A New Model for Employee Communication: Introduction

Posted on June 21, 2017 1:13 pm by | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication: Introduction

During my session at the IABC World Conference in Washington, D.C., last week, I unveiled a new model for employee communication. While I will continue to refine the model, as it stands it is the culmination of about two years of work. Over the next several weeks, I will explain the model and its component parts in detail. Your feedback and stories will make this series even more useful.

The model and a note

I won’t keep you in suspense. Here is the model:

A New Model for Employee Communication

One quick note before we go any further: I use the term “employee communication” instead of “internal communication.” Peter Vogt, who ran employee communications at Microsoft, eBay, and BBVA, convinced me of this, pointing out that “employee” keeps us focused on whom we’re communicating with. “Internal” is a place, employees are people.

The origins of a new model for employee communication

For the better part of the last two years, I have been troubled over the future of employee communications.

ARCO's headquarters-based employee communications staff, circa 1979In 1977, having interned at a daily newspaper, reported for a trade publication, and worked as an assistant editor at a community weekly, I was looking for a new job. My college placement advisor told me he didn’t have any “real” journalism jobs available. He did have something at ARCO that, he said, would tide me over. I applied and went to work for ARCO’s Employee Communications Department as an assistant editor of the weekly ARCOspark, an eight-page newspaper distributed to the company’s 55,000 employees. (That’s the employee communications staff from headquarters, circa 1979, in the snapshot. Our printing rep was Santa.)

During the next 40 years, even as I assumed responsibility for other elements of business communication, employee communications has always been part of my portfolio.

I believe utterly and without reservation, that good employee communication can elevate a company’s culture, inspire its employees, deliver bottom-line results, and help leaders sleep better at night. I believe equally that bad employee communication—or no employee communication at all—will undermine the best efforts of leaders, marketers, sales staff, and those dedicated employees who want the organization to succeed.

I didn’t know when I started working for ARCO that I had joined one of the business world’s most admired, strategic, forward-looking employee communication staffs. This was still the day of the “house organ,” happy-talking publications that mysteriously vanished when money got tight. The ARCOspark, on the other hand, covered bad news, reported on strategy, and explained complex issues with its staff of 10 full-time former journalists located in four regions. The impact our work had on employees and the company was palpable. ARCO had employee ambassadors decades before employee ambassadors were a thing.

Since then, I have watched the ascent of employee communications as a business function. Leaders took it seriously. Strategy began driving tactics. Communicators started measuring their work, looking beyond outputs to meaningful, business-related outcomes.

One way to nowhere

Today, while a lot of companies continue to reap the rewards of funding and staffing a competent and creative employee communications department, overall I see employee communications in decline. I hear regularly from communicators who have either lost their jobs or been absorbed into another department, usually after a new CEO wonders why the company is paying for a function that tells employees what they can easily find through other channels.

When I joined ARCO, there wereno other channels. Other than the grapevine, the ARCOspark was the sole source of credible information about the company, its leaders and staff, the challenges it faced, the actions it was taking, and how it was performing. Today, employees can access all the same channels available to leaders, investors, and analysts. They can hear what other employees think of the company on Glassdoor. They can talk to each other on Slack. They can read the company’s press releases on its website and follow it on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can’t blame a CEO looking to improve efficiency for wondering why she’s paying for a department that communicates the same news employees already get from dozens of other sources.

Some communication thought leaders share the view that the function is no longer relevant as a discrete activity. Lucy Adams, former director of Human Resources and Internal Communications for the BBC, said in an interview, “Internal communications as a narrowly defined function and approach is dead.” Gerard Corbett, former PRSA president and CEO of PR agency Redphlag, wrote on the Spin Sucks blog, “Maybe it’s time to let go of internal and employee as modifiers of communications to employees and designate the umbrella term of communications.”

The intranet drag

The decline of employee communications began with the introduction of the intranet. Seeing the cost and time savings, communicators axed their print publications and began publishing to the intranet. The nature of the content didn’t change, however. The same 1,500-word articles that graced the pages of newsletters and magazines were now shoveled onto the screen. Lost in the transition was the fact that people don’t read online the same way they read print.

When the employee publication arrived, most employees found time to flip through it—at their desks, in the bathroom, on the bus, in their easy chairs at home.

Employees visited the intranet, however, mainly when they needed to get something done: find a policy, fill out a form, check to see how many sick days they had left. Reading the company publication was hardly ever a priority. If a headline was interesting, an employee might click through to it, but that didn’t mean they would absorb all the other information the communication department was sharing. I have encountered organizations where managers viewed employee communication on the intranet as extracurricular: Employees with time to read an article or watch a video clearly didn’t have enough real work to do.

Some companies mailed their print publications directly to employees’ homes. Nobody reading the company newsletter at home every thought, “This is work-related. I should get paid for this.” Now that intranets are accessible remotely, though, the expectation has arisen that accessing company content is part of the job and employees should only consume that content when they’re on the clock.

Even as employees—like the rest of the world—have gone mobile, employee communication remains mired on clunky intranets, often unnavigable tangles of Sharepoint cluttered with outdated content and dysfunctional search engines. In most cases, if employee communication has “gone mobile,” it’s through responsive design, which may reformat content to be readable on a smartphone but in no way accommodates the way real people use their phones to discover, follow, and consume content. I still routinely hear communicators say they’re upgrading their intranet in an era where hardly anybody uses a home page to get to news and information.

Consider Now This, which distributes its news content across Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Its website is a single page bearing this observation: “Homepage. Even the word sounds old. We bring the news to your social feed.”

Now This News homepage

Now This knows that the news feed is where people get their news. A full two years ago, 63% of Americans were getting their news from Facebook and Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center. And of all the time Americans spent on social media platforms, smartphone apps accounted for 61%. Yet, despite all the evidence that this is a recipe for failure, we continue to expect employees to visit the home page, read the news headlines, and click (or tap) through to each article.

Consumers are also shifting away from social networks to messaging apps. Downloads of the top four messaging apps have surpassed downloads of the top four social networking apps for a couple of years now. Intranets simply do not accommodate our employees’ content consumption behaviors and preferences.

Any way you want it, that’s the way you get it

Among the vast range of business functions, employee communication is virtually alone in having never adopted a set of standards. People working in accounting, legal, benefits, procurement, risk management, recruiting, and even PR and marketing, can easily move from one company to another and not miss a beat. Employee communicators, on the other hand, have never felt like they needed to establish a core set of practices. A communicator moving from one company to another can feel like he has landed on an alien planet.

Some communications departments manage town hall meetings; those meetings are outside the purview of others. Some have control over all-employee email; other are just among the many who send emails to all employees. I worked with one department that produced absolutely no original content under the employee communication identity; all their work was focused on helping leaders craft messages for distribution through various channels. Consequently, there was no single voice of the company, no nexus of context and meaning, no single archive of news and information.

Employee communication is whatever the person responsible for it thinks it should be. If the CEO or president care enough, they drive it. It could be the department to which the function reports, and even that’s not standardized. In some cases, it’s HR. Elsewhere it’s Corporate Communications. It could be marketing. It could even be Legal.

It’s no wonder employee communication, even at its best, is not viewed as a profession. Professions have standards.

The consequences

If we can agree that the ultimate goal of any employee communication department is to move the organization needle, data reveals we haven’t done well. While a host of other factors affect trust, engagement, and other measures of communication success, it’s clear that communication practiced at a professional level, based on core standards, would have produced better outcomes than these:

Only 65% of employees trust their employers according to last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. The percentages are worse the lower you go in the organizational hierarchy. Sixty-four percent of leaders trust the company, but only 51% of managers share that trust, and the numbers fall to 48% among the rank and file. For an idea of what that lack of trust means, consider that 20% of employees worldwide—and 27% in the U.S.—would sell their password to the company’s proprietary networks for money, and 44% of those who would sell their password would do so for less than $1,000.

Nobody can agree on who’s responsible for the company culture or what it is. A survey by the Workforce Institute at Kronos and IBM’s Workplace Trends found that leaders believed they defined the company culture, HR staff believed culture was in their wheelhouse, and frontline employees thought they set the culture. What’s worse, each group saw a different set of drivers of culture. Nobody can convince me that good communication couldn’t overcome this dangerous disconnect.

Conflicting views of organizational culture

Managers don’t like to communicate. So much of employee communication is focused on managers based on the flawed notion that managers are the single most important source of information to employees. This idea is based on surveys that ask employees their preferred source of company news. Given only one option, it’s no surprise employees choose their bosses. But what if they were asked the question about 10 different topics. “What’s your preferred source of information about the company’s business strategy?” “What’s your preferred source of information about benefits?” Employees are likely to give different answers for each question. No matter, because despite all our efforts to help managers to communicate, they still don’t want to. A Harris Poll for Interact found that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Twenty percent are uncomfortable delivering the company line in a genuine way, according to the study. Relying on managers at best results in inconsistent and incomplete communication.

The engagement needle has barely moved. In 2011, Gallup reported that only 29% of employees are engaged in their jobs. Since strong correlation has been proven between engagement and profit, millions of dollars—maybe even billions—have been poured into a grab-bag of programs designed to raise engagement levels. By 2015, engagement had risen a whopping 3%, which to me sounds more like a rounding error than a meaningful increase. Half of employees remain unengaged, which means they don’t make any special effort to help the company achieve its goals. And 20% are actively disengaged, covertly undermining the company’s efforts.

Little progress on engagement

Hence, a new model

As I grew increasingly alarmed at the calls to eliminate employee communications or fold it into another department, the failure of employee communications to evolve core standards, and the dismal metrics for things good communication should be improving, a model started to take shape. You’ll find nothing earth-shattering here. Many communicators already embrace many of the model’s pieces. Few, however, have incorporated all of them into the department as a foundation for their work.

The model is not meant to be an inflexible set of requirements. Much of communication depends on the marketplace in which the organization function, what it does, how it’s regulated, the nature of its workforce, and a wide range of other considerations. At its core, though, the model can serve as a guide to ensuring that employee communication is central to the management of the organization and produces measurable results that matter.

In the weeks ahead, I will dissect the model, offering detail on each element, while also exploring how the pieces fit to provide a framework for any employee communication department. The next post will provide an overview of the model before digging into the details.

I have already modified the model since presenting it at the IABC conference based on feedback from the brilliant Caroline Kealey. Your input could help me refine it even more. Please join me on this journey and share your experiences, what your department is doing, and anything else that could contribute to the evolution of employee communications.

Special thanks to Brian O’Mara-Croft, without whose help the model would look like a child’s crayon drawing, which only a loving parent would display on a refrigerator.

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  • 1.As a former reader of the Arco Spark, I can attest to its effectiveness in delivering employee communications. Our Arco office even saved back issues for reference.

    Having evolved into employee communications from product management and sales, by means of survival following two mergers, I've often wondered about the lack of metrics and standards (and tried to develop my own).

    I am delighted to see a quadrant devoted to the customer and I'll be an interested reader of the details to follow on the strategic narrative and cultural influences.

    Terry Hart | June 2017 | Seattle, Washington

  • 2.This is very encouraging, Shel. I have a client whose communications department took Internal Communications and External Communications and merged the two, acknowledging that there's very little difference any more, as most if not all internal messages end up getting out electronically anyway. They refer to the combined groups (at least informally) as E-ternal Communications.

    I look forward to following the rollout of this model.

    Scott Monty | June 2017

  • 3.Shel, another in a very long line of interesting and provocative thinking. I'm very interested in the details underpinning the elements of your model (with my 'scholar' hat on). As you know, there's been a group through the Institute for PR working on an internal comms measurement standards project. I believe our efforts are consistent with many of the items you offer here. We see engagement, for example, as a function of several antecedents -- Advocacy, empowerment, effort, collaboration, trust, satisfaction -- and we plan to test that with some quantitative research later this year. Stacey Smith at Jackson, Jackson and Wagner (http://www.JJWPR.com) and I are presenting on this topic for the Poppulo folks in just a couple of weeks. (http://bit.ly/2qYKhru) I'm also interested in how you arrived at the model -- did you rely mainly on your experiential data, or did you research it out? Sorry I couldn't attend IABC this year - sounds like a heck of a show!

    Sean Williams | June 2017 | Cleveland, Ohio

  • 4.The other Shel H in business communication with my two cents. Quite interesting, Shel. I would add a sixth segment to the circle: social/environmental impact. From my POV, it's as important as any of the other lenses.

    Shel Horowitz | June 2017 | Hadley, MA

  • 5.I'm definitely not ignoring environmental and social impact, Shel. First, these need to be core to the entire company (not just a CSR department); they need to be baked into processes, supply chain, and external communications as well as internal. I firmly believe we're entering the era of the values-driven marketplace and committing resources to doing good will soon be a competitive matter. As for the employee communications model, these matters fit firmly in the Values component of Culture and in the Organizational Integrity element of Engagement.

    Shel Holtz | June 2017

  • 6.Thanks for the comment, Sean. I'm aware of the IPR effort to codify internal communication measurement standards; Katie Paine was quick to point it out to me. Between Katie and Angela Sinickas, I've refined the model to include measurement. (My view was that each area of focus requires its own evaluation, but that wasn't clear, so the next piece I post -- an overview of the model -- will include measurement as a graphical element.

    The model evolved over a couple years, the result of my experience, a number of employee communication audits I've conducted or been part of, and a lot of reading (research, thought leader posts, etc.). Mainly, the idea is to focus communication on moving the needle on things that matter to senior management by taking on elements of those things that nobody else in the organization is doing (and that communicators are well-positioned to do).

    Shel Holtz | June 2017

  • 7.I will be interested to hear more about your model as you expand on it over the coming weeks. I will be particularly interested in how the model addresses trust and culture issues which, as you rightly said, are key to effective communication. One-way, top-down communication is only a small part of what public relations professionals need to address. It is the bottom-up and lateral communications that are key. I will be interested to see how your model addresses those.

    Stacey Smith | June 2017 | Jackson Jackson & Wagner

  • 8.While a new and improved model will always be sought after, there are still many ways to optimize and improve current intranet and intranet practices. Creating a platform through which connection and communication is made easy is the first step in improving employee engagement. I firmly believe that once identified, a good intranet can help so solve issues associated with employee engagement and adoption rates.

  • 9.I was debating about taking a course from Caroline Kealey (we both work in Ottawa, Canada), but now I will for sure!

    Robin Kilroy | July 2017 | Ottawa, Canada

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