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21 February 2024


S10 - E2: There’s no such thing as best practice in internal communication – Joanna Parsons

Joanna Parsons is the Founder and Director of The Curious Route, an internal communication consultancy practice. She helps organisations to create effective systems of internal communication.

Joanna is a content creator and thought leader in internal communication with a following of more than 16k on LinkedIn and a new YouTube channel just launched. She has worked in internal comms for more than a decade and was previously Head of Internal Comms with the Irish national police force. She’s a Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communication and has won multiple communication awards for her work over the years. Joanna is also a Lecturer in Strategic Internal Communication with the Public Relations Institute of Ireland.

She’s currently writing a book, “Innovative Internal Communication” which will be published by Kogan Page in the summer of 2024.

Podcast overview

Our industry is unhealthily obsessed with two words: best practice. You see them regularly on internal comms blogs, you hear it at internal comms conferences, those words come up frequently on LinkedIn. But a best practice approach only works for simple, non-complex work. The work we do as internal communicators is highly unpredictable and complex, charged with human emotion and full of complexity. Joanna proposes that we instead talk about “good practices” and think about innovation as an antidote to best practice.

Podcast questions

  • Why do you think best practice is a bad approach?
  • Should we throw all ‘best practice’ in the bin?
  • What’s innovation in the context of internal comms?
  • What would you say to someone who thinks they could never innovate, they’re not creative enough?
  • Internal communicators don’t have time to innovate, they’re too busy – discuss

0:00:05 – Asif Choudry
Hello and welcome to a new episode of the You’re my commsHERO podcast, and I’m your host, Asif Choudry. Today, my guest is Joanna Parsons, who is the founder and director of the Curious Root and Internal Communications Consultancy Practice. Joanna is a content creator and thought leader in internal communications, with a following of more than 16,000 on LinkedIn and also a new YouTube channel that’s just been launched. So she’s worked in internal comms for more than a decade and was previously the head of internal comms with the Irish National Police Force. She’s a fellow at the Institute of Internal Communications, ioic, and has won multiple communications awards for her work over the years. Joanna is also a lecturer in strategic internal communication with the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, and she’s currently writing a book, innovative Internal Communication, which will be published by Cogan Page in the summer of this year. So thanks for joining us, joanna, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you on the podcast.

0:01:05 – Joanna Parsons
Thank you so much. I’ve listened to your podcast a bajillion times, so it’s lovely to be on it.

0:01:10 – Asif Choudry
Excellent, I’m glad you’re one of our listeners. 12,000 downloads were out and counting, so hopefully that’ll just continue to arise, and it’s always nice to know we’re appealing to the comms audience. So let’s get to know you a little bit more, for myself and the listeners. Then I’ve got some quickfire questions for you, joanna, so tell us what’s your most played song on your Spotify playlist.

0:01:35 – Joanna Parsons
Oh, it’s probably Given to Fly by Pearl Jam. I would say I was a real Grunge Rock kid. I played the drums. When I was younger, I was in a rock band. I spent my youth at rock concerts and festivals. And now I love. I play this old music for my kid. She’s only six and she’s jumping around, rocking around the kitchen. I love it.

0:01:55 – Asif Choudry
There we go. You see that first question. I didn’t know any of that. So there you go. Something completely different which famous person would you invite to dinner, and why?

0:02:04 – Joanna Parsons
This is really easy, carl Pilkington. If you don’t know who he is, he did a load of work with Ricky Gervais on his podcast and then they made a TV show. And Carl has this just most bonkers fascinating brain. He just thinks of things that nobody else does. And once Ricky asked him if you could have a superpower, any superpower in the world, what would it be? And he said he would like to invent a new superhero called Bullshit man and he would just fly around the world bursting into corporate meetings and go you’re talking bullshit. And this was all he would do. And I just thought, yes, you do, carl.

0:02:40 – Asif Choudry
I like that character already. We need to make it happen. And finally, three words to describe you.

0:02:47 – Joanna Parsons
Curious, creative and playful.

0:02:52 – Asif Choudry
All good skills for a communicator, and more so an internal communicator. So thanks for that, and it’s been really nice to get to know you. So drums I like that one. So if we do ever have a live concert or concert, I know who the drummer is going to be for that one.

0:03:08 – Joanna Parsons
That’ll be me for sure.

0:03:09 – Asif Choudry
Okay, so let’s get the title of this episode is there’s no such thing as best practice in internal communication. So we’re going to. You know, joanna said that our industry has an unhealthy or is unhealthily obsessed with two words best practice. And you see them regularly and regularly on internal comms blogs here in internal comms conferences. Those words come frequently on LinkedIn. But a best practice approach only works for simple, non complex work. The work we do as internal communicators is highly unpredictable and complex, charged with human emotion and full of complexity, and Joanna’s proposing that we instead talk about good practices and think about innovation as an antidote to best practice. So we’re going to unpack all of that. So, joanna, to kick off then with the first question why do you think best practice is a bad approach?

0:04:09 – Joanna Parsons
Now I’m going to get on my soapbox here, because I’ve been researching this and living and breathing this for the last six months, so I think it’s useful to talk about what a practice is first. A practice is simply a specific way of doing something, and the best practice is something that is a specific way of doing something that has been established that other people have done it before. It’s documented and it’s recognized as being effective, so it can help you solve a goal or a specific problem, but really it’s just a collection of things that have worked for other people in the past. That’s all the best practices are. And I was walking on the beach last year and I forgot my headphones and I was just noodling along and I was thinking about something one of my students had said to me. They were like oh, what’s best practice for? I think it was something around what’s best practice for communicating with hybrid employees? I was just thinking about this and I thought, oh, someone else asked me last week about best practice and actually I saw that in a blog and actually I saw that somewhere else and I started connecting all these dots of like how often we talk about best practice in internal comms and I thought this is curious. This is interesting. Why are we so obsessed with this? And I suppose the idea is that if someone else has a great outcome or someone else does something really successfully, then you think, well, I can do that same thing and I’ll get the same outcome.

But here’s the problem, right. Can we really transplant a practice? Can we really transplant a way of doing something that worked well in one organization and just pick it up and put it into our own organization and expect the same result? And I don’t think it really works like that. And that’s, I think, the problem with best practice is quite limiting. There is no best way to do our job, in my view. There is no right way to do internal comms. There’s no prescription we can follow, because our work is so fundamentally contextual, because context matters for us so much. If you think about all the things we do as internal communicators, think about the context of your organizational culture, the resources you have available, the business goals your organization is trying to achieve, the audiences you’re trying to reach, the leadership styles you’re dealing with, your own expertise as a communicator all of these impact what you do, how you do it, the success that you will have. So my difficulty is when we think about replicating a practice that worked somewhere else and just doing it ourselves to have the same result. It doesn’t work like this and I really if you can bear with me if I get more specific because I really love this topic I think fundamentally.

I think best practice is quite limiting. It holds us back because it’s it’s unstrategic, it’s backwards looking and it stops us from innovating because of the language we use. So if we think about best practice being unstrategic, I mean for a strategic communicator, what you really want to do is you want to start with a really deep knowledge inside your organization. What is the business trying to achieve? What are the business goals? How can internal communication support that? But best practice approaches encourages us to look outside the organization first. What are other people doing? What are my competitors doing? What are thought leaders saying is the best thing to do? So I just think it’s unstrategic. I also think it’s quite backwards looking.

If you think about what a best practice is, it’s just something that has worked for someone else in the past. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work now. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the future. And there’s a really interesting guy called Steven Shapiro. He wrote a book called Best Practices Are Stupid. It was a bit gutted he got that title before I did, but I had a great conversation with him when I was researching my book. He prefers the term proven practices or past practices to make it very clear and explicit this worked in the past, but if you think about how fast the world changes, like something that might have been a best practice a year ago could be completely irrelevant today or next week. And then the last bit I’d say is best practice.

The language we use really stifles innovation. The word best, I mean. We are communicators, we know that language matters and language is powerful. If you call something the best way to do something, it really shuts down any curiosity for other ways to do that. Like why would you look for a better way to do something when there’s already a best? You can’t have better than best. And this language of best, like it, kind of creates this illusion of perfection. It suggests that there is a single ideal way to do something in internal comms that can be applied to every situation. And I just don’t think that this is true, because context for our world really, really matters. So aren’t you glad you asked?

0:09:05 – Asif Choudry
Wow, that’s like ripped up the rule book and the listeners will just be. You know that emoji where the heads exploded. That’s exactly what people are going to be thinking at this moment in time. So all the things that we’ve said then. So that’s really eye-opening, and I’m sure there’ll be people nodding in agreement or shaking their heads in disagreement because they’ve used that term. We’ve all used it. So do you think, based on what you just said, then should we throw all best practice in the bin?

0:09:40 – Joanna Parsons
No, I think, if we think about throwing all the accumulated knowledge and experience of everyone in internal comms in the bin, it wouldn’t be very practical, it wouldn’t be very helpful, and I’m a very practical person. What I would say is let’s change the language that we use. So let’s call them go to practices, because there are loads of great things that other people have done that we can learn from. Let’s call them good practices, not best practices, because that leaves the door open for curiosity and exploration, of trying to improve this or iterating on it to make it better. I think good practices from other people are brilliant I learn from other people all the time but maybe let’s take them as a starting point rather than a rigid roadmap that we have to follow. This is an interesting idea. Now let’s get curious about our own organization and see if that will work for us.

0:10:30 – Asif Choudry
That makes sense, good practice. So in effect, you can keep all the examples and we’re just changing the word best to good to give you that option to improve and take what you want from it, as people are doing from the best practice examples.

0:10:47 – Joanna Parsons
Yeah, and just to recognize that like what’s best for one person might not be best for you even if you are in the same kind of industry or making the same products. I think about somebody. One of my students said oh, I heard lately that it’s best practice for CEOs should be making like little TikTok videos, little 90 second video updates, and I thought, well, that might work really well in an organization where the CEO is up for that, where they’re quite good on camera maybe they’re good with one scripted they’re quite happy to do that. But in another organization where the CEO is super cringe on video and it’s absolutely brutal, like the, just doesn’t work. So there’s just all these different nuances that best practice can’t account for. I just think we need to give ourselves permission and confidence to step away from best and try new things.

0:11:43 – Asif Choudry
Good shout. So you said that the best practice in the first response to the first question, that it doesn’t allow us to innovate. So what is innovation then in the context of internal comms?

0:11:59 – Joanna Parsons
I’m so fascinated by this because when I started talking to people about innovation and I said I’m writing this book on innovation in internal communication, loads of people assumed that I was writing a book about technology, which I thought was so curious.

So there seemed to be an assumption that innovation and technology are synonymous and they have to go together. And it’s absolutely not the case. I only have one chapter on technology in my book and it’s very deliberately right at the end of the book so that we can talk about innovation without talking about tech, and I really want to show that innovation, particularly in internal communication, is for everybody. Like, you don’t need to be a tech bro, you don’t need to be Steve Jobs, you don’t need to be a software engineer to innovate. So we think broadly about innovation. There’s kind of two different types. You can think about radical innovation, so that’s the kind of the sexy stuff that makes headlines, that’s like a big disruptive, groundbreaking stuff. It could be a new invention or a new service. So you think about the iPhone. Or you think about Netflix, you think about Uber. But there’s another type of innovation that maybe people don’t consider and this is incremental innovation, which some people would also call continuous improvement. So you’re looking at things that already exist, but you’re making improvements to those things. You’re making it better, you’re tweaking and you’re changing. It’s like that idea that James Clear has in his book by getting 1% better every day. It’s those marginal gains that compound over time.

And what I found was really interesting in my book is that, depending on who you speak to, innovation means a load of different things to different people. But there were three kind of common components that I found across all the definitions to help us understand what the hell innovation is, get beyond a buzzword. So the first component is novelty. So something to be an innovation has to be new or different. Now, it doesn’t have to mean new to the whole world. It could be new to your organization, it could be new to your team, new to your workflow, but there’s a newness, a novelty that has to be there.

The second component is around value. That innovation exists to solve problems or to create value. It has to be for something, there has to be a point to it. And then the third bit is around action. Like, innovation is more than a great idea. Loads of people have great ideas and they don’t do anything with them. So if you think about that altogether. You just need a great idea. You act on it and you deliver value. That’s innovation, and the great news is, anybody can do that. You don’t need tech, you don’t need a budget. You need a bit of curiosity, a bit of probably perseverance, a bit of enthusiasm, and off you go.

0:14:48 – Asif Choudry
I love that, the simplicity of it, and I hope people are being having that whole world and paradigm shifted experiences going on whilst they’re listening, because you’ve changed the terminology we should use for continuous improvement, best practice. So let’s keep disrupting. Then here. So internal communicators and this has been commented for years and years don’t have time to innovate. They’re too busy, and I remember commentary on social that went you know loads of memes that went viral when I’m, you know, busy, busy, busy A few years ago for internal comms. So if everyone’s so busy, have they got time to innovate?

0:15:34 – Joanna Parsons
This is something I hear a lot and came up in quite a lot of interviews I did with internal communicators for my book. And I get it. Oh, I totally do. I’ve worked in house incomes for years. I know what it’s like, especially when you’re a team of one. You are firefighting all day long, you are battling your to-do lists and it’s relentless.

What I noticed is that there seems to be a clear desire to innovate and try new things and experiment, but people kept telling me the reasons why they couldn’t. There’s lots of obstacles in their way, obstacles like I don’t have time, I don’t have permission, we’re not allowed to try new things in my culture, I don’t have a budget, I don’t have any technology. I actually mapped out 10 different obstacles that communicators face in my book and I’ve gone very helpfully into a further chapter where I map out here are potential solutions to overcome all of these. I am the eternal optimist. There is nothing we can’t overcome. So, for example, I was working with a communicator lately who told me I don’t have time. I don’t have time to do this hard work of building relationships or evaluating or measurement. I don’t have time. So we had a curious conversation. I said where is bending your time. She said well, like, sometimes I get to the end of the day and it’s five o’clock and I don’t know where the time has gone, but my to-do list is still half full and I’m really tired. I said, okay, well, why don’t we just like start with mapping out where your time is going?

So there’s a really simple tool anybody can use.

It’s called the Eisenhower matrix, also known as the Eisenhower box or quadrant, where you can literally just write in all your tasks and you map them out in relation to whether they’re urgent or important. And what I find often when I use this tool in workshops with internal communicators, they’re always surprised that they’re finding a lot of their time is going on work that is urgent but not important, or urgent or not urgent and not important, and they’re kind of astounded by why am I spending all this time on not important work? Part of that is you don’t say no to anything. Part of that is the team are not clear on what the priorities are. Part of that is you’ve actually never told your stakeholders what you’re there to do, what the purpose of your team is, what you’re not there to do. So that’s a really simple way to get started If you feel like you really don’t have time or breathing space, map out how you’re spending your time and see what are those silly, fiddly, time-wasting things that you can actually just stop doing.

0:18:06 – Asif Choudry
Yes, some good advice to remember when, as a fresh-faced graduate, too many years ago to remember now I was introduced to Stephen Kirby’s seven habits of highly successful people. I think it is. And that had that urgent, not urgent, important, not important matrix which, to be honest with you, I still wrestle with today. Because it’s just, it’s such a subjective thing, because it depends in the context of the business or yourself what you like to do, because you’ve got to fight with that, because we want to do the stuff that we enjoy the most, not the stuff that’s necessarily going to benefit the organization you’re going to and that might, that you’re working in, it might even be your own business, because that shiny, I’ll do this bit first, which usually isn’t necessarily that urgent or important, but it’s just better, more rewarding.

Some people might say. So that challenge will go on forever, won’t it? So that’s some advice there, and that I’m dealing with how to innovate, or find the time to innovate, and that’s going to be explored more in your book, so look out for that in the summer of this year. So then, what would you say, joanna, to someone who thinks they could never innovate, they’re not creative enough?

0:19:18 – Joanna Parsons
I do hear this and it breaks my heart a little bit. Like if you think about how curious we all fundamentally were as children, like we all used to ask mad questions and experiment with all mad things. I have a young child. She asks me crazy stuff. She asked me the other night at bedtime how many stomachs does an ant have? I don’t know. She was asking me what fish live in the midnight zone. I didn’t even know what the midnight zone was in the ocean. That sent us down a nice rabbit hole. We were all fundamentally curious as children and it gets a little bit squashed as we get older and people tell us grow up and stop asking silly questions and don’t be so childish. And I think for anyone who feels that they can’t be creative or they can’t get curious, is to reconnect with your childlike curiosity a bit.

The good thing about innovation and this is really what I my book is almost is it a manifesto? Maybe it is. I really want to sort of take people by the hand and bring them on this journey where they feel comfortable and confident and like, yeah, I can do this because anyone can innovate. If you think about the core components we said earlier, you have an idea, you put it into action and you deliver value. That’s all it is like. It’s really simple One thing you could do to get started if you feel really like, oh god, I can’t do this.

I had a fascinating interview for my book with a professor of biomedical science who was the most intimidating lady I’ve ever spoken to ever. But I really wanted to talk to her about how could communicators use the scientific method to create more empirical evidence for making data-driven decisions, how can we innovate using science and she was amazing. But one thing we talked about was like the first step of doing any of this is just to start collecting observations. So why not Carry a notebook with you? Or, if you’re younger than me, maybe a digital app on your phone would do the job.

Just start collecting observations about things you notice. You don’t have to try and understand why they’re happening, but you might write down things like loads of people were scrolling on their phones during the CEO town hall, or when we use photos of staff members in the newsletter, the click rates go much higher. Or you might observe this week I was invited to three meetings with no agenda. Then you could start looking at those observations with the critical eye and thinking this is quite interesting. This seems like that’s important. What little small, non-critical experiment could I run to test this out, come up with a way to improve this or change this and just take it from there so it doesn’t have to cost any money? It doesn’t have to be a huge big thing, but little, tiny baby steps to get started would be brilliant.

0:22:06 – Asif Choudry
Yeah, because I mean, I’m fortunate I work in a creative or communications agency with a creative team in-house, and that because comms people are working in some element of design, as in graphic design, coming up with visuals etc. And whether that’s doing it in-house or using agencies, there’s often a misconception that creativity is that which is just a form of creativity because the people are called creatives, but it isn’t necessarily that it’s all the other things you’ve mentioned. I love the fact it’s a manifesto. So is this your Jerry Maguire moment? Who’s coming with me? Gif I can see visualised here, so I’m sure you’ll have a. Well, we’ll find out when the book sales go through the roof and it’s a number one seller on Amazon. So you’ll be doing book signings at the next comms event? I hope, I’m sure.

0:22:57 – Joanna Parsons
Oh, I would love that.

0:22:58 – Asif Choudry
I’m sure you’ll get a chance to come and promote it. Someone loved it, so we’re connected through the comms hero community. So tell us, joanna, why is comms hero important to you, and would you recommend people working in comms and marketing to be part of it?

0:23:11 – Joanna Parsons
I think you know, as communicators, we’re so giving, aren’t we to a fault? We’re always looking after other people we’re always celebrating other people.

We’re serving our stakeholders, making sure everyone’s looked after, and we never stop to look after ourselves or to celebrate ourselves and to stop and go. Jesus, I did a brilliant job. I remember like during COVID, I won a couple of awards, I was working with the police, but I never actually stopped even for a moment to think God didn’t I do a great job, like my boss had to say. I think should go for a meal like go and do something nice. So I think something like comms hero was so nice, because it actually encourages us to celebrate ourselves and to take that moment to think Jesus, we’re killing this. We’re really good at our job, we have loads of expertise, these organizations are lucky to have us and we should celebrate together. So I love everything about it.

0:24:04 – Asif Choudry
Oh, that’s great and it’s a nice reminder that, to be honest, because that is genuinely why it was set up to celebrate the heroics that comms people perform every day. Just to remind those people, just take some time out. There’s nothing wrong with that, because if you don’t do that, then organizations you know everyone’s talking about we must be at the top table. Organizations. Our employers don’t recognize us as a strategic function. Well, other strategic functions is quite obvious what their link is to the business operations and direction. With our profession we’ve got to work harder, but who’s the best people at persuading? We’re in the business of persuasion, so we’re probably best placed with the skill sets to be able to do that and but focusing some of those skills and energy towards doing that is important. It’s going to be another ending job, as well as a lot of the comms hero t shirts, slogans, testifiers, well and evidence.

0:24:59 – Joanna Parsons
So you know, you’ve just given me an idea for another book. Like there you go, the importance of being selfish, something like that. Isn’t there some interesting angle?

0:25:09 – Asif Choudry
there about.

0:25:10 – Joanna Parsons
it can’t be all about our stakeholders and our employees.

0:25:13 – Asif Choudry
Sometimes it’s about us and selling our own value proposition there you go Right, but hold on to you’ll in the offering in the right together, there you go. I love that.

0:25:24 – Joanna Parsons
You’ve heard it here first.

0:25:27 – Asif Choudry
So community connection is important within comms hero. So you know I want people to connect with you, Joanna. So where will they find?

0:25:36 – Joanna Parsons
you, linkedin is the best place to find me. I’m on there every day. I have a new, brand new YouTube channel Quite nervous about it, so we go on, have a look, be nice, but LinkedIn is the most prolific channel I use at the moment. I also have a free newsletter that goes out every Tuesday, is aimed at curious communicators who want to learn more about communication, and so you can sign up for free on my LinkedIn page or on my website.

0:26:02 – Asif Choudry
Excellent More free stuff.

I love a bit of free stuff Amazing, yeah, and if you do take, after taking notes somewhere, then a pen and a notebook, especially a comms hero notebook. It’s good stuff Then always highly coveted, highly coveted. So you’re going to find this podcast on Spotify, apple or your chosen platform, and on our website, comms herocom. You can follow us on Twitter I’m still calling it Twitter or X and at comms hero. And if you do listen on Apple and Spotify, please do leave a rating and review and hit the follow and subscribe button so you get the new episodes as they come out.

So, joanna, I have a very disruptive conversation with lots of food for thought. The listeners will enjoy that. And if, for the listeners, drop in your comments to the post where you’ve seen this, tell us your feedback and has it changed the way you think? And if you disagree with some of this and think best practice should stay as a term, then come on the podcast and give your opposing views. So, joanna, it’s been amazing. Thank you so much and we look forward to your book later on this year.

0:27:08 – Joanna Parsons
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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