The communication professional’s role and assignment
It is time for you to suit up for work. You have to stop playing the nice little girls who will help the men who can’t solve their own problems. It’s a self-assumed role, too. Like, can I help you with anything? Can we get help? You never ask a civil engineer for a little help. It’s a female-dominated occupation, and it has a lot to do with us being helpful, and people think we can just set up some ice cream and balloons to create a nice atmosphere, and brew some coffee at the same time. Ultimately, we need to stand up for the skills that we have.
Communications manager, interview in the research project Communicative Organizations
Communicators have traditionally had an important role as information producers and specialists in communications channels, characterized by the general view of the role and purpose of communication. As our understanding of the role of internal communication has evolved from a unilateral focus on information distribution to a strong need to create more meaning and deeper understanding amongst coworkers, expectations on communication professionals have also changed. In this chapter, we describe how communication professionals can contribute to value creation by working as internal consultants and communications directors.
Development of the role through history
In line with industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s, organizations began to increasingly use formal internal communication. This is because contact between management and coworkers gradually decreased as organizations and work roles grew and broadened. This in turn created a need to inform coworkers through texts. As the Human Relations school of thought began spreading, organizations began to invest in internal newsletters. Human Relations is based on the well-known Hawthorn study, conducted between 1924 and 1933 at the Western Electric Company near Chicago. In this study, researchers found, among other things, that people need more than just economic compensation to work effectively; they also need social interaction and attention.
In 1942, Alexander Heron, whose book Sharing Information with Employees is considered the first to deal with organizational communication, stated that internal communication is the sharing of information in two directions, and demands the opportunity to ask questions, get answers, and exchange ideas. However, those responsible for internal newsletters long faced an editorial dilemma: be the voice of management and produce “propaganda,” or be corporate journalists who critically reviewed and reported on business. Research shows that one-third of American journalists quit their jobs at newspapers to instead be hired as internal newsletter editors at companies.1 Until the 1970s, having an internal newsletter that critically reviewed management and its decisions was the ideal. In an article in Management Review, communications consultant and author Roger DAprix says the problem was that communication professionals identified themselves as internal journalists, meaning that they focused primarily on mass media, rather than seeing themselves as organizational communication professionals focused on strategic questions.2 This attitude still exists to a large degree in organizations today. DAprix argues that the ideal should be communication professionals as interpreters of change, rather than reactive reporters. Furthermore, DAprix urged communication professionals, even though he questioned the competence levels of the majority, to focus on facilitating and creating conditions for interpersonal rather than mass-mediated communication. The mid-1970s marked a turning point, when the internal newsletter began to be seen as a way of creating credibility for management amongst coworkers.3
Interest in investing in interpersonal communication unfortunately disappeared during the 1980s, as global competition increased and an organization's success was measured primarily by its performance on the stock exchange. Many coworkers felt at this time that they did not get enough information, and a large part of the information they received came through the unions. Internal newsletters still dominated internal communication. A debate was still underway on whether communication professionals should be allowed to report what they want about issues in the organization, and that management should just accept it. Staff feedback was rare, and when it did come, it was on decisions that management had already made. Coworkers were not consulted before decisions were made. By the end of the 1980s, most organizations had some kind of system for internal communication in the form of staff magazines, meetings, and message boards.4
Even in the 1990s, the work of communication professionals internally was dominated by technical, journalistic skills such as producing newsletters, instead of trying to create good relationships with and between coworkers.5 Although computers had made headway in organizations, printed internal publications were still the norm. A trend was also broken, when communication professionals began adopting marketing ideas.6 For example, they began discussing the importance of good service and of coworkers living the brand. The CEO of SAS at the time, Jan Carl- zon, was an early adopter of the idea of setting the customer in focus in his book Moments of Truth (first published in 1985).7 Carlzon believed in engaging coworkers through participation and information. He thought that coworkers are capable of making the right decisions and knowing what needs to be done, if only they have the right information. If you place faith in your coworkers, they will become more involved and better solve their problems. Stiff market competition in the 1980s and 1990s made it impossible to rely on old management ideals, where management and managers were always seen as the best fit to make decisions. They began to see the potential in coworkers’ experiences, knowledge and values. Coworkers were therefore placed in the center, and the ambition was to abolish pyramid structures (though this was hardly realized in practice). The importance of listening was also highlighted - actively listening to coworker opinions.
The 2000s were strongly influenced by digital media and intranets.8 Swedish organizations distinguished themselves by already starting to introduce intranets in the mid-1990s. Several intranets were initially started as grassroots projects, without impetus from management. As the intranet became a natural part of internal communications, many management groups strategically decided to centralize and structure the often-homegrown intranets. Many communication professionals had, and still have today, high hopes for the intranet. Large portions of the communications budget were placed on creating and maintaining effective intranets.
At the same time, many communication professionals express disappointed that coworkers did not appreciate the intranet in proportion to the work it took to develop. Many also gradually realized that they had too high expectations on the intranet, and that other forms of communication in the organization still needed to be developed. Today, there is a more realistic view of the intranet than before, and integrating intranets with other IT systems in a way that makes work easier for coworkers is a challenge for many. Many organizations also gradually developed a greater understanding of the potential and complexity of internal communication. They began to take an interest in the importance of managers in internal communication and tried to find different ways to help them manage their communication challenges. Increasing numbers of people realized the connection between good leadership and communication - and higher commitment, a better work environment and coworker performance. In other words, more and more organizations realized that internal communication involved more than internal newsletters, meetings and intranets. Many organizations started projects to strengthen the communicative role and responsibilities of managers. For example, the Swedish communications consultancy Nordisk Kommunikation launched manager communications tools already in 2006. The same year, associate professor Charlotte Simonsson’s book Na from till medarbetarna (Eng: Connect with Your Coworkers) was published, where she states that the leadership of today is a communicative challenge.9 This is closely linked to the development of leadership and post-heroic leadership (see the previous chapter), where the focus is on coaching and sensemaking. Through communication, leaders can help to create understanding, participation and commitment, which is a more modern view of internal communications.
The 2010s marked the introduction of the term “social intranet,” which places emphasis on opportunities for collaboration, knowledge exchange, and dialogue via the intranet.10 There are, unfortunately, very few examples of intranets being used for this purpose. Many obstacles, such as culture, leadership, shyness and self-censorship make open dialogue difficult, even in organizations that have the best conditions for online communication.11
Several recent research projects on organizational communication and communicative leadership have contributed to an even greater understanding of the value of well-developed internal communication. We now have better insight into the need for all individuals (actors) in the organization, coworkers, managers and top leadership alike, to have strong communications skills. Developing internal communications systems that support the organization's needs and create better conditions has become an important task for communication professionals in recent years. However, there are also many communication professionals who are struggling to get the opportunity to work with internal communication in a modern and more value-creating way. It is not uncommon for the most junior coworkers in the communications department to be entrusted with the responsibility for internal communications, which often means that most of the working time goes to producing materials for internal communications channels instead of working more strategically.