Exec Comms, Employee Comms: We Are One. But One What?

In six paragraphs, the separate histories and the intertwined future of employee communication, and executive communication.

Last week my colleague Sharon McIntosh and I co-hosted the Executive Communication Council’s Employee Communication Summit, which participants have told us offered the most sustained helping of good ideas, true insights and best practices many of us have experienced in a long while. The two days went by fast, and if you missed them, I’m sorry about that.

In a keynote session, I galloped the audience through the very separate histories of two communication disciplines that I’ve studied for three decades. Here’s a summary of that, infused with some insights from the event itself.

The short version? Exec comms and internal comms futures are now intertwined, as most communicators would acknowledge.

But where are they headed? Here’s my take on the last 50 years and the next 10. How does it square with yours?

Up until the 1970s, employee communication was little more than “employee recognition,” which printed employees’ pictures in the employee newsletter, known as the house organ, as a way of giving them the bare minimum: We know you work here, and we know what you look like, and hey, you’re on the company bowling team! (Also, don’t cut your fingers off in the lathe, and donate to the United Way this fall.) Some of these publications contained spreads of scantily-clad company secretaries, to entice the boys to open the rag. The editors called these “cheesecake” sections.

Around this time, the business became infused with ex-reporters, influenced by the 1960s and then the Watergate era, who wanted better paychecks than the Peoria Journal Star paid, but held onto their idealism. Journalism democratized society, so couldn’t rigorous employee journalism democratize the corporation? These editors fought for critical employee letters-to-the-editor sections, did in-depth executive interviews and ran surprisingly challenging stories, like one I once saw in a utility’s employee magazine, “Bad Morale: Who’s Fault Is It?” They spent the 1970s and 1980s trying their best, and sometimes producing interesting work.

But if they were going to get management behind this, there had to be a more coherent strategic purpose to the work. Enter Roger D’Aprix, a Xerox employee comms chief and then a consultant who became known as the father of employee communication when he gave the business a central purpose: “Turn all eyes outward,” he commanded employee comms folks—meaning, orient employees to the marketplace, and the organization’s place in it, to make them more intelligent actors on the company’s behalf. This was the focus in the 1980s and 1990s. Right up until intranets and other technologies mesmerized employee communicators, and the narrower, more inward-looking goal of “employee engagement” became the misguided holy grail, around the year 2000.

Starting around then, I gradually began to focus on executive communication, where more interesting things were happening. After a whole 20th century of boring CEO anti-regulation speeches and pro-business speeches with titles like, “Profit is not a dirty word,” a few exec comms folks started thinking that maybe Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch didn’t have to be the only corporate leaders who might be considered—and this term came along and everyone rolled their eyes at first—”thought leaders.” UPS, Cisco, and a few other companies created strategically aligned, aggressive executive communications operations that were truly organized to help advance their organizations’ mission. Suddenly, “executive communication director” was becoming more than a fancy euphemism for “CEO’s speechwriter.”

Now, these disciplines are coming together—over the last terrible year and a half, internal communicators realized that the most sophisticated communication tools in the world don’t replace the presence and words of an authentic leader who can reassure, enlighten and inspire your people. And exec comms folks, traditionally focused more on big-impact, high-profile external speaking engagements than on writing bullet points for dreary employee town halls, have spent a whole year adding to their series of glitzy events, an ongoing dialogue between corporate leaders and their people. That internal dialogue, on some of the hardest social issues of our time, is yielding some really interesting perspectives that are adding much substance to external leadership communications, too.

I’m hoping the next decade will see the further integration of internal comms and executive comms, because I think that might self-actualize some of these institutions, putting corporate bosses in more frequent and continuous touch with their own people, and thus more in touch with themselves, and forcing them to compellingly and continually explain the company’s place in the moving marketplace and the roiling world, and demonstrate the two things anyone wants to know about their leader: Are you a decent person who I can trust to lead us humanely? And are you a special human being who I can trust to lead us well? 

And in support of the bosses about whom those questions can be answered affirmatively, here is a decade of worthy work for exec comms and employee comms folks who certainly have blindnesses from their years in separate silos, but who collectively have all the insights they need. 

And the courage too, we hope.

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