This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center
One of the better textbooks I’ve read on internal communications is Excellence in Internal Communication Management by Linjuan Rita Men and Shannon A. Bowen. I think it does a solid job of speaking to all the outcomes a world-class internal communications function contributes to, and in some respects, how. In one of my favorite chapters, the authors write, “The organization exists within the broader socioeconomic environment, and that environment consists of many groups: regulatory agencies, media, consumer publics, advocacy groups, competitors, labor unions, community members, and so on.” Truer words have never been spoken. While these factors have historically been associated with external communications, the lines between internal and external continue to blur. This dynamic – the way the outside creeps in – creates needs and communication opportunities for those in internal communications roles to lead.
The new bedfellows of social issues and internal comms have come together as a major factor in the continued erosion of trust toward institutions, increasing understanding by employees in the power of their collective, empowered voice, and calls from these employees for their organizations to take a stand on social issues. We’ve seen the convergence of social issues like these in the workplace when thousands of Google employees, mostly women, walked out across campuses globally, in protest of sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism, largely in line with the rising awareness of the #MeToo movement. We’ve also seen employees from consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte pressure leadership to cease the company’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And I’ve personally experienced it, particularly during the summer of 2016.
While it feels so long ago, that summer, and a few summers prior to it, were marked by news stories about the shootings of unarmed black men. They were rampant and across social media. Many people who looked like me were still able to run off the names of a handful of the more high profile murders – in 2014, Eric Garner, Laquan McDaniel, and Mike Brown, and in 2015, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. There were consistent protests happening throughout the country, led in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement. I was leading Community Engagement & Activation at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that July, when protests over the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota were interrupted by shootings of police officers in Dallas. I remember feeling overwhelmed, confused, and somewhat helpless. And I remember feeling that many of the employees probably felt the same as me.
It was late the evening of the Dallas shootings when I emailed our CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, suggesting we desperately needed to begin having conversations about what was happening in the country. To her credit, she agreed to create a voluntary, open forum – post-haste – to begin a dialogue. People showed up in large numbers. The mood was somber. There was no agenda and no keynote speaker – just chairs, employees, members of the leadership team, Sue, and a microphone. People shared their perspectives. They asked questions. They wanted to know the role of the foundation. There was anger, fear, frustration. But most importantly, the conversation was authentic. And it didn’t stop there.
After that open forum, there were additional sessions for employees, including one featuring external speakers who educated attendees on the history of Ferguson, Missouri. There were more conversations at the leadership level about equity domestically and ways to help that were in line with the foundation’s unique contribution – focusing on areas of greatest need.
Upon reflection, the natural question is, was the open forum the right move? I’d have to say, it depends on how you define success. What mattered most, in working through such a complex, emotional topic, was to start a more sustained dialogue that could move toward action. By that measure, I would say we hit the mark.
So what can you do when the outside creeps in? Here are a few tips that might be helpful.
- Put your leadership up front. We were fortunate enough to have a capable and compassionate CEO who believed this was a conversation worth having, and who had the courage to lead it. Every organization may not be so lucky, but there is always at least one leader who is willing to listen; you just have to find them and trust that they have the courage needed to act.
- Authentically connect with the issue. Approaches such as sharing an empathetic point of view or creating a space to share and listen will go a long way in demonstrating not only awareness but also compassion.
- Get engaged in a meaningful way. Dialogue and conversation are important, but they should only be seen as starting points. Convening leaders, bringing in outside experts, or seeking guidance from groups of employees are all great ways to figure out the right path for an organization to take.
Rodney Jordan is the Senior Director of Global Communications at McDonald’s. He is an expert and thought leader in organizational communication and culture change. An award-winning communications leader and strategist, he has over 20 years of experience in internal communications, public relations, strategy, and human resources for notable Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit organizations.