How Can A Communications Audit Help You?

Organizations communicate in two directions: internally to staff and externally to clients, customers, shareholders, stakeholders, the media. Faulty internal communications can lead to mistakes, discouraged and unhappy staff, employees leaving the company. Poor external communications can jeopardize image and sales. It really is that simple. Any overall management strategy needs a communications plan or the whole operation might fail.

A communications audit analyzes an organization's practices to reveal how effective they are-throughout a whole company or in specified parts of the organization. It can pinpoint problem areas such as frequent misunderstandings, information blocks, information lacks, information duplication, misrepresentation. An audit could be part of a periodic health check but it is especially helpful at a time of change: a merger or acquisition, launch of a new product or service, entry into new markets, for example.

The exact nature of the audit will depend on the type of organization and its particular needs and problems. But it will certainly aim to identify target audiences: the external audience will have different needs from an internal one. It will need to identify the key messages that need to be communicated and the channels that exist for conveying them. It will look not only at the communications that the organization makes but also how it receives them.

But what might be going wrong, with external communications, say? Let me give an example here. My husband is a shareholder in a building company. Every year it produces a glossy Annual Report that it sends to shareholders. The report is extremely detailed and full of lavish photographs. It clearly costs a lot to produce and distribute. This makes my husband very angry. He doesn't want to read the full report and resents the money that is wasted on producing and sending a document that goes straight in the bin. What he would like is a leaflet summarizing the salient points about the company's performance and changes. Does the company realize that some shareholders feel this way? It is important to bear in mind that most shareholders are not able to attend shareholder meetings and may not know how to make their views known. This company has a two-way problem. The communications it sends out are wrong for some shareholders but it has not thought about a way of creating a channel for the shareholders to give their feedback. It is thus breaking a fundamental rule of effective communications: you must have feedback.

Or take an internal issue. The HR department of a company gives out a detailed instruction manual to new employees. Yet many of the newly hired people seem completely lost during their first weeks. Why might this be? Well, in the first place, the employees are mostly involved in manual work. They are not used to reading chunks of written material. Most of the manuals lie unopened in their lockers. A buddy scheme of some kind would probably be a much better way of easing the new people through the first weeks.

Another example comes from a small company in which everybody was under pressure to meet deadlines. The director of the company made a habit of telephoning staff for briefings at lunchtime because he knew they 'weren't busy' then. But that was the point. They were having lunch. The amount of resentment he caused by this policy of disturbing people during the precious few minutes they had to relax was enormous.

Communicating is a complex process with potential pitfalls at each stage. Is the message clear? Is the medium for transmitting it appropriate? Has the recipient actually received it? If so, has it been understood? Has it had the desired effect? Does the recipient have a channel for feedback? Can the recipient understand how to provide the feedback? The old metaphor of the Chinese whisper holds true. You thought you said one thing but when you check you find that a totally different message was actually received.

The audit is a systematic approach that forces an organization to look at what it is really doing as opposed to what it believes it is doing. The audit will look at the people who send and receive messages; the means of communicating-which extend beyond the obvious use of the telephone, meetings, conferences, e-mail etc. to encompass dress code, office layouts, desk-tidy policies-in order to build up a comprehensive picture of what is happening. Every aspect of communication provides another piece of the jigsaw and, once this is complete, you have the basis for an evaluation.

The evaluation report will consider attitudes towards the communications (do people look forward to meetings or consider them a waste of time?); it will look at the needs of different groups (the most appropriate way to deliver training, for example) and it will provide evidence of any problems that need to be addressed.

However, it is important to evaluate the audit within a relevant framework. For this reason, key people will have to clarify the purpose for the organization's existence, its cultural values and its identity. For example, the communications strategy for a budget airline will be very different from one which targets business executives. The two companies will have different purposes, values and identities. They will know exactly who uses their service and why. They will also understand the key frustrations of their customers and must ensure they can use communications to deal with those frustrations effectively.

The audit is thus a valuable tool for enhancing internal motivation, loyalty and efficiency and for beefing up market position. It can be handled internally but there are also benefits from using an external consultant. Employees might feel inhibited about expressing their real view to another company member, whereas an outsider, who guarantees their anonymity, will be less of a threat.

Brenda Townsend Hall is a writer and trainer in the fields of communications and cross-cultural awareness. She is an associate member of the ITAP International Alliance:

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