Scepticism is sometimes perceived as a negative mindset and is often confused with cynicism, but these two philosophical perspectives are quite different. Applying your inner sceptic to everyday internal communication and PR practice has the potential to deliver more effective and ethical outcomes.
I was recently asked why I often seem to have an alternative viewpoint about internal communication practice and issues, in particular, in some of the blogs that I write.
I’m rather proud that this was recently recognised in a ‘best of’ IC blogs listing. Apparently, I don’t ‘shy away from saying the thing that everyone was thinking’. Maybe I don’t have such an alternative viewpoint then, and am just more willing or able to talk and write about it?
Why do I often have an alternative viewpoint on familiar, and not so familiar, issues in internal communication?
Well, for as long as I can remember I have had a reaction to anything that is ‘mainstream’ or ‘fashionable’, or to being told what to do, and more importantly think. I am not one to jump on the bandwagon and am usually one of the first to declare that the ‘emperor has no clothes’. And, there are a few bandwagons and unclothed emperors around in internal communication these days!
In my view, the bandwagons and unclothed emperors distract us from the more fundamental and important stuff in internal communication, but that’s the subject of another blog. There is something else I want to highlight here, which I think is important both for internal communication practice and also in the context of recent world events.
Now, scepticism gets a bit of a bad rap. It is often perceived as being a negative thing and confused with cynicism, but these two philosophical perspectives are quite different. In essence, sceptics question evidence and look for solutions, whereas cynics are more closed minded and have a deep mistrust of the truth and the motivations of others.
I am a fully paid-up sceptic, but not a cynic. I question pretty much everything and it’s a part of how I am made. When I was younger, I wanted to be a scientist or archaeologist, and studied physical and natural science at university. An experience which reinforced my natural tendency to question and demonstrated the importance of gathering evidence and analysis to reach a conclusion or to test a hypothesis.
Years later, my inner sceptic helps me every day to be a better internal communicator and PR practitioner.
Research to understand
When I worked in government communication, we had it drummed into us that ‘great communication is founded in great insight’. This basically means doing some research up front to understand more about what you are trying to communicate about, rather than leaping straight into creating and deploying the communication tactics.
Being sceptical about accepted truths, or postulated reasons for problems, and understanding more about an issue enables the development of a communication strategy and objectives to shape and guide all the other parts of a communication plan. Unfortunately, in practice, we are sometimes not encouraged to do this, or rewarded for doing so, by our stakeholders. Most just want to see communications activity pronto, and aren’t interested in the think piece that really needs to happen up front, or in giving us the time to do this.
In other professions, such as auditing and journalism, scepticism and the skillset of critical thinking it underpins, is a defined and desirable attribute. Why isn’t it similarly widely valued in internal communication and PR?
I would wager that a lot of internal communication activity in organisations, and some quite substantive campaigns, are neither founded in research or have any defined objectives. What a waste of everyone’s time. Where is that questioning and curious IC sceptic what you need one?
Question the opinions
There is a lot of opinion and circumstantial evidence circulating within the ‘walled gardens’ and ‘closet universes’ of the internal communications ecosystem. Much of this is founded on the experiential precedent of ‘what worked for me in my organisation’. When I see this, I always question whether this was because of pure luck or by design.
In the last couple of years, the wellbeing agenda has been a classic example of this. Never has my IC bullsh*t radar been pinged more often. Tactical solutions, with unclear objectives, inflicted liberally on long suffering workforces to demonstrate that their organisation ‘cares’ about them. And, not enough questions being asked up front about ‘why’ this is important or needed and how communication can effectively support those imperatives if they exist.
I would encourage you to be sceptical about this kind of experiential discourse. What worked in one place, might not work in yours. Every organisation is different and there are sometimes subtle differences in things like organisational culture, which could derail an attempt to graft someone else’s great internal communications idea onto where you work.
Before you get down to the tactics, be sceptical about presented solutions and taking these at face value. Do some of your own research to really understand the circumstances of the issue, or to define the problem statement, in your own organisation. I can guarantee that your internal communications will be all the better for doing that.
Having a questioning and sceptical mindset is a fundamental skill for being an ethical communication practitioner. Asking ‘why’ often, and challenging organisational leaders on their thinking and decision making is critical for maintaining a healthy balance between the demands of leaders and the needs of employees.
Most leadership teams would claim to be driven by evidence-based decision making. However, in the course of my career, some applied scepticism in the form of careful questioning and requests to see the evidence and proof has occasionally uncovered some unsound management thinking which would not have translated well into credible and ethical internal communication.
The recent P&O debacle is a classic example of this. We can only wonder if the P&O Ferries leadership team consulted with their internal communications team before embarking on such a disastrous and reputation damaging communications approach. Let alone going with the decision to instantaneously sack 800 employees, without consultation, in the first place.
The very fact that any kind of two-way internal communication approach was avoided in making the redundancies announcement at P&O Ferries, suggests they didn’t. Leaders who listen and are prepared to have their decisions questioned are usually of the more ethical variety. Again, where are the sceptics when you need them?
More broadly, scepticism can also help us to combat the proliferation of misinformation. This now infects communication in the 21st century, and the war in Ukraine is the latest high-profile example of the deliberate distortion of the truth. Never before has fact checking, questioning the validity of, and the verification of information emanating from a multiplicity of sources been more important.
Inside organisations, internal communicators also have an ethical role in fact checking what they are being asked to share with employees and by not introducing their own biases and agendas into communications activity.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has recently created and shared a number of excellent Ethical Practice Playbooks (available to CIPR members only). Whilst scepticism is not specifically mentioned in the guides, it is implied in some of the approaches and techniques covered, particularly in the contexts of fact-checking, decision making and reflective practice.
Unleash your inner sceptic. Your communications work will be more effective and ethical if you do.
Why do we say ‘the emperor has no clothes‘?