Communicating upwards is the challenge

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Twitter chats can be confusing. I was the guest (or should that be host?) for last week’s #powerandinfluence chat and it was lively. But was it illuminating?

I sensed there was a two-speed discussion taking place. There was an inside track of those who understood the implications of the topic (ethical decision making) and could contribute to the conversation. Then there was another group that weren’t starting out with the same level of understanding.

In a classroom, there would be time to go back, ask some pointed questions and provide a fuller explanation of concepts for those who didn’t grasp them first time round. But in a Twitter chat, blink and you’ve missed it.

Speed can be exciting, but it does not encourage reflection or patient explanation. So this post is an attempt to explain what I think was going on and to provide the building blocks for the discussion.

Don’t switch off: I’m not going back over questions of conscience or ethics. I’ve had my say on these.

The core concept is very simple. It’s about the direction you’re facing when communicating.

Let’s start with the simplest. Everyone can grasp the need to communicate outwards. That’s when organisations communicate with external publics, either directly or through intermediaries such as the media or other influencers. Most people’s understanding of public relations begins and ends here.

But it’s also possible to communicate downwards. This happens when you’re a manager responsible for team members who report to you. It also happens when you’re the intermediary between senior managers and staff within the organisation (internal communications).

Our Twitter chat did not refer to outwards or downwards communication. We were concerned with the challenge of communicating inwards and upwards.

You’re a poor communicator if all you do is ‘spray and pray’, or ‘send out stuff’ (SOS). So it’s not a big leap to move from a one-way transmission model of communication to a two-way dialogue model. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

But have you ever wondered what you do with the communication you receive from those you’re in conversation with? We don’t listen for listening’s sake; we do so to hear something important.

Imagine that your organisation has made what it believes is an important announcement. It’s met by silence. No one cared. You could deduce several things from this: perhaps the announcement wasn’t as important as was thought (this is almost certainly the case). Or perhaps you communicated it badly (wrong words, poor timing, wrong people targeted). All possible.

Worse, your announcement was met with mockery or ridicule. It became a meme for all the wrong reasons.

Either way, you’ve learnt something. You can now report back inwards with the insight from this failed announcement.

You’re still struggling to see what the problem is? Well, there’s a promotional mindset familiar to most public relations and communication practitioners. We’re used to announcing ‘good’ news. But we’re less familiar with briefing people on bad news, particularly when it calls our skills and professionalism into question.

Just as we need to make the switch from speaking to listening, so we also need to be able to make the switch from ‘good news’ to ‘bad news’. We need to be able to convert outward communication into inward insight.

Hardest of all is to manage upwards. Luckily, someone else introduced my favourite Hans Christian Andersen story to our Twitter chat: The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

At first glance, it’s a simple tale of vanity. But many public relations practitioners will join me in reading more into this story. The real problem wasn’t the emperor’s vanity, it was the inability of the courtiers and advisers surrounding the emperor to speak the simple truth. Why? Because it’s risky to speak truth to power. Much easier to flatter and evade the blunt truth.

The adults in the fable are all incapable of telling the truth because they’re aware of the power of the emperor – that their position depends on him. It took a child to state the obvious: the emperor’s naked in public!

In public relations, we often need to warn our bosses and clients from being exposed in public. We do this by preparing announcements well. We also do it by advising against going public with news that opens the organisation to awkward questions – or to ridicule. Upward communication involves more than receiving instructions from the boss. It involves advising on the right and wrong thing to do; on the how, why, when and what ifs.

Our Twitter chat, ostensibly about questions of corporate responsibility, the corporate conscience and professional ethics, was at heart about the question of how to communicate upwards.

You may be sceptical. You may be thinking so what? You might question the relevance of a story written for children early in the nineteenth century.

Power is a universal concept, as is communication. But both are culturally specific, and vary according to circumstances.

If you work in an organisation in much of Europe or North America, you might be on first name terms with the chief executive. The organisation may even operate a flat management structure. Social media may have enabled conversations to cut across whatever hierarchy still exists. But you cannot and should not ignore power relationships.

Looking backwards in time, I wonder how it would have been possible to advise King Henry VIII. A succession of advisers from Cardinal Wolsey to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell fell from grace; many lost their lives as a result. So did several of his wives.

Look east, and the similar questions could be asked of those advising Vladimir Putin. Look west, and how long do you think you could keep your job as an adviser in Donald Trump’s White House?

The distance between fact and fiction, between historical and contemporary events is not so great as you might imagine

Just when and how were you planning to tell these leaders that you are acting as ‘the conscience of the organisation’, I wonder?

It’s a universal challenge. To become a trusted adviser; to help protect the boss’s and the organisation’s reputation; while squaring the circle and satisfying the ethical expectation that public relations should operate in the public interest (the first principle from the new, agreed, global ethics statement).

That’s what I think we were trying to explore in last week’s Twitter chat. There just wasn’t time or space to provide the context to our conversation.