Posted by: Kristen Ridley | March 14, 2017

Knowing your audience has never been more important

“FAKE NEWS!!!” That statement has become ubiquitous in our current society. The impact  of what it means can’t really be overestimated. The social media world we all live in means that virtually any information you want can be accessed in seconds with just a click on your phone. But ease doesn’t automatically mean truth, and therein lies the rub.

There are lots of people out there who are more than happy to take advantage of our willingness to just accept information at face value – sometimes because it’s easy, and sometimes because what we find fits our existing perspective on a fundamental level so we want to believe it is truth.

As a communicator who has worked in mainly corporate environments, I usually have a “captive” audience for the information and messaging I share on behalf of my organization. That is a bit of a positive, because it means I don’t have to work that hard to GAIN my audience’s attention.

The second part of successfully communicating, however, gaining my audience’s ACTION based on what my communication is trying to accomplish can actually be harder because  of the fact that they hear from me a lot. So I’ve found that really knowing my audience: who they are, what they know [or think they know] and what they need and want in terms of information is even more critical than if I were a business trying to gain followers on Twitter.

Here are a few of the ways I do that:

Build a real relationship with the audience – you can’t effectively communicate with people you don’t really know, period. You MUST spend quality time talking with and, more importantly, listening to your audience to understand how to communicate with them [note I said “with them” and not “to them”]. I make it a point with my audiences to regularly talk with as many members of the audience as I possibly can on a regular basis. If that means making “check in” phone calls on a monthly basis, booking a touch-point meeting with key folks, or simply getting up from my desk and walking around to say: “hi, what’s going on?” the important thing is making sure my business partners know that I am interested in, and genuinely care about their needs, challenges and interests.

Tell the whole story – Sometimes that is challenging. Because much of my experience has been as an internal communicator, my main audience has often been employees of the business. Sometimes, leadership can be concerned about telling employees everything that is really going on, particularly in times when the business is facing challenges or difficulties. As a communicator, it’s my job to advocate for telling our employees the truth and thereby allowing them to be part of helping the business successfully navigate those challenges. Because I have found that in almost all cases, that’s exactly what the employees WANT to do. They are there because they want the business to succeed, so allowing them to do that requires a clear understanding of what is happening and why, as well as what needs to happen to move forward. Obviously, in some types of businesses there are regulatory or other legal constraints that must be followed in terms of sharing information. But barring those, telling employees as much as possible is almost always the right path forward in my experience, and that’s what I recommend to my leadership to keep the team moving ahead.

Do what you say you will – one of the biggest challenges with internal communication is making sure that information-sharing is two-way. It can become usual to send out information to employees without making sure you are asking for, and listening to the response to that information. As the communications person, it’s my job to find ways to receive as well as deliver information, and to make sure the right people in the organization hear those perspectives and act appropriately on them. There’s an old quote I like that goes: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”, and I think that’s a very important thing to remember as an internal – well, really as any type of –  communicator. We talk a great deal in communication about “WIIFM” or What’s In It For Me? because that is absolutely how anyone on the receiving end of information responds to it. The instant question that pops into someone’s mind when unsolicited – and sometimes even solicited – information is presented to them, is “Why should I care?” Having a communication approach that answers that question clearly, and ensures the audience can respond to your information and feel that their perspective is heard and acted upon is the best way to maintain a successful information highway between your organization and all its stakeholders.

Tell the truth – ALWAYS – last, and most importantly, this brings us back around to where this post started, i.e. fake news. In the years I have spent working as a communicator, if there’s one thing I’ve learned that has always proven true, it is don’t lie to your audience. It virtually always comes back to bite you in the posterior, especially with employees. Once employees believe you are not being truthful with them, they stop listening to anything you say, and that is a very difficult place to be when you NEED your employees to take certain actions to help your business succeed. Additionally, it is incredibly difficult to repair a relationship with your audience – whether employees OR clients – once they don’t believe they can trust you. It is so much easier and more effective to maintain a strong relationship with stakeholders by telling them what’s really going on consistently. If there are reasons why you really can’t share something, then you say that, but you don’t lie or dissemble or “PR” them, because it won’t help and will probably hurt you – and by extension the business – in the long run. Twitter followers might be lazy or gullible enough to believe fake news, but your clients, and especially your employees, almost always know better, and they won’t forgive you for it.

I always marvel when I write a post about communications, that doing it successfully “sounds” so easy, and yet DOING the right things can be so challenging. Of course, that’s also what makes it such a wonderful job, and why I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else. It’s also why I keep looking for the next opportunity to challenge myself in a great organization where I can help build successful communications with great employees!

 

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