The CEO slid his chair forward and placed his elbows on the boardroom table.                                                                                                                                         “The issue,” he said, “is the difference between strategic and operational communication. Strategy covers the big milestones; the operational elements are the small steps needed to get there. But if you talk to strategic people about ops, you’re speaking Spanish to Russians, and no-one’s understanding anyone else.”

The prevailing lack of understanding that this CEO was referencing a situation that is partly a consequence of internal communicators not being deployed properly – or, being deployed and then mandated to broadcast communication messages to audiences. In other words, the default mandate is usually this: share messaging downwards.

What happens then? In most cases, the communicator does the following:

  • Defines organisational purpose, values and world view;
  • Conducts research to understand stakeholders;
  • Creates relevant content with an audience focus;
  • Defines organisational strategy;
  • Incorporates research results in organisational strategy and processes;
  • Implements an ongoing communication strategy and action plan; and
  • Carries out business and communication measurement and evaluation.

Additionally, when tasked with ‘organisational listening’ (via research, surveys, and other listening tools), communicators are often required to ignore the ‘asks’ that may emerge from their publics and to ‘do another broadcast campaign’.

But is communication just that… broadcasting? No, it is not. Or, it shouldn’t be. Interpreters & trusted advisors

The true role of the modern business communicator is to interpret: to facilitate dialogical communication between separate interests; to make the Spanish understandable to the Russians and the Russian understandable to the Spanish.

So if our understanding of organisational listening is as a process of capturing and understanding employee sentiments, and if the broader goal is better decision-making, surely our communicators must then be trusted strategic advisors?

Surely they must be mandated to identify, assimilate, convey and then measure ever-changing employee sentiments, to bridge the contextual gap that exists between two very different languages: strategic and operational? And if so, what does that look like, and how do we sustainably achieve it?

The missing link in two-way comms
Overall, many organisations have already made a shift in their thinking; realising that every time an employee is touched by the organisation, through leadership, managers, or the organisational processes, they end up feeling slightly more favourable or slightly less favourable towards the organisation.  Communication is often positioned as a management function but feedback is not a key priority.  Very few practitioners are mandated to use dialogue to influence the organisation and the audience symmetrically – even in top businesses that are known and rewarded for strategic communication management.  The missing link, if you will, is the upward flow: the activities of upward-moving communication and how the information (gathered using the tools and processes of organisational listening) is practically incorporated into the organisation.

The following are processes that support upward communication flow:

  1. Defining and segmenting the audience, and defining and aligning audience purpose, values and world view;
  2. Participating in research conversation, and receiving feedback on research results;
  3. Defining the role and contribution of stakeholders to organisational strategy, and vice versa;
  4. Providing feedback to stakeholders on changes in organisational strategy and processes;
  5. Incorporating feedback through evaluation and adapting communication strategy and action plan accordingly; and
  6. Receiving access to and making input into business and communication measurement and evaluation.

So what’s the bottom line?
There is a strong case to be made for symmetrical two-way organisational communication, beginning with a laser-sharp focus on the lesser-spotted upward flow. After all, in an ideal world, the information that communicators collect is used to modify goals, objectives, policies, procedures, or other forms of organisational behaviour; not merely to influence audience behaviour in the short term.

The challenge for organisations is to learn to converse in two directions, and to start this learning curve with the empowerment of their communicators as interpreters.

Mari Lee

CEO and Founder

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