As an involved member of the Institute for Public Relations’ Commission on Measurement and Evaluation, Sean Williams is helping set the bar in internal comms measurement. He is also the Vice President and Practice Lead of Education and Internal Communications at True Digital Communications and an adjunct professor of Public Relations at Kent State University, teaching graduate classes in PR Measurement/ROI and social media measurement.

Chuck Gose:
You just got back from PRSA’s International Conference, affectionately known as ICON. What were some of your big takeaways?

Sean Williams:

  1. Measurement is still a work in progress, especially for employee communication.

  2. The "millennial" generation is likely three different ones, and we should stop treating generations as monolithic anyway. #peoplearepeople

  3. Networking is the most important thing to me at ICON, not the content (for the most part.)

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CG: That first one keeps coming up again and again. Is it that internal communicators can’t get it right, don’t have the focus, or don’t have the tools? What is it?

SW: First of all, you still have IC people who claim they can’t measure.

It’s disappointing in the extreme. Math is only part of measurementthe rest is intelligence-gathering. But you have folks who aren’t really interested because of fear.

“What if what we’re doing doesn’t work?” is a question I have heard for 20 years. Feh. 

Secondly, there’s the sense that there aren’t any real standardssomething the Institute for PR Measurement Commission is trying to change with the project Stacey Smith, Julie O’Neil and Michele Ewing and I are working on.  

Finally, and most forgivably, the landscape is shifting under our feet in terms of IC tools. It’s hard to do the daily work and keep abreast of all that’s happening in this space.

CG: Going back to your “what if what we’re doing doesn’t work” line. If it wasn’t working, wouldn’t you want to stop?

SW: LOL, YES!  I would think so. The thinking is, if we find out our tactics aren’t working (have no impact on the business, don’t add to financial performance) the CE/CFOs will cast us into oblivion.

Of course, I say, why not do things that DO add to value for the business? But that’s harder in many cases.

CG: About these alleged millennials taking over the world. Do we make too much of generations or is it appropriate to evaluate groups with similar characteristics?

"The "millennial" generation is likely three different ones, and we should stop treating generations as monolithic anyway. #peoplearepeople "

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My comment is more about the dangers of assumption than anything else.

We hear “millennials” and have a whole set of expectations about them that we apply to the entire group. Among the GenX and Boomers, we have a bit more confidence in the assumptions because both of those generations have been around long enough to have empirical data that support our conclusions about them.

For the Millennials, who are we talking about? The oldest of them who were judged so harshly by the Boomers? The middle set of them who seemed to be a new wave of moral conservatives politically and socially? Or the youngest of them who seem to be exceedingly hard workers who are rather self-absorbed and insular? Even these three observations are fraught with peril - this generation is the largest since the Boom, and probably the most diverse.

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CG: Let’s hit rewind. Millennials? Got it. Baby boomers? Yep. But who is this Generation X group? They sound like an amazing generation that gets ignored, like they’re the glue holding this whole thing together.

SW: #TrueDAT I agree. By chronology, I should be a Boomer, but by temperament, I’m more GenXlatchkey kid, a little cynical, feel ignored… ;-) GenX is running the world right now.

CG: Was it a good crowd at this year’s conference?

SW: I thought the crowd was big, though not as big as Content Marketing World. My sessions were stuffed-full.

CG: The I in ICON stands for International. Was it truly “international”?

SW: Not in the same way as IABC. PRSA is more of a national organization than an international one. The diversity of thought comes more from industries and specific specialities than from geography.

CG: We’re fortunate in that we get to attend several comms events each year, but a lot of communicators only get to pick one. . . if they’re lucky. So if someone is strictly an employee communicator, rank which events they should attend in order: PRSA ICON, PRSA Connect, IABC World Conference, or some other event.

SW:  PRSA Connect! is number one, with a big underline and exclamation point. There’s no other conference like it for those who do Employee Comms.

Then it’s a toss up between IABC World Conference and PRSA ICONS. It really depends on the specific themes and content. There’s a fair amount of overlap between the two organizations.

The Advanced Learning Institute and Ragan also put on some good shows.

It depends also on your objectivesif you’re looking for cases and learning, the latter two can be very helpful. The larger conferences have so much content to choose from that can be a bit daunting.

"It’s been a very long, very involved process owing to the lack of any real history of standardization in this space. We are breaking new ground."

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I still have yet to be selected to speak at PRSA ICON, so I’m jealous. What was your session about this year?

SW: My main session (I was also on a panel called Hack-a-Comm) was on manager communications. I taught participants my Face2Face Communication program and put them through a short practice session. I was delighted by the response, and very gratified that people found it helpful.

CG: What are the Face2Face basics?

SW: Three tools and three ways to use them to create the comms environment you desire.

We start with what to communicate (the 4 Ps), how to communicate (CORE) and how to listen effectively (HEAR). You use the tools to disseminate information, to create dialogue and discussion with your team, and as a participant, you learn how to reach upward to gain the information you need, and how to share information with your leaders.  

The 4Ps are the outline for how you organize the information you want to communicate:

  • Purposewhat are we doing in this comms opportunity?
  • Pictureliterally or using visual metaphors.
  • Planhow will we attain our purpose?
  • Partwhat role do you, I, and others play?

CORE informs how we communicate:

  • Changes—what’s changing or needs to change?
  • Objectives—what are the objectives of the change, and how do they relate to our organizational objectives?
  • Reasons—why? Why this? Why now? 
  • Effecthow will this affect our constituencies, our customers, our employees, suppliers, etc.?

Often the Reasons and Effect are left out… That leaves the door open to making stuff up.

And finally, how to listen effectively with HEAR:

  • Honordemonstrate that we honor, that means eye contact, and full attention;
  • Echoparaphrase and repeat for clarity;
  • Askquestions; and
  • Respondwith encouragement. It’s a good thing to have people ask questions and even to question your judgment. Resistance should be drawn out, not stopped or blocked. Therefore we respond with empathy and excitement that we are engaging others.

I’ve taught this program to more than 6,500 people, and it works.

"Engagement is a means, not an end."

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: Are you still teaching at Kent State?

SW:  Yes, just completing the online semester of our Measurement & ROI classmight be back on campus for the in-person program next year!

CG: You’ve been doing it now for a few years. What’s it like being called Professor Williams?

SW: At one job they referred to me as “The Professor,” so I’m used to it.

But it is an honor that I take very seriously. It was a little odd at first, but it seems like students (particularly in the in-person grad program) are more comfortable using that honorific than calling me Sean or even Mr. Williams.

CG: If you’re “The Professor” of the IC world, who’s the Skipper? And Gilligan?

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SW: Hahahaha! Maybe Roger D’Aprix is the Skipperor Jim Shafferboth of those guys were early influences on modern IC!

As for Gilligan - are you auditioning?

CG: Wow.

SW: All you need is the hat.

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CG: Earlier you mentioned the IPR Measurement Commission and that you are identifying or establishing standards for internal comms measurement. What’s the latest?

SW:  We spent more than two years on the initial research, including building a task force from North America, Europe, Britain and Asia to discuss possible standards; we then did a Delphi study (kind of a qualitative survey) among a small group of thought leaders. That process identified 22 possible standards across business impact, communication outcomes and “outtakes” that’s the precursors to outcomes.

We presented that research at the International PR Research Conference this past spring.

We now have agreements with a couple of organizations to test the standards over the coming few months. It’s been a very long, very involved process owing to the lack of any real history of standardization in this space. We are breaking new ground.

CG: For those 22 possible standards that lead to the outcomes, did you identify the key IC-related outcomes?

SW: There are 11 outcome standards: Attitude, advocacy, authenticity, empowerment, collaboration, teamwork, discretionary effort, trust, satisfaction, transparency and fairness.  

We see strong links to the business impact metrics reflected in the literature—productivity, innovation, continuous improvement, reputation, employee retention and safety.

CG: You see all of those talked about in internal comms but usually exclusive of each other.

"There are 11 outcome standards : Attitude, advocacy, authenticity, empowerment, collaboration, teamwork, discretionary effort, trust, satisfaction, transparency and fairness."

 We gathered more than 70 different terms and then asked our task force to rank order them both by importance and by whether the were currently measured. We then combined like terms and looked at practice and academic definitions and blended the two for the Delphi.

Notably, there’s no “engagement” metric -- that’s deliberate, because the precursors to engagement ARE included. It’s a lot more practical to know specifically where the shortfall is in say fairness, than to just guess at which outcome is affecting the overall engagement score.

Besides, Engagement is a means, not an end.

CG: I applaud the lack of engagement on the list. I’m sure you have some papers to grade Professor Williams so let’s wrap this up the way all Chuck Chats do. Describe your thoughts about internal communication via emoji.

SW: 🏃‍♂️ 🤔  🔥  🍒  🍲  🥗  🌶️  🍷