According to Justene Cowie of Coral Communications, Internal Communications professionals and journalists have more in common than you might think.
What can today’s internal communications professional learn from journalists?
As a former journalist turned IC professional, I found myself asking this question when I saw that the next IABC Victoria event was an opportunity to explore ways in which journalists and IC people can build better relationships together.
While our professions share some obvious common ground, from my experience, IC professionals seldom have the need or opportunity to interact with journalists and the media directly.
At most we may liaise with our organisation’s Media Manager if an internal program is likely to be of interest to the outside world. Indeed, even when previously working as a Brand Communications Manager for BP, where press releases, media events and PR where all part of the mix, I worked daily with the press team and my PR agency, but had little call to talk directly with the journalists themselves.
So, I was left wondering, was this event of any value to me as an IC professional, or was I better to sit this one out and leave it to those with a more external focus?
Look who’s talking
Before transitioning to internal communications, I had a short stint as a journalist for an industry magazine and personally found the experience invaluable preparation for a career in internal communication. Coming in relatively green to the media industry, I was somewhat taken aback to learn that most of my time was not being consumed with writing. It goes without saying that writing skills are a must but I found most of my day was in fact spent – talking.
In journalism, you swiftly learn that you need to have an ear to what is happening at all times; that you can’t be effective without talking to people, getting the facts straight, finding out what’s happening and why it’s important.
As a journalist, you need to understand what’s interesting to people, the current issues in your field, what your readers care about, and who your readers even are. And the best way to do this is by talking to people.
A journalist will not be successful in their career without the drive and ability to constantly keep themselves in the know. Of course research and experience play an important role, but it is engaging with people and finding out the truth in situations that makes journalism so compelling.
Are you starting to see the theme? It is the social art of talking with people where I think today’s internal communications people can learn the most from our journalist peers.
Conversation over content
Applying a journalistic, conversational approach to internal communications is more relevant in today’s organisations than it has ever been.
This is because organisations are increasingly becoming more ‘social’. There is a wide range of new tools and systems for supporting commenting and conversation, which are being widely embraced and used by employees.
As organisations introduce functionality which supports connection and conversation, internal communications people need to ensure they can compete and attract attention to their content through the ‘noise’. Because the conversation around a piece of content can become arguably, more important than the original content itself.
A traditional, highly structured, managed approach to communications will do little to help achieve this. By talking and being a part of the conversation, explaining – sometimes defending – the company’s position to employees, you will much more likely be able to influence understanding and behaviours.
We need to be the most connected persons in our organisation and this will only be achieved by discussing openly and honestly the messages we have been tasked with delivering. And this means being accountable in a much more transparent way than we have ever had to be before.
4 key journalistic characteristics which today’s IC people can apply in their role
Building rapport quickly with people from diverse backgrounds – journalists are skilled at being able to talk to and relate to people from all backgrounds.
IC people need to be skilled at changing our style to connect with all types of people, whether we’re talking to senior leaders, customer facing employees or those on the factory floor. We need to be able to make sense of often complex information and put ourselves in the shoes of our audience in the same way a journalist needs to understand their reader, viewer or listener.
Action oriented and hardnosed – the best journalists are those who throw themselves into projects, finding an angle, an edge and delivering on tight deadlines.
Some unfortunately still see the roll of the internal communicator as a little like that of a post-office clerk; taking organisational decisions and shaping them for the inevitable email, intranet article or team brief and posting them out to the organisation. But internal communications is so much more and to be effective, we need to be looking for creative ideas that bring our messages to life in a way which will excite people about our cause. And a dogged determination and resilience, which often comes from having doors slammed in your face, is useful when overcoming challenging stakeholders.
Building networks – journalists rely upon their carefully crafted network of trusted contacts, so that they keep abreast of what’s happening in their field.
We should have the best networks within an organisation and use them to regularly talk with all stakeholders to ensure communications needs are being met. We should have ‘sources’ in as many areas of the organisation as possible; people we can go directly to and ask about what’s happening in their part of the business.
Being authentic – journalists need to be seen as respected experts in their field and speaking with authority and authenticity. A journalist who writes without this will quickly lose connection with their audience.
Credibility is the foundation upon which effective internal communication is built. Employees are the most likely to spot inconsistencies in what their leaders say and do and will know instinctively what’s authentic, what’s not and whether or not they are truly being valued.
More talking needs more listening
It is in the active listening to what’s being said, and equally, what is not being said, that information is sourced and understanding is built.
While we as internal communicators must challenge ourselves to build our internal networks and spend more time talking to people, we must also ensure we are effectively listening to and interpreting what is being said, in order to develop appropriate action plans.
Here, many of our journalistic peers have an easier task as much of their talking and listening is to only one person at any given time – although clearly the message must resonate with large and diverse audiences. However, it isn’t so straight forward in large organisations where there are hundreds or even thousands of employees who all have an equal right to be heard.
That is why strategically implementing feedback mechanisms and measurement tools is essential to making employees feel not only heard, but that their opinion is important.
The final word
There is much we as internal communicators can learn by talking and listening to journalists. Arguably we are in an even stronger position to build connections with our audiences as we have the opportunity to work alongside the people we are communicating with every day. We don’t need to go far to track down our stories or search for a scoop; it’s all within our own organisation.
We just need to take the time to talk about it.
Justene Cowie, Coral Communications
Justene completed her studies at the Queensland University of Technology and holds a Bachelor of Business and a Masters of Business majoring in Marketing and International Business. Justene’s 15 year career has been varied, starting off owning her own cafe, then moving into journalism, employee communications, external affairs, events and communications. After working for big corporates for over 7 years in Victoria, the UK and South Africa, Justene now enjoys providing the level of service that only a small, dedicated agency can give.