What is employee communications’ role? A critical response to an argument I largely agree with

Posted on November 25, 2013 2:01 pm by | Internal

David MurrayDavid Murray, my friend and sometime intellectual adversary, wrote a column published today at Ragan.com titled Employee communicators know not what they do. I wrote a reply that wound up being too long to paste into the comments section, so I’m publishing it here as an independent post. I urge you to read David’s remarks for greater context than I provide in my response. I also highly recommend David’s blog, Writing Boots.

David, your overarching point—that employee communicators need to think strategically about their role—is important and I’m glad you articulated it so well.

However, I do take issue with some of what you wrote, starting with exactly what our job is. Citing Alexander Heron, author of Sharing Information with Employees, you say our job is to create understanding among employees “of the basic economics of their business, who the customers are, who the competition is, what the expectation of quality is and what kind of person the boss is.”

I have been championing business literacy as a critical employee communications task for decades. Without high levels of literacy, employees can’t connect their daily work to the bigger picture, and they’ll always be unprepared for organizational change. However, raising business literacy is one task among several. And even if it is the biggest part of our job, we still have to know why. You argue that we are not servants of the C-suite, that we have a bigger, more altruistic part to play in improving society at large. While noble, that won’t inspire the C-suite to continue funding an internal communications function. For that, we have to produce measurable outcomes that matter to them.

To achieve both—helping leaders achieve their goals while producing bigger aspirational outcomes, our overarching goal must be to create alignment between employees (and their work) and the company (and its plans, initiatives, strategies, vision, mission and goals). One of the ways to do that—a vital one far too often ignored—is raising the level of business literacy among employees. If that’s all we do, however, we may have succeeded as educators and trainers, but we will have failed as communicators.

What is communication?

It’s worth noting that the job is called employee communications, not employee journalism or employee reporting. You reference Roger D’Aprix repeatedly in your post. I remember the first time I met Roger. It was the late 1970s and my department head, Dave Orman, brought Roger into the department to talk to us. Like most employee communicators at the time, nearly all of us were former journalists. Roger told us he would NEVER hire a journalist. They only know how to report reactively, he said, and internal communications needs to be proactive.

In a passage written in 1776, Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, the first European to see Utah Lake, wrote that the lake “runs northwest through a narrow passage, and according to what they told us, it communicates with others much larger.” In this sense, the word “communicate” means that Utah Lake and the others become one; they gain commonality. From our perspective, communication means leaders and workers wind up on the same page. The very definition of communication is to exchange information or news, to connect people. Two-way communication is inherent in the very meaning of the word.

Reporting is a component of communication. It is not what communication is. You wonder, in your column, whether we should focus efforts on “helping management listen to the workforce.” Not only should we help management listen, we should establish and facilitate channels that allow management and employees to engage one another, and for employees to connect with each other. There is nothing in the internal communications remit that confines us to the production and distribution of content—nor should there be.

Engagement depends on good communication

Alignment of employees and their work with the organization depends on employees who give a damn. Leaving it up to Human Resources and other functions to make employees care enough to be receptive to our prose would be foolish and irresponsible. It is incumbent upon internal communicators (in concert with peer organizational functions like HR) to elevate not only business literacy, but the emotional state that makes employees give a damn about this kind of information. You conclude your column by noting, “When citizens understand the economic reality surrounding their work lives, it’s a smarter society.” That’s true, but despite the fact that thousands of great journalists create brilliant content about all manner of realities, delivered through well produced and credible outlets, nearly 20% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth, nearly 30% believe that cloud computing involves actual clouds, and nearly 30% believe God plays a role in the outcome of sporting events. I could go on, but I think you take my meaning.

All that reporting, yet it doesn’t seem to be producing an enlightened society. Nor will reporting on business necessarily raise the level of literacy. Not, that is, unless we can make employees want to pay attention. For that, we need engaged employees.

You write in your column that some communicators “are trying to create something called ‘employee engagement,’” as though it’s an amorphous concept. It’s not. Employee engagement is a management concept that assesses the degree to which employees are willing to make discretionary effort for their employers. (“Discretionary effort” would include paying attention to internal communication content, which I have never once seen included in any employee’s job description.)

Engaged employees are passionate about their employer and their work. They innovate. Employees who are not engaged just phone it in, doing the minimum possible. Actively disengaged employees subversively undermine the organization. Currently, in the U.S., a shockingly low 29% of employees are engaged. The rest fall into the other categories. (A recent survey revealed that four out of five Americans plan to look for a new job in 2014.)

There is also research to suggest that organizations that communicate effectively have higher levels of engagement. In fact, one study shows that companies that communicate effectively are four times more likely to have high levels of engagement. Unfortunately, these studies also show that communication is about more than just business literacy. For example, one dimension of communication that arises from engagement studies is voice. That is, employees need to feel that they have a voice, that they are listened to, that they have the means of communicating upward.

Whose responsibility?

Would you leave this to Human Resources? If you would make it an employee communications activity, would you confine it to issues of business literacy? Or would you have internal communicators strive to not only share employees’ opinions with leaders, but to develop and manage the channels that enable them to engage with each other directly?

In fact, understanding and working to improve engagement can help us create the context through which we can make literacy-driven communication meaningful. Employees self-identify with only three stakeholder groups. One is the people they work with every day (the peers in their work teams and those in their project teams). It’s vital to understand this, since the top driver of employee satisfaction is the people employees work with. Again, creating and sustaining connections among employees is a communications job. (If we do it well, we are given the gift of real-time access to information about what employees really care about, what questions they’re asking, what concerns they have, and other guides to developing even more meaningful communication solutions.)  I would never advocate abdicating the management of these channels to other staff functions. IT does a great job of deploying such solutions, but it takes communications to drive employee adoption of these tools in support of business goals.

Not only can we communicate directly and facilitate tools that allow employees to interact with each other. We can provide communications support to supervisors so they can improve their own team communications. In fact, one of the other stakeholder groups with which employees identify is the relationship he is in with his line supervisor. Thus, for much of what we do, the line supervisor becomes an important focal point. If we succeed, supervisors will become interpreters, explaining what big-picture business issues mean to the workers in their own departments. We can help build the internal infrastructure that provides context to content.

The 19th-century furniture shop and the modern corporation

I enjoyed the passage you cited from Heron’s book about the 19th-century furniture shop. However, the reason the seven workers in that shop knew what they did about the business is because their day-to-day work informed them of the boss’s issues and concerns.

Today’s employee might work in a plant 2,500 miles from headquarters. The plant might be operated by one of several business units. It might produce three of the 25 products for which that business unit is responsible. If our job is, in part (as you say) to help employees understand what kind of person the boss is, who customers are, who the competition is, I ask: Which ones? Is the boss the CEO, that remote figurehead who seems to have little bearing on the employee’s job? Is it the head of the business unit? The plant manager? The team leader? Are customers all the company’s customers, or just those who buy the products manufactured at that plant? is it the corporation’s key competitors, or those who make and sell items that compete head-to-head with the products made at that one facility?

Other drivers of engagement on which communicators can have a direct bearing are autonomy (we can demonstrate by example how others have used the permission they have to manage their own efforts), a culture conducive to a positive work environment, relief from the boredom and sameness of work, and the opportunity to be challenged in their jobs.

Communications can (and should) contribute to these drivers. Communicating just business literacy will have scant impact on these efforts. On the other hand, contributing to the drivers of engagement will create an audience more receptive to literacy-based communication.

Finally, I just have to address your disdain for communicators who talk about technology. “If I had wanted to kibbitz all day about gizmos, I wouldn’t have become a communicator,” you write, “I’d have gone to work at a Radio Shack.”

Tactics matter

Interestingly, you also compare communicators to doctors, who have “a code of ethics and a set of methods that he or she takes from one healthcare organization to another, and in fact from any country to another.” While I wholeheartedly agree with your point, can you imagine a doctor well-schooled in theory but clueless about the tools of diagnosis and treatment? Would you feel comfortable with a surgeon who had not acquainted himself or herself with the most recent technological developments that are proven to produce better medical outcomes?

Do you talk to doctors? The ones I talk to spend a fair amount of time kibbitzing about medical technology.

The importance of communicators sharing philosophical underpinnings for their work cannot be understated. But all the great ideas and concepts, news and information we want to share with employees will be meaningless if delivered over channels and on media that employees don’t use. The simple fact is that communication is overwhelmingly digital these days, and the channels and tools evolve and change daily.

Of course, technology was important 30 years ago, too. If a printer told me he couldn’t put color on a page where I wanted to use it because the form was going four-up, two-over-four, I had to understand what the hell he was talking about, just as a surgeon had to know the difference between one hemostat and another.

Today, communicators who ignore technology probably aren’t prepared to shift their focus to mobile, which means much of what they communicate will never be consumed, thought about, shared, or used to create a more enlightened workforce. They would most likely continue cranking out 2,500-word articles nobody will read when employees are more inclined to pay attention to short videos. They will ignore the shift to consuming information in images and the means of producing great ones.

You ask if we should “err on the side of hiring more writers or more technologists?” Good writing is a core skill; it was always the first thing I looked for in a hire. It was not, however, the only thing. Today, being a good writer and being skilled at technology are not mutually exclusive. In Estonia, first-graders are being taught to code. When they enter the workforce, regardless of their choice of occupation, they’ll all be well-schooled in technology. These days, asking if you want one or the other is like asking if you want a good writer or someone who knows her times tables.

(Incidentally, no half-decent communicator would agree that we can communicate without research and insight into our audiences. As more and more of such insight flows from data, we will need technologists—quants—to analyze the data. While we most assuredly need excellent writers, complete staffs need to be equipped with all the right competencies, not just one of them, whether we find those on full-time staff or outside resources.)

More generally, you argue that we need to pick a side on whether we would hire more people “who can act as great facilitators” or “more business thinkers who can talk convincingly with management?”

As a hiring manager, I would insist on both. They are both important elements of communication. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an either-or proposition.

A strategy without tactics is a strategy that is never implemented

Who implements strategies? Not every communicator can have a at the management table. In fact, in any organization, it’s highly unlikely that more than one communicator will occupy that coveted and too-frequently-referenced seat. The rest of us will be implementers. We’d better know how, tactically, or we’ll be unnecessary overhead, easily trimmed. Then who will improve society through profound and meaningful communication? HR?

With two colleagues, I have identified 34 competencies required by communicators who want to practice their craft in the social/digital age. Of course, few communicators will need to be competent in all of those 34 areas, but depending on the goals you have and the work you’re expected to do, you’ll need some of them. Planning to launch an online community? It’s doomed to fail if you’re not competent in community management. That’s just one example.

As I noted at the outset, I agree with much of what you wrote, and I completely agree with your theme that internal communicators need to take a more intellectual approach to their jobs. We need to bring a critical eye to the organization and be prepared to challenge leaders rather than simply succumb to their often misguided expectations. We should see the broader consequences of what we do. We should elevate the business literacy of employees. We should, collectively, have a profound effect on society at large.

We should do that not just by being informers and reporters, but by being complete employee communicators who know how to deliver measurable and meaningful results that matter to all of our audiences.



  • 1.Shel, my friend and occasional intellectual sparring partner, I think you agree ENTIRELY with my essay, but only think that it doesn't go far enough, or doesn't say exactly what you would say. Because what you criticize in it isn't actually there.

    Reading this, I had to go back to my original piece three or four times looking in vain for where I'd said that employee journalism was the perfect model for employee communication, and the one we should run back to. In fact, I called old-time corporate journalists "misguided," while acknowledging they had an orientation that today's communicators can draw from, for wisdom. That's all I said about corporate journalism.

    You also imply that I recommend employee communicators should be banned from helping employees communicate with one another or limited to "production and distribution of content." Where?

    You accuse me of advocating that communicators remain "clueless" about technology. You don't think there's a happy medium between two decades of tecnho-obsession and utter cluelessness? Show me the communicator who you describe who has, over the past 20 years been able to "ignore" technology and thus will be shocked to learn that their 2,500-word screeds aren't being consumed with employees on mobile devices. That's a straw man if ever there was one, and anyone who thinks that every communicator 15 years from now will have to know how to code is Estoned.

    You accuse me of pretending not to know what employee engagement is, and then try to settle the bet by harrumphingly referring to it as "a management concept." Look, engagement is defined in a number of ways, ranging from someone who's enthusiastic about the corporate mission to someone who finds his best friend at work. I know a lot of people who are "engaged" at work because they like their caring boss OR the content of their job OR the status of the corporate brand OR the mission of the organization OR the camaraderie of their immediate colleagues. Alas, not all of these forms of engagement are equally valuable. Employee communicators must figure out which types of engagement they can affect, and I don't think they often do. Which is why I said, "These communicators may be onto something, but they know not what."

    Worst of all, you say in front of God and everybody that I would leave upward communication to human resources. Shel, there are some bars, most of them right around the corner from corporate headquarters, where a fellow could get punched for saying a thing like that. (Luckily, you and I don't hang out in bars like that; we prefer the Billy Goat Tavern.)

    I don't think "business literacy," a sterile term that you use but one I never would, is the only salient work of internal communication. Rather, I agree with Alexander Heron that communication BEGINS when you help employees understand how the whole hairy business works together--departments, regions, divisions, corporate--to serve various kinds of customers and pay shareholders who buy and sell the stock based on dynamic market conditions.

    To the extent that you get a decent part of the employee population understanding the above, they start asking intelligent questions, as Heron points out. Which management then has to answer. Which begins a useful and ongoing corporate conversation.

    Mostly, I think what you're saying is that my (2,500-word) piece is good as far as it goes, but that it doesn't go far enough. It doesn't cover the full range of (wholly measurable) strategic efforts and tactical activities that employee communicators should be engaged in.

    In that way, my article has everything in common with every employee communication program. Employee communication is an INFINITE task in an organization. It can ALWAYS be doing more. And the five staffers hired to do it will always wish they could do more. But they're only people. So they need to pick a focus--something they think they can achieve, the most important thing they think they can do.

    And if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I'd say that essence of that job is: By every possible means, helping employees understand the organization in as much complexity as possible, carrying their questions to management and getting honest answers so they can do their job in context and with a sense of intellectual ownership.

    Of course we want to do more than that. But if you met a communicator who said she'd actually achieved all that in an organization, you wouldn't say, "That's all?" No, you'd sit her ass down and demand to know, "HOW?"

    After 20 years of watching employee communication--10 of them as editor of Ragan's Journal of Employee Communication Management--the essence of the need for internal communicators is contained in a cartoon that my dad used to have on his fridge. It showed two guys pushing bars on a pole that disappeared into the ceiling. One of the guys says to the other, "I think they got a merry-go-round up there."

    Employee communication is for those guys. Reach them the best way you know how, with all the resources you can get.

    Can we agree on that much?

    David Murray | November 2013 | Chicago, IL

  • 2.We can agree on much more than that, I'm sure, David. And, as I started out, I'm largely in agreement with what you wrote.

    The part that struck me and got me digging into the details was this:

    "Employees need an understanding of the basic economics of their business, who the customers are, who the competition is, what the expectation of quality is and what kind of person the boss is...
    That is our job."

    As I wrote, that's PART of our job, but the way I read it -- and as it was supported by the rest of your column -- it seemed (to me, anyway), that you were suggesting that much of the other effort communicators make is extraneous to what's important, and we should exclusively focus on this. Other parts of the column emphasized "informing."

    As for two-way communication and some of my other secondary points, I was just answering questions you asked!

    Engagement and technology you approached derisively (or, perhaps, curmudgeonly). For technology, I'm sure there's a happy middle ground, but I honestly don't see the current conversation as excessive, particularly since much of it is coming from front-line communicators with titles like "specialist" and "editor," as opposed to managers, directors and VPs, who need to be thinking to achieve communication goals. And most of the technology conversation in the communications context is about how to use it effectively, not how cool it is or how it works.

    As for engagement, here's some recommended reading:

    I don't have the same disdain for labels you have. If you and I and other communicators know what is meant when we say "business literacy," why not say that (five syllables) instead of longer, more bloated explanations? At least on second reference?

    As you know, you and are basically see things the same way. My response dealt with the edges as opposed to the substance. As I noted, I'm delighted you wrote the piece. The need to focus on what employee communicators can accomplish when they commit to the loftiest of goals is something people working in the craft can't hear too much of.

    But, as I noted in the IABC LinkedIn discussion, we're not a profession. There is no required education or credential to be a communicator. People get hired into communications departments with no background at all, all the time. The reason doctors and lawyers and other professionals share a common foundation is that (a) they have had it drilled into them in school and (b) they have committed to it through their credentialing process (and can be held accountable if they violate the principles). The odds of such credentialing in our field are slim and none, but without it, I fear all the columns and reminders and workshops and keynotes and books and other exhortations will raise the bar a little, but not much.

    I'll buy you a drink the next time I'm in Chicago!

    Shel Holtz | November 2013

  • 3.Yes, Shel, we do indeed agree on most things. I'd like to make a few more points before seeing if anyone else wants to pull up a barstool and join our latest professional palaver.

    You say that giving employees "an understanding of the basic economics of their business, who the customers are, who the competition is, what the expectation of quality is and what kind of person the boss is" is PART of our job. I say that if anyone who achieved anything close to what that sentence lays out for a large part of a workforce, would be the Babe Ruth of employee communication. And we would suspect him or her of steroids use.

    As for labels, calling the above "business literacy" is like calling a deep and broad understanding of sociology, politics, psychology and history "social literacy." It demeans the thing, and makes it sound like a detail: Something we might teach in a really clever unit in new employee orientation. When, really, what we're trying to give employees is a huge, ever-changing, un-gettable grip on an infinitely complex reality that we don't fully have ourselves.

    As for whether we're a profession or a craft, the late Larry Ragan--who would find this whole conversation between us mostly laughable, because it is pretty far removed from the reality inside most communication shops--said that such matters are ideal for a winter's conversation over a good bottle of whiskey.

    He had that right. Let's make it happen.

    David Murray | November 2013 | Chicago, IL

  • 4.I've decided to step into the fray, contending that some basic realities need to be acknowledged before this debate about the nature of internal communication can develop into a productive discussion about its future. The link to the piece is


    I would love your thoughts.

    Mike Klein | November 2013 | Amsterdam and Copenhagen

  • 5.Agreed to the concept that A strategy without tactics is a strategy that is never implemented

    Tyson Abbo | September 2016 | San Diego

  • 6.To stay competitive, employees need to be engaged and committed – willing and able to perform at a maximum level and give more. But high performance can’t be mandated or delegated. To be successful, organizations must tap the strengths and passions of each individual employee. Full employee engagement occurs when an employee’s personal values and unique definition of success at work intersects positively with the organization’s financial performance. Executives need to authenticate and lead; managers need to coach, align and recognize daily discretionary effort; and individual contributors need to understand where their passions lie and what they’re skill sets are, then perform and take control of his or her own destination. With a properly assessed internal brand and implemented employee engagement and internal communications program, effective employee engagement and can and will improve over time, as will company performance.

    Carla Ernst | June 2017 | Milwaukee WI

  • 7.Thanks for the post! Thank God in my company employee communicators know what they do. I like to work there!

    MalcolmW | October 2017 | London

Comment Form
What is the four-letter acronym for the Society for New Communications Reseach?

« Back