IABC NSW Board Director, Ben Wyld, reflects on what he learned from Communications Measurement Expert, Angela Sinickas.
Angela Sinickas has been challenging assumptions throughout her career as a communication professional.
It’s what has forged her formidable reputation in the industry and underpinned her pioneering work in the area of communication measurement – it’s also earned her 21 international communication awards along the way.
For an hour earlier this month, about 50 leading and senior business communicators from across Sydney and NSW had the privilege of spending time with the US-based Sinickas, during her first visit to Australia since 2012.
Sinickas shared insights into her approach to strategic change communication, during IABC NSW’s ‘Whose change is it anyway?’ breakfast session, held at Deloitte Australia. Her session, read by the equally talented Ike Levick, Head of Internal Communication at Deloitte Australia (Angela unfortunately was losing her voice and opted to save it for the Q and A session at the end of the presentation) was punctuated with case studies which covered some dos and don’ts along the way.
Attitudes, behaviours and the bottom line
A key role for communication leaders within organisations is to be the eyes and ears for executive, who may have skewed perspectives on where internal audiences are “starting from”.
It’s also important that communicators link behavioural change to the bottom line – changed behaviours ultimately result in improved productivity, lower costs or greater revenue.
“To change the bottom line, change communication needs to change audience behaviours … facts won’t do this, education alone won’t do it – attitudes are the key to getting people to change voluntary behaviour,” Sinickas said.
Research first, no matter how informal
Contrary to popular belief, research needn’t be exhaustive or expensive – but it must explore both knowledge-based and attitude-based dimensions.
“It’s important we do research before developing the plan so that the knowledge and attitude messages we generate are the ones most effective in helping different stakeholder groups complete their change journeys,” she said.
Sinickas shared two case studies from her own experience where in one case research insights showed staff actually had higher expectations about their company’s performance which allowed for a more aspirational communication strategy to underpin a profit sharing scheme.
At another company, older staff were known to be ignoring so
und financial advice to diversify their share buying scheme – opting to invest their monies solely in their employer – not because of a lack of knowledge, but out of loyalty to their employer.
“Speaking to random selections of people in target groups can shed light on what wrong assumptions we might be making, and identify the right communication solutions that will build on current stakeholder knowledge or attitudes,” she said.
Test content before launch
It’s a no-brainer, but Sinickas emphasised the need for busy communication professionals to make time to pre-test materials prior to release.
The case study of a Northern Hemisphere-based CEO releasing a summer holiday themed message to a global network (which included Southern Hemisphere employees) in June was an oversight that could have been easily avoided if some pre-testing had been completed.
Another was a tone-deaf CEO blog-post reflecting on the challenge of achieving work-life balance, with the opening line, ‘last month, our nanny quit’. The irony is palpable.
“Failing to pre-test can undermine the communication plan and in the case of leaders, lose credibility,” she said.
Measure and iterate if necessary
Measurement while a communication plan is ‘in-play’ provides communication professionals with insights on the efficacy of the communication plan and where they may need to make adjustments.
While most surveys during a change program tend to focus on attitudes, Sinickas said it can be more useful to explore change through “behaviour-related questions – for example, how often do you see the desired behaviour being exhibited?”.
Setting up pilots and control groups can also help show the effectiveness of change communication plans.
An example Sinickas used was her work setting up refined and user-friendly call centre support resources rolled out within Internal Revenue Service call-centre teams in Pittsburgh, Richmond and Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, at Pittsburgh, where the resources where embedded extensively, monitoring showed a 62% improvement in accuracy rates.
Testing how well your audience understands key messages and what’s required of them during the change journey can also help inform agile changes to strategy.
“You can clarify if you need to provide the same content but in a different format – or whether you need to provide or repeat it at all,” Sinickas said.
In the case of a restructuring effort at a manufacturing company, Sinickas said surveys showed only 51% of line managers understood the initial strategy rollout, which allowed for a change in strategy to delay manager-led discussion groups.
“Once we realised that half of these meetings were doomed to fail, we delayed the meetings and instead focused on bringing the senior managers to a higher level of understanding first.”
Be brave, control the process and show your value
The session’s concluding Q and A session provided some practical steps and key takeaways for all communication professionals to put into their daily practise.
Sinickas repeatedly encouraged communicators to link their efforts to the organisational bottom line – “behavioural change leads to either lower costs or greater revenue,” she said.
Communicators should not “ask for permission to gather insights” and if necessary conduct “guerrilla” research or organisational listening. Be prepared to keep “I told you so” lists of those organisational failures that could have been prevented by upfront research and insights, and use selectively with leaders to build the case to establish organisational listening programs.
“Don’t be afraid to actively solicit input and find ways to share that information with your executives,” she said.
Setting up ‘quick review’ editorial groups, with a defined scope and timelines to provide factual review only, can ultimately save time and ensure content is sense-tested prior to release.
“Use research to identify true starting points, pre-test before launch and track progress throughout to make adjustments where necessary,” she said. “And don’t forget that financial end goals require behaviour changes.”
Jim Macnamara, Distinguished Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, and a globally-recognised expert on organisational listening, provided some closing comments to underline the importance of measurement and research to effective change communication.
He said the communication processes “needed to be book-ended by insights and impact”.
“If you focus on measuring outputs only, you will only ever be viewed as a cost-centre,” Macnamara said. “Leaders want to know insights and impact – they love it, and that’s the way to ensure your seat at the table.”
IABC NSW would like to thank Redgrass Communications for its assistance in setting up the ‘Whose change is it anyway?” IABC NSW breakfast session. The boutique agency facilitated Angela’s visit to Australia and attendance as a keynote speaker at the Convergence conference in Melbourne last month.