14 ways to completely sabotage your internal communications
Everyone loves a good PR blunder, a bad auto-correct, the text-sent-to-the-person-you’re-slating #fail. But when it comes to internal comms, slipping up in front of the entire business could be a career-ending faux-pas. Or, at the very least, a humiliation that would give anyone nightmares.
Everyone makes mistakes.
It’s part of what makes us human. It’s how we learn and improve, it’s a key ingredient in the innovation process and honestly, there’s no avoiding them.
However, there’s a big difference between the odd mishap, and the completely avoidable act of self-sabotage.
Internal Communicators have a business-critical role to play and at crucial times, the ears and eyes of every individual in the organization will be upon them. To prevent that ‘naked on the stage’ nightmare, it’s worth taking the time to consider all the ways things could go drastically wrong: and learn from the mistakes of others, before making your own. (Or if you’re simply looking to shake things up or get an easy exit from your job, please – be my guest.)
So, morbid as it may seem, here are all the ways to completely sabotage your internal communications.
14 steps to great internal communications
#1: Abandon the manual proof-read
The old-faithful spell check has been a life saver for decades now. For those of us who are, shall we say, “less than vigilant” with our spelling and grammar, it’s a critical communications crutch. Thanks to the likes of Grammerly, auto-correct or the simple Word spell-checker, there’s no longer any excuse for the ‘they’re, their, there’ howler.
However. As advanced and intelligent as our digital tools have become, nothing beats the human eye for a final read through. Especially if you’re responsible for distributing that urgent, serious crisis communication to all employees and in the rush to send it out, open with the words: ‘Due to unforeseen circumcisions…’ (true story.)
#2: Take your time getting really important information out
Who doesn’t love being the last to know?
Your employees, that’s who.
When it comes to critical business news, change or information that will impact their roles, staff want timely and transparent communication. Sitting on updates for fear of the reaction is like holding a ticking timebomb – one that grows bigger every minute.
Old-fashioned cascades that trickle information at a snail’s pace from the top down are a real culprit for this. If you want disgruntled, disengaged and demotivated front-line staff, take your time telling them what’s happening.
#3: Go public first
In the same vein as the previous mishap, this is one that (thanks to social media) we’re beginning to see more and more of.
When you’ve got a big piece of news, don’t rush to the press and leave your staff as an afterthought. Make sure the risk of leaks is managed, you have a plan to inform all levels of staff, and you’ve got tabs on who knows what and when. Internal communication is never more important than in a situation like this.
This was the large-scale gaffe committed by department store chain House of Fraser last year. After a rescue deal called for a company voluntary agreement (CVA) that would see the chain close 31 of its 59 stores, at a loss of 6000 jobs, the internal communications plan didn’t quite reach all the staff on the front line. The news broke to the press and staff turned on their TVs or phones to learn their jobs were at risk. Messages in a staff Facebook group show the disbelief at finding out via news reports.
(Source: The Sun)
14 steps to great internal communications
#4: Let your emotions get the better of you
We now recognize that robotic corporate-speak is a fast track route to failure for internal communications. Our staff are human beings and we’ll engage them a lot more by speaking to them that way.
However, while I’m all for the power of storytelling or the pull-on-heartstrings charity plea, there’s a time and place for emotion in internal communications. If emotions are clouding your judgment, take a few deep breaths and wait (a few hours, ideally) before hitting the ‘send’ button.
Let’s not forget the viral reaction triggered when this irritated boss decided to let his feelings known over email. #Bossoftheyear, indeed.
#5: Issue ‘FAKE NEWS’
Trust is one of those things that takes a long time to earn but can be shattered in a moment. As the trusted source for company news and communications – the Wall Street Journal or BBC of the business – you can’t be taking risks with that trust.
Issuing comms before checking the facts is a rapid route to sabotage.
Think like a journalist and check your sources, verify your data, get the nod from the right heads in the right places. Going off hearsay claims such as, ‘Linda said that James said Andrew had told him that…’ for your source of information? Turns comms into a formal gossip function.
Credibility and trust, gone.
#6: Get the thesaurus out
Ever felt the pressure to up your game when charged with communicating something really important?
Even though most of us know better, the habit of slipping into corporate-speak or using complex, technical or flamboyant language is a hard one to kick. But you’re doing yourself no favours.
In the bid to sound more formal, knowledgeable or intelligent, we risk losing our readers, missing the point or even making complete fools of ourselves. This (exaggerated) example from Friends, when Joey attempts to sound intelligent with the support of a thesaurus, is an all-time favourite of mine.
What was this sentence originally?
Oh, “They’re warm, nice people with big hearts.”
And that became, “They’re humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”
And hey, I really mean it, dude.
So, cut the jargon. Or, to quote James Sudakow: “If you see someone walking the halls abusing buzzwords, parachute in and get down to brass tacks, re-level set with them, and connect the dots so that together we can build a better mousetrap.”
14 steps to great internal communications
#7: Turn into a teen
So, pretentious and complicated language is a no-go. However, that’s not an excuse to go to the opposite end of the scale.
Cultures will differ from one company to the next, but I’m going to argue that there’s never a place for the likes of ‘Lol! FML. #FOMO! K hun. WTF? Thx.’ in ANY corporate communication.
In the right instance, we may be able to let the occasional emoji slide; GIFs, memes and selfies may have a place when used correctly. Always match the tone of the language and content to the subject and audience. Steer clear of the text talk at all times.
Oh, and drop the swearing.
Why use one word when you could use 547?
It’s hard when you’ve got something important to communicate and need to ensure everyone understands it. You may feel the need to explain, give reasons, overload with information. But for internal communications, less is more.
Keep it concise, direct, and to the point. When you’re done, go back and re-read to see if any paragraphs can be cut while retaining the most important parts of your message.
If your goal is to send staff to sleep and fail to communicate, then by all means: stick with the essay. Don’t forget to make every sentence extra-long and each paragraph half a page in length. That will do the trick.
Favorite fail for this: Stephen Elop, boss of Nokia, sent a 1,100 memo to employees opening with “hello there” and containing winning jargon bites such as ‘appropriate financial envelope’, before devoting just two sentences to the announcement of 12,500 job cuts two-thirds of the way through. How many faux-pas can you commit in one go?
#9: Hit the proverbial (or literal) ‘reply all’
Just because there’s a ‘All Company’ mailing list, doesn’t mean you have to use it.
Tailoring and personalization are big news in the consumer market; every social media platform and news outlet is striving to create personalized digital experiences that will engage us. Admittedly, we probably can’t build our own in-house algorithm: but we can be selective.
Before defaulting to the company-wide communication route, ask yourself: who needs to know this? Who will this benefit? Creating personas for our internal communications or using dynamic groups – beyond department, or job title – can have a huge impact on how they’re received.
Then, there’s the literal accidental ‘reply all’. This is the best ironic gaffe I found, which started out with an un-needed reply-all, followed by an accidental one:
Original email, to the office: Just wanted to shoot everyone an e-mail to say you guys really impressed Ed with the presentation yesterday. Great job, keep up the good work.
Reply-all, from Claire: Thanks.
Reply-all, from Laura: If Claire sends one more dumbass reply-all like that I swear I’m going to f—ing quit!!!
14 steps to great internal communications
#10: Communicate EVERYTHING
IT fixed the glitchy printer! There’s a new Tea of the Month in the kitchen! Alex from Purchasing has had a baby! Lucy in Sales has hit target this month!
In our digital age, we experience a LOT of noise. Perhaps one of the most important roles of the internal communicator is that of editor.
Selecting what content makes the cut, and where the pieces go, may not make you the most popular person in the office (because let’s face it, we all believe our news is important and EVERYONE should know about it) but it will make your overall communications strategy far more successful. If we’re exposed to every single update going, we’ll soon de-sensitise and switch off; making content relevant to the audience is crucial.
#11: Hit different comms channels at will
In any organization, the chances are you’ll have a few different routes to communicate with staff. Use them wisely.
When there’s something sensitive or potentially negative to announce, hiding behind a company-wide email will be perceived as cowardly. Face-to-face routes such as a town hall or manager cascade, where staff can ask questions, are more appropriate.
On the other hand, going for an en-masse SMS to let everyone know that the leak in the kitchen is fixed? No-go. Do you need to bring the entire office together to announce a customer win? Is a poster for a AWOL coffee mug, ‘missing cat’ style, really warranted?
Think before you communicate.
#12: Go for the clipart
We’re not all blessed with an in-house photographer or design team. However, in an age of smartphone cameras and Instagram, Unsplash and Pexels, there’s no excuse for shoddy art work, unfocused photos or cheap looking graphics.
The quickest way to lose your credibility and sabotage your internal newsletter is to resurrect those tragic illustrations from the 90s. It’s unprofessional, an eye sore, and akin to something my 10 year old would pull together for his English report.
Trust me on this: kill off the clipart. Don’t. Do. It.
#13: Over-use (or abuse) the metaphor
We all love a good comparison to bring a point to life. Similes and metaphors are powerful linguistic tools that can help articulate meaning by acquainting a topic, idea or subject with something relatable that our audience will easily understand. Creating content is a breeze. Easy as pie.
But it’s a slippery slope. There are those who go overboard, off base, cross the line. It’s time to go back to the drawing board (sidenote: have you seen a drawing board lately?), take the bull by the horns and put this whole metaphor business to bed.
The worst are those completely ill-judged or inappropriate comparisons. Oxfam Chief Exec Mark Goldring hit the headlines after suggesting his organization, in light of the aid worker sex scandal, was being treated as though it had ‘murdered babies in their cots’.
Then, there are those analogies that are completely condescending or patronizing: to the point of discriminatory. A personal favorite of mine came from a male colleague who tried to explain something to a female counterpart with the analogy, “it’s like when you really want to find the right shoes to complement your dress.”
You need to drop the metaphors. Trust me. This isn’t my first rodeo.
#14: Opt for regional lingo – without checking the translation
I’m originally a southerner in the UK (south of London) but now live ‘up north’ in Manchester. Even in a country as small as the UK, there are small regional language differences that can spark debate (don’t even get me started on the ‘bap / barm cake / bun’ argument). Only this week we’ve seen a social media kick-off about the use of the word ‘mingebag’ in a popular UK soap (that means ‘tight with money’ to Northerners. To everyone else, it probably has a slightly different meaning.)
When you bring that into business comms, it’s a potential minefield. Regional, colloquial or international language differences can get lost in translation, cause confusion – or even, offence.
American beer brand Coors discovered this in an infamous external marketing campaign when trying to bring its “Turn it Loose” campaign to Spain. Failing to check the translation into Spanish, execs later discovered the tagline used an expression that’s commonly interpreted as “suffer from diarrhea”.
Lesson learned: stick with the basics. And maybe check translations with a native speaker before hitting ‘send’.
And there you have it. 14 routes to certain internal communications failure.
There are likely many more potential blunders out there. The good news is, most are avoidable with just a little extra attention and thought. If nothing else, perhaps these failures demonstrate the value and importance of taking extra steps to avoid self-sabotage.