"The communications profession is facing seismic changes and significant threats, largely due to AI and the new generative language models such as GPT-3,” IABC member Dr. Laura McHale, ABC, says in her new book, “Neuroscience for Organizational Communication: A Guide for Communicators and Leaders.” However, many of these changes have not yet registered among communication practitioners, leading to a false sense of security. But neuroscience can help communicators apply evidence-based, innovative approaches to up their game, make a difference and become knowledgeable and trusted advisors in their organizations. Read on for an excerpt from the chapter “The State of Play,” courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan.
Communication reflects organizational life, which itself mirrors profound transformations taking place in our societies. Organizations are coping with sprawling complexity, information overload and decreased levels of morale and trust. Technologies that were meant to liberate and connect us have ensnared us. In organizations, we are told to respond to these challenges by being flexible, agile, learn to manage in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments, engage in multi- tiered thinking, embrace paradox, develop better work–life balance, work collaboratively, and somehow find enough hours in the day to foster innovation. But all this sometimes feels like magical thinking.
The truth is that many organizations and employees are worn out. And many comms people are exhausted, after years of having to simultaneously manage all the above, while facing steep learning curves in mastering new technology, performing as an organization’s cheerleaders, serving as advisors to senior leaders, keeping a finger on the pulse of the media and anticipating the evolving needs of clients and employees in an ever-shifting competitive landscape.
Moreover, we have seen some seismic changes in the overall communications landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated one of the most dramatic transformations the modern workplace has ever seen. From helping employees and leaders adjust to a global work-from-home experiment, to ensuring business continuity and connection among geographically dispersed stakeholders, the pandemic has delivered unprecedented challenges to the profession. And several of those challenges are here to stay. Flexible working, for many companies, is becoming a permanent feature of organizational life (Jacobs, 2021; Mattu, 2021; Newport, 2021).
It’s important to remember that most of these COVID-era challenges accelerated a trend that was already evident: a broader movement toward alternative ways of working and activity-based workplaces. The modern office has seen huge and highly consequential changes in spatial layouts and design. Particularly in many city centers with high commercial real estate costs, there has been a move away from closed offices and cubicles to open-plan environments. These redesigns have often proved controversial with employees, as they have involved significant knock-on effects in terms of lack of privacy, increased noise and decreased productivity, even as they have been designed to enable greater collaboration (McHale, 2021).
New technology has also brought enormous changes to the communications field. Social media has been around and disrupting the communication landscape for some time (although we are only now learning the extent to which it benefits and threatens our organizations and societies), but new AI-based generative language models, such as GPT-3, are emerging as significant threats to the communications profession. Generative AI is already well known among journalists, but for some reason it has not yet entered the consciousness of many communications practitioners. As a result, many communicators have a false sense of security, confident in the increasingly erroneous belief that they provide services that could never be outsourced to a machine. Journalists are realizing, and writing about, the fact that GPT-3 can produce credible copy with breathtaking speed and efficiency — and communications is ripe for the plucking, particularly with so many of our organizational messages being formulaic and uninspired.
But, and at the risk of indulging in an overworn axiom, I also believe that these developments offer communications practitioners an opportunity. Communicators can leverage these technologies to do the more mundane work of comms so that we humans can focus on the higher value-added areas. Only humans can be thoughtful and engaged enough to trigger the mysterious process of motivating employees, clients and other stakeholders to make better decisions, solve problems more effectively and bring their full selves to the office. Only humans can foster a sense of openness and curiosity about the plethora of complex emotional experiences we have together — from moments of revelation and deep connection to the psychological injuries, both large and small, that come from work.
Let’s explore the state of play.
Types of Communicator Roles
Communication roles have been traditionally divided into three main areas:
- External communications, which focuses on media relations and external stakeholders, and usually includes corporate social responsibility (CSR) and executive speeches
- Brand communications and/or marketing, which focuses on an organization’s value proposition and brand identity and strategy
- Internal communications, which is sometimes rolled up into an HR department, focusing on employee communication and internally facing executive communication.
Of the three main areas, internal comms is the most different animal because of its internal focus, being chiefly preoccupied with employees. Internal comms is best understood as covering the middle part of the larger employee lifecycle, as it picks up from where recruiting/employer brand ends and actual employment begins, and then ceases when employees exit an organization. Former employees, or alumni, then reenter the external communications world. Because it is internally focused, and therefore not seen as such high stakes, it is the area of comms that is often the lowest status and as such, it is sometimes under-resourced and under-skilled.
There have always been a lot of gray areas in communications, as a huge array of messages are designed for and applicable to both internal and external audiences. Most communications are not quite binary in terms of audience appeal. This fact accounts for the high degree of role ambiguity within communications teams. Communicators often argue over whose purview a particular message might fall into, and this ambiguity reveals both the power dynamics and an internal and external divide that is more fundamental and philosophical than first appears.
In organizational communication, there is always a tension between proactive reputation management and a desire for transparency. The experience of working for an organization is very different than how it is perceived by the outside world. As outsiders, there are things we look for when we are considering joining a new company, and we can sometimes be pushovers for an organization’s marketing material and carefully curated brand identity. But when we get inside an organization and see the system from within, the situation changes considerably. The rose-tinting disappears, and reality is brought into relief. And our communication needs change. We need more candor.
External communications practitioners are, at the most basic level, tasked with prevention strategies. They are stewards of the reputation of an organization, as well as the reputation of its senior executives. External communicators learn to be very discerning with how information is communicated. They are naturally cautious, particularly when managing the media. They can be oblique. Media training programs often teach executives (and politicians) to become highly skilled at evasion. This is part of the game that we play in organizations, what organizational consultant Peter Block (2016) described as the bureaucratic mindset.
Internal communications practitioners are, at the most basic level, tasked with promotion strategies. The role is essentially about fostering transparency and openness. Internal communicators are tasked with trying to find out what’s going on in the organization, enabling two-way communication and motivating employees to perform better. They try to understand what is on the mind of employees, how to access the intellectual capital employees possess and how to build a shared sense of purpose.
This creates something of a double bind for the in-house communications team. Employees smell spin from a mile away and do not appreciate communications that implicitly refute the fact that they are discerning consumers of internal information. Employees have uncanny skills of perception, able to see and feel the gap between an organization’s espoused values and its actual in-use culture. Employees especially dislike communications that feel like indoctrination in corporate propaganda, or which contain “marketese” (marketing jargon). Yet, to tell the unvarnished truth — about business conditions, competitive threats, leadership challenges, redundancies, restructurings — isn’t so easy, or without consequences especially when the reputation of the company may be threatened, and employees and clients alike are fickle.
So internal communicators often look for ways to hedge their communications, by incorporating a selective degree of authenticity, while being mindful of adverse reputational or legal exposure. Sometimes the result can be a little … vague. I can recall many instances, working in financial services, where I felt like I was getting more information about what was going on in the company from publications such as the Financial Times than what was contained in internal emails, town halls or even conversations with managers. Although external media clearly have their own biases and inaccuracies, incomplete information is usually better than no information at all, especially during a crisis.