The art of creating conversation

Oct, 24 – BY TAM SANDEMAN – Not long ago I blogged about Australia’s PR industry dialing up its interest in the power of employees as brand ambassadors. So it was with great delight that I accepted the invitation from the PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia) to speak on employee communication at its annual conference yesterday – PR Directions 2011.

While it was clearly a positive move to see internal communication on the agenda – for me what was even more exciting was the title of the session – Cool watercooler conversations in your organisation: Effective internal communication – highlighting the industry’s understanding that we deliver so much more than newsletters, CEO blogs and mousemats with the company strategy on it.

Driving conversation and dialogue is absolutely what it’s all about – and to be fair, in our view, always should have been. Long gone are the days when a charismatic (and unfortunately sometimes the opposite) CEO’s town hall speech at the start of the year was enough to rally the troops. Today, more than ever it’s simply not enough. Employees are more comfortable to ask questions after hearing from the CEO and actively demand more transparency around company decisions. We say leaders are at their most powerful when they don’t really think they’re communicating – in the corridor after the big meeting, on the way to the car park, in the bathroom (not ideal) – but it is these informal interactions during which more authentic, genuine communication takes place that really counts – because they’re believable and tailored to the individual.

I was asked to give 10 minutes of insight from our rather enviable position of having a bird’s eye view into the employee engagement and internal communication of many of Australia’s top organisations. Here were the four points (there would have been more, but 10 minutes goes fast) I believe all organisations need to consider when it comes to driving conversation:

  1. The introduction of social media has meant ‘water cooler’ conversation now has a new channel – with informal conversations enabled online as well as face to face.  Companies taking social media seriously as an external channel but not for their own people do so at their own peril.
  2. Avoid MMM (Middle Manager Madness) – Time poor leaders and diverse workforces mean that many organisations are simply not giving communication the time it deserves. But who is it that needs to be skilled up on the art of conversation with the right content? Not just the senior leaders. It’s the middle or frontline managers who are key to succcess – they have the opportunity to converse with the frontline every day – so it’s clear – THEY are the ones who need to be invested in and at the moment they are clearly forgotten.
  3. Great conversations don’t just happen. Well, they do sometimes – but they need help. Providing managers with the right tools to stimulate conversation is key. Be creative. Provide them with stuff they actually want to talk about – something they see the point in. Journey maps and conversation guides are just two of the tools flying off our shelves at the moment. What’s better is… when measured – they really do work.
  4. And finally…  be culture and demographically appropriate with your tactics. If you want to drive a culture of conversationists – it’s got to come from the top. Don’t choose something crazy and out there if you have a cynical workforce. This may come in time – road test anything you’re not sure about. Nothing worse than getting it wrong – this could do more harm than doing nothing.

As we say – it’s not rocket science, but we are all different creatures and there’s an absolute art to getting it right. Thank you to the filled room at the Hilton today – it’s great to know so many PR professionals are interested in this side of communication. I hope to meet you all at a water cooler some day…