Communications vs. change communications: what’s the difference?


The truth is, nothing can change without communications.

As change has become business as usual, there is a sharp rise in organizations’ requirements for specialized support in change communications. This is emerging as an exciting and meaningful opportunity for communicators to add unique value, as communications is an essential enabler of any transformation or change initiative.

So what’s the difference between communications during a period of stability and change communications? I think it comes down to 3 things:

Change communications focuses more on the emotional, rather than the intellectual side of content. For example, resistance is an almost ubiquitous response to change. A communicator’s instinct might be to send numerous emails explaining a change and detailing its benefits. In truth, there is no one email that is going to solve the problem of resistance. Designing a tactical messaging approach that has a strong emotive appeal will help ensure that you reach employees on an individual level.

While communications tends to be a messy business, change assignments are all the more so. From a strategic planning perspective, it can be very difficult to apply the rigour of a results-based approach to a change initiative. Canada’s pre-eminent management guru Henry Mintzberg offers useful insight here in explaining that strategy walks on two feet – one deliberate, and one emergent. This is especially relevant to change assignments that certainly benefit from a plan, but require more agility and focus on the emergent aspect than do traditional communications plans.

Change communication success happens at an executive or leadership perspective, as opposed to on a functional level. This again is a significant difference from traditional communications. The line becomes blurred between what is effective change sponsorship and what is effective communication. The way I look at it, nothing can change without communication, so this is a fundamental aspect of successful change leadership.

Because the discipline of change communication differs significantly from other forms of communication, it requires a particular set of principles and best practices. These include the following:

  1. Not communicating is communicating something. The first casualty of change is often information. Keep in mind that in the absence of communication, employees will fill the void – this will put the change initiative in a deficit situation in terms of communication, as you will first be forced to dig out of a hole of mis-information, and then establish messaging.
  1. Change is about energy, and energy is emotion. Consider opportunities to shape the experience of the change, ensuring that the form and content of communication appeals positively on an emotional plane. It’s vital to understand the key drivers of employees’ intrinsic motivation and shape communication messages and activities to appeal on that level.
  1. Communicate through words, symbols and behaviours. Change communication must go beyond mere information and words – employees can be reached more powerfully through symbols, and by watching behaviours around them. Consider change communication activities that go beyond words and that appeal at the emotional, experiential level through symbols and behaviours. For an example, see this blog post on “A Case Study in Symbols” from the new Government of Canada.
  1. Conversation is the smallest unit of change. The organizational change process happens through conversations, most of which take place informally. A change communications initiative should focus on maximizing opportunities for conversations to happen through both structured meetings and spontaneous exchanges that happen day-to-day.
  1. Communication is the drumbeat of change. Through a tumultuous period of transformation, communication should be established as the drumbeat of change – a regular, predictable and reassuring touch point for employees. It’s important for the communications drumbeat to keep the pace of change, speeding up or slowing down according to the phases of transformation.
  1. Trust is the currency of change. A successful change initiative requires careful consideration of trust as an essential asset. Change leaders and agents must ensure that they nurture trust through authentic, honest and transparent communication.

For more on specific strategies and techniques for effective change communications, check out our Best Practice Paper on Change Communications.

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