Today Angela Sinickas is the acknowledged expert for measurement in internal communications. From her base in California she travels the world consulting and presenting on the power of measurement in an industry that spends millions on sending out messages and pennies on checking to see if any of it is having an effect. But if internal comms is fuzzy on analysis today it was completely blind to it when she worked in employee communications in the early 80s for that mighty bastion of external comms; the Chicago Tribune.
“I remember writing up what I thought was a brilliant strategic plan for internal communications and sending it up the line. I waited for a response from Charlie Brumback, CEO and President of the Trib. What I got back was a message saying that I had laid out my bullets with the wrong kind of indents.”
But Sinickas was made of stronger stuff than to be put off.
“I needed to work out how to connect with this guy. So I found the comms woman at his previous company and discovered Brumback was an accountant and an early adopter of IT.”
Sinickas set out to be the first to master the Apple IIe that the CEO had installed in every department and she used her university science training (before she switched to journalism) and her market research experience to produce measurements that hit Brumback’s hot button.
“I created a comms audit for the Trib. Instead of a broad brush approach, I did it by issue, asking people how do you currently learn these 12 different topics–and how would you like to learn about them? I collected the results, crunched the data and did the report on the little Apple. The CEO loved it and suddenly I had a new job title: Internal Communications Manager. We were going through a recession, but still I got more staff and my career flourished. From then on research became an important part of every future job.”
But although she had the boss on her side, she still had to earn credibility with the rest of management.
“I walked my first issue of our monthly newsletter round every vice president’s office in the building for approvals. An Assistant Editor got back almost immediately – not about my stories but about my spelling. He gave me the Trib Style book and from then on I had to learn how to conform to the organisation’s idiosyncracies just to get credibility. Journalists love words; even the accountants thought they were professional communicators.”
Although bizarrely she had to spell ‘employee’ ending in a single ‘e’, the hard work paid off. Soon Sinickas was adopted as one of them.
“I remember when the Iran hostages were about to be released, the Trib’s Foreign Editor tipped me off and asked me to cover our reporters covering the story. It was the highlight of my career there to be included in the biggest journalistic moment of the year.”
But then California beckoned when her husband was offered a highly-prized graduate film school place at UCLA. Sinickas joined Hewitt Associates and has spent the rest of her career on the West Coast working in corporate comms for companies and consultancies (with the inevitable stint at Mercer). Along the route
she has won 15 IABC Gold Quill awards and she wrote a book for Ragan Communications titled self-evidently: How to Measure your Communication Programs.
She also found herself more and more in demand to speak at local associations. People were interested in this new discipline of research and measurement in IC and through the ‘80s and ‘90s she was giving presentations around the country. In June 2000 she set up Sinickas Communications, Inc.
Connect it to the money
“I’m passionate about getting people to measure. I don’t believe any professionals who say that their work can’t be measured – that internal comms is somehow unconnected to the bottom line. The people who claim so have their heads in the sand and will not be in their positions for long.”
But most companies have now understood the need for rigorous measurement. Sinickas is more concerned these days about ensuring that they are measuring the right things. She argues that measuring how many people receive your newsletter or go to your events can be irrelevant if you are not measuring effectiveness. In her world it is all about what people remember; what they take away and—crucially—how does it change their behavior. “Only behaviors have a financial value—not awareness or understanding.”
“Always connect it to the money. What effect is this channel having on perceptions and behaviors that drive sales, efficiency or customer service? Everything needs to accounted for. Look at CSR – no one is going to invest heavily in these programs unless it enhances their reputation and allows them to potentially charge more for products or services than their socially ‘irresponsible’ competitors.”
But measuring internal communications is complicated by the fact that you are often analysing the performance of a senior executive rather than the design of a label on a can of baked beans.
“Dealing with executive egos can be the hardest part of research. I remember one client whose business was failing. He communicated a lot – sending regular letters to employees’ homes asking them why they were not doing their jobs better and making more money for the company! Research can show that one channel is effective, but a senior manager’s communication performance isn’t, which could get you fired. Often it’s only a consultant who can ask executives the difficult questions to consider before they communicate: What outcome are you looking for? What do employees need to know in order to deliver that outcome? What are the best options for getting them that information? What do you want to do differently to get better outcomes?”
“We had one delightful CEO client – charismatic, a good communicator. But he got involved with the debate about work/life balance and wrote how he sympathised with working mothers. He explained how his family suffered when they lost one nanny and had to find another. With that one comment he managed to alienate a whole population of employees.”
In data we trust
But research has become a useful weapon in the communicator’s armoury. Sinickas has seen how her clients have managed to grow in power and stature because the numbers allow them to match other managers at a senior level. Data becomes a lever to get things done, and measurement of key performance
indicators can also give you prior warning that there is trouble down the line.
“Employees often understand better what is going on than the execs because they’re closer to customers. We were working with a health company constructing a staff survey. From the focus groups we knew that staff were not fully aware of all the range of services the company offered, and were consequently sending patients outside the company to get certain services. The company denied that there was a problem and told us, ‘That subject does not need to be on the survey.’ At the end of the year the amount of money spent by employees sending patients outside the system for specialized services that were available at nearby company facilities actually tipped the company into loss. Suddenly it was, ‘You need to get this fixed right now’. Yet the employees knew about the problem before the execs.”
Lower barriers to entry
One of the challenges of research today is that anyone can do it since the cost of the tools has dropped dramatically. Programs like SurveyMonkey have made the collection and crunching of data much more accessible. But the problem is that people do not necessarily know what are the right questions to ask or how to collate and interpret the raw data. “Using the raw numbers from do-it-yourself research tools usually results in communicators’ under-reporting their success.”
Sinickas is also frustrated by misconceptions and half-truths about research methodology. She has been quite public in the TJ Larkin debate over which are the best channels for communication: the line manager, senior managers or print/electronic mass communications. This is an argument that has been rumbling for some years and polarises most of the industry’s most-respected commentators. TJ Larkin argues for the pre-eminence of the line manager while Sinickas, Shel Holtz and Steve Crescenzo cite research that shows it depends on the message being conveyed, the skills of the manager and the quality of other communication vehicles that might be more suitable in different situations or for different audiences.
“For certain subjects, line managers are the preferred source, but for others they are way down the list. The major premise of Larkin’s argument is flawed because it is based on very badly done research in the 1980s by a professional association working with a large consulting firm. The premise of the research was that employees would want to get information on all subjects—from business strategy, to benefits to news from other locations—from a single source. When forced to choose just one source, survey respondents chose their supervisor, but that isn’t reality. People prefer reading about some topics; on others they want to hear directly from more senior managers.
“Unfortunately the research got massive publicity at the time. It was in fact the best publicity ever on the worst research and too many accept it as Holy Writ – which it isn’t. If you depend too much on communicating through the mavens alone you have a political problem. I find that those organisations that focus on face-to-face briefings with line managers as the major way of broadcasting new information are the organisations with the greatest rumor mills. Much better to send out the same info in a consistent form, officially and at the same time, and follow up with face-to-face discussion afterward to provide context.”
A specialist among consultants
Sinickas is unusual in that she has associated herself so firmly with research and measurement while other leading consultants tend to be more generalist.
“I pigeon-holed myself. With measurement I have niche that I’m passionate about. I’m this bridge between the two types – the scientific analysis type and the creative strategy type. I do not help execute the recommendations I make in my reports – I see that as a potential conflict of interest.”
She is also a bridge between internal and external communication. When she became accredited as an ABC it validated what she knew from her one year of media relations work, and helped her land a VP Comms job that was responsible for both internal and external communications. Now she helps organisations align their internal and external comms research:
“Internal and external should always be co-ordinated. After all, employees always have been consumers of news, and employees talk to customers. You should use the same types of instruments and methodologies so you can compare internal and external data meaningfully. Agree that you’ll all use the same 5-point scale, that you’ll use the same phrasing in your questions. Help make the connections.”
Here to stay
Sinickas’ evangelism for measurement is paying off and the world is catching up on the attractions of hard IC data. So is her work done?
“I’ll be doing this for the rest of my career. Measurement is here to stay; if it’s not your current management that get it, then your new management will. It’s just a question of time. In the future you will not get budget for IC without data. Instead of complaining that you don’t have another staffer to do a job properly you’ll be proving the financially desirable outcomes that new person will deliver and shifting the onus of responsibility back up the line to get you the investment. Then there are the agencies, they all talk about measurement and some do it very well. But if you do measurement in your spare time you don’t know what to ask to get actionable data or how to put different pieces of data together into an insightful analysis. There will always be repair work for people like me.”
And as research becomes more powerful and complex with techniques like regression analysis to find correlations between communication and bottom-line results, it looks as though Sinickas has got plenty more she can teach the world of internal communication in the years ahead.
“I just want to help elevate communicators’ stature in their organisations by giving them the data to run their functions in a business-like way—using numbers as other managers do to gain support and recognition from management.”