The “core brief” and why it sometimes fails

By Suzy Giles, Managing Director of Giles Global Communications, based in The Hague.

Many of us in the internal communications world are familiar with the concept of the “Core Brief”. In its most basic sense, it is a way to keep everyone informed about what is going on strategically within an organisation. It can keep people up to date with major projects or inform people about the future direction the organisation has chosen to take. And for some, it is a key tool they deploy at times of significant change.

The methods may vary but first and foremost this is a leadership communication, compiled and disseminated by leaders and managers to their teams, ideally face-to-face with the opportunity for discussion and questions on the content. As the University of Exeter says about its “Team Brief”: “This is not just about cascading information downwards, but also engaging teams in conversations about issues that affect everybody at the University”.

I have been involved in implementing an institutional core brief in three quite different organisations and have worked with colleagues who have attempted the same. While many have reported a degree of success, and in some cases, a transformation of the way teams communicate, they also report on how the brief has fallen short of its ultimate potential. While the implementation has differed, each situation has shared some common elements as to why it hasn’t achieved 100% success:

  • Not all managers bother with organising team meetings.

In some situations, I have come across departments who say they never actually meet. Not that I am an advocate of frequent and unnecessarily long meetings, but I question teams who never come together.

  • Knowledge is power.

Some managers aren’t comfortable sharing highly strategic and sometimes sensitive information, as they feel it’s something that should be the preserve of the management/leadership group and that it’s what sets them apart from other layers of staff.

  • Senior leaders are reluctant to explain the “why” of their decision making.

While leaders are often comfortable communicating facts, they aren’t always comfortable explaining the “why” of their decision making. They may feel exposed and lack a confident narrative they aren’t afraid to share.

  • Logistically it’s hard to get the right information, at the right time, from the right people.

If you’ve ever had to pull together a core brief, you will know how difficult it can be to get the right information in there. If it becomes a list of operational initiatives across an organisation, then staff may as well refer to their intranet, and the value is gone.

While these are common themes, there is also often an underlying issue - managers and leaders aren’t skilled in communicating face-to-face. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Line managers and certain layers of leadership are taken on for their subject knowledge or technical experience – not their ability to communicate. While we know it’s an inevitable part of the job, the reality is they need support.

In the Gatehouse Group’s State of the Sector 2019 report, internal communicators in 40 countries commented on leader and line manager communication.

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While executive and senior leaders are often given medium to low level visibility, line managers have much higher visibility – but much lower communication skills than their superiors. Executive level leaders are often prioritised when it comes to communications training and support. Understandably, this is a key role and you would want your best communicators focusing on this – they will be communicating externally, and the reputation of the organisation is at stake. But for those on the ground who are tasked with communicating strategy and actually making it happen, they are lacking the communications skills they could benefit from.

The Gatehouse report states:

“Just one in five of us are planning to enhance line managers’ communication skills in 2019 — compared with one in three of us last year. And two thirds of organisations have no learning and development or training opportunities for line managers to improve their confidence and skills as communicators”.

So, what can you do to help?

Training line managers to deliver the core brief can be done in a variety of ways. When you don’t have the opportunity for face-to-face briefings, a podcast or a webinar for dispersed teams can also work. Help them to understand the “why” behind the decision and how to handle questions which come back from the floor.

Help them to understand the importance of the two-way communication. Always have a feedback mechanism before you launch. Whether it be through line managers or a direct inbox to the leadership or communications team, make sure you establish a two-way channel of communication. If not, teams will lose the trust of their line managers and managers will lose faith in the process.

And keep the content relevant and clear. Before you start to compile the brief, have an evaluation check list for the type of content you want. It helps people know what to share with you and helps you to be ruthless in keeping the content strategic and relevant.

The Core Brief is not a perfect communication tool in a fast-paced environment, but as a driver of facilitated face-to-face communication, it has few equals. As face-to-face communication continues to be prized by employees, the Core Brief is a proven, adjustable framework that can drive consistency, interactivity and relevance.

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