Mind the Communications Gap: Your Comms Are Not Doing What You Think They Are

No matter how perfect you think your program is, I guarantee that you have a communications gap or two somewhere. One of the best uses of data is to identify those gaps and close them.

Let me give you a few examples of real life communications gaps. Each of these stories come from employees of well-known and generally-respected brand name companies with high stock values and good reputations. I’m sure in their KPIs there is something about “attracting and keeping talent.” I also assume, given their size and reputation, that they all have talented and professional teams of corporate communicators. Yet they each have a gap between what corporate is saying and what employees are hearing:

  • A friend who is a senior manager of a large clothing and retail store told me that “corporate” had sent a memo explaining that they wanted to bring more jobs in-house so they would be firing the local janitorial service. She was told that the good news was that she had the budget to staff up accordingly, with the appropriate number of employees to take over the tasks of cleaning the bathrooms, keeping the floors clean, etc. The problem was that she was already short 12 associates, because the local unemployment rate was 2% and no one wants to work in retail for $8-10 an hour. So her solution has been to clean the bathrooms herself—and start looking for another job.
  • Another friend from the Midwest ranted about the contrast between the we-care-about-our-employees messages that “corporate” was promoting and the fact that he was expected to go back to work soon after triple by-pass surgery. His work involves a minimum of five hours a day of lifting 50-pound boxes. Or he could find another job. He’s also looking.
  • Another friend who works for a company that is in the midst of a medium-sized crisis mocked “corporate” for its messages that it had fixed a certain problem, when in fact it wasn’t fixed at all.

The Credibility Gap

These are all perfect examples of a credibility gap between senior leadership and employees in the field. And they go undiscovered because the HR and internal communications departments in these organizations typically survey their employees only once every couple of years. And then they only ask how engaged they feel, or how well they like the company Intranet.

Clearly, what these companies need are regular Leader Say/Do surveys that will identify the causes of these credibility gaps by title, department, and length of time with the company. And thus get insights into how to fix the problems.

In today’s fast-changing environment, your data needs to be frequently refreshed so gaps like this don’t develop and fester. And before you push back on the cost of research, think about the financial consequences of these kinds of gaps: replacing and retraining employees, more whistleblowers, higher turnover, and terrible reviews on Glassdoor. All of which are a lot more expensive than more frequent surveys.

But leadership-employee gaps are not the only kind of communications gap you should be worried about. Think about it. Have you ever wondered if there might be:

  1. A credibility gap between what your key messages say and what your target audiences hear or believe?
  2. An influence gap between the media list you’ve been using for years and where your target audience actually gets information?
  3. An assumption gap between expectation and reality when it comes to results, performance, or culture?
  4. A knowledge gap between what you want customers to believe and what customers actually think?
  5. A trust gap between you and your prospective donors?

The Influence Gap

One of the basic starting points in media research is to identify a “key media list.” Most clients start out with a list that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, etc., assuming these publications are the most influential. But clearly it depends on whom you are trying to target.

Ask anyone under 35 where they get information. They will tell you “I ask Siri or Google.” Do you know how often your brand tops Google or Siri’s results? That new hot talent you’re trying to recruit isn’t going to spend time reading the “About” page on your corporate website. They’re going to go to Glassdoor, other chat rooms, or Facebook pages to find out what your work environment is really like. Social media are the 21st century versions of bars and union halls—places where employees go to grumble when management won’t listen. And unless your audience is investors, these groups hold far greater sway over your target audience than The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.

The Expectations Gap

Far too frequently I go into my clients’ offices and discover a communications expectation gap. It’s that chasm between the expectations of senior management  and the reality of the goals for the communications department. In fact, I spend most of my time trying to bridge that gap.

I remember a client who told me that I had to develop a dashboard metric that would show the impact on sales of every press release. That might have been challenging for a fast-moving e-commerce company, but this was for one of the top three defense firms! Fortunately I had scheduled an interview with the CEO’s “dashboard guy.” He said, “Of course you can’t tie sales to a press release. I just expect corp comms to get our key messages out there. If they do that well, then our sales guys will take care of sales.” So I designed a dashboard that would measure the percentage of all items that contained a key message on a monthly basis. We also developed a quality index that placed the greatest weight on message dissemination.

Whenever I’m helping companies develop dashboards or other measurement programs, I do in-depth interviews with senior leadership as well as the entry-level folks. To make sure we get everyone on the same page and eliminate the expectation gaps.

The Assumption Gap

One of my most memorable sales calls was with Laura Browne, co-founder of Covalent Bonds and someone who knows the scientific market better than anyone. The senior leader in the room was explaining what he thought were the company’s problems with customers and growing their business. Laura spoke up to ask two very basic questions: “Do you have any data on that?” and “Are you sure you don’t want to test those assumptions?” The boss stopped dead in his tracks, realizing that, in fact, he didn’t have any data. We immediately started talking about what kind of research he would need to test his assumptions.

Proper research and measurement are the keys to closing all these potentially disastrous gaps in your communications efforts. When people freak out about measurement (see The Paine of Measurement for this month) and worry about the cost, I tell them, “Don’t call it ‘measurement,’ call it ‘research.’ ” And when you start with solid research you can make all the assumptions you like. ∞

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