Change is constant. Communicate it well – and with patience

Nothing endures but change.

Heraclites, Greek philosopher (535 BC – 475 BC)

I can argue communication is a by-product of change. Something is different; we sense it, and we need to know why it happened, and the process of figuring it out leads us to interact with others who may or may not be aware of what has happened. As communications practitioners, our role is to anticipate change and be ready to communicate to others what is changing so they are able to respond and/or adapt to it (sometimes reluctantly).

Take the recent Alberta election: May 5, 2015 was a historic moment, with the Alberta New Democrats elected to a majority and ending almost 44 years of Progressive Conservative governments. Setting aside personal political views, everyone can agree our new Alberta Government is undergoing major political and cultural change not seen since 1971. In fact, I’ll go farther and argue the hunger for change itself was a major driver in the election result.

As a communications practitioner, challenges that such change brings to a public institution like the Alberta Government are immense, to the point of being overwhelming to even the most experienced leader. Nonetheless, communicating how the government will transition from a political dynasty to one mostly composed of leaders who have yet to serve one term in office will be paramount.

Change management

In a progressive country change is constant; change is inevitable.

Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister (1804-1881)

Communications practitioners who work closely with managers, or are managers themselves, should be familiar with change management. To paraphrase the definition given by Ryerson University, change management is the process that manages the people-side of change as an organization moves from one state to another.

Organizations change constantly. Sometimes it’s as small as implementing a new process for invoicing or filing work hours. Sometimes, it’s a major overhaul – in this case, the transitioning of government. At some point, leaders undertake – or hire a manager specifically for – a change management process, with communications professionals as part of their team.

Change can be disruptive

Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.

Richard Hooker, English theologian (1554-1600)

Change can be exciting for some, fueling a creative fire and a boost to their productivity. For others, change can be at best inconvenient and at worst intolerable. Yet everyone will share a period where routine is disrupted.

Communication becomes the crucial guide during this period of uncertainty. Public demand for timely, useful and accurate information will be higher than normal. As such, a communications strategy is crucial during transition, with important elements provincial government communications practitioners should consider:

  • Keep messages clear, concise and consistent; communicate often and as close to regular times as possible. Communicators should avoid releasing an avalanche of information, particularly for those working in government. Small, digestible amounts of new information that build on previous messages work well, especially when released at scheduled intervals (such as at weekly staff meetings, or in morning or lunch-time emails). Practitioners who create a new communications routine with their audiences will likely have fewer fires to put out.
  • Key stakeholders must be involved in communications efforts. These people may include government department managers, representatives from key government operating sectors, members of the Official Opposition, municipal leaders, industry and business leaders, federal advisers and Aboriginal leaders. One of the critiques in the waning months of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative dynasty was the government was seen as exclusive in its consultations, favouring the counsel of some sectors while shutting out others that wanted and/or needed to be at the planning table. The new government should recognize this heightened demand to be more inclusive.
  • Most communications may be best done face-to-face. Many communications strategists have recommended face-to-face as much as possible during a changing period, even it means extending the schedule. Face-to-face is considered more effective as it offers immediate feedback, ensures every person comes to the same understanding while clearing up misinformation, addresses specific questions and concerns, and helps reduce resistance by making the process feel more personable. This may be internally through regular staff meetings or “lunch-and-learn” seminars, or publicly with town forums and sector meetings in individual constituencies. Mass communication should be used to connect broad messages to large numbers of people in a short time period, but it does not beat the benefits of building a solid base of support through in-person communication.

Be patient with people; change can be difficult

Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.

Margaret Wheatley, American management consultant (2006)

It’s important for provincial government communicators to remember: people have attached a lot of emotion to this government transition. Read any of the news columns or the comments section to news blogs from the past three weeks and you get the full range: from elation for a new era in Alberta’s history to a bleak end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it prognosis.

Some practitioners have applied the elements of mourning for people in organizations going through major change. They described many people going through a period of letting go of traditional ways of doing things, or existing in a certain type of culture. The rate of acceptance varies from person to person, with some going through all stages while others never moving beyond a stage.

Some people adapt early, eager to try something new and convince others to adopt it. Others will comply but be lukewarm to changes, tentatively testing each new step. Others will mourn for a long time, declaring openly that things before were better and even sabotage efforts to change. They may even leave government altogether (or as a citizen move to Saskatchewan).

It’s also important for government communicators to respect the drivers of this change. Post-election polls are clearly showing the majority of Albertans who voted for the New Democrats (and indicated they do not normally vote for the party) did so to reject the Conservative government. The next group were those who identified positives with their vote indicated support for leader Rachel Notley, followed lastly (weakest) by those who supported the NDP itself. This means the new NDP government must really make the effort to reach out beyond its base and let people from other sectors in Alberta know and understand what they intend to do over the next four years.

Patience is the virtue provincial government communicators need to have in abundance over the coming weeks and months. A smooth transition is ideal, but more than likely there will be bumps. However, if the new Alberta Government shows confidence and competency responding, even to its missteps, they will be able to build up public trust and confidence in its leadership.