Avoid the journalistic model to ensure effective internal communication channels.

You’re too young to remember the origins of employee communication in the mid 20th Century, so I’ll give you a little history lesson. As organizations became larger and more complex, they needed a way to provide the same information to all employees, no matter what job they did or where they worked. So senior leaders hired ex-journalists to create company magazines (known as house organs) or newspapers.

That model—internal communication as a particular kind of journalism—has remained constant, despite major shifts in technology and transparency. For example, the home pages of most intranets are essentially news sites. Many companies produce newsletters that are sent (mostly electronically) to employees on a regular basis. Even internal social media platforms are often designed to share news and information.

As Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Except that there are big problems with placing too much emphasis on news:

  • Very little of what companies share through internal communication channels is actually new. By the time a piece of information is posted, it’s available externally (or has already circulated through the lightning-fast grapevine.)
  • Except for a few very big stories, people don’t value news the way they used to. Information used to be rare and valuable; today, it’s cheap and easily accessible.
  • News media are no longer a respected role model; like other institutions, they’ve lost trust. For instance, the American public’s trust in the media in 2016 has fallen to its lowest point since at least 1972, according to a new Gallup poll. (Only 32% of respondents polled said they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in mass media.)
  • Despite aspirations of grandeur, internal communication has never actually been anything like journalism. We can write an article to resemble a news story, but it has to be approved by lawyers and leaders. So there’s no objectivity; we are telling the story the way the company wants the story to be told.

So what does this all mean? We need to realize that our mission in employee communication is not to provide news. It’s to help employees understand key issues so they see how their jobs contribute to the organization’s success. That means communicators are in a service role: Employees are our customers and we need to figure out how to meet our customers’ needs.

This is a big shift, and we’re going to having to talk about the impact on our work. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Join our LinkedIn group to weigh in on the conversation.

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