Manage the Message: You Might Set out to Be Clear, but Organizational Issues Have a Way of Turning Communication Inside out. Find out How to Solve the Challenges to Clear Communication

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Why do organizations at times communicate in incomprehensible jargon, with inconsistent terminology or empty buzzwords, and in a bureaucratic, impersonal style? Do they not have talented, committed communicators, or are there other, organizational factors at work? If so, which organizational pitfalls can lead to unclear corporate communication, and how can they be avoided?

In the January-February 2012 issue of Communication World, we presented results from the study Complex to Clear and looked at the drivers of complex communication. The report, produced in partnership with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, and with the support of the IABC Research Foundation, identified the elements that make a message CLEAR--providing a context, structuring messages logically, focusing on essential elements and removing ambiguity, and creating resonance with the target audience through examples, visuals and stories.

But there's more to it. Poor corporate communication is often the result of organizational dysfunction. Unlike freelance or independent professionals, corporate communicators work closely with their peers, subordinates and superiors, and rely heavily on them to provide information and feedback. While collaboration is certainly beneficial, the interdependent nature of the communication role can affect the clarity of messages. Corporate communicators may not have full control--or the final say--over messages dealing with complex issues (for example, with legal implications), or they may be pressured by other departments to include superfluous, inconsistent or simply confusing elements.

Using case studies for a variety of organizations, researchers from the Institute for Media and Communication Management at the University of St. Gallen have documented a number of typical problems, along with their root causes and countermeasures. Recognizing whether your organization suffers from any of these patterns can provide a good starting point for improvements.

1. Too many cooks

Imagine (or recall) a press release or strategy briefing created with the involvement of multiple departments, each with equal power over the final document. The individual sections are inconsistent, overlap and have different styles because of the different people who produced and submitted them. The result is a confusing document that strays from its core message.

Example: Unclear, "cut-and-paste" strategy document.

Root cause: Lack of ownership and consolidation.

Solution: Assign clear ownership rights to one coordinator (with clearly defined input parameters and deadlines for others) who can ensure there is one consistent style, format and level of granularity. Work in small teams that will share their solutions with key stakeholders and solicit feedback selectively.

2. Too big to fail

A document has reached a point where everybody accepts it (because their part is included), and no one wants to modify it even though it contains unclear or redundant sections. Example: An organization's corporate home page or overview website.

Root cause: Iterations without consolidation.

Solution: Analyze, segment, consolidate and redraft. Show the conversion from old to new to the parties involved.

3. Reuse abuse

Communicators reuse or recombine old text segments that are outdated or do not fit together well. This leads to inconsistent, outdated or redundant messages that create confusion.

Example: A crisis plan confuses employees because it includes outdated scenarios and inconsistent terminology.

Root cause: Time pressure and cost savings.

Solution: Establish quality checks on information that is to be reused, and add expiration dates to "message modules."

4. Context chasm

A working document is handed from one expertise domain (department) to another. …