I’m into my reading on critical theory and internal communication and here are some initial thoughts.
In terms of Public Relations theory, which is where I start for research on internal communication, according to Professor Elizabeth Toth, three primary theories stand out:
Rhetorical , Excellence, and Critical.
All three theories challenge internal communication practice, though scholars currently tend to think about them more in relation to external communication than internal communication. Rhetorical theory emphasises the nature of the dialogue that takes place, the quality of arguments and counter –arguments made and the meaning that emerges. Excellence theory is best known for James Grunig’s concept of communication symmetry, where a combination of asymmetric and symmetric communication can result in mutual understanding. Critical theory is known for emphasising power relations and inequalities in the communication that takes place between an organisation and stakeholder groups. It is oriented towards the interests of activists rather than corporations.
The work of US academic, Stanley Deetz on critical theory and internal communication is informative. Deetz, explains....
“Critical work encourages the exploration of alternative communication practices that allow greater democracy and more creative and productive cooperation among stakeholders...”
This leads on to the notion of an “ideal speech situation” (from Habermas), based on four conditions;
1. Meaningful access to forums, media and channels
2. Opportunity for expression that do not privilege specific forms of data
3. Opportunity to establish social relations and norms for conduct
4. Opportunity to express interests, needs and feelings as experienced in own social-cultural context.
So what has this got to do with internal communication? Deetz and Brown, in “Key Issues in Organizational Communication” argue that it translates into a case for more participation within organisations and participation is centred in communication. They point out that suggestion boxes and town halls are often justified by giving people a say rather than authentic participation in decision making, “Talking to have a say is very different from talking to invent a choice to which all can commit”. They also claim that “Part of the problem of endless meetings in many organisations rests in the focus on expression rather than decision making”.
If we believe in principles of participation, the consequences for the internal communication profession are profound and this is where the discussion leads on to ethics. As Ian Buckingham reminded me today, the ethics of business is emerging as a more recognised factor for sustainable growth. However, the associated ethics of internal communication is rarely mentioned in discussions of business ethics and this is a revealing omission.
The Institute of Internal Communication has an ethical code:
Members shall observe the highest ethical standards in the practice of internal communications. They shall seek to serve the best interests of their employers, clients, employees, colleagues and others with whom they deal in their role as internal communicators.
This is a start. However, it does not cover openness, transparency and authenticity of the information provided to employees. Nor does it highlight the importance of employee voice, let alone participation.
I wonder if it’s time for internal communicators to think harder about our role and ethical responsibilities?