Yesterday I attended a session hosted by CIPRInside called Ask the Guru. An event aimed at new people in internal comms and providing them a few hours to ask a panel of three gurus anything they liked.

I was very privileged to be one of the gurus, alongside Dana Leeson and Tom Crawford.

We were joined by about 20 communicators, some who had submitted answers before and others than had real challenges in the workplace. In the spirit of sharing, here are a list of the questions we were asked and my answers to them:

Structure

1. How do you define where internal communications sits in relation to other departments? HR or Comms, or other?

This was something we discussed at the event and there were lots of views about whether HR, Marketing or even the CIO was appropriate. We are still at a crossroads in terms of where we sit but the main thing to consider is not necessarily where you sit, it is that you have a voice in the organisation and even better on the board.

Leaders/stakeholders

1. I keep reminding people we need to be open to expect employees to be open with us and trust us. I feel like it’s an up-hill struggle at times. How can I manage this dilemma?

This is often a challenge that stays with us for a long time. We are programmed that knowledge is power and that can often translate into hidden information which leads to a culture that lacks trust and openness. It is a cliché but this has to start from the top. If you’re in a position to, do some research with the employees to find out what they really think and take this to the board to facilitate a discussion about their view on how things are, what the people say and how we bridge the gap.

Small steps is the answer. Don’t try and do open and honest all at once if it just isn’t the way things are but find ways to bring everyone into the conversation. The more they do it in bite sized chunks the more they’ll realise the benefits and that nothing terrible will happen.

2. How do I balance the expectations of the senior leadership with the expectations of the staff?

Expectations are always difficult to manage. Senior leaders expectations can be managed by ensuring there are platforms for dialogue and two-way communication, not just top down push communication.

Once you bridge the gap between the two expectations and the way things are on the front line soon come to the surface and you can then manage how to build the relationships between them.

Senior leaders can expect you to do things that are not in line with what you know the front line wants or expects – be the voice of the people and make sure you coach and advise with their interests in mind.

3. How do I set clear boundaries for internal communications functions without upsetting stakeholders who have a history of ‘managing’ that communication channel? It’s very hard coming into an organisation balancing being efficient, helpful and professional while getting the results you know you can deliver.

Bring them into the fold! If you are coming in to set up the function centrally or start from scratch, identify the people that already do some of the communication and engage them from the off. I recently did something very similar and I worked closely with three or four people in the business who were gatekeepers of information and distributors of packs for teams. We worked together on my research of the business and I talked them through my findings before anyone else. We discussed what the impact wad for them but it was going to help them in the long run and how they were still needed as experts in those teams.

It’s a fine balance and one I think we all get wrong at least once in our careers. Listen to them, engage with them, be aware of their personality and adapt your style to theirs so they know you’re not against them.

Strategy and tactics

1. How do I find out what the company and managers ‘really’ need me to do, rather than what the ask me to do? The objectives rather than the tactics.

If I have understood this right my answer would be time and experience. When I first started I just did what I was told to do with now knowledge of anything different. As I got more experience from other roles, going to conferences and events I learnt what the ‘right’ things to do were.

If people are coming to you and saying ‘I need a poster for this’ it’s all in the questions. Why do they need a poster, what are they actually trying to achieve with the message, who is their audience. If you ask all the right probing questions you’ll be able to decide whether it is a poster they want or whether a post card desk drop is better – for example.

2. How do I juggle the strategy, the tactics, the expectations and execution of all that’s required of me and a very small team?

Good time management! I was a team of one with 10,000 employees and was starting from scratch. 2 years in I managed to get resource in the team and now have someone to support the more tactical side of things. It got to the point where the day job was impossible and when you get there, you have to build a business case as to what you need and why.

If this isn’t possible, learn to say no. Devise your strategy at the right time in the business and set your budget. Align your activity to the business strategy and if anyone asks you to do anything that doesn’t fall within that, you simply cannot do it. Empower people; if you have an intranet, get people to add their own content rather than come through you for certain things, have guest editors on the magazine if you have people with an interest in what you do – use the relationships you have for support and let them be the voices that support your business case for additional support.

Messages

1. “Here’s a piece of copy – pop it on the intranet please….” What? What do I do with a piece of writing that is full of typos, out of touch or worse off message – especially if it’s come from a senior manager?

You edit it. Maintain their voice of the piece if that is appropriate for the channel and the business but you make changes. If possible, go and see them with a printed copy of what you’ve changed and talk them through the reasons why you have done so.

People don’t mind things being changed if there is a reason for it, as long as you’re not doing it for the sake of it or so you add your stamp on it they will be more than happy with your changes.

2. How do I get across the ‘heavy’ HR messages across in a way employees will listen and act upon them?

Depending on what you mean by heavy there are lots you can do. We have policies and we have clear guidelines and rules but these are all designed in line with our branding and whilst firm, maintain a good tone of voice. Putting up a boring word document is a little dull so bring in your brand and colour palettes to bring the documents to life.

If we have messages we have to get people to do, read and sign that they have done we have a Due Diligence system and the notice is number DD201 (for example). This signals to our operators that there is a news item they have to look at and action.

Measurement

1. We use surveys to measure results and opinions. What else can we use?

2. How do I start to measure the ROI of internal communications?

I’m going to answer these together because we had quite a debate around measurement. ROI is often about numbers, how you show internal comms activity has impacted the bottom line. You can’t. Just like a PR team cannot prove what a ‘like’ is worth on facebook or that there is an equivalent advertising spend to the coverage they have got. We get bogged down in numbers that often don’t mean anything.

We can measure how people feel to work for the company, whether they want to go over and above the role for the good of the business and if they have fun and enjoy their work. If they don’t then that will impact the bottom line because they aren’t interested in helping us grow and succeed.

We don’t do employee surveys because we always get things we can’t change – and I mean can’t not won’t. So we do surveys about specific things, and I measure attendance at lunch and learn sessions following a comms campaign, intranet stats (the conversations more than the page views) and I make sure that I’m aligned to the business strategy in all my activity so I’m measured against what the business is trying to achieve.

I have seen people present on how you can really work out and ROI but I think we have to ask whether that is really important. I started with no budget and no team; one year in I secured budget, 2 years in I grew that budget and got someone in the team – if you add value to the business they will recognise it without a spreadsheet.

So if you have any questions let us know using #asktheguru on twitter, comment below and also at the next event in the summer – dates to be confirmed.