Chuck Gose: You may not know this Rachel but you’re the example I give for the power of social networking. You and I first “met” on Twitter and it was a few years later when we met in person. When we did see each other, we greeted with a hug, not a handshake. How has social networking changed your professional life?
Rachel Miller: Love that! I didn’t know that! Thanks Chuck. For me social networking has enabled me to meet more people, which in turn means I learn more. Constantly. Daily! But you can’t beat face-to-face, so when you have the opportunity to move offline conversations into the real world, that’s where the magic happens.
CG: When we last spoke, it was immediately after Brexit. And at the time we “joked” about what could happen in the US. And it turns out the joke was on “US” after all. Have communicators in the UK responded in anyway to the US elections?
RM: I think there’s a sense of “thank goodness we’re not the only ones trying to wade through treacle!” There’s solidarity from this side of the pond. As professional communicators we deal in the unknown and unpredictable. That’s what we do. However, sometimes when there are so many twists and turns, it makes finding the single source of truth incredibly difficult. Not least, in this new age of “fake news!”
CG: There’s a lot to unwrap in this conversation so we’ll take it piece by piece. Let’s first go back to Brexit and Trump. Both required almost dedicated communication strategies as a result of what happened and I don’t think many are prepared. And now companies are scrambling to unroll communication plans. What would be your advice to communicators around the world who might be facing some uncertainty?
"I have a real problem with inauthentic comms. Whether it’s stock photos rather than your actual employees, or a ghostwritten personal blog from a CEO. I think employees deserve more."
RM: Have a plan B. Always. Prepare for the unexpected! The lack of clarity and clear communication around both Brexit and Trump has meant tactical rather than strategic thinking - and comms. If you’re facing uncertainty, you need to identify what it is you do know. What won’t change? What are the certainties regardless of the outcome? Use that as your starting point, then map out scenarios.
CG: And you also brought up a VERY interesting topic on “fake news.” A few articles I’ve seen have wondered whether internal communicators themselves have been guilty of their own “fake news” over the years - ghostwriting, making up “quotes,” perhaps glossing over ugly facts. What’s your take?
RM: That’s a really interesting point. See for many comms pros, that’s been business as usual for many years. I have a real problem with inauthentic comms. Whether it’s stock photos rather than your actual employees, or a ghostwritten personal blog from a CEO. I think employees deserve more. You’re not kidding anyone if you work in that way, if there’s one thing that impacts this more than anything it’s the rise of transparency. Particularly as lines between internal and external comms blur, people can just check out the truth for themselves. E.g. Glassdoor profiles smash through a glossy recruitment campaign for a miserable company!
CG: If it’s “business as usual” for many, this has to have threatened a communicator’s credibility within a company.
"There’s a difference between fake and unverified news. [. . .] As we’ve shifted from content creators to curators, part of our role is to provide verification."
RM: I don’t think fake news is the reality for many - fake to me implies calculated. However, I think for many comms pros, working with ghostwritten memos etc has been the way they’ve always worked. There’s a difference between fake and unverified news. We deal a lot in unverified news - that’s one of the biggest challenges for comms pros today. As we’ve shifted from content creators to curators, part of our role is to provide verification.
CG: You dedicate a ton of time to the IC profession as a thought leader. I don’t like that name very much but it certainly applies to you. . . in the best way possible. You recently wrote your 1,000th blog post. That’s amazing. Did you have a tally board or something in your office? Did horns go off? Were there balloons?
RM: You do make me chuckle. Thank you. I spotted the post number while I was in the back-end of my blog around November time. I kept remembering to check the number as I calculated with my Advent series, which racks up 25 articles, I should hit it early 2017, which is what happened. I love blogging, it’s become part of the way I work. I believe you gain more when you give, and that’s the core principle of my blog.
CG: Did it surprise you how much you’ve written over the years? And how many years has it been since you started All Things IC?
RM: Yes! I discovered lots of widgets to help me calculate words etc and was amazed to find it was 768,000! I started blogging in January 2009 and created All Things IC in 2013, just after my daughter was born. It’s never a chore to blog, I think if it was that number would have been a lot lower.
CG: On your blog, you do a great job of curating content that’s important to communicators but also providing a platform for other voices.
RM: Thank you, that’s hugely important to me. I’m proud of the fact professional communicators like blogging for my site. I learn so much from the people I feature, and it’s a pleasure to host their thoughts alongside my own. Hearing that being featured on my blog has led to people getting promotions and job offers is wonderful. There’s a lot of content out there for comms pros, I’m trying my best to help them navigate through it.
CG: Who are some of these other communicators you learn so much from?
RM: Too many to name! But my go-to friends who I know will always tell me if my idea is too wacky are Sarah Pinch, former CIPR President, and my fellow The IC Crowd co-founders Jenni Field and Dana Leeson. Between them, these three have helped me make some big decisions and provided a lot of laughter and support during difficult times.
CG: So many articles talk about the value of having a mentor. But in this case, these are peers who still provide sound advice, honest feedback and support. Personally, I’d like to see more communicators take this approach.
RM: They are indeed. I have a mentor who has been keeping a close eye on me for a decade. He was my bosses’ boss at Visa when I was working in-house there. But Sarah, Jenni and Dana are my daily checking in points.
"The Masterclasses are packed full of theory but I know you learn as much from your peers as the person standing in front of a screen, so I’ve designed them to be a healthy mix of theory plus reality."
CG: I also see on LinkedIn and Twitter that you’re teaching Masterclasses in London. Talk a bit about what these are.
RM: I love running Masterclasses. These are a privilege to run. They are incredibly confidential environments - every month I advertise a Masterclass and create a safe space for comms pros to connect, learn and get advice. I deliberately keep the groups small, I prefer nine/10 people in the room as it enables people to have honest conversations and start to build relationships. The conversations are fascinating. The Masterclasses are packed full of theory but I know you learn as much from your peers as the person standing in front of a screen, so I’ve designed them to be a healthy mix of theory plus reality - so I share my experiences and advice and turn the questions to the delegates.
"The joy of Masterclasses is the opportunity to instil confidence in communicators[. . .]"
Their thoughts and ideas help shape the discussions and we typically end up solving problems as a group. I have a closed alumni group on LinkedIn which every attendee is invited to after their class. The joy of Masterclasses is the opportunity to instil confidence in communicators, their feedback shows they leave feeling inspired and invigorated to go back to their workplace and tackle their challenges with fresh vigour. I love that!
CG: I love that use of LinkedIn groups. Very smart. Who typically attends the Masterclasses?
RM: It’s a real mixture. I run two different levels of IC Masterclass: one is called Internal Comms and the other Strategic Internal Comms. The difference is the amount of time you’ve been working in the field. Typically Strategic level is Director of Comms who have been working in comms for more than five years. The beauty of Masterclasses is the mixture of people and their levels of experience, that’s what adds to the learnings and richness of examples.
CG: Let’s dig into a few channels that internal communicators rely on. I want to get your thoughts on these. Let’s start with print. So many companies are quick to kill it off. Do you think print is dead for IC or does it still have a future?
RM: Print has its place in many organisations. Definitely not dead and doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere any time soon. For some companies it’s an effective method to get the right information to their workforce at the right time, particularly if they have remote/hard-to-reach employees. I’m a believer in understanding what a company needs before declaring print is dead, as it could be exactly what they need.
CG: And where do you stand on email? I’m picking on the channels that others seem to want to tear down a bit.
RM: Again, it depends. For some organisations it’s incredibly effective. But you need to keep checking, don’t assume if it worked a year ago it’s still working today. Make sure you monitor and analyse all channels to gauge effectiveness, email included. It is still a staple for so many.
CG: That's a great point about constantly checking to see if tools and channels are still working. How do you propose they do this health check?
RM: This is an area where comms pros constantly fall down. I’m going to use the M word. Measurement. Aaah!! Communicators focus on quantitative measures e.g. clicks and completing forms etc, rather than digging deeper with qualitative conversations -- “why do you use xx channel” etc -- you can’t beat a focus group or actually talking with employees to get the reality behind the numbers. Data cannot give you all the answers you need -- you need to match the figures with the facts/thoughts. That’s how you can measure effectively. They read it, so what? What happened next? What did they do differently as a result? In other words, outcomes not outputs.
CG: Often some communicators see measurement and think numbers. Then numbers turn into math. And then they say “I'm a words person. I don't do numbers.” That drives me crazy.
"There’s a real lack of confidence in the comms community around measurement and there shouldn’t be."
RM: I hear you! I dedicate a big chunk of every Masterclass to measurement. Regardless of the level of the class, I examine it because it matters. It’s huge. I’m proud of the fact one of my delegates said in their feedback form: “You’ve made me realise measurement isn’t a dark art and I can actually do it” -- there’s a real lack of confidence in the comms community around measurement and there shouldn’t be.
CG: Beyond measurement, what's another area internal communicators should focus on improving?
RM: Line manager communication. I hear it constantly -- the “marzipan layer” in companies where information gets stuck. There are so many opportunities for comms pros to help their businesses transform communication by focusing on line managers. Do they know what good looks like? Have you communicated that? Do they know what’s expected? I audit a lot of companies and it’s such a regular issue. Regardless of a company’s size and location, it’s a big deal and one you need to get right by investing time, money and effort in.
CG: The marzipan layer -- that's funny. But what isn't is that Gatehouse’s State of the Sector calls this out as an issue every single year.
RM: Totally, and will do for every year they run their survey. It has such an impact on the way companies operate.
CG: I guess at least we know communicators are being honest with their feedback. And while we're on honesty, my new “kick” for 2017 is compassion. How do you think communicators can use compassion in their work life?
RM: I think there’s always room for compassion. It goes hand in hand with integrity. Professional communicators have exposure to decisions and discussion that have the potential to impact our workforce in a big way. Our role is often described as being the conscience of an organisation, but for me it goes beyond that. When you’re talking numbers in a restructure, you’re talking about husbands, wives, sisters, parents. Our role is to look at how we can communicate in a compassionate way -- taking into account numbers are people. That’s so easy to forget when you’re piled high with work and making decisions. But always take the time to stop and think about who you are communicating with -- not to -- and take time to write and think with your heart, not just your head.
CG: We want leaders to honest. But I read an article that basically pointed out that honesty without compassion is cruel. In my opinion, it's a huge opportunity for leadership communications.
RM: I think without compassion it’s hollow. You can talk the talk, but need to walk the walk. We know this, but seeing a leader genuinely believing what they are saying and acting human can have incredible impact on your organisation. Employees know the difference, you can feel it and it affects your culture.
CG: Let’s close out on a global comms topic. I noticed you misspelled organization earlier. What are your recommendations to communicators in a global organization?
RM: I was waiting for that :) I think you abide by your internal choices -- so if your business language is US rather than UK English, then I would write 'organization'. Did you notice I swapped it for “company” and “business” in our chat? ;)
CG: But did it feel good putting that Z in there?
RM: I used to work for Visteon back in 2003, was my first in-house comms role, so everything I wrote was using US-English, so Z’s aplenty! But yes did feel odd today!
Don't miss out on earlier posts of #ChuckChats! Read Elisabeth Wang of Piedmont Health Care's conversation with Chuck and Kristin Hancock of College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba and Chuck talk GIFs in internal comms.