Can you try directly from this link?

    http://holtz.com/blog/a-model-for-employee-communication/

    It is my plan to publish the complete series as an e-book once I'm finished -- there will be a total of about 25 posts. Stay tuned!

    Shel Holtz | August 2017

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