‘We need posters and leaflets’ – a simple misunderstanding

Earlier this week, I enjoyed watching the recent Channel 4 drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ . One of my favourite scenes involved a meeting between the central character Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and some of the parliamentarians involved in the Vote Leave campaign.

Before the conversation had even got beyond introductions, the parliamentarians demanded that Dominic should blow most of his generous campaign budget on ‘posters and leaflets’. No doubt these were the communication option of choice back in the halcyon days of election campaigning in the 1980’s and 90’s but their relevance and reach in the digital age of social media is, of course, questionable. Dominic’s disdain for this request from such an out of touch bunch of people was palpable.

As an internal communicator, I am more than familiar with this sort of situation. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings with leaders, project managers and stakeholders where I have been invited to discuss communications (usually as the last item on the meeting agenda) only to be handed their ‘shopping list’ of communication tactics. On some occasions, this has included posters and leaflets.

Why does this happen so often? Why does a conversation with stakeholders about communication usually start with tactics, and not the business and communication objectives which need to be achieved? I think it’s because of a few fundamental but simple misunderstandings. Here are three of them.

They don’t really know what objectives they are trying to achieve

There is a difference between business objectives and the communication objectives which will contribute towards achieving them. This is sometimes a bit subtle and can initially create some confusion amongst stakeholders, but it’s important to persevere and establish exactly what these respective objectives are before moving on to choosing channels and tactics.

I sometimes think that business objectives can be a bit of a blunt instrument….’save money, restructure teams, implement new technology’ are some of them I’ve encountered. This sort of abstraction isn’t helpful when considering what needs to happen to achieve the outcomes which will support this. Often, some kind of behaviour change amongst employees is required and this is what the communication objectives should focus on.

They don’t understand the communication channels

In some organisations, leaders, managers and stakeholders just don’t have a good grasp of what communication channels are available, what they are for and how they are used. This lack of familiarity with the channels means they will initially default to the most obvious, tangible and visible options.

The way around this is to have an agreed Communications Channel Strategy for the organisation, which clearly sets out what each channel is for, how it will be used and what sort of content it will carry. Once you’ve worked out with your stakeholders what they are trying to achieve, a comparison of those needs against the strategy should make the choice of channels and tactics easier and more effective.

It’s also good to remember that some stakeholders will need your reassurances about the fact that some communications may not be that visible to them when they are happening. Less visible methods of communication such as line manager led communications should not be discounted by them, particularly in change situations when this sort of approach is the most effective.  

Their requests are based on anecdotal evidence or assumptions

Unless they are avid and regular consumers of your internal communications evaluation dashboard, most stakeholders won’t know how well your internal communication channels perform and misunderstand their relative effectiveness.

They might assume that everyone in the organisation reads the weekly online newsletter, when you know from your data that only 20% of employees take a look in a good week. They might also hold the opinion that the posters and leaflets used in a previous communications campaign worked really well, because they were visible on every wall and every desk across your organisation. However, from your outtake evaluation you know that recall of the messages was poor and no-one observed the call to action.

It’s important to remind stakeholders that the act of communication is not communication in itself and to use any data available from the evaluation of communications activity to inform future choices of channels and tactics. As they say, without data to back up your arguments you are just like them…another person in the room with an opinion.


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