NEWS ANALYSIS: Channels of communication

Last week’s Communication Directors’ Forum covered a range of hot topics for in-house PROs. Claire Murphy and Alex Black bring you the highlights.

This year’s Communication Directors’ Forum shared space on P&O’s Aurora with the HR Forum and it appears to have accelerated the prominence of internal comms on the schedule, with the phrase ‘employee engagement’ heard in many seminars and discussed at mealtimes.

Social Computing for Business advisor Euan Semple ran delegates through the online bulletin board he created while working for the BBC. It enabled corporation employees to swap information and discuss policy. It turned out to be a highly effective way for people to quickly access relevant help.

He outlined the kind of leadership attitude necessary to make these types of systems useful – namely that managers must accept that such communication openness is inevitably going to lead to some level of questioning of management decisions. But he did recommend that employees should not be allowed to post messages anonymously, in order that everyone is publicly accountable for their messages.

With another take on internal comms, CHA chief executive Colette Hill used a workshop session to unveil ‘Talking in the Dark’ – a study into why essential business messages get ignored and dismissed by management.

‘Managers are the broken link to filtering company’s messages to their workforce,’ Hill told her audience, who then poured their hearts out on the difficulties of dealing with leaders who had little truck with communications.

One frustrated internal comms head put the blame firmly on a culture where she was ‘never told what the company was up to’, and had to report into the sales director.

Another said his organisation had conducted intensive employee feedback, only to find a hardcore section of the workforce determined to resist any attempts to engage them in the organisation’s messaging.

Truth telling

Cunningham: inspiring if not PC

The speaker that prompted the greatest amount of discussion amongst delegates was BJ Cunningham, the founder of the now-defunct Death cigarettes brand. In an electrifying – if completely politically incorrect – speech just before lunch on the first day, Cunningham urged delegates to pursue truth in all of their communications.

‘Fear is the biggest threat to business. It stops you moving forward. Engage with your essence and you are unstoppable!’ The audience loved his enthusiasm and energy but one canny PRO questioned how truthful it was possible to be within big companies.


Henry Hicks, project officer at the IVCA, hosted workshops advising PROs how to plan communications around climate change. Everyone was in agreement that organisations cannot afford to ignore climate change, especially when Hicks revealed research commissioned by the Department of Transport. This showed that 81 per cent of UK consumers are ‘concerned’ about the issue, with 78 per cent prepared to change behaviour because of it. Climate change, Hicks maintains, is the ‘defining communications challenge for our age’. He went on to outline some of Futerra’s recommendations for the best way to go about this – chiefly not creating fear without also offering the opportunity for action.

But many delegates, especially those from US-owned companies, reported that they feel constrained from being too vocal about their efforts to clean up business practices in case a pressure group, or journalist, finds an example where they have not measured up to their own standards.Delegates who attended The Lazarus Consultancy’s neuro linguistic programming-inspired workshop on resolving conflict had no trouble identifying why the session was so useful for PROs.

They talked of how they (particularly those who have originated from the agency side) are trained to always be accommodating and positive, even when faced with unreasonable requests. Others had noted the way that in-house PR teams are often cast at the centre of warring factions within organisations. Lazarus’s ‘perception positionings’ technique centred around getting delegates to put themselves in the position of the person they are in conflict with, working out their motivation and then offering objective advice.

Blurring the line
Head of global PR for BT Global Services, Ellen Ferrara was on the Aurora to share with other in-house PROs her experience of dealing with ‘paid-for PR’ – the growing trend of organisations paying media owners for sponsored coverage. BT has become a pioneering exponent of this practice, spending £1.5m (diverted from BT’s advertising budget) with The Times, Economist and Telegraph over the past year to jointly produce features and events.

But, as she reported to delegates in her workshop session, she has also found the activity frustrating, especially when the newspapers’ sales teams don’t liaise enough with their editorial staff.

‘We had one situation where we’d paid The Times for a package under the theme of security – a four-part feature series and a dinner hosted by editors for business leaders. Everything was going ahead, but five weeks before the dinner we were told that the editors thought the security theme was too boring; it was changed to “Is Britain ready to compete?” The lesson I learned was to make sure that the editorial teams had agreed every detail before I signed the contract.’

Ferrara believes that, although she experienced frustrations with the process, she still thinks that BT’s investment has been money well-spent.Communicating the coverage to BT’s salespeople on the day that it appeared proved an effective way of showing the sales department the value of PR. However, she has concerns that the activity crosses PR boundaries.

‘There’s no doubt that the divide between church and state is disappearing fast. That’s a big issue that needs debating.’

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