Calling the right tune

Too often, internal communication has played second fiddle to the needs of reputation management. But increasingly, communication directors are using it to underline their role as strategic advisors.

Logging onto some PR consultancy websites is likely to give you a limited idea of what internal communication is all about. You’ll find talk of “every employee [being] a global broadcaster for their organisation” and the news that “now more than ever, a company’s employees are one of the most trusted sources of information”.

(Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash)

Surely employee communication is more than another way to boost your external reputation? Is the need for more robust external channels the only reason for its rising importance on the communication director’s agenda? Or is building a powerful brand or maintaining a good name the only tune that the PR department is interested in playing?

Clearly, communications directors today know that they have to have a wider repertoire than old-fashioned media relation. Consistently internal communication is one of the top concerns when communications directors are surveyed by bodies like the EACD. They are debating how they should orchestrate their teams to meet the rising expectations of their peers around the executive table, expectations for value that goes beyond keeping the press happy. 

Choose from five objectives

From working with organisations of all shapes and sizes I have concluded that there are probably about five good reasons for good employee communication; advocacy is just one.

Pretty well every good internal communication operation sets out to either give employees a sense of belonging, encourage them to collaborate, make sure that they understand what is expected of them and how they are performing, encourage them to embrace change and say favourable things outside work. And of course, in virtually every country in the world, employers are legally obliged to communicate about a number of issues such as safety or workplace rights.

Normally we say there are five main reasons for having an internal communication operation:

  • Persuading people to stay because they are a valued part of a brand, community or an organisation that does important work;
  • Building a community that works in harmony;
  • Helping staff to work better because they understand what is needed and are excited about it;
  • Encouraging them to be advocates;
  • Motivating people to change;
  • Most organisations concentrate on just a couple of these core objectives – attempting to deliver them all is not realistic.

Not every internal communication team has to be excellent at all five of these roles; it’s a matter of knowing what your organisation needs.

If you are in an industry, such as oil and gas, with acute and stifling skills shortages, your goal might be to promote employee retention. In a sector such as technology or telecoms where rapid innovation and collaborative problem solving is essential, you might focus on promoting collaboration. Clarity of instruction may be your priority where there are issues around quality, customer service or regulation. And, periodically, every organisation needs help with transformation.

"Consistently, internal communication is one of the top concerns when communications directors are surveyed by bodies like the EACD."

And when a team starts thinking about its results or impact, rather than seeing itself as a production house, it has to think about the skills and activities that are going to matter. When the focus is on broadcasting information, having reliable channels dominates; shift attention onto business results such as employee retention, greater innovation or better quality and the team has to broaden the scope of its work.

What’s in your value chain?

The communication director who has her or his sights set on more than running an internal newsroom needs to manage a wide range of skills and capabilities. Naturally some things are core, such as the ability to transmit information or craft speeches and presentations for leaders, but when the emphasis shifts to results rather than products so do the resources of the team.

Having looked at communications functions over many years we have developed a general model for a ‘communication value chain’. Whilst every organisation will approach the issue in different ways, we see that there are some common elements that recur regardless of sector or location.

At its core is always a reliable engine room staffed by skilled experts and crafts people. An internal communication department that lacks the capacity to deliver quality collateral is widely thought to be insurmountable weak.

The internal communication value chain: Excellent internal communication teams that are focused on delivering business value operate across a range of activities that begin with a deep understanding of audiences and draws in the wider aims of the organisation as well as the need for clear and potent messages. Delivering robust tools and channels are an important part of a much bigger story.

This will involve having channels that reach everyone and providing a platform for feedback, offering mechanisms for supporting leadership communication and having the capacity to support campaigns and initiatives as required.

Yet, teams also need to understand the organisation and its strategic problems. The role of a trusted advisor implies seeking out business problems and proposing solutions rather than awaiting a brief from another function; a brief which might already defines (or limits) the value which communication could bring.

Being a strategic communications function is more than about doing things well; its about knowing the real issues and defining how communications helps; it’s not about taking orders, it’s about conducting the orchestra.

Everyone’s an expert

The communication director’s task isn’t helped by the possibility that everyone thinks they are an expert at internal communication. Whilst senior managers know that dabbling in media relations can have career-ending consequences, nothing stops them calling for crazy programmes for staff communications or proposing a strategy that they claim worked brilliantly at their last organisation.

But no orchestra plays well when there are multiple conductors. Taking hold of the baton is easiest when data is brought to the conversation. Communication teams that take seriously the task of intelligence and fact gathering seem to enjoy higher levels of respect and freedom than their peers without an independent and reliable understanding of what internal audiences thing and how they react.

We therefore begin and end our value chain with the idea that a communication director is the boss’s trusted informant on employee sentiment and can explain how communication is affecting the results that the directors are trying to achieve. Our advice to communication directors walking into the CEO’s office is always to bring data and to leave with respect.

Over the last decade CEOs and senior leaders have increasingly acknowledged that they can not succeed without a workforce that is informed and excited. Executive who do not recognise the role of internal communication are rapidly dying out. And their extinction leaves room for the communication director to move ever faster from broadcaster to strategic value creator.

Images: Working Communication

Liam FitzPatrick

Liam FitzPatrick is a consultant specialising in building effective employee communications functions and advising on transformation communications.  He is well know for his training and facilitation as well as his writing, which includes the book Internal Communication: a manual for practioners published by Kogan Page.