PR’s Top Pros Talk…Internal Communications – Linda Dunbar
Linda Dunbar, Communications Executive & Founder of Diversity Decoder
Linda Dunbar, Communications Executive & Founder of Diversity Decoder, spoke with our host and CEO of D S Simon Media, Doug Simon, about changes in internal communications as a result of COVID and social justice issues. It is more important than ever to continually check in and communicate with employees as we’ve moved towards a remote work environment.
Linda also discusses the information gap in communications when it comes to having difficult conversations about diversity in the workplace. Linda is optimistic that we are going to see more businesses actively pursuing and supporting diversity inclusion.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: LINDA DUNBAR
DOUG: So, Linda, there’s been obviously sea changes in communications due to COVID and the social justice issues coming to the forefront that’s also affected internal communications. Can you share some of your thoughts on that?
LINDA: Yeah. Internal communications before COVID was getting to the point where people were really starting to understand that it was important, but it really really went on kind of steroids so to speak after COVID because organizations, as they had to kind of quickly change from being in the office to being at home, figuring out where people were, in some places figuring out where they were physically as well as kind of mentally. Do they understand what they’re supposed to be doing now? Do they have what they need to do their jobs? So that really upped the importance of internal communications. And people also understood and understand that really communications is kind of the glue that holds the organization together. So that if people working from home, you really have to be checking in with them regularly, so they know how everybody else is doing, what they’re supposed to be doing. One important thing is connecting staffers to the strategic plan so they know where things are going, and they can feel like a part of it. So, it’s become extremely important, and people really really come to understand that under COVID, especially because the early focus was on how are people doing. I mean is everybody safe, is everyone well? So, it’s really a core thing that holds the organization together and leaders really focused on that and understood that.
DOUG: And obviously there are questions about business survival for many industries, whether people are going to be furloughed or laid off. This increased awareness of the importance of internal communications… Do you think it’s been widely accepted and what are some of the changes that you’re seeing that are positive steps forward?
LINDA: Well I think people… I think it was gradual, so it wasn’t like people were saying one day “oh we don’t need it,” the next day going “oh well here it is.” But I think there’s a better understanding that companies need to have a regular cadence with their staffers. They need to have a place where staffers understand not only that the I.T. system is broken, but they also need to understand like what are we trying to do here, what business are we in. And with purpose and all these other concepts that have been introduced or reintroduced by folks like investors, it’s really not just like are you showing up, but it’s about well what are we doing? And also, how are we caring for each other? Is everyone OK? And it’s also about showing leadership in some cases at home with the dog or whatever it might be, because that’s where we all are now, so it’s making leadership more personable, more I think vulnerable in a way because they’re also COVID is a leveler. So, everybody is dealing with it in one way, shape or form. Sometimes you know a CEO could be dealing with worry that their elderly parents and keeping them safe or whatever it might be. So that’s made internal communications more human in a way also.
DOUG: That’s great, and the issue of vulnerability is something that’s come up throughout the PR’s Top Pros series. It’s an important piece to communicate. You’ve spoken about and mentioned that the George Floyd tragedy, for lack of a better word, that’s what it was, really opened up and clarified that there was an information divide within communications groups at companies and also with agencies etc. based on life experiences. Can you share a bit about that, please?
LINDA: Sure. Well one of the things that we see in American society, or American business is the people who, their jobs are to traffic in information, for lack of a better word, or to share imagery and ideas about who we are through advertising, or through public relations. Those folks turn out to be largely white folks. And our society is changing, the demographics are changing, and the acceptance of what we are going to accept has also kind of changed as a society. And so, during the time of COVID everyone saw what happened, the murder of George Floyd, and one of the things that was exceptional about it was that there were two totally different reactions. So, people of color were like “Wow, It happened again,” and a lot of white people were like “Wow, what happened? I thought I was living in a country that wasn’t like this. So how did how do things like that happen.” And so that’s why you see certain books are now on the bestselling list for the New York Times because everybody’s running to fill this information gap. And I think that we talk about diversity in companies, we talk about advertising, and a lot of advertising fails that come from not having the right people in the room, or not even picking up your phone, like “Who Wants to Be a Millionionaire,” getting that phone call and saying like to “Do you think this is OK, should I do this?” So that results in kind of creating a cycle where you don’t have anybody in the room, you make a fail, it makes people angry, and then you have to start building equity again. So, the information gap is very real, and it definitely needs to be filled because you cannot put a diversity program on top of a void. And by that I mean a lot of diversity programs are focused on difficult conversations, but people don’t know why those conversations are difficult. They’re difficult because we have 400 years of history that some of us know and some of us don’t know. And so, it’s going to be a difficult conversation by definition if everybody’s coming into it with different levels of understanding. And in a corporation, we would never… I mean you start a meeting with level setting. Nobody starts a meeting knowing that you know R&D doesn’t have the agenda, nobody does that. So, I think filling the information gap is a very important thing.
DOUG: And are you optimistic that there is progress being made, that this has been a wake-up call, or are you concerned, and maybe both, given the political divide in the country, and it makes it even tougher to navigate these internal issues within organizations and communicate internally because people come at it from such a different place?
LINDA: Well my sense is that most leadership understands where this needs to go. Even if you just take yourself out of it, you take your emotions, your political views out of it, there is a very strong business case to be made for why this needs to happen. Part of it is because investors are demanding it, so it’s good corporate governance. Some of it is because populations are changing, and so if you want to be able to relate to your employees and your customers, you have to do this. And when I say populations are changing, millennials, when you look at the Black Lives Matter movement there are millennials and other people, other generations of all sizes, shapes, stripes, colors out in the street. Those people work in companies, those people buy things. So, it’s not just a matter of people of color, it’s everybody wants to see change. And I think despite what we’re seeing in political and governmental circles, I’m optimistic because I know that business leaders understand that there’s a very important reason to pursue and support diversity and social justice. Investors are looking for supporting or looking for good governance that includes diversity inclusion as well as ESG. There are more and more millennial consumers and customers and employees, and more and more people of color who are customers and employees. So, these are just two of the important reasons that diversity inclusion and social justice are really important, and why business leaders understand that they need to pursue that. I’m optimistic but it has to be real change. It has to be doing the work. It has to be understanding the history, how we got here, and what the problems really are. There is no shortcut to woke.
DOUG: Linda thanks so much for sharing these important points, and your important voice with us. I know there’s a lot that our audience will be able to get out of it.
LINDA: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.