Can you be trusted?

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Since this pandemic hit, communicators around the globe have had to step forward, work at pace and deliver the impossible, and they’ve done an amazing job. The thing is, we are now at a pivotal time both in terms of organisations and as an industry of professional communicators. What we do next can make or break our brush with recognition and how this plays out is up to you. 

The term ‘pivot’ has been used a lot recently and where I’m not a fan of its use, it’s possibly what needs to happen here, as long as we don’t end up doing the whole 360-degrees and end up where we started. There is a definite shift in the industry. In recent times there has been talk about the relevance of strategic internal communication in the face of advances in technology. It’s resulted in a sort of stepping back on the practitioner’s part and a focus on the demand from organisations to have the latest and greatest piece of tech to fix how they communicate internally. We know that the technology available is amazing, but it doesn’t work without strategy and content to ensure it means something to people. But I digress – in some ways this set the foundation for the accessibility we’ve seen today with practitioners able to launch some great tools to support new ways of working. 

What I believe is most important is a move that will shape where internal communications goes next. Yes, there is recognition, yes, the work was delivered at a great pace (something we’re regularly criticised for), but now the needs have changed. Organisations need guidance, advice and the kind of support that will help them deliver the harder messages around change and reorganisation. It will be about engagement and keeping talent, while employees process how different this time has been for them and how, as a result, they’ve changed. 

This is a wake-up call to position internal communications as a professional function that provides solid advice. And practitioners who can be present in the midst of leadership and champion the type of communication that is needed to sustain companies at this time. 

In the past the term ‘trusted adviser’ has been heavily used. I think it’s still relevant, but it’s so much wider than how it was previously regarded. What I’d like to do here is to raise a few thoughts to support that being ‘trusted’ is heavily aligned to IC’s purpose and that building reputation is the main way that it will be established in the eyes of leadership and decision makers. Also, that its agents have the gravitas to lead and impact how communication is done from a strategic level.

Purpose

The conversation about purpose has gone on for a while. Practitioners correctly highlight the need for communication to have purpose and be aligned to the company vision, strategy and values. It’s the only way to develop meaningful communications. It’s also important for the practitioner to understand this in context of what they do and what they stand for. I’m not sure how much retrospection is done to identify this, but I think there needs to be.

Being purposeful as communicators allows for two things – an understanding of what it feels like to be clear on values and how they shape the approach to communicate. Secondly, it creates a talking point for communicators with leadership, as they experience what it’s like to operate in a purposeful way. It can be said that it’s simply about aligning the company purpose, but there is also something around internal communication being a profession that stands for something. That is being clear on why we exist and the role we play in achieving success. It plays into our proposition as a function and provides added credibility so that it is factored in the frame of decision-making as we go forward. 

Ultimately, being able to articulate IC’s purpose, character and value proposition to ensure the value added is understood.

Reputation

The other area to consider is reputation. To truly be ‘trusted’, time has to be taken to build reputation. This is not about writing newsletters or getting messages out on the intranet on time, this is about evidence that there is an understanding of the business and its priorities. The awareness of how the economy and relevant industry issues impacts the business. The issues that the CEO and senior leadership are concerned about. And, in addition to being able to demonstrate how communication can address these issues, it’s about having the gravitas to put ideas forward. 

To be that ‘trusted’ function there has to be more. Where delivering tactical communications on time is good, it will not get the attention of leadership beyond that specific moment. They will not look to you for answers. Some will never get how integral communication is to addressing the many issues and challenges within the organisation. It is rare that practitioners are called upon as the first person the CEO calls before making decisions that impact employees, and that needs to change. The goal, I believe, would be to build a reputation that paves the way.

It is naïve to think that because we’ve included ‘trusted adviser’ in the job specification, that leadership will consider that individual as professional and even qualified enough to enter the boardroom to challenge their thinking on communications. It can happen, but it will have to be earned through developing a reputation. 

Taking this forward

Dialogue is one of the main activities that can start to change this. It does mean being assertive and confident, to work on relationships at a senior level. It’s about taking the time to find out the perceptions and views of the stakeholders concerning communications and being willing to do something about it.

There is a tendency, from practitioners, to want to be told what and how things should be done. Where there is a place for that, especially at the early stages of careers, however, to be strategic and creative, it has to be about critical thinking. Becoming curious and forming opinions about themes that can enhance communications is the way forward.

As we look to the future and how the industry will be shaped in the face of Coronavirus, BLM and change etc., the strategic function of communications cannot be understated. The profession’s longevity and viability is connected to practitioners’ ability to apply themselves further to become valued and integral to the success of leadership and organisations. 

COMMENTS FROM IC BEYOND

MIKE

The key to being trusted involves trusting ourselves. All the talk about “imposter syndrome”, all the talk about “competent communicators”, and a good chunk of the drivers for certification play at practitioner insecurity about skills, value or sharpness.  I don’t offer an instant cure – but the entry ticket here involves a combination of self-awareness and of knowing where to get help when in over your head.

TRUDY

Absolutely Mike, shying away from professionalism in whatever that means for individuals is not the answer. It is understood that it can be challenging but there is help out there through mentoring and professional bodies like CIPR and IABC. I liked this article from Fast Company on Imposter Syndrome – but we need to agree to face self-awareness to identify what’s really going on. 

KEVIN

Being fast is great…for a while. But eventually you run out of puff.

Being smart is better in the long run. 

If all that we have done recently is to show how quick we can be then all we are demonstrating is that, as a corporate postperson, we can up a gear when we have to. That is not an intelligent route to increased professional credibility.

By ‘smart’, I mean embracing data to better understand what employees expect from internal comms. I mean developing multi-channel approaches to listening and responding to employees. I mean moving from a journalistic news-oriented mindset to an informal, more dialogic, mindset. I mean proper planning and measurement that shows how good, and ethical, internal comms is directly linked to better employee wellbeing and stronger organisational performance.

TRUDY

Thanks Kevin, I totally agree – a refresh on how we engage, which starts from a proactive mindset. The industry has for the most part been operating very reactively and this needs to change. Being ‘smart’ as you put it will ensure we establish ourselves and elevate the value we bring. 

JANET

Interesting piece Trudy. I think there are a couple of things that jump out to me. 

  1. Understand your business. You need to understand business objectives and the challenges they need to solve. Figure out how to get this information on-going. 
  2. Trust needs to be earned, so figure out how to earn trust fast if you haven’t been working on this already.
  3. Get a mentor outside of the business to support you with the courage, ambition and confidence you need to shift to a new way of working if this is new for you. Having a mentor is one of the best things I’ve done. He/She’s an awesome sounding board and brings a perspective that compliments and sometimes challenges my thinking. I don’t have to “do what he/she says”, this is about giving me perspective and a different view. Can’t recommend this enough frankly.

TRUDY

So true, you’ve summarised it well Janet – thanks. I believe that we have to move beyond waiting for these things to come together or for the people we serve to change and suddenly understand the importance of what we do. We have to own it ourselves and take action to get in front of the problems we know we can fix. By developing ourselves we will be taking the necessary steps towards this. 

BELINDA

How interesting that the answer to the challenge you pose lies in building reputation. Exactly what comms helps companies to do. I’m wondering what is in the toolkit already that comms folk can use to start to methodically and consistently build reputation. I agree that it starts with understanding the needs, expectations and preconceptions of your audience – business leaders. But what next? What are the really practical things comms leaders can start doing today to build reputation on a daily basis?

On another note, I love your point about the importance of comms leaders being purposeful and talking about purpose. Very relevant to a programme I’m working on at the moment. 

TRUDY

Thanks Belinda, I think we have a lot in our toolkit, but perhaps there is reluctance to go there – which could be about not wanting to self-promote or uncertainty about where to start. To your question, a good starting point is to simply have those conversations with stakeholders to express the value IC can add to their projects or work.  

ADAM

Trudy, as I read through your excellent piece and many of the responses already posted, I’m reminded of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan.

Toward the end, you write, ‘There is a tendency, from practitioners, to want to be told what and how things should be done.’ Yes – that’s something I’ve experienced myself and see with plenty of IC professionals. I also sense that even if we have the strategic mindset and the tools (i.e., we know what has to be done and have the ability to make it happen), people still tend to wait for guidance or next steps after sharing a strategic plan with leadership. If not always the time, we as IC professionals definitely have the knowledge, connections, and tools to gather feedback and other data, analyze it, and present a compelling story to leadership. That story could come in the form of a report, or it could be a simple communication like an article or set of FAQs posted in response to what we’re hearing and seeing in the organization.

But so often we’re waiting for someone to tell us to do that rather than taking the initiative. There’s no need to wait – we should ‘Just Do It’ – and do it now! Our message may fall on lots of deaf ears, but if we get one key leader or business partner to take note, it will be well worth the effort and a key sign that we have that trust.

TRUDY

Thanks Adam, I love the use of that slogan ‘Just Do It’ – and it’s so true. This is mostly about a group of professionals making the decision to advance their careers and the industry by not leaving things as they are, not being complacent and having the courage to step up. I believe leaders and organisations are just waiting for practitioners to do this – they need help in this area and based on what I know of practitioners – they have what it takes to deliver.