PR career rule No. 1: Thou shalt not do internal communications

An expert asserts that the artificial distinction between external and internal communications hurts morale, weakens the brand, and constricts the careers of all organizational messengers.

Having worked on both sides, I’ve never understood the wall between internal and external communicators. It’s all communications, just different audiences, right?

Most of my career has been in PR and corporate communications; the past few years I’ve specialized in employee communications. One common experience at two different jobs: I asked colleagues from external to help manage my function and team for a week while I was on vacation. My request was greeted by a look of shock followed by excuses.

I don’t get it. But the truth is, I probably behaved like that before I appreciated the power of effective employee communications.

Recently I was talking about this wall with a friend, an accomplished external practitioner. He said he wasn’t interested in internal communications because he wouldn’t know how to measure it. In his PR job, he’s satisfied when a great article comes out about his company’s new product, or when his team changes the mind of a blogger biased against his company. What could possibly equal that in internal?

I was tempted to answer that effective employee communication increases job satisfaction, morale, productivity and commitment. It enhances quality and the bottom-line. As for measurement, there’s the annual engagement survey; there are regular pulse surveys. And surely he knew that good communication of business initiatives moves employees from strategic awareness to strategic acceptance and taking action to support it? What could be nobler?

I didn’t think dialogue along those lines would have made him more likely to dabble in employee communications or give internal more respect. Instead, I gave him a real life example of something I found measurable, repeatable and satisfying in internal communications.

I showed him an episode of PayPal in 90 Seconds, a weekly video that my former team (kudos to Mark Kraynak) created at PayPal in 2012, still going strong many accolades later.

It was born from a brainstorm Mark and I had about the fast-changing culture of PayPal. What should we do to help employees on the journey? The company was growing very quickly, particularly internationally, yet most of our communication felt America-centric. PayPal had just created a new vision but not all employees understood how they contributed to making that vision reality. Our new leaders were still strangers to people outside of the head office.

A week later Mark came back to me with a pilot of PayPal in 90 Seconds. It captured the changing culture of PayPal like no other channel had. It featured interviews with employees captured on Skype or FaceTime from all over the world talking about their work, PayPal’s effect on their communities and what they found exciting about their job. It introduced new faces. It showed headlines about how the media and analysts reported on PayPal’s products. It featured customers talking about not just how great PayPal was, but about their pain points as well. Somehow all that took less than 90 seconds.

We decided to test the pilot with employees the next day. We sent out an email asking them to check it out and let us know what they thought. Our email linked to a YouTube-like page with the first episode. Next to the video was a counter showing how many people had viewed the broadcast and a space to comment.

A few hours later the counter had gone from a few hundred to several thousand views. That night there were even more views as Asia woke up. And even more from Europe the next morning.

The comments were enthusiastic. PayPal in 90 Seconds shone the spotlight on employees all over the globe, recognized them, and made connections for them. It was their platform. In just weeks, employees started pitching us stories. It became like getting on the front page of the New York Times. No one had to fight for our team to issue company-wide memos anymore. If it wasn’t on PayPal in 90 Seconds it wasn’t news.

Internal communicators do make a significant difference. Another example: Internal communications about safety in a meat processing plant have proven to save lives.

I consider myself neither an internal nor an external communicator. Why must I choose? I have a passion for both. I believe communicators with experience in both disciplines offer better counsel to their business clients. I am surprised they are still considered separate disciplines.

External communicators: Would you switch to employee communications? Why or why not?

Internal communicators: What would you say to external communicators on the fence about switching?

Cameron Craig is a communications professional with more than 20 years of experience working with the world’s biggest brands, including Apple, Visa, eBay, Yahoo! and Johnny Cash. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn. A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Topics: PR

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.