Why communicators must do more to understand their key audiences

Lumping employees into a single group  misses an opportunity for deeper analysis and better connection. Follow this guidance to pursue a more personalized, persuasive approach.

Segmenting employee audiences

As I continue to conduct research to better understand internal communication in various contexts, the complexities of internal communication continue to present themselves. Whether it is a government contractor, research center, university or nonprofit, internal communication is always more complex than what we assume.

In a recent conceptual piece, my co-author and I discussed the complexity that underpins employee engagement (Lemon & Macklin, 2020). Given employee engagement’s connection to internal communication, a complex perspective could also be applied to internal communication. Adopting a complex lens leads to suggestions and strategies that result in holistic solutions devoid of silos (McKie & Willis, 2012).

Grasping complexity can lead to a better understanding of internal audiences

An overreliance on the dichotomy of internal audiences as management versus employees leads to a top-down managerial approach. As companies shift and evolve (which has happened at a faster rate because of the pandemic), the organizational hierarchy also transforms. The command-from-the-top approach is not as effective as it once was, and until internal audiences are recognized as more complex and intricate, internal communication scholarship and practice may miss the mark.

Practitioners should research who they are communicating with to ensure that messages are effective. How many times do we receive internal communication in the form of, let’s say an email, and we simply hit delete because it wasn’t relevant to us? That means those who are tasked with the internal communication strategy are neglecting to address the complex nature of internal audiences. Such audiences tend to be lumped together as one group, which misses an opportunity for deeper analysis and better connection.

How to determine complexity

Practitioners and scholars can analyze complexity through a variety of methods. Frequently used surveys are good at providing top level data that can be generalized. Although used less, interviews and focus groups are ideal for collecting the lived experience of employees. More qualitative methods should be used to better understand individual experiences. In addition, longitudinal studies with various methods would also extend understanding for both scholars and practitioners.

The final step: Adopting a complex perspective

Some organizations are leading the way with internal communication strategies and initiatives. However, more often than not, organizations do not prioritize internal communication and audiences, which means the complex nature is missed. When the complexity of internal communication is not taken into account, the employee experience is minimized, and the strategy may not be as effective. Therefore, I encourage scholars and practitioners to put on their “complexity glasses” as they navigate various issues, audiences, and contexts to identify elements that may have been missed by an overemphasis and reliance on simplicity. We shouldn’t be attempting to simplify, but rather, expand to embrace the entire complex picture of internal communication.

Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at lemon@apr.ua.edu. You can read more of her work on IPR’s blog and through IPR’s Organizational Communication Research Center.

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