Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Time for Considered Communication

I am rapidly assuming the status of a dinosaur - with a bit of King Canute wrapped in. I go to communication meetings and challenge the wisdom that all that is new must be good (and the implied, but rarely expressed, view that everything conceived before 2008 is bad). When the agencies I meet talk social, I talk business impact. When they press the benefits of Infographics, I question the outcome they're trying to achieve. When they press for digital solutions, I fight for the quality of content.

Unlike the dinosaur, I've seen at least two revolutions in my IC career and have survived. Almost 20 years ago we were told email would take over the communication world - it did - and we've fought against it ever since. A decade later came the rise of the intranet and the supposed thrust for collaborative working. Until very recently, most intranets became hungry beasts demanding huge time commitment to keep them fresh, but offering questionable organisational benefit. The move towards social communication is bringing new life into these beasts - but young, equally fresh, innovative communicators appear set to dump the PC-planned platform and drag their organisations (sometimes kicking and screaming) into a mobile age where all we need to grow our businesses and collaborate with the world is the latest social communication app and a smart device to run it on.

It's great in that Millennial world and I'm absolutely all for innovation in the platforms, the speed and the connectivity that bring people together in business. But I'm also more than aware that just 35% of the workforce is Gen Y (that's born after 1980) and only around half of those are true Millennials (that's digital natives who have joined the workforce since 2008). Today's workforce is still dominated in numerical terms by Baby Boomers and Generation X, while around 80% of the UK's workforce work in small and mediums sized enterprises where great communication matters greatly - but where enterprise social networks are not at the top of the business agenda. Should they be?

Perhaps social needs to be more important to many more organisations, but the reality is that unless you happen to work in a start-up technology or marketing business, Boardrooms will continue to be dominated by the Boomers and Gen X until at least 2025. Consequently, in order to inspire these business leaders to adopt social communication to drive effective stakeholder engagement, communicators need to work with them and appreciate their needs and behaviours rather than merely impose solutions that appeal to only that part of any workforce that has grown up with a smart device grafted to their arm.

I am frankly getting fed up with being told that social answers every comms issue I have. It doesn't. I get more than a little bile in my throat when some bright spark tells me 'a picture's worth a thousand words and here's out latest infographic tool - it's cutting edge.' Infographics new? So what was Leonardo da Vinci doing more than 500 years ago? I get thoroughly pee'd off when I'm told we're all too time poor to read anything, or listen to anything or watch anything or, God forbid, actually meet anyone. All we have time to do is tweet or yammer away or contribute to the latest chatter. Surely the purpose of all these digital channels is to save us time - so why aren't we using it effectively?
We are not time-poor, but attention-poor. It would seem our Millennials have all the time in the world to indulge in the latest learn-your-business-though-an-online-game (which, having not been brought up with fat thumb syndrome, I find tedious and a waste of my time), but have no appetite for a face-to-face event.

Yet in running head-long into applying social/digital to every communication issue, are we not in danger of imposing solutions that actually run counter to many stakeholders' desires and appeal only to the comms innovators in the same way that the first wave of intranets met only the needs of IT developers a decade ago?

Fast v Slow Food

For me, today's digital comms are the fast food of the comms menu - exciting to look at, sold with a lot of razzmatazz, but ultimately not very fulfilling. There's absolutely a place for them in communication and as the business demographic change and social comms gains a degree of maturity, they will develop into the staples of our future menu.

But I have a huge amount of respect for the slow food movement. The principle behind slow food is to reconnect people with where their food comes from and how it is produced so they can understand the implications of the choices they make about the food they put on their plates. We encourage people to choose nutritious food, from sustainable, local sources which tastes great.
What on earth does that have to do with communication? The Slow Food movement started in Italy in 1989 when people began to realise that all that was good in the history, tradition and indeed culinary genius of their food was being lost to the relentless rise of homogenous, cheap, internationalised, soul-less invaders - from pizza to burgers industrialised tacos and the rest that had no connection with the locality in which it was sold.

I commend something similar for IC. For the past 20 years, we've built great skills in face-to-face communication; in authentic leadership communication; in developing the roles of managers and supervisors and in putting great effort into creating content that's timely, relevant, audience-tailored and where its impact on business performance can be measured and acted on. We've developed process that has enabled IC to move from being remote and top-down to being embedded in business and recognised as a crucial business function. We've become exemplars for high quality work - enabling others to learn from our expertise.

But there's a push to change that role. To move from being creators to curators - no longer setting the standard for quality, but merely providing the frames in which anyone can use any social tool to 'communicate' any kind of content - regardless of its quality, worth to the organisation or impact on stakeholders is wrong. To me, that's an abdication of all that has been good in IC since the 90s. Some IC pros 'get' that to curate effectively, they still need to manage content - but with true socialisation, is that actually possible?

Despite the extreme fascination with the technology of social media, I'm still told that content is king. Yet there's a paradox here, since socialisation seems to be letting anyone share any old tat. The emphasis on good quality communication that actually connects with its intended audiences seems to have been lost. We're rather stuck in that myth that 'anyone can write; anyone can take a picture'. So, by the same token, I can count, so will Finance let me loose on the accounts?

I am old school when it comes to effective writing; to good storytelling and to ensuring the imagery I use actually is fit for purpose with a particular audience group - that's where I add expertise. I'm equally old school in fitting the right medium to the need - and still believe that face to face communication - and the in-person connection of teams, leaders and the rest is what we should aim for. That's real social communication.

Of course, in the globalised world of major organisations that's often an ideal we aspire to - but digital comms should be used to enhance and support the need for face to face - not replace it.
Equally, while I have no intention to clamp down on social as a great means of collaboration, I'm still keen to push IC's role as exemplar of all that's good in comms. We cannot abdicate our responsibility for producing great content. While we have a role in bringing up the standards of the rest of our organisation, we're not just the coach. IC teams need to include inspiring creative talent too (or at least access to talent who really understand the organisation). The IC-pro as manager and curator appears to me to be a backwards step.

So am I advocating a 'Slow Communication' movement? Far from it. What I am advocating is Considered Communication: a blend of all we've learned that's good from the past 20 years with what's new and emerging, managed and delivered by a team of all the talents.

I may be a movement of one. I hope not. I may just be the last dinosaur caught in the death throws of a dying style of internal comms. If that's so, it saddens me.

I've already been called King Canute. But that doesn't worry me. Canute did not believe he could hold back the sea, but sat at the water's edge to prove to his followers that he was not all powerful. I am all for progress and all for the evolution of IC. What I don't believe is that everything social and everything digital actually equates to progress.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Summertime - and your living could be easier if you had an experienced comms pro to cover for you...

It looks like I'm well set up from September. Nice stuff in the pipeline to look forward to. But, as sometimes happens around these hot summer months, the pipeline’s more a dribble than a deluge at the moment.

So, if anyone’s looking for some IC or B2B comms cover over the summer – please do get in touch. You’ll be guaranteed speedy service, experienced, effective communication and the odd thrust of witty banter.

All projects and proposals considered – while the jam tomorrow will be nice, a bit of bread and butter today wouldn’t go amiss.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Great facilitation doesn't mean being nice to everyone

I keep saying I'm going to stop cross-posting from - and then I do it again...

I’ve been talking facilitation over the weekend and realise that the advice I gave to my contact might have a wider appeal. He’s organising an away day to bring together the management, workers, trustees and volunteers of an organisation going through some painful times, with a view of building a collective vision for the future, and an action plan to turn them all around towards the right direction.

It’s a tough challenge for one day! But here’s what I told him:

“To make your away day effective, you need your facilitator to be challenging – to be independent of the issues and ask the idiotic or awkward questions that need to be answered but that no-one tied to the organisation would think or dare to raise. There is absolutely no point in everyone turning up and taking on their usual roles and delivering the responses they perceive are expected of them. From long experience of doing this kind of thing, the definition of madness is to do the same things over and over, yet expect to achieve a different result.

“I’m sure your facilitator will be perfectly aware of that and won’t fall into the trap of letting everyone get a little too comfortable. From what you told me it sounds as though your organisation faces some significant issues. Your away day looks like a fantastic opportunity to face up to those issues, shake out people’s worries, gripes and prejudices and start moving forward with a common vision. The best way to reach that common vision will be to enable everyone attending to leave their ‘role’ within the organisational structure at the door and to work together as equals with an equal stake in XXX’s future success. You need to get your facilitator to enable that right up front, otherwise the danger is that you’ll all end up being terribly nice to each other…. and actually achieve nothing.”

Often, facilitators see their role as jollying people along and keeping the peace, remaining ‘outside’ the discussion. My perception is that the best facilitators are far more active: agreeing objectives and desired outcomes up front, and managing the conversations so that the right questions are asked; the right debates entered and the right issues aired to enable the participants to act rather than just talk.

I’m looking forward to the feedback from my contact’s upcoming event.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Jam tomorrow, but a bit of bread and butter today would be handy

Yesterday was the first working day in almost three years that I've not been on a retainer or working to an open PO. In once sense it felt good. One client's work had moved from 'project' to 'business-as-usual', while with the other, I'd fulfilled the brief of training up someone on the inside of the organisation to take up the reins for IC. In most other senses it felt bad as I'd communicated myself out of two jobs.

In the great scheme of things I'd be slipping seamlessly into other work without even breaking stride. I wish I could say that was the case. I had the opportunity to take up a contract role this summer, but passed on it. As I found out more about it, I realised I was less and less suited to it - after 13 years of doing my own thing, I've found I'm exceedingly reluctant to work in-house for someone else.

I passed up the chance in part because a couple of other opportunities were out there for interesting projects that played to my consultancy/tactical strengths - both give me the chance to get in to a business, work with their IC people to set clear objectives, build a plan and work on some of the tactical stuff (and then hand the work back in house once my part's delivered). Both opportunities are still there, both will happen...but not quite yet.

I'm doing some summer school teaching for the next five weeks, and also bits and pieces of tactical IC stuff - plus starting to work on a b2b White Paper. But I've got time on my hands now and that makes me uneasy. While there's plenty of jam tomorrow, I need a bit more bread and butter today.

So, if anyone's in need of an additional pair of hands on IC projects over the next seven weeks, please do get in touch at I'm good at what I do; bad at marketing myself; and completely rubbish at thumb twiddling.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The answer's social media - now what's the question?

Another cross-post from

Last week I read a request for help on LinkedIn that so vexed me that I’m still thinking about it a week on.

A member of an IC interest group wrote: “I’m struggling to engage a specific group of employees who are reluctant to embrace social media any suggestions on some new innovative ways?”

My response was: “Do they have to embrace social media? It would seem that whatever the question is for IC pros at the moment, the answer is ‘social media’. Sometimes, in its many and various forms, it is the answer – but not always. 

"We seem to be losing the art of face to face communication and the appetite for traditional comms. In the rush to embrace the electronically-driven social world, that could be a very costly error. Have you talked to this group? What’s their take on comms? Are there channels and media that they appreciate and respect? What’s worked for them in the past – do you know the reasons why they’re not embracing social media?”

“Without knowing that side of the story, it’s tricky to suggest a way forward. But, the newest, sexiest, shiniest forms of comms aren’t always the best for any particular group, and the worst mistake we can make is to impose what we like onto a group with a different (and perhaps just as valuable) perspective.”

The debate has gathered almost two dozen comments, with a group suggesting various options to draw this non-specified audience into social media, while others have either supported me, or in the case of Jim Shaffer, moved the debate on a little. Jim’s point is that we shouldn’t be arguing about traditional v social, but, as he said: “The question and a lot of the responses here are about process versus results or outcomes. What results are you trying to change? What outcomes do you want from “embracing social media?” It would seem that if people 1) had access to a solution that would improve a business outcome, 2) if it was in their best interests to make the improvement and 3) it was their idea to adopt that solution, they would.  Or that’s what usually happens. Asking people to embrace social media is like asking them to embrace posters.”

For me, Jim’s hit on an issue that’s worrying me more and more as I engage with comms pros here in the UK. There’s a distinct band-waggoning on social with the result that any discussion of strategy or tactics that doesn’t involve the latest application of digital wizardry is kicked out the door in double-quick fashion. There’s an assumption that social is some kind of magic bullet – and that the likes of Jim or me advocating an approach that looks at audience needs, business outcomes and the best way for comms to enable such an outcome must be something akin to walking with dinosaurs.

It’s worrying to me in that we seem to be knocking back a good decade of internal comms evolution – the decade that took us from output to outcome and brought leaders across organisations out from behind their emails. To me, there’s a real danger that too much emphasis on social will push our leaders back behind their electronic walls – while too much emphasis on social media will over-dignify the technology, while underplaying the need for solid comms that brings people together in the right way to achieve the right outcomes. Too many people are getting a little too excited about the outputs again – without considering if they’re achieving the right results.

There’s so much talk of social media democratising business – but do you know what? Businesses aren’t democracies. And unless the principles of capitalism are about to fail, they’re not about to become democracies. I am immensely in favour of social’s ability to enable collaboration; to break down the barriers of geography and time zones. But it’s not a panacea. Surely it will enhance our communication offering, not replace all that has gone before?

Not according to Gartner, apparently. Last Thursday I headed up to Milton Keynes to listen to the very excellent Rachel Miller talking about ‘putting the social into communications’. In a really informative and entertaining presentation, she raised many points I agree with – and a few I’d take issue with.

Of course, the first slide above is Gartner’s interpretation. But really? 80% in two-and-a-half years? That may well be true in the largest organisations or ones that are staffed largely by Millennials. But it most certainly won’t apply to the pick and pack barns I work with, or the leave-your-own-device-in-your-locker call centres; or even among the care workers who regard their phones as something to use voice to voice.  We’re getting a little too carried away by the social wave – and I’m not sure enough people are holding it up to scrutiny.
To be fair to Rachel, she absolutely is – and was at pains in her talk to balance social media with other tools in our comms toolkit.  She emphasised strongly that social is a state of mind – it’s fit for purpose for some, but not all, and should be dialled up and down depending on need.
She raised another point though that I don’t want to agree with. It’s about the changing role of comms professionals.
Okay. I’m still with those dinosaurs. I’ve gone through the stage where IC ‘owned’ comms. We were the creators, shapers, packagers, and postmen; measurers, reporters and crank-the-wheel-againers. Rachel suggests that time has passed. The role of IC pros now should be to manage the display to ensure it’s as effective as it can be. The new tools and channels are placing comms in the hands of everyone in the organisation, and our role is to ensure everyone has a voice.
I’m not so sure for two reasons. First, that rapid evolution hasn’t reached most businesses yet. Even the largest organisations I work with are still operating in an old paradigm. Take up of the new-comms mantle is patchy, and the demand for good creative content from the comms team remains strong. Second, the curatorial model could invoke anarchy. Could you apply it to other functions?  Should we all do a bit of accountancy or a bit of IT. Shall we just use HR for a bit of window dressing while we do all our hiring and firing and people management team by team?  I like the idea in principle, but IC must do more than curate. We still need to take the lead. As much as the accountants are the experts (and not to be messed with) in Finance, we have to be seen to be the experts in comms. Yes, it’s more about facilitating, enabling and coaching than packaging – but this is not the time to abdicate responsibility.
I’m wondering if some IC pros are leaping towards that abdication because they don’t actually have the solid grounding in content creation?
As Rachel said last Thursday night: “Content is king, Queen and Jack.” Sure, we can’t own it all and nor can any IC Pro be an expert across all content fields. But actually, some of the old-paradigm dinosaurs have that expertise in bucket loads.
Perhaps the holy grail is about breaking the false divide. Social should not be separate from traditional. Everyone in IC should be focused on enabling the right business outcome – the process of how you get there is important – but what matters most is asking the right questions in the first place.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Don't chase the folly of the Emperor's New Clothes: make great content your communication King

Every day as I work, Twitter provides a back-beat to my activity. I’ll delve into YouTube for information I can use, and probably will check out Facebook and LinkedIn at least a couple of times a day. I’m a regular on the BBC News site, and a number of other sports, business and news sites that augment the daily paper I read and the radio that wakes me up - and also accompanies my transition from work to rest late in the day. A large chunk of my week is spent working on my own, but I never feel disconnected – my social set-up accompanies me through the day, wherever I happen to be working from.

I love the fact that we’re now so much more connected than in the past – whether it be purely socially or through the socialising of business communication. Every day my twitter feed is filled with the latest chat about instagram and its new video, the rise of infographics, the latest webinar, who has storified what and the best pinterest boards to check out. In fact, almost every day there appears to be a new application on the rise that could be fantastic for the businesses I work with. There’s a whole generation of social entrepreneurs out there evangelising. Some organisations are making fantastic strides in democratising the communication process and many, many stakeholders are joining in a rapid evolution of organisational communication – sweeping the old, top-down, elite-led communication paradigm away, and replacing it with a whole new era of connectivity, blurring the boundaries of work/non-work and enabling anyone who wants to be a collaborator, contributor and communicator across their organisation to assume that power.

Across a swathe of Gen-Y dominated organisations, often marketing-led and highly technology-attuned, we’re approaching communication anarchy. Not in a bad way of bombs and extremists, but in the sense of collectivism without rulers.

But then I come back to my working world: a world that in the last couple of months has seen me spending time with care workers employed by a charity (as far from the BBC reports of 15 minute care appointments as you’d possibly get); in a supply chain company’s ‘pick and pack’ operation; with sub-contracted engineers working for a power provider and in a small call centre that’s a very long way from the third largest operation in Swansea. None of the people I worked with was in a conventional office environment. In three out of four operations, people felt somewhat cut-off from their organisation’s leaders. All were proud of what they did, but few understood their contribution to the organisation or how they made a difference in achieving its aims. None in the three felt particularly part of any engagement revolution – not through an absence of tools and channels to get involved through, but much more so through a lack of high quality content that really connected with them. There was a consensus that their organisations were missing a trick: going all out to make the best use of technology, but not putting equal focus on the lifeblood of effective organisational communication: great content that’s timely, relevant, involving and delivers the right action.

At the call centre, staff leave their own devices in their locker. Throughout their shift, their machines display customer contact information, scripts and some very basic product information. There’s some social and admin material posted on noticeboards, and there are end-of-shift handovers where a little business information is shared – but people are, by then, very keen to get off the floor and away. It’s a hard-grind sales environment. staff turnover is high and loyalty is low. Managers and staff are rewarded on short-term sales goals – and the big picture plan is out of sight for all but the most senior. We’re now working on some simple information shared well. It’s not all about new tools – staff told us the last thing they wanted was company messaging popping up on their phones and tablets out of hours. So we’re bringing in some lunch and learns; regular team huddles; a suggestion and recognition process and much more management by walking about from a previously largely invisible senior team. At the most basic level, people want to know why they should get out of bed and what’s in it for them if they do. For the senior team, they want to know how they can keep their best people longest. In both cases, there’s a demand for up to date information, shared in a way relevant to the people involved. At this stage, it’s far from the technology-led, collaborative engagement revolution. It’s real back to basics stuff based on giving managers the confidence of a good story to share, and staff the confidence that responding and participating is actually worthwhile.

Elsewhere, my care workers, several of whom seem to manage at least two phones while serving lunches to the elderly and chatting to me with ease, want to know what’s going on in their organisation; some recognition for the extra miles they go for the people they care for; and the reassurance that the charity won’t be losing its care contracts. They exist in a vacuum, directed by weekly visit sheets that are updated by SMS. They’re low paid, almost exclusively female and generally older. But they’re open to technology – and every one I met had a smartphone. What they want is a regular channel that keeps them updated on their employer and makes them feel part of what, in the charity’s head office, is a crusade for great elderly care carried out with missionary zeal. Somehow, the link from the office to the care workers has been lost – the crumbs of communication shared are watered-down, late and poorly put together (all recognised by the charity’s trustees).

Meanwhile, my pickers and packers are much further along their journey. They’ve had three years of major change, and there’s no sense of the pace of change slowing. But they’ve been taken through every step of the change in a thoughtful, purposeful way. The change and comms manager showed me their business plan, the communications process that was helping to deliver the outcomes; the compelling narrative that provided the parameters for their communication; the stakeholder mapping that helped define who needed what, when and how; their feedback loops and speak up channels; their communication development interventions for anyone with a people management responsibility and the fairly simple, low-tech tools they’d used to involve people in the change.

In a very busy warehouse, I spent some time with a team who pick and pack components for airline engineering workshops. I asked a guy what he did: “I keep planes in the air,” he responded. For me, this was a breakthrough moment. His employer had got the content/technology balance right. This guy was connected to his company’s business aspirations and had made the connection between what he did and the benefit it brings to his end customer – a customer he never sees. But, in the breakout room, customer pictures and testimonials adorn the walls; infographics showing the supply chain stars get the narrative across quickly and effectively – and video case studies, updated monthly, detail different aspects of the business; its interaction with customers and how the products it supplies are used in aviation engineering. There was a real focus on telling great stories; using the company’s own people; and sharing just the right information (not all good news!) not just to inform the people who worked in a fairly soulless environment lifting and shifting components, but to really involve them in all aspects of the business.

The next day, I was out with a boiler engineer. Sub-contracted to a sub-contractor of one of the big six, he wasn’t actually sure at first which of the major players he was representing on our calls. He had a smart CRM device detailing calls, his schedule and enabling him to update each time he’d finished a job. But it had no other applications. About every half hour he was on the phone to ‘Dave in the office’ asking questions about obscure boiler parts, giving advice and bellyaching about his lodgings. While he was pleasant and polite with customers, there was no sense of representing his employer’s employer. He knew nothing about the power company and was unable to respond on at least two occasions when there was an open door to upsell to the customer. No-one had though to include my engineer in any kind of company communication. This was a failing of process, but also a failure to give him the right content not just to do the immediate job, but to represent effectively the company ultimately paying his wages. For him, better use of smart technology would help – but that better use has to be based on strong content that will engage his interest in the business he represents.
We can have connectivity a la mode until it comes out of our ears, but if it’s not backed with the right content, it’s worthless. As internal communicators, we can’t abandon our role in creating great content or helping others in our organisation to do so. And we mustn’t forget that while the fashion among evangelists is for newer, shinier, faster and flashier all the time, most of the workforces we represent aren’t Hoxton hipsters with the latest I-pad living their lives through apps, but are much more likely to be my Polish care worker with a passion for loud phone conversations while changing beds; my call centre mums, knackered at the end of an evening shift; my picker and packer fed up of the four warehouse walls, or my engineer, sat in his van, making another call to Dave.

We need to engage these people, and while the social media revolution may help us reach them more easily, we won’t grab and keep their interest – and provoke them into really giving their all – unless we can give them content that intrigues, inspires, educates and involves.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cross-posting from - The virtues of progressive pedantry

Does grammar matter? Does the way we adorn our language with spelling, punctuation, the right constructions and even, sometimes, standard vocabulary add to the clarity of our expression? Or does it just hinder the reader’s understanding of what we’re trying to say? The world has moved on a long way from the days when a government mandarin might write:

“This is offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put.”

Wrongly attributed to Churchill, it’s the kind of grammar pedantry that would not allow the writer to conclude a sentence with a preposition. Thankfully, the world has moved on. But, in much more recent times, I’ve noticed distinct slippage in the way we use grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. To some, that simply doesn’t matter. Oxford University’s Simon Horobin, speaking at the Hay Festival, asked grammar pedants to relax over such things as the use of the apostrophe; the spelling of words such as through (thru) and, more generally, the consistency of written English. He has a point. English is dynamic and ever changing. In fact, I’m rather surprised that he didn’t ask his audience to “chillax.” However, when it comes to business writing, the objective is to create a shared understanding, and you’ll only achieve that through consistency.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been bouncing between the usual round of client copy editing; assessing award entries, and marking undergraduate essays and dissertations. It has been illuminating in understanding just where we stand in grammar wars. From my perspective, written English is in a state of flux. There’s an age divide that seems to split those aged 35 and upwards from their younger peers, while we also have a divide between native speakers and those for whom English is a second (at least) written language.

Older writers are more structured, more formal in their use of grammar – but (huge generalisation) also more passive in their sentence construction and prone to 70 word + sentences. Late Gen Xers and the Ys and Zs following are consistent only in their inconsistency. They have a fleeting relationship with the rules of grammar, and such tools as apostrophes are sprinkled without rhyme or an awful lot of reason through their direct, active and often sparkling copy. They’ve slipped back, though, into the world of ‘amongst’, and ‘whilst’ for among and while. My students tells me it gives more gravitas to their copy. I simply repeat what my English Language tutor at Manchester University, Dr. David Denison, told me back in 1982: “It’s archaic, and a waste of ink.” That was 30+ years ago, but what was archaic then is creeping back now (and adds no gravitas!)

We’re far from txt spk taking over (another myth), but the business and essay writing of the young reflects a complete neglect of lessons around the process of written English in UK schools through the 90s and 00s.

And then there’s the rise of ‘International English’ – this new concept of English written for a global audience by non-native speakers that adopts the grammar rules of their native language. I’ll give you an example. I received some copy from a Dutch client that started: “Since today, we are rolling out a new way of working across the business.” I pointed out that this use of ‘Since’ was not something we’d say. In British English, ‘since’ always implies the past. My Dutch colleague simply didn’t get it – not entirely surprising as the construction is common in Dutch and German and used as we might use ‘from’. There are more and more examples of these internationalisms creeping in. Perhaps they’re a natural evolution, but the more crass intrusions should still be picked up with a view to helping the writer understand the nuances of British English.

Of course, the other battle is against that bastard son of American English, corporate babble. If I see another “leveraging the synergies” in my life, it will be several lifetimes too soon. Every organisation has its own language style, but the continual verbalising of nouns and use of meaningless phrases simply does the language no favours at all.

I used to think of myself as a grammar Nazi – but that has a distinctly pejorative tone. Today, I’m happier as a progressive pedant. Language – and our use of it – evolves. I’m comfortable about starting a sentence with ‘And’ and ending it with a preposition. I pepper my copy with contractions, the occasional elision – and the odd flourished dash.

And now I preach what I practice. Whether through my business grammar training module, through marking and grading undergraduate essays, or simply through editing client copy for publication, I’m striving for that balance that makes the written word clear, and technically as correct as it should be.
We can’t be stuffy about the development of language, but nor should we encourage creeping language anarchy. The goal has to be about creating understanding. For that, some simple rules, and their consistent implementation, is key.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Oi - I'm over there!

It's weird that my new blog has been up and running for quite a while now, but this one still seems to get the majority of the hits - I suppose, just because it has been around for quite a while.

Anyway, if you want to know what I'm up to in terms of internal comms and engagement, pop on over to insideleapfrog.

There's stuff on there on the training modules I'm currently offering, while I'm also working up a coaching piece specifically by those who are forced to communicate in business - but really don't want to.

So far, I've run it with a group of Finance and technology (and a combination of both) professionals - and it went down exceedingly well.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

EC in EE 2013 - update

Responses to the 2013 EC in EE Survey are coming in steadily - though we're probably a shade down on the same stage in 2011. It would be great to get numbers up!

What's gratifying is the geographic spread - plenty from the UK/North America as expected, but new responders from continental Europe, New Zealand and most recently, India - surely set to be the next IC/EC powerhouse.

Some of what the early responders have to say is interesting - but perhaps pointing to employee engagement - and employee communications' role in it - not having moved very far in the last two years. Of course, more survey responses could change the picture entirely...

However, as of yesterday:

•40% of organisations still don’t have an engagement strategy, while
•over a quarter of organisations responding don’t differentiate between EC and EE.

HR ‘owns’ employee engagement in almost half the organisations responding so far, with the HR Director most likely to be responsible for managing the day to day engagement agenda.

•While intranets are all-pervasive, one in ten responders no longer use email as part of their communication mix in support of engagement.

• Almost three quarters of respondents are using social media in their comms mix, with blogs, yammer/chatter being the most popular tools.

•Twitter is coming up fast with over a quarter of respondents using it within their internal comms mix.

Early responders sees the key challenges for the next 12 months as two-fold: getting management buy-in to social media and more generally, having to do more with less.

Interested in contributing to the 2013 picture? You'll find the survey at

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A cautionary tale of engagement

I'm still cross-posting but will stop doing so at the end of this month. So if you like what I write, please check out the new Leapfrog blog at

Meanwhile, here's a cautionary tale for those who perhaps don't pay enough attention to their 'net rep'.

However strong your brand; however motivated your people, your organisation’s reputation ultimately rests on the weakest link in the ambassadorial chain. A single employee bad-mouthing your business or your customers can stoke up a furore that can spiral well beyond any offence caused by the employee’s original action.

Such reputational time bombs are magnified hugely in an age where social media is fast becoming the prime feeding ground for traditional journalists who find themselves having to compete ever more vigorously for consumers’ interest in a news marketplace where you lose if you blink – never mind snooze.

Take the case of Holleh Nowrouz. Up until the end of December she was Sale Sharks Rugby Club’s social media executive. As such, her name appeared all over the club’s website; in its printed match programmes and, on behalf of the club, through a wealth of social media feeds.
Sale have recently moved from their Cheshire homeland to the new Salford City Stadium and their media team have gone into overdrive promoting the club to a potential new fanbase while trying to ensure the traditional supporters continue to follow the club at its new location. Their job clearly hasn’t been helped by the fact the Sharks are rock bottom of Rugby’s Premiership, with a revolving door on the coaches’ office and marquee signings not performing to anywhere near expectations.
That said, it was hardly bright of Nowrouz to post the following status update on her personal Facebook page at the end of October:
Sale media furore

It’s a bit blurry (and sweary) but I hope you get the gist – Nowrouz vented her frustration on an element of supporters who seemingly weren’t differentiating the efforts of the media team from those of the coaching staff. By addressing Sale Sharks fans directly and expressing her opinion of some of them through a particularly poor choice of words, Nowrouz crossed an invisible boundary. Sure, this was posted on her personal Facebook page, but her name’s well-known, and any views she expressed through social media were bound to be linked to her role as a media spokesperson for her employer.
Had this been a ‘dear diary’ entry scribbled down before the age of Facebook, no-one would have been any the wiser, and Nowrouz would still be tweeting away on behalf of the Sale empire. But on December 21, the image above became rather more widely read in the public eye when it was posted on the Sharks’ unofficial fans forum . It was soon picked up across the network of rugby message boards and before the day’s end, had been picked up by the media. From the Mail Online through the Telegraph to Fox in Australia to the BBC, most stories shorthanded the issue focusing in on Nowrouz calling fans f*******.

Actually, before the end of the day on which her frustrated post was shared on the Sharks’ forum, very many fans were in agreement with what she said – but registered their recognition of her stupidity in how she chose to express her opinion. However, through their association with Nowrouz, Sale were taking a pummeling in the media. A club already seen to be close to crisis was now seemingly having its reputation trodden through the mud by the thoughtless actions of one of its own employees.

At first, the club sought to quell the furore (much of it based on Middle-England ‘righteous indignation’ rather than fact) by posting an apology:

Holleh Nowrouz deeply regrets the posting she made on her personal facebook page at the end of October. Disciplinary action has been taken and the matter has been dealt with internally and both Sale Sharks and Holleh Nowrouz would like to apologise to supporters of Sale Sharks for causing unnecessary distress.

Unfortunately for both parties, the story had gone viral by then with almost every commentator focusing on that last three word sentence. It took three days, but by December 24th, Nowrouz’s position was clearly untenable. She clearly regretted what she’d said and even more clearly had no intention of her words of frustration spreading around the world. But she’d made the cardinal error of committing private thoughts to a public space. One Facebook update, uncovered by a disgruntled fan trawling through her net rep had damaged brand-Sharks significantly – and more so, had provided an entry point for any media entity looking to have a dig at all the other travails afflicting the club. Two hours before close of business on Christmas Eve, the BBC reported:

Sale sack club official for Facebook comments about supporters
Sale Sharks have sacked their social media executive for posting derogatory comments about the club’s supporters on her Facebook page. Holleh Nowrouz was dismissed by Sale’s chief executive Steve Diamond following a “stringent disciplinary review”. Sale…are bottom of the Premiership table with one victory from 11 matches. “At this crucial time for the club Holleh’s comments, though private, just overstepped the mark,” said Diamond.

As social media executive, Nowrouz should have been more aware than just about anyone else at Sharks of the club’s social media policy and code of conduct for employees regarding talking about any aspect of the club through social media platforms. That’s if Sharks actually have such a policy – one suspects they certainly didn’t have before December 21st!

A core aspect of engaging employees has to be in helping them understand the benefit or damage they can do to their organisation through the way they talk about that organisation with their friends and family, suppliers and customers – and anyone who might be reading something they post on a social network. Clearly this is a two-way street. Employers should create and instill clear social media policies and pay extra special attention to anyone who’s seen as a spokesperson for the employer in the normal course of their job. Such people need special help and support to ensure they’re clear on where the boundaries lie. Equally, employers can’t expect to treat employees badly and steer clear of justifiable criticism. However, by working with staff to define and codify the boundaries, employers can steer clear of the kind of issue faced by Sale Sharks through Ms. Nowrouz’s action.

We all have to recognise that anyone in our organisation is a potential communicator and the tools of communication extend far beyond traditional corporate outreach and are now visible all over the world, all day, every day. Are you confident that you have the tools in place to ensure none of your employees, however inadvertently, does a Nowrouz on you?