No, internal communications is not dead

To the contrary, a designated team can ensure substantive conversations up and down the hierarchy so employees stay engaged and execs fully understand how the organization runs.

“Internal communications, as a narrowly defined function and approach, is dead.”

So sayeth Lucy Adams, former director of human resources and internal communications at BBC. She adds that “a fundamental re-think of communications—and, more important, relationships—with our employees is needed.”

According to a report from O’Dwyer, Adams asserted that the all-staff email at BBC is “possibly the most loathed of all internal communication.”

Well, no kidding. If Adams’ description defined the internal communications function, I’d have to agree. One distribution tactic, however, does not constitute the employee communications discipline as practiced by the best communicators and organizations.

Adams is not alone in predicting the demise of the employee communications function, however. PR agency CEO Gerard Corbett—a former PRSA chairman—penned a guest piece for SpinSucks last October in which he called internal communications “an anachronism.”

He wrote:

“Corporate communications was always the best department for handling specialized employee or internal communications, because nothing succeeds like consistency. These days, however, it seems to be a hodgepodge of organizational dysfunction and redundancy. How well the function operates depends on which way the winds are blowing, who’s in charge, and what are the priorities and politics of the boss. … Maybe it’s time to let go of ‘internal’ and ’employee’ as modifiers of communications to employees and designate the umbrella term of ‘communications.'”

Corbett asserts that “there is no need to isolate and insulate” employees, who are just another audience with access to multiple information channels. They’re just as significant as other stakeholders, and, he writes, “Employees know more than you think, even without your formal communications strategy.”

Adams, the former BBC communicator, says the “knowledge-based economy will rely heavily on employees making a conscious choice to give their creativity and their knowledge to their employers.”

Although Corbett and Adams are absolutely right about all these things, none of it supports the dismantling of a dedicated communication function unless that department is engaged wholly in the production and distribution of one-way, top-down, one-size-fits all communication. Some of their arguments reinforce the need for a department dedicated to meeting the information and communication needs of employees at all levels of the organization.

I started my career in employee communications, and even as I broadened my experience into media relations, financial communications, crisis communications and a host of other externally focused disciplines, I have never stopped doing internal communications work.

The reason is simple: I believe no organizational communication is as important as employee communication. Employees can lift a company through difficult times, or they can tank it. How a business communicates with its staff can determine which way things go.

I can think of 11 good reasons to keep employee communications separate from (but working closely with) the public affairs/corporate communications/PR team.

1. Employees tend to become a second-class audience when PR handles communicating to them.

This is the case that trumps all others.

The arguments that follow are important reasons to maintain an independent internal communications function. It’s not hard to suggest that any communications generalist can learn how to do these things. After all, doctors learn to become lawyers, scientists become executives, and quarterbacks become running backs.

Invariably when internal communications becomes part of the public affairs/PR/corporate communications department, it has to sit at the kids’ table.

In most PR departments, the press is king. Communicating to employees is far less glamorous and is often something entry-level communicators must do to earn promotions into media relations jobs. A dedicated internal communications department is just that-dedicated to employees.

2. Employees are an equal audience to others.

You don’t hear anyone calling for an end to investor relations or government relations as a discrete function, because those audiences have distinct characteristics, distinct impacts on the organization and distinct communication needs. Employees, as a group, meet those same criteria.

With employees, it’s not a matter of isolating or insulating them. Rather, employees need more and different information from what the media, consumers, customers, and others receive. In general, the communication must answer specific questions, the most important usually being:

  • What effect does this have on my employment?
  • What impact will this have on how I do my job?
  • What impact will this have on the people I work with?

Ultimately, internal communication is about aligning the mindset of the employee on the front line with the big-picture goals, plans and strategies proclaimed from the top of the organization. That doesn’t happen when employees read communications crafted for generic audiences.

The notion that it might reminds me of an exchange between Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”:

Felix: Where the hell am I gonna get gravy at eight o’clock?

Oscar: I dunno. I thought it comes when you cook the meat.

The unique information that employees need doesn’t just come when content is crafted to be shared with general audiences. It doesn’t “come when you cook the meat.”

Messages specific to employees transcend what the public sees. Employees’ responses to town hall meetings in many organizations frequently convey this: “Yeah, I already know that; tell me what I don’t know.”

There’s also the argument that nothing communicated internally stays internal. This was true even before digital technology, back when fax machines and photocopiers were new gizmos and made the dissemination of information too easy for some people’s liking.

Getting internal-focused stories into the public press won’t guarantee that employees will see it. Most media outlets won’t even want to run it unless there’s something explosive in it, given that the employee spin is of little interest to the non-employee audiences the news media serve.

3. The models and metrics for employee communications are different from those for any other audience.

To begin with, internal communications is an ongoing process. Though there may be campaigns (hospitals, for example, often turn to their internal communicators to promote hand-washing), most of the effort is about ensuring that employees at all levels have direct perspective on the leadership and understand the connection between high-level messages and their own day-to-day work and behaviors.

The models employed by strategy-focused internal communicators are also vastly different from the earned-media models that largely occupy most PR practitioners. There is, for example, the internal “cascade” of information through local supervisors who provide appropriate interpretation to make it meaningful for their front-line staffers.

There’s also a need to feed crucial information back up to leadership. In many cases, strategy dialogues and other techniques unique to internal communication are called for.

Strategy dialogues start at the uppermost levels of the company and work their way down, involving two meetings for each team, facilitated by the manager or supervisor. At the first, employees talk about the forces that led to the strategic direction, why the new priorities were selected over others and other underlying issues driving a change or plan. The information collected at these meetings is fed back to leaders, who begin a second round of meetings to focus on plan execution, including metrics that will be used to assess employee progress.

This is just one of many models and processes unique to internal communications, and you just have to wonder how much time a generic communications team would devote to a tool they cannot replicate with other stakeholder audiences.

Then there is the internal communications audit, a significant undertaking designed not just to assess the effectiveness of communication (something practiced by external communicators), but to map the way information flows through the organization.

In this way you can identify logjams, pinpoint opportunities for improving two-way communication and ensure that the right information is getting to the right employees at the right time.

4. Employees actually want to hear from leaders.

The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer reinforces a long-standing view of the public: CEOs are among the least credible spokespeople for an organization. Internally, however, the inverse is true: Employees want to hear from their leaders. The old saw that workers want information only from their immediate supervisors is pure bunk.

What do employees want from leaders? They want to know the vision and the mission, so they can decide whether they want to be part of it. They want leaders to excite them, inspire them and help them feel that they’re part of something bigger than just their own jobs. They want to know that their employers’ values align with their own.

Employees also count on executives to set expectations for the organization that their own supervisors can then interpret for the local team.

This kind of communication-aiding executives in their messaging to staff and then in facilitating the interpretation of those messages at each level, to each team-is a unique internal communications specialty. To compare it to, say, explaining the value proposition of a product to a customer is a stretch, at the very least.

5. Employee communicators are best suited to facilitate multi-directional communication.

Good public relations is a two-way process, but the opportunities to facilitate the upward flow of communication are rare. Complicating matters is that few external stakeholders have any reason to temper their responses to company communications. Many employees, however, are inclined to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, fearing repercussions for speaking their minds.

Internal communications is not just about establishing channels for two-way communication; it’s also incumbent upon internal communicators to help create a culture in which staffers feel secure and comfortable sharing their views, even when they diverge from the company line.

6. It’s usually not a good idea for employees to learn company news from secondary sources.

One argument for consolidating internal communications in a department of generalists is that employees have access to all the same news and other information that the public does. Thanks to the Internet and social sharing of news, employees can’t be constrained in what they know by content produced in-house that spins or limits what the company shares.

Though that’s true, employees routinely are unsatisfied with the information they get from external sources. In any number of internal surveys designed to assess employee reaction to communications, workers routinely note that they want to know what they haven’t heard. This often means they’re looking for details about how the news relates to them personally, their work location, their jobs, their futures.

Further, employees who get breaking news from media outlets are often disheartened that they didn’t get the update directly from the company. Smart internal communication ensures that supervisors and managers are in the know and prepared to answer questions when staffers get the news-which should happen at least simultaneously, but ideally just before it goes public.

7. Establishing channels for employee knowledge and information sharing is not an external communications strength.

It’s a rare communicator who deals exclusively with external audiences and who also has experience with SharePoint. Or SocialChorus. Or Jive.

These tools, among others, were designed specifically for internal purposes, and many internal communicators work with them routinely. It’s not just tools, though, with which internal communicators build familiarity. There are tactics in internal communications that have no parallels in the PR world. I have already talked about strategy dialogues, facilitated sets of meetings that cascade through the organization to surface issues and build support for business plans or change initiatives.

Increasingly, employee communicators are as concerned with facilitating communication among employees as they are in crafting communication to them.

That means communicating with and facilitating communication among diverse business units, geographic locations, employee hierarchies and other entities. What gets the message across to leaders in the boardroom won’t necessarily work for hard-hatted workers who descend into a mine each day. Getting these groups to communicate with each other is a singular challenge, one that internal communications practitioners already know how to approach.

8. Most external communicators are unfamiliar with a lot of internal communication channels and tactics.

Tactics for increasing informal recognition are skills common to an internal communicator’s toolkit, as are other approaches rarely (if ever) practiced for other audiences.

9. Companies that communicate effectively with employees are four times more likely to have higher engagement levels.

External PR practitioners ply their craft in pursuit of a broad range of goals, but building employee engagement is not one of them. The word “engagement” is tossed around a lot these days. We try, for instance, to get people to engage with posts to our Facebook brand pages.

Employee engagement is an entirely different beast, a field of study built on volumes of research and best practices, and an essential element of internal communications.

10. Strategic employee communications accounts for multiple internal networks and channels that are not a PR focus.

Increasingly common in internal communications these days are mapping internal influence networks, keeping them current as employees come and go and shift jobs or locations, and making the most of these networks.

One French study found that tapping a mid-level group of influential staffers produced significantly greater reach for a message than having the same number of senior executives deliver the same message.

In addition, internal communications departments partner routinely with other internal teams such as human resources and skills trainers. Those relationships are important to internal communicators, but would be less so to communicators who are accountable for reaching all audiences.

11. Internal communications is the organizational central nervous system; when it works well, it makes the external communications job easier

Because internally focused communicators work entirely within the organization, they tend to become acutely familiar with all of a company’s moving pieces.

Done right, it’s like a central nervous system, allowing an organization to synthesize all the information it receives from all parts of the organization, coordinating and influencing the activities of all those various teams, departments, units, groups, and committees.

That function is worthy of a team of experts committed solely to its maintenance and improvement; relegating it to just one more activity of a group focused on other stakeholders would not bode well for the nervous system’s healthy function.

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