Any communication can be broken down into two facets, Content and Voice.
Content concerns itself with the substance, and Voice with the tone and specifics of the language used.
Content can be defined by Mission and Vision.
Mission concerns the productivity requirements of the communication content, and may be measured in hard metrics. Vision focuses on the cultural aspects of the content, and may be defined with softer metrics. Ideally, all communications will feature both dimensions, albeit at relatively differing levels depending on requirements.
For example, a set of procedural guidelines will have an focus on productivity, or Mission. They will necessarily be concerned with operational and compliance directives, and the primary aim is to ensure these are understood and carried through.
However, this set of guidelines can also project aspects of the business’ culture. There should be far less emphasis on the Vision in these guidelines, but including it in some form aids the narrative and helps warm up what can be overly cold.
In contrast, an email invitation to a Christmas party should have more emphasis on the Vision, communicating the cultural facet of the business.
It will still, however, have an aspect of Mission in that it will need to communicate location, date and possibly even RSVP.
Voice goes to the language used for any communication.
The above diagram presents a very basic breakdown of the internal and stakeholder audience for a corporate entity.
Strata defines the use of language. In the above example, management across a business will be privy to broader yet more sophisticated business concepts. Strata also helps determine the level of detail and confidentiality of the communication; be it within a certain level of management, within the whole business or across all stakeholders.
Silo also defines the language used. For example, the Voice for any communication within a silo can assume an understanding of business concepts specific to that silo; the most obvious example being the use of acronyms.
To the experienced comms practitioner, this system will come across as self-evident.
But I have found it helpful in provide guidance for those to whom it is not so obvious – a manufacturing executive who might not appreciate the added persuasive value the cultural component would bring; or a graphic designer overly focused on the aesthetic at the expense of productivity.
From a macro perspective, you can apply it to any organisational grid to help map out the multiple communications within a task. To demonstrate how this system might be used, I have applied it to a real brief from a few years back.
The CEO of a large FMCG organisation prepared a three-year plan for his business. The theme line he conceived for this plan was ‘Refreshingly Better Choice.’
The selection of words and concepts this CEO provided dovetailed very well with this system.
The language used is easily understood across all silos and strata.
The concepts of ‘Refreshingly’ and ‘Better’ align with both culture and productivity respectively. As an added benefit, ‘Choice’ gives us further opportunity to leverage both productivity and culture within a single concept.
The brief as it came into the agency was focused specifically on a corporate event for the business’ top 100 executives.
I will lead with this type of event as it is usually the first point of dissemination for a CEO’s plan after it has been approved by the board of directors.
The event would be broken up into three main components.
The first component of the event focuses on ‘Refreshing’.
Engage a speaker who has demonstrated the capacity to refresh their career, for example Geoff Huegill discussing his successful re-entry into competitive swimming. Ideally this session will have no direct reference to the CEO’s program, but will provide a refreshing entree to the day and set the underlying theme.
For the ‘Better’ component, a plenary session in which the CEO lays out their plan.
The truth about the business at the time of briefing is that it was lagging behind its competitors in key performance indicators, so its best not to avoid the hard truths during this session. The deficient KPIs are acknowledged, and the strategy to reverse the decline outlined.
‘Choice’ is presented as a game show format.
The CEO is joined on stage by a small number of members chosen from the audience. Use the guest speaker to present a series of dilemmas to the panel. The dilemmas would be generated from specific business issues identified by the CEO in the previous session, as well as more general ones taken from life.
The first few questions would be seeded in order to let the CEO break the ice, and the spirit of the exercise should then be met by the other members of the panel.
A key observation regarding these programs is that they tend not to filter down to the rest of the employees in any effective way.
Once the top executives have been briefed, it is time to let the rest of the business and any relevant stakeholders in on the strategy.
In-house magazines are an excellent way of disseminating the message – providing an outline of the program for employees, as well as for stakeholders and other visitors. Though they seem largely redundant these days, magazines can be a tangible reminder of the strategy in this age of digital everything.
Rebranding the masthead will sustain the theme over the longer term, and finding or generating content to align with this theme can be used both in print and on digital platforms.
Financial reporting is a facet that allows us to demonstrate where the cultural aspect might need to be subdued. A prospectus would sit in counterpoint to a newsletter – the higher up you communicate, the less the reader is interested in anything but the numbers.
In the wake of recent IPOs criticised for an overdependence on decorative visuals, it is advisable to focus these types of communications towards a stronger productivity skew. Imagery and graphics should refer to the program, but should be focused around metrics.
Choice is a particularly good opportunity for the sales force. Use elements of the theme to craft specific sales initiatives and templates. For example, a tutorial can be provided based on the psychological concepts of ‘choice architecture’ or ‘framing’, with templates demonstrating the concept for real-world use.
Some of these concepts will already be familiar to the sales person – favourable shelf placement of specific SKUs being the most obvious example. The tutorial could be regarded as a refresher on the subject, a different way of looking at it or a new learning opportunity.
HR seems to swallow up the majority of my fellow psychology students hoping the enter the corporate realm. From the Wechsler tests, through Maslow’s hierarchy and the Five-Factor Model of Personality to more recent measures such as Emotional Intelligence, of all the silos within a business HR relies the most on psychological underpinnings.
A simple act such as recognising those who contribute to the culture of a business alongside those who contribute to its productivity can play its part.
For the most part, the CEO’s program will be invisible to employees.
Including the logo on the homepage will serve as a daily reminder, but it’s not necessary to emblazon it across every page of work.
Most of the briefs I get don’t need a psychological treatise. What they do benefit from, however, is a clear set of parameters.
The CEO who came up with this line did a job as good as any professional copywriter.
It didn’t try to change the world, but it did provide a flexible platform with which the wide variety of communication requirements could be aligned.