Conversations or Cacophony?

A need for Balance.

In a bid to optimize their stakeholder communications, brands are clearly overdoing it. Now may be a good time to pause, assess and roll back some of these program.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the accompanying graphic speaks volumes for the current communications landscape, one rife with media platforms, channels and programming of all kinds. As the pressure to be seen and to communicate with stakeholders across this spectrum intensifies, the air has exploded with strategies to enable this. Everyone believes they know where the lines are or what is relevant to them. In reality, however, there is a deluge of information targeted at stakeholders who – ironically – now have less time and shorter attention spans than ever before. The result is large-scale noise that is being serviced and supported by a whole set of industries.

And yet executives still wonder about reduced employee engagement, dwindling turnouts at events, lukewarm responses to blogs, lower ROI on ad spends, and negligible column space in print media. When the LIKES are not quite enough and their SOV is edging downward, the first reaction is to do more. Let’s start a new thing! Are we using Facebook enough? How about hiring a new agency?

To illustrate this point better, let me give you the scenario in a typical MNC of four to five thousand employees. In addition to all the external noise and messages that they process on a daily basis, employees now have a plethora
of internal communication channels designed to keep them engaged.
All hands meetings, town halls, skip levels, 1-1s, volunteering drives, diversity and inclusion forums, leadership blogs, videos, newsletters, hackathons, innovation challenges, service celebrations…the list goes on.

There are focused campaigns to drive new Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. Employees are asked to participate, speak, write and have fun in the bargain. An employee of a global brand has to engage with local leadership, business leadership and the larger global structure. This means that she has to like and be present on multiple social media platforms – for the business, the Indian entity, and the global brand. Meeting these expectations can be exhausting.

On average, this employee receives 1.2 to 1.5 touch points of internal communication every day. In an earlier communications audit, we discovered that there were 154 events and engagements a year for which we were sending out messages. By any measure, the math involved here is mindboggling. If email and phones are not enough, every bit of visible real estate is plastered with a brand message – the lobby, the elevator, conference rooms, digital tickers, floors, water coolers, coffee machines. We even use the restrooms to communicate, leaving only the toilet paper untouched – for now. I accept my share of responsibility for actions such as these but if this is not cacophony, then what is?

Something has to give and a good place to begin a much needed soul searching exercise is with two fundamental questions: 1) are we listening enough; 2) what is the impact on employee productivity?

I believe the primary requirement in communication and for communicators is listening skills. In essence, that calls for people who are comfortable with silence and who don’t feel compelled to fill it with words. The challenge we face today is best described by this quote (from an unknown source):

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand; we listen to reply.”

At a granular level, we have to arrive at a clear value proposition for every initiative we undertake. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the employee and ask the question: what’s in it for me (WIIFM)? If we can spend more time in trying to find out what employees need to know and understand about the brand in order to be more effective in their roles, then we are on the right track.

When we pause and step back, we will be in a position to assess the role of silence as well as the effectiveness of our storytelling. This is not always easy. Real listening and measurement take time and this may be the reason many organizations shy away from these activities.

However, once we begin this process of introspection, we will find there is plenty of scope for editing. Do we really need another newsletter or app? What can we stop doing? Can we slow down, reflect and respond rather than react?

The history of brand (and all other forms of) communication has shown us that honesty builds trust; credible content can drive value; and an apology can repair broken faith. Brands that understand this are not focused on the volume game. They realize that an employee will be more receptive to an honest “I don’t know” than a lengthy list of FAQs on a subject and that a sincere apology is sure to win over customers better than any verbose explanation of the situation.

Ultimately, balance – that critical balance between words and silence – is key to having a meaningful conversation on the brand.

— As communicated to Viewpoint

Garima Varma has over 25 years of experience in managing brand and employee communications in various multinational organizations.