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Can a Company’s Voice Be Strong and Clear When the Leadership Isn’t?

What's your biggest challenge at work?

Biggest Challenge at Work Commentary are Tim’s thoughts on real-life challenges submitted by readers like you. Want to send us your challenge? Take the Biggest Challenge at Work Survey

“Poor leadership”
— Internal Communications

This post is the last in a short series on employee communications. We started out by asking which came first: communication or employee engagement? Next, we discussed a few popular challenges from the world of internal communications: diversity, change, shit sandwiches, and getting people to read email. However, we’ve saved the best and most important communications challenge for last, namely—what can you do when the problem is not with the reader or the writer, but with the direction of the company?

Here are two more voices from The Biggest Challenge at Work:

Job Title Working On Biggest Challenge at Work
Senior Internal Communications Manager "Internal communication - change management - engaging employees" "Informing people on business objectives and how people can contribute (engagement)"
Strategic Communications Executive "Learning internal communication" "Resistance towards change"

Communication is always about leadership. Internal communications is about leadership inside the company. The three cases I’ve quoted so far in this post are no exception. All are leadership challenges. And all three call for two kinds of leadership:

  1. Clear direction from top management; and
  2. Leadership on the part of Internal Comms

Leadership at the top is a serious matter. In Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, I give it a full chapter—Chapter 16, Start at the top. Here, because we are not talking to the CEO, but rather to the communications folks, I will say that it’s always easy to blame the guy who is not in the room.

In other words, let’s focus on something Internal Comms can do to make things better up and down the chain. Here’s a simple recipe. Whatever the message, make sure it comes across clear and strong.

Obvious? Then how come there’s so much weak and fuzzy talk all around? Can you hear something weak and fuzzy going on at your company right now? My point exactly.

Weak and fuzzy is not empowering to the leader, nor is it engaging to the follower. When a weak and fuzzy signal comes from the top, it simply means that the management is not ready to speak. That’s where Internal Comms can lead the way and make a big difference.

Internal Communications is a leadership tool. It exists to help managers engage and empower employees. It is only a messenger, but it has an important duty: to clarify and amplify the message, rather than the opposite.

Everyone has his own idea of what strong, weak, clear and fuzzy look like. Let me give you mine. I like to use advertising slogans as examples. Even though the ads are directed towards the buying pubic, they play a role inside the company. A good tagline will strike a nerve with employees and bring out a sense of common identity. What can be more engaging than that?

Strong and Clear

In 1997 Apple launched its “Think different” campaign. The message was a bold ripoff of IBM’s famed slogan: “Think.” The text was accompanied by images of 20th century visionaries and heroes. Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and Gandhi, among others. Even though none of them ever used an Apple computer, the message was clear. Don’t follow the herd. Take a chance. Be a rebel.

That clarity came at a price. Steve Jobs had hired TBWA/Chiat/Day, one of the best and most expensive ad agencies at the time, to help bring Apple out of a death spiral. The agency spared no resource in getting the job done. First, they collected all sorts of data on Apple’s strengths and weaknesses in the marketplace. Next, four teams presented numerous concepts for the ad campaign. Only one idea caught the eye of the creative director Rob Siltanen. In the following months, several copywriters, artists, and designers worked with Jobs to refine the idea and turn it into a series of print, TV, and billboard ads.

The strength of the message came from comparing Apple users to the incomparable geniuses in the ads. Also from the now classic voiceover, “Here’s to the crazy ones.” Jobs himself picked “Think different” over “Think differently,” a grammatically safer, but far less powerful choice.

Weak and Clear

Since Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, it’s fair game to rip apart her campaign slogans. To many people, she still is the better candidate. Be it as it may, we can all agree on one thing: she was desperately lacking in the catchy tagline department.

First came “I’m with her.” The meaning was pretty clear: I support Hilary Clinton for President. However, the emotional appeal was not there for people who were not in her camp to begin with. In order to win them over, the slogan would have had to point out something that mattered to them, as Apple did in “Think different.” Not just something that mattered to Clinton herself. As a candidate, she obviously wanted the voters to be “with her” on the election day. “I’m with her” did not get a cult following because it didn’t tell the undecided voters what was in it for them. (Remember, a few posts back we talked about how to build a cult following?)

Weak and Fuzzy

The Clinton campaign must have soon realized they had a problem and went back to the whiteboard. Out came “Stronger Together.” Unfortunately, the second attempt was not only weak, but also very unclear. Who was together with whom? Would she be stronger if more people voted for her? (Duh) Or would the independent voters be stronger if they joined the Democrats? Just as the first one, the second slogan failed to explain precisely why this would be the case.

Ironically, the word “stronger” actually weakened the campaign’s point. If you want to send a strong message, generally speaking, it’s a good idea to stay away from comparative adjectives. Imagine if the Apple ad said, “Think more different.” Or, “Here’s to the crazier ones.” It also introduced another dimension of uncertainty. Stronger than what? Are we already strong by ourselves? Or are we still pretty weak, even though we are together? If she meant stronger than Trump, she had to say it out loud. Beating around the bush does not project strength.

Strong and Fuzzy

Once again, the Clinton campaign likely sensed that “Stronger Together” wasn’t quite strong enough. So, they gave it a third try. The result was, “Love Trumps Hate.

Now, you couldn’t accuse this slogan of being weak. It contained two of the strongest words in the English language. It also mentioned her opponent by name. If you were to make it any stronger, you’d be shouting obscenities. “Love fucking trumps hate!” Or—“love beats the shit out of Trump hate.”

Even though, the ad made sense logically, psychologically it sent a mixed signal. First of all, it linked Clinton and her campaign to both “love” and “hate.” Were we to assume that she was “love” and he was “hate?” Did that mean she loved Trump and his supporters? Or was it okay to hate them?

Clinton campaign slogans did not make a strong and clear connection to the voters, and her campaign failed. On the other hand, Apple ads did precisely that, and succeeded spectacularly. One could argue that Apple was a superior product, and Clinton was an inferior candidate, and the ads didn’t matter. But, at the time, Apple held 4% of the market, and Clinton was favored to win the election, so it’s likely that in both cases, the words did matter – a lot.

Same goes for Internal Communications. Even under “poor leadership,” you could be the missing link between the company and the employees. Know what’s on people’s minds and speak to them in a strong and clear voice. Carry the message both ways.

Watch out for inconsistencies. Talking the talk and not walking the walk makes the company sound like it has something to hide from employees, rather than having something to say to them. Give up wishful and deceptive thinking and speak from your true strengths.

Listen to people. Tell management what resonates with employees and what doesn’t. Have data to back up your case. Anticipate pushback. TBWA/Chiat/Day challenged Jobs several times during the making of “Think different.” At one point, Rob Siltanen stepped away from the campaign, because he could not handle Jobs. The rest of the team persevered, and history was made.

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If you want to send a strong and clear message to management, you might like my book – because it’s strong and clear.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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