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Internal communication in Canada.

INTERNAL communication in Canada


Internal communication practices in Canada continue to inch ahead when, given the need, they should be progressing by leaps and bounds. It's not so much the fault of Canadian communicators, although heaven knows they're far from perfect, but more the result of timid management, it seems to me. When it comes to the practical aspects of communicating, most managements appear not to know enough to fill a gnat's purse.

I'm not suggesting that the state of internal communication in Canada is bad; it's just not nearly as good as it should be. I suppose that could be said of most countries, but communication practices in Canada, in comparison with what I sense is happening in the United States, are somewhat slow of foot. Sure, we have a number of exciting examples of superb communication, but overall there seems to be a certain inhibition or timidity holding back Canadian excellence. And I suspect most of it comes from the upper reaches in organizations.

A good part of this timidity on the part of management, I think, stems from the nature of the country, its style in terms of structure, history and attitude. Much to the disbelief of most US communicators, Canada is different from the United States. Although our general culture, for the most part, may appear to mirror that of the US, there are some significant traits inherent in Canada which alter the way we do things and think about things.

For instance, as individuals we tend to be less self-reliant than people in the US. We depend more on government to run things and provide a broad array of social services. Generally speaking we also tend to be less risk-taking than Americans, less aggressive, less confident. In fact, in Canada it's common to talk about our built-in inferiority complex. Although there are dozens of examples, one that illustrates the point comes to mind. A few years ago a mildly successful book was published in Canada called "How to Cope with Back Pain." A US publisher liked it and optioned the publishing rights for the States. The same book was released in the US but with a new title--"How to Conquer Back Pain."

The differences in style between the US and Canada, some obvious but most subtle, are reflected in how internal communication is practiced here. While most communication programs, activities and theories appear, on the surface, to be the same as those in the US (and quite logically we compare our standards and practices with those of the US), a closer look reveals subtle differences.

I talked to a few active and well-placed communicators before putting this piece together. One in Western Canada suggested that while we look to the US for models and hear that face-to-face and other similar communication methods are the key to improvements, his sense is that what we see in practice is more print communication, albeit of improving quality.

Another communicator, east of Toronto, echoed that idea and suggested that the dominant concern is still for technique, for the look and feel of communication vehicles. He also suggested that there seems to be more concern about the external business environment in terms of competition and trade than about the internal organizational environment. This is somewhat understandable given that Canada is a trading nation with vast geographical spaces and a sparse population. It has a longer history in dealing in international markets than most countries, and proportionately, a more intense emphasis on trade.

Another built-in trait that affects communication is the official bilingualism in Canada. The biggest impact can be seen in Quebec, or with national companies doing business in Quebec. By law, French is the primary language for communication in Quebec work places.

Canada is also officially multi-cultural, which puts a different spin on things compared to the American "melting-pot" approach. However, other than a tremendous number of English as a Second Language programs, this appears to have little effect on general communication practices. I've seen only the rare print employee communication vehicle in a language other than English or French.

Currently Canada is in the midst of a deep recession and its resultant belt-tightening, do-more-with-less approach. Also the country is guided (?) by an astoundingly unpopular federal government. Neither of those factors, however, seems to have had any significant impact on internal communication as yet. The recent surprising electoral victory of a social democratic government, led by the New Democratic Party, in Ontario, the industrial heartland of Canada, upset the business community tremendously, but it's still a wait-and-see situation as to the impact on internal communication.

Although basic programs and practices seem similar throughout North America, one interesting potential new trend cropped up recently in the interpretation of the results from an audit, done by TPF&C, of the communication practices of IABC/Toronto, Canada's (and IABC's) largest chapter. The report read in one section: "...members perceive advancing the profession more as a common thread among the membership than existing IABC programs and services. In other words, we believe members' professional development needs and networking activities tend not to be the common thread that will advance the profession."

This seems to me to be a welcome sign of maturity among members. They appear to be saying that moving the profession forward is more important than the conventional wisdom of advancing their own self-interest. And yes, maybe a stronger and more solid reputation about what we actually do, or can do, is the way to get all those timid senior managers to listen to the communicator.

Roger Feather, ABC, is an IABC Chairman's Award recipient and a veteran communicator with Manulife Financial in Toronto, Ont.
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Author:Feather, Roger
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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