Category Archives: Strategic Communication

8 Removable Barriers to an HR Communication Strategy

Common Roadblocks and Practical Countermeasures

You’re ready to roll out a great new employee program. 

You send out some emails, do a few presentations and generate some interest. 

But soon, the buzz dies down and the whole thing is practically forgotten. 

Sound familiar?

Based on what I hear from clients, this scenario is all too common. No matter how good you think the communications are, they don’t ignite lasting change. 

There are many reasons why a particular communication or campaign fails, but I think it becomes more difficult for these efforts to blossom if they lack fertile, strategic ground in which to take root. 

Without a comprehensive strategy, coming up with a cool, new communication is like trying to invent a new traffic sign without abiding by the MUTCD. 

Below, I highlight a few of the most common roadblocks I encounter that keep organizations from having a solid HR communication strategy. 

Most of these roadblocks can be difficult or even impossible for a single individual or team to overcome. So, I’m going to suggest some practical countermeasures you can take at a small scale that can help. 

#1: HR Communication Planning Is Siloed

You have your own communication budget and you do your own planning — and so do all the other centers of excellence within HR. This is a missed opportunity. When everyone is doing their own thing, good ideas, tools, channels and resources are not being leveraged for the benefit of all. Many of the other problems in this list start to emerge as a result of this siloed approach.

Countermeasure: Collaboration. If you have no central communication resource, gather up your HR colleagues who are similarly tasked with communication responsibilities, and form a squad or guild. Get together regularly to discuss your needs and to share ideas and solutions.

#2: There Is No Cohesive HR Identity

If there’s no cohesive approach, there can be no cohesive identity. As a result, every campaign coming out of HR is a one-off effort — another piece of junk mail vying for attention in a crowded corporate inbox. 

One of the biggest eye-opening moments during an engagement is when we reveal to a client the results of a communication audit. All we have to do is put a few samples of the organization’s communications side by side and everyone sees immediately how disjointed they are.

Lacking a cohesive identity will undermine your efforts to get employees to recognize and fully appreciate everything your organization has to offer. It also means that, with every campaign, you’re spending precious time and resources (or, worse, none at all) figuring out what your content should look and sound like.

Countermeasure: Communication guidelines. If you can’t get help from someone with brand development experience, you can still create a simple set of guidelines that document the verbal, visual and experiential identity of your content and communications. Pull together a few diverse communication samples that you think best represent the program you own. Find the similarities in how they look and sound. Focus on what makes them distinct from other company communications but still aligned with your organization’s brand. Distill it down to a page or two of words and images that literally show someone how to create content and communications for you. Then, make sure all future media align with these examples.

#3: Your Intranet Is a Mess

You can’t rely on your section of the intranet to reach employees because employees don’t rely on the intranet as a source of useful information.

This cycle must be broken.

How to fix this problem depends on several issues, some of which are complex and technical.

Countermeasure: Content management. Don’t dismiss or ignore your intranet. It should be a reliable source of up-to-date, authoritative information. Depending on your platform, it might also foster collaboration and audience feedback. We typically recommend performing an audit of content, processes and requirements, and then developing site maps and process maps. This is not an easy or quick step but, in the long run, it will make managing content on an enterprise-wide scale easier. Imagine, for example, that you have to update site content about your organization’s compensation programs. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a single document that shows you where all that content resides and how to manage versions across employee types and geographies?

#4: HR Lacks Communication Resources

Quite simply, you lack the time, money, people, skills and tools to do it all.

Countermeasure: Partnerships and/or simplicity. Of course, we here at Smith would love to become your go-to communication partner. But, if you can’t always engage professional help, be realistic about your capacity and capabilities. It’s better to have a one-page intranet site that is accurate than to have a complex navigation scheme filled with out-of-date content and empty pages. Use Word and PowerPoint templates to simplify document creation. If a colleague has a good document or presentation, use it as a model. If someone else in your organization engineered a good campaign, talk them about what worked and copy it.

#5: Employee Audiences Can’t Be Targeted Effectively 

As I cover in another post, if you want your audience to pay attention, you have to offer them something of value. It’s tough to do that if you don’t know who you’re talking to or you’re talking to the wrong people. 

Countermeasure: Audience segmentation. Get to know your audiences and segment them as much as you can. If you’re making a change that only affects full-time, benefit-eligible employees, be sure you have an email distribution list of only those employees. If you have employees in different geographies, be sure the intranet is serving them relevant content. Use surveys and other sources of data to create audience profiles and personas so you can communicate with greater clarity and relevance.

#6: The Metrics Are Missing

If you’re sending out a communication or creating content, you’re doing it to affect behavior. It’s important to clarify what that behavior is and why you want to change it. Not only will this help you measure the success of the communication, it will help you craft content that is targeted, easier to understand and more actionable.

Countermeasure: Metrics. We were recently asked by a client to update content supporting an employee recognition program. Among our first questions were: How do you know there’s a problem with the current content? How will you know if the new content makes a difference? Even if your best answer is, “We get a lot of questions from managers about it,” find some way to quantify the impact.

#7: Available Communication Channels Are Being Ignored

Email, PowerPoint and the intranet are not the only ways to reach your employees. 

I was trapped in a traffic jam on I-4 recently on the way to Disney World with my family. Right next to us was a box truck emblazoned on all sides with ads for an auto accident attorney. How apropos. 

Think about your experience outside of the workplace. Consider all the creative ways marketers deliver content to you as close as possible to the moment when you can act on it. 

Countermeasure: Process maps and journey maps. You can only create a successful channel strategy when you really know what you’re asking the audience to do, what they need to do it right and when they need it. Process maps and journey maps can help you evaluate all the steps, tools, technologies, people and places involved. They can also help you pinpoint where employees might struggle. You can use this information to figure out where, when and how to deploy content throughout the process. Be flexible and be creative. You might be surprised at where this process leads you.

#8: HR Source Material Is a Bunch of Slides 

PowerPoint can be a great presentation tool, but it’s not a great place to articulate a strategy. When you create content in PowerPoint, you think in PowerPoint. That means thinking in choppy bullet points instead of thoughtful sentences and paragraphs. 

A lack of source documentation also makes the discovery process more difficult. Instead of handing someone a guide or summary to read, you have to go digging for answers and schedule “brain dumps.” This can literally add weeks to a project schedule.

Countermeasure: Formal documentation. You can keep it short and simple, but try to capture basic details, such as eligibility, a description of the program, websites, contact information, associated metrics and key messages. This is not merely an exercise in discipline or formality. This document becomes content you can later repurpose in presentations, memos, websites and more.

Are any of these roadblocks keeping you from having a killer HR communication strategy? Are you dealing with any others? We’d love to hear from you.

More Ideas

Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

More Ideas

“People Don’t Read”

Why Your Employees Won’t Read Your Next Communication and What You Can Do About It

“People don’t read.”

I’ve been told this consistently by clients throughout my career. If you believe this, then spending any effort on creating content and communication is futile. The only reason to put anything in writing is to comply with a law or ward off liability.

As a professional communicator, this would be a frightening fact to face. But, is it true?

If we look at the research, we could conclude that Americans don’t read that much. Here are a few highlights:

Unfortunately, this data is not that helpful in answering our question. For one, these are national averages. They might say little or nothing about your employee population. Second, these studies examine how much we read for personal interest. They don’t consider how much we read as part of our jobs, and I haven’t been able to find any good estimates for that.

It’s also important to acknowledge that reading is just one way we consume information. We also use sounds and images. We could also use tastes, smells and touch. Surely, you’ve offered a coworker a slice of birthday cake, been drawn (or repulsed) by the smell of popcorn or given a high five.

In our three-dimensional, multimedia world, we all know that the traditional definition of “reading” is far too narrow to encompass all the forms of content and communication we can create.

So, when a client says to me, People don’t read, what they’re really saying is:

People don’t pay attention.

And, that’s definitely true. Well, sort of.

Our brains evolved to help us survive, but we only have so much cognitive bandwidth at our disposal. We’ve become really good at focusing on things that matter most to us — like food or threats to our safety — and filtering out the rest.

But, let’s not throw our hands up with an exasperated, “People don’t read!” Instead, we need to realize that people only pay attention when you give them something worthwhile.

We can do something with that.

How to Get People to Read Pay Attention to Your Message

The phrase “pay attention” tells you what you need to know. Attention is like money. It’s our cognitive currency. We only have so much of it to spend, and when we spend it, we expect something in return.

Here are two simple tips to catch and keep your audience’s attention.

1. Write Better Headlines

In the workplace, it’s more likely that your message has at least some amount of inherent importance to your audience. But, remember, we are designed to block out signals we deem unimportant. Don’t make your audience work to find personal meaning or benefit. Don’t make it their problem to figure out whether what you’re trying to communicate matters. Make the meaning obvious from the get-go with a great headline.

Compare the following email subject lines:

SUBJECT: Important! New Facility Security Procedures

SUBJECT: How to get into your office, starting tomorrow

Which of these emails are you likely to open first?

When it comes to catching people’s attention, some communicators get caught up in trying to be clever. And, many marketers know how to use salacious headlines and quirky images to get you to click on a link. I think employers should be careful about using such gimmicks in workplace communications. These tactics essentially trick people into paying attention without giving them a satisfying serving of meaning or benefit in return. Not to mention, such tricks will probably violate your organization’s brand standards. Good creative emerges from understanding what is important to your audience and making that immediately understandable, not from being outlandish.

2. Write to You

Your headline (or subject line) makes a promise to your audience. You’ve promised to deliver information that is personally meaningful or beneficial in some way. The rest of your message needs to deliver on that promise. To do that, it’s best to “write to you.”

By that, I mean you should write in such a way that you can address the audience directly as “you.” Compare the following sentences.

A. “All eligible employees should enroll.”

B. “You should enroll.”

A. “All affected employees will receive an email.”

B. “You will receive an email.”

A. “All participating employees must log in.”

B. “You must log in.”

All the B sentences  speak to directly and clearly to me as a member of the audience. I know it’s about me and, let’s face it, talking about me is a great way to get me to keep paying attention. To boot, these sentences are much shorter and easier to read.

The A statements leave too much for the audience to figure out. Any doubt about personal relevance creates an opportunity for the employee’s attention to be tempted by untold distractions. Writing to you is not hard. In fact, writing to you makes writing content and communications much easier. What can be hard is figuring out what matters to your audience and whether or not you are able to specifically target the right “you.”

Sometimes, targeting “you” is a technical matter. Do you have the right email list? Will only the right people have access to the intranet page? Do you have a budget to create versions of the material so that the message can be sufficiently segmented? Whatever the limitation, go to it so you can get as close to “you” as possible.

In Short …

I think a key thing to remember is that the decision to read something is not solely a conscious one. While we can and do consciously choose to read things all the time, our attention is limited and selective. From out of a deluge of information, things we perceive as important to our survival and our nourishment draw our attention subconsciously, like a magnet. If you want people to read, craft your communications accordingly.

More Ideas

ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Making Sense of Prose and Pixels


Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.


Tight copy may be the “soul of wit,” yet it takes twice as long to write.


A pre-existing set of conditions affect how audiences hear. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.


The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.


The Greeks knew some stuff. Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.


Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter. Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Hyperlinks Definitely the most underappreciated, yet one of the most powerful, writing developments in our lifetime. Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents.


Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.


Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication is more and more about managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. They shouldn’t. Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.


Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck


Text is great for brevity and/or complexity. Video captures short attention spans. Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness. Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body. What mode is best? Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate all of these into our campaigns.


It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. If you are actually saying something important, someone else is likely disagreeing. Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls.(Hint: don’t feed them.)


Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.


I know we have to use PowerPoint, but why so badly? When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.


For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves. For clarity, answer questions for your audience; questions they might ask if they could.


If it needs to be said, say it again and again. Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it. Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.


Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster. It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms. Tap the brakes for better content.


Impatience can cause an argument or initiative to fail on the launch pad. Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important to campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is desired.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that and why you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.


Professionals often find it easier to slip into their client’s voice than to find their own. We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.


I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast. It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (Smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.


Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).



Zig when others zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

More Ideas