Covid-19 is now viral - in every sense of the word. New Zealand announced its first confirmed case today, with officials stressing that it was always a case 'of not if, but when'.
Most country outbreaks are, for the time being at least, as contained as they can be but we all know how easy it is to catch a cold and, as Covid-19 is the same family as the 'common cold' I have no doubt that in the coming weeks we will all be aware of someone with the illness (if not ourselves).
Miscommunication has been rife for weeks now and has resulted in some very nasty racist attacks and displays of xenophobia. Social media is pumped up with rumour and counter-rumour and economic fall-out is beginning to occur.
So what role for practitioners in all of this? Quite a significant one of course but perhaps one of the most valuable and potentially overlooked roles in this type of situation is that of the internal communication professional.
Organisations of all types will face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Inevitably supply chains will be disrupted and customers numbers will diminish but the greatest challenge will be staying in business or continuing to provide service as staff either fall ill, self-isolate or have to remain home as carers. Internal communicators should have already prepared their crisis plan in conjunction with their HR and leadership teams and have a programme underway - if not, now is the hour.
Clear, factual and consistent communication will help organisations maintain some form of business continuity. Internal communications professionals need to help their colleagues understand how everyone will work together to manage staff shortages, remote working, public-facing service delivery, wellness and hygiene as well as situation updates as case numbers rise and more people become unwell.
However, where the real value will be evident is in those workplaces where internal communicators have been active already, successfully building strong internal relationships in workplaces that give priority to the employee experience. In those instances, the crisis communication plan will be particularly effective because the fundamentals of trust, commitment and loyalty between the organisation and its employees will already be in place.
Hopefully, the organisations out there who prioritise and value their employee relationships outnumber those that don't - and those are the workplaces and organisations where the value of internal communications will be visible to all.
It's that time of year when my attention turns outside in and I take another long look at the role of internal communications. Sharing knowledge around the preparation and implementation of good internal communication strategies always leads me to emphasis the fact that you can't have good external relationships if your internal relationships are poor or neglected.
Relationships of all kinds give our organisations the permission they need to do what they do and to keep their licence to operate. Sadly, internal relationships often fall by the wayside with employees taken for granted by the organisation's leadership. Much has been made of employee engagement and the need to ensure that everyone is delighted, enthralled and active in the workplace - which is great but, as humans, it is a rare thing if this actually comes to pass, particularly in an era that features zero hour contracts, unsafe work spaces, stress, burnout and the odd oppressive boss. What might be considered 'gold standard' internal communication is swiftly cancelled out by bad behaviour - whether that's the boss, the colleague or the employee themselves.
So what's next for internal communication? We've already seen the evolution of titles - employee engagement executive, employee relations officer, chief happiness officer and so on - but have we actually seen an evolution of the role? I don't think we have but it is getting there. Many internal communicators have moved on from 'sending out stuff' and simply actioning executive demands for information sharing and tools like Slack and Trello have helped internal organisational culture move forward a little (although there are growing reports of task update fatigue as employees struggle to use the collaborative tools and actually complete their work).
My thinking is that there's some internal rethinking for organisations to undertake and that has to start with an audit of their people, values, culture, tools and systems. Each of these things informs the other and a cohesive, effective internal communication strategy can only be formulated once this is done (and if you need some help understanding just how it is done, then we can help).
Internal communication is everyone's responsibility but not everyone's area of expertise. Bringing people together, facilitating good relationships, developing a healthy values-based internal culture is the realm of the internal communications professional and always has been. Communicators for sure - but also connectors, facilitators and encouragers specialising in building a workplace culture where people are empowered not just to get the job done but to do a great job.
There's been much talk this week about evaluation in public relations and communication management and, for me, the most surprising part of the conversation has been the consideration that evaluation is something new, the beginning of a step change in the approach to this essential part of our work. Surprising because research, measurement and evaluation has always been a crucial part of what we do and I'm always flabbergasted when I realise a lot of people either don't do it or don't know where to start.
Yes, for many years people got bogged down counting media clippings, hits on websites and stuff they sent out as well as other made-up measurements that were either vanity metrics or conjured from thin air in a bid to hint at success. Sadly, organisations still fall for this - mainly because they're not told or taught otherwise by those who are supposed to be their professional advisors.
Much of the problem is caused by a lack of understanding as to what we do - and I think it's probably time I wrote another post on the purpose and functions of PR - but for now here's a quick refresher on the process of public relations research, measurement and evaluation.
First up - what is your organisation hoping to achieve? What is your outcome? The end game, the place you want to get to? And, most importantly from a PR perspective, who do you need with you? Who are the people who hold your licence to operate (the permission you are given as an organisation to do the things you do) and what how healthy are your relationships? So, stage one - understand your organisational outcomes, identify your licence holders and stakeholder communities.
Next - research. Who are you, where are you, what do you do, who do you help - either with your product, service or specialism - why do you do it (purpose and values) and who doesn't want you to do it? How's your reputation? What are the risks and issues? Trends and tendencies? What does your data tell you? When was the last time anyone looked? Research the socks off your position, your area of operation (be that public or private sector) and find out all you can. In your formative research stage, benchmark your critical relationships - measure existing relationship components and find out how things are. This will inform your strategy, confirm your outcomes are sound - or need adjusting - and help you ascertain when you set your public relations outcomes whether you are heading in the right direction.
Third - set your public relations outcomes. These support your organisation's outcomes and will focus on the relationship and its components of trust, mutuality, satisfaction, commitment, loyalty, as identified by Grunig and Hon in 1999. I also add understanding and reputation as both are essential in initiating and developing sound relationships. Other outcomes (that organisations often find easier to understand) are behaviour, knowledge and attitude. As part of your formative research, identify where you sit on the scale - for example, we need to improve trust and satisfaction from X to Y, shift attitudes from A to B, change behaviours from E to F.
Once you know what you are hoping to do you can then develop a strategy to get you there, and, in doing so, set your measurable objectives (step four) which will inform your communications planning, act as signposts on the journey (are we on the right track or do we need to take a detour) and, collectively, the measures will help to inform your evaluation. Don't fall into the trap of using measurement and evaluation interchangeably - a measurement is a unit and an evaluation an assessment. For example, I have a piece of string that is a metre long. Great - that's my unit of measurement. The evaluation is an assessment - did the string work as a shoelace? Should it have been shorter or longer? Did it keep my shoe secure so I could run the marathon? Or should I have used actual shoelaces instead of string? What have I learned from this and how will this learning help me manage future marathons?
Then comes the implementation of your programme or campaign and with it, constant listening, monitoring actions, measuring interactions with your stakeholder groups against the measures of success you've identified within your objectives. Oh yes - it's not about mainstream media monitoring either. That might form part of your work to improve/build/sustain relationships, improve knowledge, behaviours and attitudes but that's only part of the story - and one small part. Public relations is not mainstream media relations so don't rely on that as a measure of your worth. There is also no such thing as 'the general public' or 'creating awareness'. You have to be specific. Public relations builds and sustains the relationships necessary to maintain an organisation's licence to operate - that's what you are working towards and that's what you need to measure and evaluate.
Once your programme is complete - and adjusted along the way thanks to your marvellous listening, monitoring and measurement - its time for your evaluation, which includes a repeat of the formative research and measurement of the relationship components so you can discover whether you've achieved your outcomes - that your organisation has, for example, improved trust and loyalty among employees and that knowledge of the organisation has increased to the point where behaviours and attitudes have begun to change. You can find the detailed 'how to' in our research, measurement and evaluation course and there's a video here that breaks this down a little more for you.
In the meantime, remember - it is absolutely possible to measure public relations and its value and impact for the organisation (of any type) undertaking the activity. All public relations work should be supporting the outcomes of the organisation and acting as a guide/change agent for behaviour, inside and outside the organisation. Don't 'settle' for nonsense measures, counting clips, hits, retweets and likes - they prove nothing other than you turned up for work and sent some stuff out. Look deeper, ask the questions, do the mahi and evaluate the results.
Funny thing experience. When you are looking for a job, experience tends to be the focus of the interview. What experience have you got? How is it relevant? Where did you get your experience? If the 'experience indicators' aren't immediately obvious on your CV, it is highly unlikely that you'll even get to the interview stage.
Surprising then that the emphasis given to experience at the recruitment stage is so poorly reflected by employers when they consider the experience they are providing for their employees. I wonder how different recruitment would be if, during an interview, the prospective employee was asked about their experience and they related their experience of being employed. Describing in detail how their current or former workplace made them feel. Whether or not they were rewarded, developed, trained and recognised. Whether the employing organisation truly valued them and the contribution they made. Whether they were listened to - and acknowledged. Or perhaps they would explain how they were ignored, stressed and under-resourced, motivating their current job hunt.
Public relations builds and sustains the relationships organisations need to keep their licence to operate - and that's all the relationships, not just a select few. All relationships include the internal relations for the organisation which includes the internal communications strategy and function. If you don't have good internal relations then your external relationships will fail and your reputation will falter - and underpinning all this is the workforce experience.
For years employee engagement has been the elusive 'X Factor' for organisations - 'if we get good engagement then all's well and our employees will magically become staunch advocates for us on social media and other external platforms' goes the riff which, to be fair, is only one step up from the great myth of 'employee satisfaction'. It's a myth because I might be 'satisfied' with my job for many reasons and those reasons will probably have nothing to do with my loyalty, commitment or care for my employer. For instance, I might tick 'yes' on the job satisfaction survey because the hours I work allow me to pursue a part-time career as a magician, or allow me to take care of an elderly relative, be a volunteer life-guard, pick the kids up from school - or any number of pursuits. I might tick 'yes, I'm satisfied with my job' because I'm frightened my manager might find out if I tick 'no' and make my life a misery. Satisfaction is not an adequate measure of internal relationship health and neither is engagement, which is only a mild improvement on satisfaction. The concept of 'engaged employee' is a surface measure of an individual's reaction to their workplace but not a measure of relationship health.
Work has changed and as security has been substituted for flexibility so employee requirements have changed. Studies have shown that employees look for purpose in their work often before pay. That the organisation's values must align with their own if they are to remain committed and loyal to their employer. Employee engagement requires a culture that facilitates collaboration and that collaboration helps everyone comply with what is necessary to get the job done. The experience must include a sense of place so the employee understands the environment they belong to, their place and role in achieving the purpose and the opportunity to work to and provide value.
As always, new job titles emerge to describe new times - we can find chief happiness officers, masters of contentment, experience innovators and many more besides. But the titles don't change a core undertaking if the experience is going to be genuine - and that undertaking is internal communication. You can't build good relationships without good communication. Communication that helps build knowledge, address behaviours or change attitudes. The internal communication strategy must be designed to convey the working experience of all those inside the organisation, listening and engaging in conversations that help inform organisational culture and any necessary change. What it must never be is 'sending out stuff', churning out email newsletters and uploading information to a stale old intranet - heading in that direction will take employees towards the door rather than towards the heart of the organisation.
Still photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash
Video and motion graphic by Catherine Arrow for PR Knowledge Hub
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.