How internal communication differs between the private and public sectors

Funding, objectives, politics and structure can contribute to—and even sway—the way a given organization conducts its messaging and fosters staff engagement.

Public vs. private internal communications

Do internal communication and engagement differ in the public sector from the private sector?

Yes, unequivocally. Here are two reasons:

1. Resourcing

Increasingly, private companies recognize that internal communication and employee engagement are foundational requirements for performance. Want to drive sales? Enhance customer focus? Innovate? All these strategic business imperatives depend on the way employees connect, communicate and collaborate.

The mission-critical importance of internal communication and engagement has become entrenched in business best practices. Although this recognition does not always translate to action, the internal communication function tends to be better resourced with staff and financial resources in the private sector than in the public sector.

Public organizations tend to lag, lacking the proper platform to spark significant commitment to internal communication through appropriate resourcing. Too often, internal communication remains the poor cousin of external communication.

This dynamic often sets up a stubborn self-fulfilling prophecy: Public organizations often fail to see the value of internal communication and engagement (because the function is starved of the vital resources it needs to perform), and the under-resourcing/underperforming pattern tends to be self-perpetuating.

2. Alignment

A fascinating difference between private and public sector organizations is how alignment manifests internally.

In a private company, there is a natural alignment around the simple imperative, “Follow the money.” The primacy of profit emphasizes the internal priority: Whatever the sector, the company focuses on making money.

Strategic alignment is relatively straightforward. Although some staffers might disagree with the corporate direction, it carries a powerful gravitational pull toward the expected focus, behaviors and outcomes.

That same natural alignment is rare in a public, or even a para-public, organization such as a not-for-profit or association. These organizations tend to be pulled in multiple directions, often as a result of changes in decision or priorities made at a political or board level.

The result is often a lack of clarity, focus and strategic direction. Such organizations are often highly siloed and can be paralyzed by internal differences in orientation or priority (a luxury a private company generally does not have).

Public and para-public organizations that are well financed and have significant reserves often have the most difficulty with internal alignment. They lack the natural tension caused by having to make difficult decisions about scant resources.

What results is a vicious circle: The lack of internal communication grows increasingly worse—because of the lack of internal communication. Leaders are out of touch with the pain caused by the substandard flow of information and ideas within their organization, so nothing improves.

What differences do you see between public and private approaches to internal communications?

A version of this post first appeared on the Results Map blog.

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