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Doing right things right.

While working to communicate quality, we increased our knowledge of its methods and value. This raised a critical question. Can the professional corporate communicator also reap the benefits of a quality improvement effort to ensure a more secure future in these times of economic uncertainty? The answer can be found by looking at what is happening around us in the work place.

Inside the organization, budgets are being trimmed and staff cutbacks are becoming a way of life. Survival for today's internal communication professional means learning some important lessons from the world-wide quality crusade. What works for companies fighting to stay alive in a tough external environment also can work for communication departments competing for their piece of the steadily shrinking internal resources pie.

The first step toward understanding how quality can be applied to the corporate communication profession is to construct a philosophical definition of quality that makes sense for our special discipline.

Defining Quality in Corporate

Communication: The Dual

Customer Perspective

Quality, simply put, is performance to the standards of the customer. The phrase, "doing right things right," heard frequently in the quality community, serves as an operational definition of the fundamental two-step quality process of determining what customers want and then consistently providing it to them on an ongoing basis. Our focus will be on the first part of the equation, identifying the "right things," or customer alignment. Communication professionals, just as all other business people, have customers with expectations that define the right things we should be doing in our communication campaigns.

A customer orientation to quality puts emphasis on producing results for our customers. Producing an effective communication campaign means we must first be aligned with our customers' communication needs (right things) and measuring our efforts against these expectations. Customer alignment for the internal communication professional begins with the essential question: "Who are our customers and what are their needs?"

The fact that communication is a two-way process involving a sender and a receiver means our professional orientation to quality must accommodate two customers with two sets of needs. First, there are client-customers who bring us their requests for communication campaigns. They traditionally originate and send formal messages from their upper-level positions in the organization. These messages are received by our second type of customer: the audience comprised of large numbers of organization members generally positioned lower in the organization's vertical structure.

Client-customers' communication needs center around a common concern with the programs and projects for which they're responsible. They see communication as the critical link between them and the people they'll rely upon to make their project or program a success, the audience-customer. Client-customers look to us, the professional communicators, to know how to influence the attitudes, commitment and, ultimately, the behavior of the organizational members or audiences they are trying to reach.

On the other side of the communication process, our audience-customers are primarily interested in receiving information that will enable them to perform effectively as members of the organization. Performing can mean anything from accessing a parking space to understanding how to invest in a retirement plan, to learning a new job skill.

Our two customers have what can be termed a symbiotic communication relationship since each is dependent on the other for their mutual welfare (See Figure 2). Client-customers need to tell in order to influence while audience-customers need to hear to perform.

Our role, as communication facilitators in our organizations, is to act as third parties who understand the needs of both customers. We then create the communication campaign to accommodate these two types of needs and enjoy the result of having both customers satisfied at the end of the transaction. You could say we truly do serve two masters.

Now admittedly, some of our client-customers seem to still be living in the Neanderthal age when it comes to what they expect from a communication campaign. They remain attached to the antiquated notion that our field of endeavor is little more than an information factory that cranks out piles of facts, texts and images. To these misguided few, judging the quality of a communication campaign is a matter of opinion. Appearances are what count. If the final communication product passes their personal taste test, it's high quality. These clients don't expect much from communication; therefore, they don't get much.

Fortunately, these corporate "slow-learners" are in the minority. Most of our client-customers are sophisticated enough to realize that communication is a dynamic, transactional process with powerful psychological effects. Well-designed communication campaigns influence attitudes, generate commitment and modify the behavior of key groups of the organization's members.

To create a communication campaign that serves the interests of both types of customers requires paying extra attention to our audience-customers' communication needs. Because audience-customers don't carry as much political clout and authority as client-customers, it's easy to overlook them in the campaign development process. Many times our first job during the research phase is to listen to an audience via focus sessions and surveys, assess their unique perceptions toward a campaign topic and integrate their needs into the campaign's objectives. By taking these steps we increase the relevance of the message and thereby reduce the risk of producing a purely client-customer-driven campaign that could fall on deaf ears.

As we listen to our two types of customers year after year, we begin to notice a repeated, consistent pattern of communication needs and expectations that translate into a set of common criteria.

The Quality Criteria

Criteria are like permanent yardsticks for measuring the quality of a communication campaign. Although each campaign has its own unique characteristics and objectives, it also shares a common set of essential success factors with all other campaigns.

These larger, more general factors, or criteria, serve as stable reference points for classifying and organizing the smaller, more specific objectives unique to the individual campaign. For example, the criteria can act as a mental template for organizing campaign design questions that need to be answered by your client-customers--which, in turn, are converted into the campaign's communication objectives.

The criteria can then serve as means for grouping the campaign's objectives. Measuring the campaign's quality is nothing more than evaluating how well the campaign achieved its objectives based on audience perceptions. Then the data received from the campaign evaluation questionnaires can be organized under each criterion. A quality "score" can then be calculated for each criterion. The individual criteria scores are totaled and averaged to produce an aggregate quality score for the overall campaign.

The criteria fit together into a pyramid of hierarchy along four levels of ascending order. Each level is a category of criteria grouped by our customers' expectations and our own professional standards (See Figure 1).

Level 1: Logistics Criteria

Logistics criteria represent the most fundamental considerations of a communication campaign's quality. Even though they are usually accepted as "givens" by our customers, they are the essential foundation upon which all other criteria depend for their effectiveness.

Criterion #1: Delivery -- Did the communication arrive at the intended point of contact with the audience?

If the message doesn't make it to the audience, all else is for naught. Believe it or not, I've heard horror stories of some in our profession who see their jobs ending when the communication vehicle leaves the press room or the video duplication center.

Criterion #2: Timeliness -- Did the communication arrive at the point in time that best fits the need of both types of customers?

Needless to say, timing is of the essence. "Better late than never" really doesn't carry much weight in our field. Messages that arrive too early or too late lose a considerable amount of their impact.

Criterion #3: Input -- Was the communication read or viewed by the audience?

Here's where the rubber hits the road. We all know the importance of readership and viewership ratings. The message must not only make it to the audience's location. It also has to get read, viewed or heard.

Level 2: Attention Criteria

At the logistics level, quality is interpreted as a quantitative concept in terms of the portion of the audience who had contact with the communication. Not a bad start to measuring quality, but still a long way from the results our two types of customers expect from a campaign. Attention criteria reflect the "artsy" side of our profession where our creative expertise bears its fruit.

Criterion #4: Compelling -- Did the communication get and keep the audience's attention?

As communication craftspeople, we must be able to artfully sculpture communication messages that capture our audiences' attention. If we don't, we run the risk of losing their psychological involvement and jeopardizing both customers' chances for a successful communication transaction.

Criterion #5: Understandable -- Did the audience understand the key information on the topic?

Once you have an audience hooked into paying attention to the message, you have to ensure the essential information contained in the message is comprehended. If the message doesn't fit together as a coherent, logical expression of ideas, we're practicing entertainment, not communication.

Criterion #6: Credible -- Did the audience believe the communication?

Many times, one of our greatest challenges is to counter existing skepticism on the issue. Great communication campaigns are won and lost on the ethos factor. Communication source and message credibility are essential prerequisites to the next two levels of criteria.

Level 3: Relevance Criteria

Relevance criteria are derived from our audience-customers' communication expectations. They precede the client-customers' criteria because, if the theory of selective attention holds true, people won't invest energy in pursuing information that isn't relevant to their needs. If relevance is missing, the message may end up being played in a room with no one in it.

Criterion #7: Relevance -- Did the communication relate to what was happening in the audience's work environment?

When a campaign is relevant, the information in it relates in a general way to what the audience is experiencing in their overall work environment. It may not fulfill a specific and pressing need, but it does include topics consonant with familiar events in the audience's work life.

Criterion #8: Usefulness -- Did the communication help the audience to perform better?

Relevance is the prerequisite to usefulness. For a campaign to be perceived as useful by the audience it not only has to generally relate to what is happening in the audience's work environment, it must also go a step further and directly aid the audience in performing an important task within that environment.

Level 4: Influence Criteria

At the highest level of the pyramid, our client-customers' communication expectations are finally addressed. Their need to influence the attitudes, commitment and behavior of the audience can only be met after the lower-level criteria have been met.

Criterion #9: Attitudinally Affective -- Did the communication influence the audience-customer's attitude or opinion on the topic in the manner desired by the client-customer?

Sometimes our communication campaigns are designed to cultivate new attitudes on topics that the audience has had little prior knowledge or experience. At other times, our job is more difficult. It requires that we alter existing attitudes that are firmly entrenched in the audience's mind. In either case, the challenge of affecting attitudes in the work place is indeed a formidable one that takes meticulous planning of long-term communication strategies.

Criterion #10: Commitment Affective -- Did the communication generate a desire in the audience to focus energy and effort on the topic in the manner desired by the client-customer?

Commitment takes attitude one step further. It extends the audience's favorable disposition toward the topic to the point that when the audience is faced with an opportunity to take action, they will act in a manner supportive of the desired attitude and the needs of the client-customer. For this reason, commitment is a more accurate predictor of audience behavior than attitude.

Criterion #11: Behaviorally Affective -- Did the communication generate a desire in the audience to focus energy and effort on the topic in the manner desired by the client-customer?

In the end, client-customers hope that all the time and energy invested in the communication campaign results in stimulating certain audiences behaviors that can be grouped into one of the following three behavioral change categories: The audience started doing something, stopped doing something or continued doing something. Measuring actual audience behavior change is best done by using existing reports generated by others in your organization who monitor those audience behaviors targeted by your campaign's ojectives.

A word of caution is necessary. Don't bet all your chips on achieving this final criterion and skip measuring the preceding criteria. What if things don't go as planned and the behavior change doesn't occur? You need a fallback position to demonstrate how the campaign positively influenced the audience's attitudes and commitment, even though other variables had a negative influence on achieving behavioral results.

The criteria can be easily customized to fit a particular communication need or set of campaign objectives. You can select those criteria that best fit your immediate requirements and weigh the questionnaire feedback data to reflect the most important communication objectives of both customers.

At the conclusion of the quality measurement process, when reporting on a campaign's quality, remember that numbers speak more loudly than words. Results expressed as percentages of audience responses gathered via communication evaluation questionnaires get the attention of those "bottom liners," who, many times, are the most skeptical of the value of the communication function to the organization.

Ed Robertson is manager, management and quality communication, Federal Express Corp., Memphis, Tenn.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Robertson, Ed
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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