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Four Leadership Communication Channels

Just as individuals use different forms of communications—words, gestures, signals of attentiveness—organizations use various communication channels. Typically an organization utilizes four types of communications, or channels (see Figure 4-1). While it may be advantageous to use all four channels to communicate a single initiative, it is often feasible to select a single channel for a particular message.

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Figure 4-1: Leadership Communication Channels
  • Organizational communications refers to the ways in which individuals, teams, and the entire organization communicate one to one, group to group, or organizationwide. There are no hard and fast rules about what is and what is not "organizational communications," but think of it this way: It is the way messages are disseminated throughout an organization.

    Organizational communications can be as simple as a single email, or as complex as a media campaign regarding transformation. No single entity has ownership of organizational communications; it belongs to everyone. Why? Because communicating with others is each person's responsibility.

  • Editorial communications refers to messages designed to elicit endorsement from a third party, typically the media and by extension the public at large. Public relations departments send out media releases to describe what is going on inside an organization; these releases may cover new products and services or discuss internal developments related to people and programs. By and large, these releases convey a single point of view that is favorable to the company. These forms of communications are designed to be used by external media (broadcasters, periodicals, newspapers, trade publications) to develop their stories, which the organization hopes will be both informative and positive.

    Many large organizations also have in-house communication channels involving the development of articles for the organization's newsletter or web site. You can also consider a speech or a guest op-ed column by a company CEO as another form of editorial communications. In this instance, there is little filter between the leader and the public, since the leader's opinion is communicated directly, without benefit of interpretation by a reporter.

  • Marketing communications refers to communications designed to present a point of view, e.g., to sell or promote. Think of advertising. What you see in a 30-second television spot or a four-color print ad communicates a message that is paid for by the organization. The same technique can be adopted by organizations that wish to sell the benefits of organizational transformation.

    Marketing communications is especially effective for communicating a sense of urgency. You can structure the message so that you concentrate on the WIFM (what's in it for me?) as a means of persuading people that the change, the program, or the initiative is good for them as individuals and for the entire company.

  • Web communications are communications that reside on the web site. These messages may be developed solely as e-messages, or they may be retreads of articles, videos, and other media.

    The Web itself, however, can be a very powerful tool for enabling a leader to speak directly to his or her people. There are two popular methods. One is a webcast, which is a video telecast of a presentation or a conversation that is transmitted over the Web and restricted to subscribers, e.g., employees, dealers, media, or other groups. The other is a webchat, which enables a leader to respond to questions submitted via email. Sometimes the reply is sent out audio only or as a text message. Both methods are very direct means of getting to key issues. In addition, they can be replayed at the Web user's convenience or archived on the web site for later reference.

Determining the Right Media for the Right Communication Channel

Selecting the appropriate communication channel for a message is often as important as the message itself. The channel, which can be anything from an email to a speech to the masses, must be evaluated for its ability to convey the gravity of the message with the appropriate intimacy and leadership value. (Note: Channel refers to the method of communication (e.g., organizational, editorial, marketing, or Web); media refers to the vehicle (e.g., video, brochure, news article, or banner).

You can use just about any media in your communications channel—video, print, collateral, and so on. It is a common mistake to assume that video is only for marketing communications (e.g., a TV spot) and print is only for editorial. The truth is that you can use either or both—as well as other forms of media—for any channel that you like. The media you select are dependent upon the message. (Budget, too, plays a great role. Video can be expensive, as can four-color brochures.)

What kind of media you choose depends upon the importance of the message. All leadership messages have importance, of course, but some are more significant than others. Here are some suggestions you might consider:

  • Video affords the leader the opportunity to speak directly to an audience and to augment the message with stories and visuals that underscore key points. For example, if the issue is the adoption of a new strategic plan, the leader may invite different people from throughout the organization to comment on their hopes and expectations, or to say what they will do to change the organization and carry out the plan. Additionally, the leader and his or her team can comment on what the new company will look like once the plan has been achieved.

  • An all-employee meeting provides the opportunity to introduce the leadership message live in front of the entire organization. The leader needs to take a front and center role; she or he should explain the reason for the transformation, be it a new strategic plan or a new direction for the company. The leader may also wish to invite members of the leadership team to be on stage with her or him. It may even be appropriate for one or more of them to speak, to explicate the issue from their point of view. The meeting may conclude with a call to action, asking people to commit to the new idea. It should invite input and contributions from everyone.

  • Team meetings can flesh out concepts introduced at the all-employee meeting. They can translate the broad vision into departmental and team objectives, i.e., what the team will do to carry out the mission, vision, and values. In other words, small meetings are where teams and individuals take ownership and make it happen. If they do not do so, the vision or the plan remains the property of the leader, and nothing gets done. Team meetings should allow for plenty of discussion. Ownership of an idea cannot be imposed; people have to warm up to the idea and talk about it first.

  • One-on-one meetings are a team leader's opportunity to reiterate expectations and bring the leader's message to a personal level. The team leader should solicit the employee's opinion and conclude with a personal call to action, asking the employee to state what he or she will do to ensure the success of the initiative or plan. (Later in the chapter we will further explore ensuring feedback.)

  • Webcasts are ideal for enabling the leader to speak live directly to the audience in a way that cuts through the clutter. The video image will be viewed on an employee's computer, so the setting will be intimate and direct. Think of the message as the leader's opportunity to speak one-on-one with everyone in the organization. Keep it short; less than 10 minutes is ideal if a single person is speaking. (Note: Many organizations run their important videos as webcasts, but in doing so you lose some of the intimacy of a leader speaking live.)

  • Print media formalize the message; they may include a brochure, a poster, or a wallet-size card. Many organizations print their vision, mission, and values on wallet-sized cards so that all employees have them. Other organizations take a more elaborate approach. Some companies have turned their vision and mission statements into drawings and printed them as posters. Many times the art is done by the employees themselves, adding an element of ownership to the process. There are other approaches. Kellogg's, for example, produced a four-color brochure delineating the company's vision, mission, and values for the sales team as well as expectations for sales performance.

  • Media releases are designed to get the attention of the media: television, radio, newspapers, and the trade press. Use them to communicate important issues to the public or to the trade. Follow up with individual reporters to elaborate on these releases to ensure that your message is getting through. Keep in mind, however, that reporters are not publicity agents. They are seeking good stories that present all sides of an issue. If you maintain good relations with the media, you have a better chance of getting your story told. These relationships will play out especially well when the organization is going through a transformation, especially with senior leadership changes.

  • Banners get attention and serve as reminders of the message. Post them in the cafeteria or in main traffic hallways. When you visit a military base, you will often see a banner with a slogan hanging from a key work area, such as an airplane hangar or tank garage. Peek inside a football team's locker room and you will find a banner with the team's slogan for the year hanging in a prominent place.

  • Email works well for the reiteration of key leadership messages and announcements on progress toward milestones. Email may also be used for alerts, letting people know that an event (such as an employee meeting) is about to occur. Be selective. Most people receive far too much email already. Choose your moments wisely; otherwise the message will be ignored. (For more on email, see Chapter 5)

  • Broadcast voicemail is a method a leader can use to get the message out. You can use voicemail the same way as email, but it has one further advantage—the personal touch. Voicemail conveys the tone and personality of the speaker. And as with email, keep all voicemail messages succinct and to the point. Otherwise the message will be erased.

Integrated Communications Planning

Of course, for maximum impact, it may be appropriate to use two, three, or all of these media. If the gravity of the message is weighty, it deserves multiple channels and multiple forms of media. Leaders need to plan how their messages will be disseminated. We call this planning integrated communications—multiple channels and multiple media working together. The virtues of integrated communications are threefold: One, you can design a message to work in different ways for different media; two, you increase the chances of the message's being seen and heard; and three, you can use the media to keep the message fresh and alive—and therefore of greater interest.

A good example of integrated communications is the launching of a new vehicle. Commercials appear on television and radio. Ads show up in magazines, in newspapers, and on billboards. And the vehicles appear in dealer showrooms. Likewise, companies that want to communicate key issues may convene an all-employee meeting, send letters to employees' homes, and post banners in employee cafeterias. In both instances, the organizations are integrating channels and media to ensure exposure to the message.

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