11 ways to get comms wrong and achieve underperformance

I met with IABC’s Stephen Welch and Michael Ambjorn to explore #11ways – their study on the 11 communication practices that contribute to organisational “under-performance”. Watch them discuss the 11 ways to underperform, their solutions and the IABC’s Global Standard Of The Communication Profession.

81 companies across 10 countries, with approximately 390,000 employees took part in their 2014 study. The results revealed 11 challenges that today’s communicators are facing. These 11 factors are often the root cause of organisational underperformance.

Download the Full Report – 11 ways Benchmark Report (PDF). 

The 11 ways to underperform…and their solutions

1. Too many messages. According to their study average-performing organisations are 40% more likely to pack a lot of messages into their communications. High performing ones are much more parsimonious.

Welch and Michael Ambjorn’s advice here is to “keep it simple – stick to 1-3 key messages to avoid information overload.’ They recommend the IABC report Preparing messages for information overload environments in case you want to delve into this area deeper.

2. Monologues...’All about me.’ While average organisations like to talk about themselves, high performance ones are more balanced, better at listening and using two-way channels.

“Take time to listen and be more audience-centric. It’s about dialogue not monologue.”

3. Jargon-galore. Only 21% of communicators admit to keeping their language simple and jargon-free. Yet, high-performers are better at simplifying and keep messages clear.

“Technical language has its place but remember that the writer of corporate communications isn’t always the target audience. A lot of this can be resolved through traditional, focused copy-editing”.

4. Audience analysis. High performing organisations (71%) are much better at thinking specifically about things from the audience perspective than average organisations (45%).

“There seems to be a connection with performance because those operating in high performing companies are 60% more likely to think about things from the audience’s point of view. Think audience!” – they continue: “…there’s really no excuse any more with the panoply of digital tools available now – and if you’re not sure how to work these things, seek out help.”

5. Shiny tools. Over half of high performing organisations invest regularly in new tools to improve communications.

We have observed a trend for communicator to get excited about new technologies, say Welch and Ambjorn. Yet, they suggest communicators “consider what you are trying to achieve and whether you are likely to get a return on your investment…shiny tools might help, but are not the complete answer to improving performance.”

6. Channels…too many. A common mistake found from their study is the use of too many channels which creates confusion to both communicators and audiences.

“Finding the right platform, and using channels correctly is as important as getting the messages right. Think through the channels from an audience perspective.”

7. The know-it-all leader. Only 20% of benchmarked companies believe their leaders are good at communicating. “Or, as one organisation told us: ‘Executives that think they know how to communicate with employees, but don’t!'”

Welch and Ambjorn suggest that higher performing communicators “think about who is the best interlocutor for your audience, making sure they are effective communicators.” This might mean training and investment in senior leaders, so they can communicate to inspire their teams, something both of them have experience delivering..

8. The communicator as the paperboy or papergirl. In half of the benchmarked organisations, corporate messages are generally devised by senior executives, “potentially relegating the communication team to the role of a paperboy or papergirl: just delivering the message.”

Why this? “Perhaps it’s about credibility,” comment Welch and Ambjorn. Only a third of communicators admitted that their level of business know-how was high. “Communicators, we therefore suggest, need to improve their business understanding if they want to advice leaders.”

Welch, former Partner at Hay Group, has helped communications departments up-skill on this front, which helps them move whole teams from overloaded tacticians to the strategic advisors businesses need to succeed.

9. Hwaet! High performing organisations are 80% more likely to have a process for creating great corporate stories. They are able to take something they are good at (process) and apply it to something more emotional and resonant.

“Storytelling has become de rigeur in organisations but it doesn’t mean all stories are good ones. Don’t assume your narrative will burst forth randomly. It might need nurturing.”

 10. Emotional disconnections. High performing organisations are twice as likely to make emotional connections to their audiences.

“Your key audience are humans, so take time to appeal to both their head and their hearts.”

11. Dis-alignment to strategy. Only half organisations have communications aligned with the company’s strategy and goals, with teams focused on the things that deliver value.

“That’s just plain shocking,” comments Ambjorn. “It is time for communicators to step up and seek clarity – in fact this is a root cause issue that, if solved right, can help fix a range of the other 11 issues.”

It’s a case of EC-CASE!

How can organisations deal with the 11 communication symptoms revealed by the study? One way, is by using the IABC Global Standard of the Communication Profession. Summarised by the acronym ECCASE, the IABC Global Standard describes the six core principles or building blocks of the communicator’s work:

ETHICS – Communication professionals adopt the highest standards of professional behaviour.

CONTEXT – The communication professional is sophisticated about the organization’s internal culture and external environment.

CONSISTENCY – Acting as the organization’s voice, a communication professional expresses a single, consistent story for internal and external audiences.

ANALYSIS – Communication professionals research and evaluate how to serve and promote the organization most effectively and then offer recommendations.

STRATEGY – With rigor and discipline, a communication professional identifies opportunities and challenges both inside and outside of the organization. Addressing communication challenges and opportunities with a thoughtful strategy allows the organization to achieve its mission and goals.

ENGAGEMENT – A communication professional identifies and communicates with employees, customers, shareholders, regulators, government agencies and other groups with an interest in the organization’ s activities.

See also “Do you create or destroy value” related article which appeared in the Communication World Magazine.


GloriaPassionate about internal communications, social media, enterprise social networks, employee engagement, journalism and publishing, Gloria is the Community Manager and Editor of publisher simply-communicate, and Co-Chair of SMiLE London.

Gloria’s responsibilities combine researching, writing, and publishing content on internal communications, employee engagement and social business. She curates the publication of the weekly magazine and manages the on-line community of internal communicators throughout all the publisher’s digital channels. She frequently interviews companies and professionals in the field, writes case studies, products and book reviews, and report from internal communications and social business events. She works on SMiLE (Social Media inside the Large Enterprise), developing products and presenting on issues around introducing Social Media in the Large Enterprise.

Gloria’s keen interest in the relationship between social technologies, employee communications, and the future of work is also reflected in her writing on Marginalia on Engagement, her personal blog. You can find her on Twitter at @LOMBARDI_GLORIA