How to avoid the empty comms trap

This may be the first time you’ve heard the phrase ‘empty comms’ or you may be familiar with the concept, but either way the internal comms challenge of being asked to push communications out based on little substance is not new. At times there has been pressure to push out somewhat superficial, premature or vague communications that either over inflate progress on a tricky topic, gloss over a broken promise or position actions as greater than they are.  

As an example, many of us have been involved in campaigns that proudly claimed ‘we’ve listened’ extolling the virtues of progress made in one area whilst knowing (usually deep in our guts) that other actions had not been taken or progressed. In this case, it’s not that what we say in our communications is untrue, but at times maybe the devil was in what we didn’t say, and that our comms did not convey the whole truth.  

And this tricky situation often occurs for lots of complex reasons, many of which have good intentions so as Internal Comms professionals how do we spot the warning signs and importantly challenge the requests we get when they come from determined senior stakeholders? 

Spotting the signs of empty comms 

  1. Tricky topics – There are some topics, like diversity or sustainability that have a higher propensity to become superficial, to the extent that phrases like green washing or pink washing evolved from the original phrase white washing. A good starting point to spotting the signs is to check the topic, could it a political hot potato for the organisation and likely to be a potential candidate for a bit of ‘spin’? 
  2. Clear as mud – When listening to the stakeholder is the brief confusing, vague or lacking any real call to action or core message?
  3. Too hyped up – Is the stakeholder really hyped up on the topic, brimming with passion and excited to tell the whole organisation about their project? Be aware as perhaps in their enthusiasm they are too premature to be sharing their story which lacks substance and momentum.
  4. Keeping up with the Joneses – Is your organisation just talking about this subject because others are, despite the lack of progress, action, or substance? Watch out for words like ‘should’ as this may signify that the business feels it’s what they should be seen to be doing or need to do to tick a box, rather than to make a true difference.  

 How to challenge stakeholders on potentially empty comms 

  1.  Validation – Combat the empty comms brief by asking for validating information. Ask stakeholders to quantify their claims with questions such as how much, how often, what percentage, and to what extent. 
  2. Mind your language – Ditch the confusing jargon and be clear on what the story is. It’s easy to mislead audiences with confusing science or technical information. If you as a Comms lead can’t explain the narrative to someone outside of your organisation then it’s time to question the technical depth. 
  3. The honesty test – Ask stakeholders to explain their story in just one short sentence, this often squeezes the truth and the crux of the story to surface, so that when there’s a lack of substance to a story it will become clear.  

However, we handle these delicate situations, our pledge as Internal Comms professionals should be to develop and deliver great communications, to keep our workforces engaged, informed and collaborated with. The main challenge with empty comms is that misinformation is worse than no information, and it doesn’t stand up to our pledge. As our workforces are becoming a lot more discerning about the information we share with them, ivory towers have been replaced with glass walls so there is no hiding from a lack of action. Employees expect action to speak louder than words, it’s our role to ensure that our words and underpinned by the right behaviour.   

If you think your workforces may be feeling overwhelmed by a deluge of communications then download our paper on the challenges of noisy communications, and what you can do to cut through the noise. 

 And if you’re looking for support with creating great and meaningful internal communications that will engage your employees, then get in touch to see how we can help.