The way we communicate with each other has changed dramatically over the years. The latest game-changer in the world of internal communication has been social media. With the sudden shift to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, the adoption of social media as a means of communication has accelerated. But this change has been more than just opening up new channels of communication. It has also altered the style of internal communication.
According to an issue of the CIPR’s Influence magazine from late 2020, social media has made internal communication ‘much more chatty and informal, less corporate, and has more user-generated content’. But the same article came with a warning. Cat Holland (Head of Communications at SES Water) was quoted as saying ‘technology shouldn’t take over the basics… and some things are still better face-to-face’.
The excitement generated by new technology is not new to the world of internal communication. This is something that can be seen throughout history. In this month’s blog post, we take a look at two sources from 1962 and 1983 that talk about the use of new technology in internal communication.
For much of the twentieth century, the company magazine was the bread and butter of internal communication. Then, film emerged as a new technology that offered new opportunities. Commercial film began in the late nineteenth century. On 28 December 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumiere showed a film of scenes from everyday life in the Grand Café in Paris. In the mid-twentieth century, this technology began to be used as a means of communicating with employees.
The first source of the month is a 1962 article from Industrial Society, a magazine aimed at business leaders. It advocated the use of film for training and instruction, talking of its potential for communicating with a wider audience than would have been possible in the past. It noted some practical considerations, in particular the need for the film to made with professionalism if the message was to get across. Overall, though it was unequivocal in its enthusiasm for the potential use of the new technology for business:
‘Most progressive firms make use of films today but the provision of projection facilities in situ by no means exhausts the use of film as an aid to industrial communication’Industrial Society, Jul-Aug 1962, p. 234.
In the second half of the twentieth century, there was an escalation in the technological opportunities for internal communication. Yet the enthusiasm did not rise at the same rate. Our second source is a 1983 article from Personnel Management, the magazine of the Institute of Personnel Management (the predecessor of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development). It was written by Peter Moloney, a former Trappist monk and African missionary who became a Communications Studies lecturer at Liverpool Polytechnic. Moloney commented on the growing communications sector and its use of new technology, but his article did not have the same enthusiasm that was expressed for film in 1962:
‘visual aids, flip- charts, overhead projectors and the other elaborate crutches… delude the victims of verbal squalor into forgetting that the road to hell is paved with good inventions.’Personnel Management, Dec 1983, p. 22.
Moloney talks of how, for some, ‘the communication business has become far more important than the business of communicating’. He talked about the importance of establishing a human connection at the heart of good communication: ‘what you are always communicates louder than what you are trying to say’. His article emphasises that what you are always communicates louder than what you are trying to say.
The temptation to think of ways to use new technology is always there when it becomes available. But decisions to establish new communication channels are not always made on the basis of rationality. Being seen to use new technology can also serve to give an organization legitimacy. In the past, an organization would weaken their reputation if they fell behind their competitors with the use of magazines and film. Today, the same is true with social media.
In business studies, this is known as isomorphism – a social process where organizations mimic the approaches of their competitors in order to gain legitimacy. New technologies have brought new opportunities but also have been adopted due to a sense that they ought to be used. This is why, alongside the adoption of new technologies, we have seen a growing reflection on what really lies at the heart of good communication.
Peter Moloney’s message from 1983 is just as relevant for social media in the 2020s. The underlying principles of good communication remains the same, whether we are talking about social media in the 2020s or the use of film in the mid-twentieth century. New technology should not be a distraction from these principles but, rather should be used to support good communication. As internal communication professionals, it is essential that we remember this and use technology as a tool to enhance communication rather than let it control the narrative of internal communication.
Industrial Society, Jul-Aug 1962, pp. 234-37.
Influence, 2020 Q4, pp. 7-9.
Personnel Management, Dec 1983, pp. 20-23.
‘First Commercial Movie Screened’ [https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-commercial-movie-screened]
Obituary of Peter Moloney, Daily Telegraph, 26/11/2021
Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan, ‘Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony’, American Journal of Sociology, 83 (1977), pp. 340-63.
Suddaby, R., A. Bitektine, & P. Haack, ‘Legitimacy’, Academy of Management Annals, 11 (2017), pp. 451-78.