What leaders (and internal communicators) can learn from terrible tyrants

By Sam Keninger

Disclaimer: Before you read any further, we want to be very clear: tyranny is not cool. We don’t espouse the cruelty, cronyism, cults, suppression, lying, corruption, discrimination, arresting or poisoning of journalists, and violence that comes with a typical despot.

Most of us reading this are fortunate enough to live in a free society. Freedom of the press is not only protected, but also our society fills the news vacuum with more than enough independent information and perspectives that we take the importance of news for granted.

But what about in business? Without a form of state-run media, there are typically vacuums of information. Many of us in free societies take the benefit of internal communications for granted and underestimate the importance of communicating to your constituents. To people in some parts of the world, this importance is obvious. Let’s take a look at what these typically terrible people already know.

The Tyrant’s Playbook

To start, let’s look at the despot’s playbook:

  • 1st: Consolidate power and authority across lines of government
  • 2nd: Surround yourself with loyalists, military, and cronies who can do your dirty work
  • 3rd: Take over the media!

Why is having command of the messaging so important to these rulers?

  • They need to promote their regimes in a favorable light
  • They want to sell their plans, priorities, and ideologies
  • They want to foster national unity
  • They want to focus their constituents against a common enemy (usually a foreign power, deemed an aggressor)
  • They want to vilify and squash opposing views

That last bullet point is admittedly bad (maybe the last two). But businesses should not be ashamed of trying to align employees for some of these reasons.

Propaganda or business messaging?

Regimes also distinguish themselves from a typical business by the sheer frequency and multichannel investment that’s put into pounding their messages. The message is surrounded on all forms of media, indoctrinated across society into institutions (e.g., schools), and posted on the sides of buildings. It is so important that many countries go to high extremes to over communicate and protect their media interests. Supposedly in North Korea, citizens are not even allowed to turn off their state-issued radios.

Yes, it’s propaganda. Yes, in a tyrant’s context, it’s evil. But it’s part of the playbook for a reason –  it works! In fact, the approach creates unity. It allows willing constituents to feel a part of something bigger. Its omnipresent nature keeps people focused on the leader’s priorities.

Interestingly, state-owned media will defend their practices claiming:

  1. Disseminating information and updates on current affairs is for the public good
  2. The fixed-costs of news outlets are high and are better served as a public utility
  3. The state can be more factual, be less-biased against special interests, and have better visibility to the news

Why propaganda is effective in a business perspective

You don’t have to agree with this perspective for governments, but they make sense if we transpose these points for why businesses need consistent top-down communications – especially if the alternative is a vacuum of information. Businesses need transparency, updates to keep employees on the same page, and avenues to squash fake news.

Interestingly from an employees’ perspective, we desperately want to be led and want to feel part of something bigger. We’d gladly take state-run news over gossip or nothing at all. A recent Simpplr Research study validated the two most important drivers of employee engagement are 1) resonating with the organization’s purpose and 2) feeling aligned with and a valuable contributor to the overall company strategy. These findings really aren’t a surprise; hundreds of studies point to the same factors.

Importance of investing in internal communications

Many businesses are blind to the importance of internal communications and don’t invest. We are an easily distracted species. Communicating your purpose, strategy, and brand all take a continuous drumbeat to keep things top of mind and in focus. That’s the only way internal communications can create benefits of unity, the trust of transparency, and the terminal velocity of company alignment.

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