Monday, 11 July 2011

Active, or Passive?

This week I want to talk about the difference between active and passive communications (and for that matter, marketing).

Recently I have been courting a new client who has a very underdeveloped internal communications function. They are using their channels to distribute information. That’s all. Some of the team really understand that they need to engage employees better, but sadly some of the management are blissfully unaware of the need, or of the possibilities, of an engaged workforce. They adopt the “Spray and Pray” strategy. Bombard the workforce with posters, messages and media carrying (often) bullet points pointing to some kind of desired behaviour.

Passive communications is simply a delivery mechanism for data. A ‘Do’ or a ‘Don’t’. A factoid. A piece of news about the new installation in China. The release of a new product. Guidelines on use of the internet during work time

These items engage with a surprisingly small section of the workforce, unless you mention redundancies or bonus schemes.

Active communications asks a provocative question in an entertaining or disruptive way. It deals with the effects of the subject – not the description. An extreme example would be a TV ad for a fragrance. Full of dreams, aspirational imagery and concepts.

I realise that this would not really work for a new router of a high speed chip.

“The Alcatel-Lucent 9125 Compact Transcoder. Because you’re worth it”…


“Listen to your Heart…remember to encrypt sensitive attachments…”

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t build a world around the information. A back story. An ‘effect’, if you will.

This little viral was for a chip, and could easily have been for an entire movie.

And don’t mistake design for ‘story’. Internal communications guidelines may keep things looking neat and tidy, but that just has the effect of homogenising all of the communications in the company. Nothing stand’s out.

Brand guidelines are there to raise the lowest common denominator in the company. So that new people understand what the bare minimum is with respect to design. More often than not though it acts as a very low ceiling to creativity. This is why there are rarely any guidelines to cover film and video. Because by it’s nature film creates narrative. You’ve no option but to set up a story of some kind.

Stories are active. They place scenes in your head with which you can usually relate on some level. They have characters, a location, and, if done well, a moral. This moral can work for your cause if you need an audience to change their thinking, and their actions.

You might not be able to try to engage all of the time, but some subjects are crying out to be told as stories, with humour, honesty and drama. Pick wisely and try to involve your audience, not just bark instructions at them, however disguised they might be as ‘stories’.

This article by Adrienne Fox, from The Society for Human Resource Management, is over a year old but I can’t imagine the situation has become much better since then.

The real risk, it seems, is in failing to engage employees.
Are we paying lipservice to this cause, simply ticking a box, or do we just struggle with the ‘how’?


  1. And then there is flipside. Over engagement. I have seen a few organizations where they engage their employees a bit too much. It almost becomes like a cult. Managers promote it to increase loyalty and rein in attrition rates.

    So engaging the employees is extremely essential. But one shouldn't cross certain lines. It get's a bit more shady after that.

  2. You make an interesting point. Can an employee be over-engaged? Really? It sounds like they can pretend to be. Being seen to be engaged is not the same thing. As long as the message is authentic, the engagement should lead to honest agreement and commitment. It the engagement is gimmicky or totally incentivised by bonuses, then it can be over-zealous and, well, sort of fake in my opinion. Like singing the company song in those japanese factories of the 1970's. However, by far the bigger problem is apathy. A disconnectedness that is propagated by anodyne communications with no soul...

    Thanks for the comment my friend!

  3. I sadly speak this from experience. I have seen more than one companies having communication practices that are almost similar to various established cults.

    It is interesting for me purely as a human psychology enthusiast.

    But I agree, apathy is the major issue.

    I like to say, it's like a mundane marriage where the couples just don't communicate and neither of them gives as damn.

  4. Bhavuk - that's a great analogy. Can I steal it? The loveless marriage! Perfect.