Effective employee communication is a key driver of employee engagement, which in turn is a vital factor in successful workplaces. Therefore, it is important to take stock of internal communication activities to determine how effective they are, and what communication initiatives can help to strengthen engagement levels.
Engaged employees are highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace, as defined by Gallup Inc., the leading firm specializing in this aspect of organizational performance. Gallup states that:
“The world’s top-performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives business outcomes. Research shows that engaged employees are more productive employees. They are more profitable, more customer-focused, safer, and more likely to withstand temptations to leave the organization…Gallup has proven that companies with world-class engagement have 3.9 times the earnings per share growth rate compared with organizations with lower engagement in their same industry.”
Although 2020 engagement levels in the US were the highest measured by Gallup in two decades, still only 38% of workers were engaged in their work. The fact is that 49% of workers were not engaged.
Relevant to communication
Why is this relevant to employee communication? It’s because effective employee communication leads to greater employee engagement. For instance, a 2017 research project found overall internal communication satisfaction as well as individual communication dimensions were positively related to employee engagement. This study by Verčič and Vokić found that employee communication is a key driver of engagement, especially the three dimensions of (1) satisfaction with feedback, (2) informal communication, and (3) communication during meetings:
“The study confirmed that feedback, open channels of communication, communication between supervisors and employees, and sharing information with employees are vital enablers of engagement.”
Towers Watson also had similar findings from their survey of 328 organizations representing 5 million employees around the world. Their conclusion: Companies that are highly effective communicators had 47% higher total returns to shareholders over a 5-year period compared with firms that had less effective communication practices.
However, many employees are dissatisfied with communication in their organization, whatever its size.The problem is not just formal communication, which is largely the responsibility of the PR department; it’s the daily interactions between individuals and by individuals with others up the chain – with supervisors, managers and senior leaders. The bigger the organization, the more unhappy employees are about communication. The image below displays some of the communication problems in organizations:
Workers kept in the dark
I’ve seen if for myself many times. For instance, when I observed a national employee communication survey 10 years ago in a billion dollar engineering and construction company, the results were terrible because I could see many employees being kept in the dark about company decisions. At least the survey results were made available to staff, who were told top management at head office were intent on improving the situation. More recently, I’ve known organizations who have hidden negative survey results rather than report them to staff. No follow up whatsoever. Imagine the cumulative impact on morale and engagement.
However, communication just can’t be ignored. It is the glue that holds organizations together, and therefore is crucial to organizational success. The question is how gauge the effectiveness of communication currently, and determine what is needed to improve it. Here’s what you can do:
Create a baseline
Communication audits are a valuable way to evaluate the state of communication and to enable a strategy for improvement to be initiated. This gives a starting point, a general baseline for comparison. It may be what is needed to prompt senior management to realize the need to improve communication. Then a strategic communication audit will identify specific aspects that require attention.
A strategic communication audit is a systematic formal and/or informal review of an organization’s communication practices. It provides a snapshot of what is working well, what is not, and what would work better if changes are made. Such an audit doesn’t necessarily examine every communication activity in detail; it can be used to review the way communication is positioned within the organization, the strategic level at which it operates and its capacity to lead to better productivity and effectiveness.
The literature says that systematic communication audits are fairly common, but in my experience they are fairly rare. Perhaps that’s because management and PR staff are concerned some of their shortcomings will be exposed. They may not want their vulnerabilities to be highlighted.
Benefits of a communication audit
- Conducting a communication audit shows senior management that you think strategically.
- Audit interviews enable you to find out the biggest perceived issues that managers believe they face, creating a great opportunity for you to use communication to help solve those issues.
- This encourages managers to think more strategically about communication activities.
- Audits provide valuable data for developing and restructuring the communication function.
- Audits can facilitate mid-course corrections to communication programs.
- Valuable information can be uncovered about barriers, bottlenecks or misunderstandings.
Audits can be conducted internally by PR staff or externally by consultants. As a consultant at different times in my career I used to jump at the opportunity to conduct an audit because these always revealed potential projects comprising activities I could fix for a fee. Also, it is easier as a third party to make recommendations that may be unpalatable, rather than conduct an audit in an internal capacity, which exposes oneself to the vulnerabilities in corporate politics.
On the other hand, you can benefit as an in-house communicator in personally conducting the audit interviews with management, especially the ‘dominant coalition’ of senior decision makers. This creates the opportunity to directly find out each decision maker’s attitude towards PR and communication generally, and at the same time provides an excellent way of enhancing rapport with those being interviewed because people feel more important when their opinions are being sought.
A strategic audit doesn’t look at the results or outcomes of individual internal or external communication activities. Instead, it focuses on the organization itself, its practices and capacity, and how the communication function is positioned. When the broad structures and processes have been reviewed and improved, the focus can then turn to individual activities to gauge how efficient and effective they are conducted.
5 stages in a strategic communication audit
These stages can be conducted at a local level, applying to individual departments, to a particular project or to the organization as a whole – in the private sector or public sector.
Stage 1. Key communication practices
Key communication practices can be put into 3 categories:
- Strategy – planning and strategy development for communication
- Implementation – common communication activities conducted within the organization
- Support and alignment – non-communication activities that help the communication function be successful.
Communication activities within each of these categories can be examined in an audit as follows:
- Strategically align communication activities with the organizational vision and mission.
- Decide communication goals and objectives.
- Select target audiences or stakeholders.
- Develop persuasive messages.
- Appoint credible spokespersons.
- Choose the most effective communication channels.
- Scan the operating environment for possible risks and allow for them.
- Prepare effective communication materials.
- Develop strong partnerships with key stakeholders, especially senior management and staff “influencers.”
- Train spokespersons.
- Maintain systematic communication activities.
- Monitor and evaluate activities and results.
Support and integration
- Gain leadership support.
- Ensure sufficient labor and financial resources.
- Integrate communication into all organizational projects (good communication is the crucial element in successful project management).
- Consult staff from around the organization in communication planning.
Stage 2. Identify current performance levels
You can review current communication performance levels by considering communication activities on an ascending scale of “practice maturity” or strategic level as follows:
- Not performed
- Ad hoc – uncoordinated, unassigned, no resources
- Planned – managed/coordinated, resources allocated, responsibility assigned
- Institutionalized – regularly performed, ‘best practice,’ coordinated
- Evaluated – performance measured, progress tracked, activities are known and coordinated
- Optimized – regular review, continuous improvement
Clearly, it is most effective to aim at achieving capability and implementation at the highest level.
Stage 3. Assess current performance and capacity
Current communication performance and capacity can be assessed by considering information about each communication activity from stage 1 against the scale and/or priorities shown in Stage 2.
This information can be collected through interviews, surveys, analysis of process or outcomes of various activities (eg publicity, results of social media activities), network analysis, staff observation, document review or focus groups.
Stage 4. Identify areas for improvement
You can review performance of activities simply in terms of whether they are excellent, good, average, poor or very poor. You can do the evaluation yourself or meet with your team and reach a consensus. Obviously activities being performed well don’t need immediate improvement action. But those considered poor or very poor do need urgent improvement.
Use the results from Stage 3 to decide which categories of activity should be classified as priority. You can prioritize each activity according to whether it is:
Critical – it will deliver better results within 1-3 months
Important – it will deliver better results within 4-6 months
Desired – it will deliver better results within 7-12 months
Stage 5. Improve activities and repeat the audit process as needed.
To increase the chances that the audit findings will be accepted and future activities improved, the audit should:
- Prove through information gained from the audit the extent to which communication problems are current (as opposed to possible future impact). At the same time, the audit should reinforce practices that are current organizational strengths.
- Generate specific recommendations for how actual communication activities can be improved. The source information from the audit should be followed up by specific, committed actions.
- Make transparent the organizational benefits of adopting those actions; in addition to the weaknesses they are designed to address.
- Prioritize recommendations so senior managers are not intimidated by the thought of implementing them.