Mind the Gap

There are lots of gaps that are barriers to ‘getting on’ in internal communication. The practice vs. theory gap, the career expectations and reality gap, the geographical opportunity gap, and perhaps the biggest, the gap between professional frameworks and recruitment. Mind the gap.

Last week I attended a fascinating webinar presented by PR Academy and the University of Greenwich ‘#MindThePRGap – Future of Work, Careers and Learning Post-Covid-19’. This exposed a number of gaps and disconnects in the public relations (PR) profession which need to be addressed, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

I’ve always thought that there are lots of ‘gaps’ in internal communication, which are barriers to ‘getting on’ in the profession. It was of no surprise to me to hear one of the speakers, Dr Sarah Bowman from Northumbria University, highlight the disconnect which exists between PR theory and practice, more so than in other professions. Proficiency in PR ability is not viewed as being a blend of these two essential ingredients. It is heavily skewed towards practice and this holds us back as a profession.  

Practice vs. theory gap

I think the practice vs. theory disconnect in internal communications is particularly chronic, and it has persisted for years. I’ll wager that a significant proportion of internal communicators know little or no internal communication theory. One reason for this is that historically, many of us stumble into both PR and internal communications as a job, rather than arriving here intentionally as a planned career decision from the outset.  In Dr Bowman’s words ‘our entry into PR was opportunistic’.

Many arrive in the internal communications profession entirely focused on the tactics of practice, because of the widely held view that anyone can do this sort of communications work and because there are no barriers to entry. Only later do some of us decide to ‘professionalise’ and study for qualifications to understand the theory which explains and guides good practice and become more rounded. However, there is no compulsion to do so. You could practice in internal communication for your entire working life without having a single relevant qualification or professional accreditation to your name.

I think I’m a fairly typical example of this route of entry into internal communication from something entirely different, and I was a communicator for 10 years before it crossed my mind that I might need to join a professional body and get some qualifications. It was my choice, no one compelled me to do it, but I’m glad I did because I think it has made me a more capable, respected and rounded practitioner overall.

This gap between practice and theory is also kept firmly wedged open by employers and recruiters valuing and prioritising practical experience over theoretical knowledge, rather than looking for both. This is evidenced by the frequent lack of inclusion of internal communication qualifications, commitment to CPD or professional body membership in either the essential or desirable attributes of job role specifications. All some recruiters want to see evidence of is practice experience and it seems that there is a high level of ignorance of professional competence frameworks which would actually help them to find the better candidate. More on this later.

Mad Men and Working Girls – the career expectation and reality gap

Later in the webinar, Dr Heather Yaxley spoke about career pathways using ‘The Myth of Mad Men and Working Girl’. Unlike those careers depicted ‘on screen’ in TV series and films, a linear ever upward career progression is an unattainable fantasy for most of us. For me this part of the webinar highlighted the massive gap between our expectations and the realities of ‘getting on’ in internal communication.

In some respects, I think this is symptomatic of the absence of clear career and learning pathways in the internal communication profession. Rather than looking for an ever upward career ascent, which is unrealistic for many, Heather explained that we should instead be investing in ‘career upscaling – to improve the quality or value of your career’. This particularly resounded with me, but I’ve always thought that the ways to better in internal communication are obscure for many of us working in it. There is no ‘internal communication careers service’ for us to refer to, or a common framework of practice and competence, and there are a plethora of providers of training and guidance, some of which appears to me to be of doubtful quality and provenance.  It is all incredibly confusing.

As the way to better is so unclear for internal communicators, back in 2019 I came up with the concept of The IC Citizen, a sort of role model for investing in yourself and others in IC to improve the value and quality of your career. With some input from other internal communicators I developed The IC Citizen Manifesto, which hopefully provides some clues about how to do that. It isn’t perfect and provides more of a steer to encourage internal communicators to play a full part in the profession and not just work within it.    

The geographical opportunity gap

As Heather pointed out in one of her four career constructs, the ‘knotted patterns of mobility’, we all place constraints on ourselves as far as career progression goes including making the choice of where, geographically, we will work.

However, I think that some of this constraint is not just down to us as individuals and our choices, it’s also about where employers choose to base roles in internal communication. In the UK there is a massive gap in the availability of internal communication job opportunities in certain geographical areas with these mainly concentrated in London and the South East and not in the provinces. I’m sure this situation is replicated in other countries and parts of the world.  

Living and working in the North of England has forced me to be much more creative in thinking about and progressing my career in internal communication. I’ve been career upscaling for years because there just haven’t been the more senior job roles available locally to sustain an upward career progression for people like me.  

This gap in opportunity is one which I hope will diminish in the wake of the pandemic. If anything, our recent experience of enforced remote and distance working has been proof of concept that work is an activity and not a place.  It now beggars the question, why do large numbers of internal communication jobs in the UK still need to be located in London and the South East, or anywhere in particular for that matter?

The gap between professional frameworks and recruitment

If you’re a recruiter looking to hire an internal communicator there isn’t much consistent guidance about what to look for when you are doing so. In the UK, the Institute of Internal Communication Profession Map is probably your best bet, but you are still going to have to do the translation bit to align this to the actual duties of the role to create the job description and person specification. Yet another gap to negotiate.

Cleary some don’t negotiate that gap very well, and for a while I’ve been interested in the gap between professional communication frameworks and the things that recruiters actually put into job adverts, descriptions and person specifications for internal communication roles. I think that some don’t even appreciate that this gap exists and it would be a fascinating research project to find out how big this gap actually is. I might get around to that one day.

Some internal communication job descriptions are frankly hilarious. I recall one I spotted for a mid-senior role at a legal firm which included the unfortunate line ‘the right candidate must have a bubbly personality’. I don’t recall seeing that attribute in any professional competence framework, and I certainly wouldn’t fit the bill!

Other job descriptions are completely unfocused on the core skills of the real internal communicator and include a plethora of other duties more akin to the role of the personal assistant, party planner, graphic designer or web developer.

These sorts of unfocused job descriptions just hold us back in becoming a properly defined profession both individually and collectively, and make it much harder to achieve any kind of career upscaling when just anything can be included within the remit of what we do.

Mind the gap. There are lots of them.

Martin

Image by Greg Plominski from Pixabay

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