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Carillion and the ethical challenges for internal communicators

By Victoria Pearson.

The collapse of construction and services giant Carillion raises interesting, and extremely difficult, issues for internal communicators.

A statement by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations notes that Carillion’s demise reflects multiple strategic communication failures as well as failures of internal transparency and accountability. These are ultimately shortcomings of senior management, but there can be no doubt that internal communicators often find themselves deeply involved in both the lead up to and the fallout from these sorts of governance crises.

Discussion of professional ethics in PR often centres on external activity – as the Bell Pottinger scandal illustrates – but internal communications raises some distinct, and sometimes more acute, ethical issues. These most notably arise from having senior management as the ‘client’ and the proximity of internal communications professionals to corporate decision-making.

Internal communications is, in many respects, no different from other communications disciplines. The critical difference, however, is that your audience is there, right in front of you. Staff will quickly spot any mismatch between rhetoric and reality and will be sensitive to gaps between what is promised and what is actually delivered. Leaders may be acutely sensitive to how their decision-making is perceived internally or not see staff as a priority audience.

Internal communicators can also, sadly, be subject to pressure from communications colleagues dealing with external audiences, where objectives can conflict. A message that may play well with shareholders and investors – ‘we’re cutting costs to increase dividends’ – can have profound implications for an internal audience.

This can place internal communicators in an intensely awkward position. They are the interface between leadership and staff – the advocates for transparency in staff engagement, the recipients of staff feedback and the representatives of a staff perspective. As professionals, they need to understand fully the reasons for and implications of business decisions and clearly put the case for how the employee audience might receive them. But this can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the face of a closed, adversarial or combative managerial culture.

The Carillion collapse will hopefully generate a meaningful discussion about ethics in corporate governance, but we in PR also have to ask ourselves what lessons we can learn. We need to broaden our consideration of ethics to consider the sometimes unique demands of internal communications and place a premium on integrated planning across internal and external audiences. And all of us involved in PR and communications must be sensitive to the delicate position in which our internal comms colleagues can find themselves.

Victoria is Head of Corporate Communications at the University of Reading.

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