Does grammar still matter?

Internal communications is no longer a career for English graduates and clapped out journalists. Professionals from a range of backgrounds are bringing their unique skills and perspectives to the industry – but does their writing match up to the task?

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Ok, that’s a slightly obtuse way to open a debate about qualifications and grammar skills, but it does get to the heart of the matter rather neatly. In the world of internal communications, what counts more – traditional qualifications that emphasise journalistic values, or wide-ranging experience gained in the corporate world?

After all, our industry is nothing like engineering or medicine, where there’s little opportunity to wriggle in without the prerequisite qualifications. The path to seniority in the internal comms world is a lot more fluid, especially today where a whole plethora of skills are valued, not just the ability to write well.

IC managers now come from all sorts of backgrounds – Marketing, PR, even HR. The traditional route via a journalistic degree or English qualification is no longer the only – or some would argue best – way in. Others hold fast that mastery of proper grammar and spelling and a special talent for writing are still absolute requirements for the job.

In a digital age, we need more than wordsmiths

We can all benefit from the richness of perspectives that a variety of professionals bring to our craft. They might not be wordsmiths, but they know how to communicate, they understand employee engagement, and they’re comfortable using new technology and communication channels. They also understand corporate politics – an area that baffles most ex-journalists!

As an internal communications professional, you might have a brilliant manager who knows how to get the best out of you and can recognise a good story. Or perhaps they have an eye for design and how to get a message across visually. What if they are a brilliant interviewer and translate well on camera? In an age where videos and digital media are the hot items in IC, these are skills most teams could use.

In short, there are so many ways an IC professional can add value these days, and a lot of them don’t relate to writing.

Someone needs to uphold standards

The problem comes in when that writing leaves the rest of the organisation reaching for the proverbial red pen.

As the bastions of organisational values and the internal corporate image, comms teams have a responsibility to ‘show people how it’s done’. There’s also the risk that a badly constructed sentence, or incorrectly spelt word, might be copied into a client-facing document. If an employee can’t recognise a mistake, they’ll at least assume the corporate comms team knows its stuff.

Worryingly, this hypothetical employee might be more the rule than the exception these days. A survey carried out this year by the Society for Human Resource Management in the US found that about 45 per cent of 430 employers were increasing training programmes to improve their employees’ grammar skills.

Standards seem to be slipping and fingers are pointing mostly in the direction of new communication tools like Twitter. Whatever the reasons, we’ve all seen emails peppered with errors and colloquialisms – even txt spk!

So what’s the big deal about a missed comma here or a typo there? Or using ‘there’ when it should be ‘their’; ‘it’s’ when it should be ‘its’ (I could go on and on)? Some argue that all that matters is that the message is understood. If a few mistakes along the way don’t alter the meaning, what’s the problem?

The problem, quite simply, is a question of impression. Image, rep – whatever you want to call it. People judge us all the time, and if someone notices a mistake in an official piece of corporate comms, chances are they’ll criticise you for it, even if the majority don’t notice.

As custodians of company image, it’s also our job to ensure it remains squeaky clean and error free at all times. A bit of style is always nice too.

Multi-skilled professionals are needed

Back to the debate then. Is it ok for internal comms professionals to come into the industry via non-traditional routes, or should we only be hiring scribes with impeccable grammar and creative writing flair?

Given the increasing demands for multi-skilled IC professionals and an emphasis on audio-visual, there’s surely space for both.

Why not let us know what you think on the Aspic LinkedIn discussion? We’d love to hear your experiences and find out if you feel your background has helped or hindered you in your IC career.