Facebook’s latest admission of a ‘communication failure’ could just as easily have been uttered by a trust chief executive
First the denial, then the unconvincing apology and finally the claim that it was a misunderstanding. A case of poor communication – the implication being that had the decision in question been better communicated, people would not now be concerned, dissatisfied or angry.
‘Corporate communication is not to inform but to persuade, not to debate but to get the message across’
So the apology isn’t an admission that what was done was wrong, but that there was a failure in communicating it in a way that would make you feel OK about it.
A recent case of this routine was by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operatin officer of Facebook, coming clean about a experiment using data from unknowing users of the social network. But it could apply to any trust chief executive.
You can imagine the scenarios: the leak about the merger, the plan to transfer the specialist service or the move to significantly increase the number of private beds.
The resulting protests are met with a denial that any such plans exist, then an unconvincing apology for any distress caused by the leak of “internal management discussions”, and finally the dismissal that this is all a misunderstanding, a case of poor communication.
‘The communication strategy is to agree the message, get everyone on message and repeat the message’
Corporate communications have assumed a more elevated status in the public sector since the onset of austerity. Budget cuts, service reductions and hospital closures have resulted in a lot of “difficult” messages to deliver.
The new style corporate communication gurus emphasise the importance of being proactive rather than reactive, so rather than drafting press releases in response to awkward questions, they advise a communication strategy that prepares the way for changes and avoids the need for damage limitation statements.
The communication strategy is to agree the message, get everyone on message and repeat the message. Apparently the message needs to be repeated in seven different ways, the most effective being face to face, and for a large organisation this takes between 6-18 months, according to Salix Consulting.
Shaping corporate identity
Corporate communication is not to inform but to persuade, not to debate but to get the message across. The message is part of shaping the corporate identity since the message is about the type of organisation we are going to be, inevitably one that looks different to the one that currently employs you or that you know and use.
- Activate the next level of patient engagement
- Let’s rethink the NHS’s public engagement
- CQC to review how it engages with public
The head of corporate communication is at the heart of the transformation process and increasingly part of the senior management team. They may even have taken the seat previously occupied by the head of HR, suggesting that concerns about employees have been replaced by concerns about reputation management.
‘Most managers don’t know what the message is, getting it confused with government priorities and business plan objectives’
The big challenge for public sector organisations such as local authorities and NHS trusts is the diversity of services, and therefore the number and complexity of messages – to the extent that most managers don’t know what the message is, getting it confused with government priorities, business plan objectives and financial targets.
The message has a financial element (“we can no longer afford to do things the way we have done them in the past”); a business plan element, which means more of this and less of that, or “mergers, closures, centralisation and specialisation”; and a political element, balancing cost and quality through greater use of the private sector.
Corporate communication’s most demanding task is to get managers to translate the message for their services, their staff and their audiences before they can work on ways to get the message out. Hence an admission of a case of poor communication often reflects a more fundamental problem: the lack of a clear, consistent message, or a failure to act in accordance with it.
Blair McPherson is an author and commentator on the public sector