(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2014. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)
What does an internal communication strategy look like?
Do you need one? How should you write one? How long should it be?
What is an internal communication strategy?
People ask these questions daily on my blog as they search through my content to help them create their strategies.
I’ve written countless strategy documents over the years, and now regularly write them for my clients.
Sit back, grab a cup of tea and let’s start at the beginning.
What is an internal communication strategy?
An internal communication strategy is like a map. It’s an outline of your organization’s journey, and the big picture of what you want to achieve.
It needs to address:
- Where you are.
- Where you want to be (objectives).
- How you will get there.
- How long it will take and why.
- What is involved.
- Why this approach is the best.
- How you’ll know when you’ve got there (measurement).
The what and why are the most important for strategy, largely because the how, where and when are more tactical.
I often use the phrases I’ve bulleted above as part of the structure. Why? Because packing a strategy full of jargon doesn’t do anyone any favors!
Your strategy should be based on research, have employees at its center and be easily understood by anyone.
Tip: Being research based means understanding the reality of communication in your company through audit results, anecdotal feedback and employee surveys/focus group feedback. Gather your data to ensure you have both qualitative and quantitative information. See my previous article on how to conduct an internal communications audit for more information about the differences.
The word to keep in mind is clarity: about the particular project it relates to, area of the business or company as a whole, and detail how that strategy will build on and encourage conversation and feedback that match the organization’s plans.
At the strategy’s heart should be what you want employees to do/say/think/feel differently as a result of the strategy, and what the priorities, budget and resources are to deliver that. What does the end result look like?
Tip: Your internal communication strategy must align with the overall business strategy and objectives. If it doesn’t, you should question why you’re writing it. After all, the purpose of internal communication is to help your company deliver its business strategy.
Before you start
Before you write your strategy, you may know who your stakeholders are, the people you need to communicate with, what channels you have and why they are suitable, and what you want to achieve. Your strategy is how you capture all this information so everyone knows what route the company is taking, how they fit in, why this approach is the best one and how you’re going to get to your destination.
Finishing the document isn’t the end of the strategy; you need to enable employees to deliver it and align their efforts. You’ll achieve that through effective internal communication.
Measurement is the key to understanding what good looks like, what’s working and when you’ve achieved your objectives.
What format should it be in?
The short answer is it depends. Some companies use written documents, some use presentations and others use spreadsheets.
Tip: Think through what happens once you’ve written the strategy. Ideally the strategy should be a living document that people can access. If I use a Word/PDF format, I include bookmarks to help the reader navigate the content.
How long should it be?
Shorter is better, because you want people to read and take action on the strategy. It shouldn’t be a weighty tome no one wants to read.
Why are some strategies longer? My longer strategies go into greater detail, typically around the why. They can also include elements like a channels matrix (grid showing the communication channels and methods I will use and why), stakeholder mapping (plotting on a chart who needs to be involved and informed and when) and feedback from relevant sources (context from an employee survey or audit).
Who should write it?
The majority of the time internal communication pros should write an internal communication strategy as, unsurprisingly, they are closest to understanding what needs to happen and how it fits into the business strategy. This can be someone inside the organization or an expert who is called in to offer advice and guidance to the communications team.
Tip: Involve others when appropriate, like your external communication colleagues and others from HR, legal and IT. They can help get buy-in if they’re involved up front. If there are existing policies or strategies in place that it would be good to refer to, do your reading first.
What should be in an internal communication strategy?
My strategies typically include these headings:
Title: This is useful for internal reference, particularly if you have more than one strategy.
Issue/purpose: This is the business objective the strategy aligns with, such as increasing sales/productivity, reassurance through change, etc.
Executive summary: This is a succinct overview for the reader. It should include how the strategy will add value, what resources you need and a timeline.
Structure: This describes where you are now, where you want to be and why, how you’re going to get there and how you’ll know you’re there. This also includes resources and timing required to deliver the strategy.
The communication objective: This explains why the strategy exists and what it’s trying to achieve. The objective can also include the required behaviors and actions people need to take.
Measurement: This is how the strategy will define and measure success. This section should include what success looks like and what the next steps are. This can include updating the strategy at defined periods or reviewing the measurement efforts at regular intervals.
Tip: See this communications measurement matrix developed by CIPR Inside.
Key messages: These messages are for the whole organization, a specific project or part of the company. They should be short, memorable and consistent.
Audience segmentation/stakeholder mapping: This defines who you are communicating with. You can do this by segmenting the audiences—choosing a small group of employees or tens of thousands of people across the globe.
However, the same rules remain: The more directly you tailor the content and appeal to each group, the better chance of success you’ll have in achieving your goal.
Tip: Keep your stakeholders, or people who can directly impact communication activities, in mind. You may need to create a separate communication plan for them. I recommend mapping the groups (employees, unions, shareholders, customers, etc.) to ensure you don’t miss anyone.
Channels: You’ve outlined what you’re trying to achieve, so here you detail the communication channels you’ll use and when. Ensure you have effective feedback mechanisms and two-way channels in place for employees.
Approval process and responsibilities: Who needs to sign off on the strategy, and who are the authors?
Timeline: This is useful to ensure the appropriate people implement your strategy. It helps outline expectations and is mindful of any key dates or events.
Appendix: This will house any additional information you need to consider alongside the strategy, but doesn’t need to be in the main document.
A version of this article originally appeared on AllThingsIC.com.