According to internal communications veteran, Katharina Auer, the future of IC is not about chasing the latest trends but staying true to the fundamentals of the craft. Deep business understanding, a focus on results, facilitating conversations across the organisation and being effective at listening are what will count in the future she says.
Auer was discussing with me her contribution to the forthcoming BOC Internal Communications conference at the end of March when she, and Clifford Chance’s Paul Osgood, will look talk about the challenges facing our profession. It’s a subject in which she is well versed having led global internal comms functions at ABB, Zurich Insurance, Shell and other major global companies.
She is unimpressed by obsessions with the latest technology, especially if it just pumps out more content without regard to its value or whether people actually want to see it. “People seem to want the next shiny new thing, but they can rarely explain how a new app or other gadget is going to help business performance” she says, adding “The more noise you create, the less people listen”.
“We mustn’t forget that its our job to understand the demographics” she explains. IC people need to understand how communications fit into the lives of the people who work in their organisation. “If 70% of your workforce are down a mine or in a factory, the last thing they want is more brochureware” says Auer.
Audience insight, though, goes beyond distribution logistics. Data and listening are key skills that have always been neglected in her view but, in the years to come, being aware of what staff are saying and thinking will be a central competency for communicators. “You have to know what people want and then tailor our work to meet their needs.”
She highlights the growing emphasis on employee experience and the role of communicators in understanding it. Communicators, she argues, need to understand the data and know how colleagues are thinking at different moments in the journey from candidate to new recruit, to productive colleague to veteran and alumnus and how to communicate effectively at every stage
And, what they need can still largely be predicted. “Roger D’Aprix’s version of the hierarchy of communications needs still holds true. Humans are humans and are most interested in the stuff that affects them; it starts with ‘me, myself and I’ and only then looks at the wider picture. That’s not going to change in the future.”
Which brings her to another enduring truth for communicators. “It’s line management that ensures that people have a line of sight between the strategy and what they are doing – providing individual relevance and context. Face to face is far from dead. It’s still vital that leaders appreciate that communication is about conversations.”
For Auer, a good internal communicator will always aim to keep the volume down. She is a ferocious advocate of cutting rather than creating more channels: “You have got to be streamlined, based on what employees need – don’t just keeping adding on new tools and content; for every new thing you create, you need to cull at least two. You mustn’t forget that the more non-value adding ‘stuff’ you create, the more lasting damage you’ll do”.
Which means that communicators have to be good at constructively saying ‘no’ to non-value adding requests. “We have to able to have conversations based on understanding the organisation, organisational strategy & priorities and all our stakeholders and then providing compelling content and materials; and that’s not always something that managers want to hear.”
“Too many IC people blindly follow orders or take the path of least resistance” she adds. “Sometimes this is understandable, when people don’t have the right resources and are under pressure. But we shouldn’t be afraid of disagreeing and having a business mindset. More importantly, having the right conversations with our stakeholders right at the beginning will help us prioritise and streamline activities.
“Which all depends on listening to and facilitating the conversations that are taking place across the organisation, and knowing who your internal supporters are – rather than broadcasting top down content.”
Auer’s message is straightforward. As communicators we need to be fearless, courageous and unconstrained by boundaries. “We should always drill down in to the business and listen and understand. Being true business partners means asking about the business challenges, direction, and proof points; our role should thrive on data and insight”.
Katharina Auer and Paul Osgood join authors Chloe Combi, Annabel Dunstan and Deborah Hulme, GSK’s Viktoria Tegard, Emily Kirwan from the BBC, Accenture’s Preeti Khattri, Nicholas Wardle of One Housing, Jemima Bradbury-Wade from Pepsi, EY’s Julia Sloan, Sanjoy Mukherjee-Richardson from Hiscox, and consultant Graham Cox at the IC Conference in March. The programme is strong on discussion and is designed to give senior practitioners a space to reflect and share current issues.
About the Author: Liam FitzPatrick
Liam has 25 years of experience with change, PR and internal communications comes from working in-house and in consultancy. He has worked in civil engineering, energy, manufacturing and transportation as well as telecoms. He was Global Head of Internal Communications at Marconi during its financial restructuring and has worked on change and transformation projects in a wide variety of situations. He is particularly interested in developing teams, research and planning.