Employee vs. Internal Communication: Why I’m Bucking the Trend

Posted on July 17, 2017 8:59 pm by | Internal

Why I prefer

When I unveiled my new model for employee communication, I noted that I opt to refer to the function as “employee communication,” not the far more common “internal communication.” Ultimately, you can call it Earl for all I care as long as you do it well and deliver meaningful and measurable results. Some recent conversations calling my preference into question, though, have led me to explain myself.

That’s right. I’m going to Shelsplain.

“Internal communication” is the clear choice. A Google search finds 6.9 million “internal communication” results compared to 434,000 for “employee communication.” LinkedIn lists 1,720 “internal communication” jobs and finds the term in more than 161,000 profiles. compared to 914 open jobs and 28,000 profiles using “employee communication.”

Paul Barton wrote about the difference back in 2014, admitting he “always preferred the sound of “employee communication” but saw the rationale for “internal.” For some reason, though, there’s a view that “employee communication” is one-directional. I don’t get that at all. I have seen internal comms departments that are mostly one-way and employee comms functions that are multi-directional; I have never associated the label with that kind of practice one way or the other.

The case for “internal communication” is based on the notion that employees represent only one internal public, none of which should be ignored. I agree wholeheartedly. Boards of directors, committees, volunteer leaders (notably in nonprofit organizations), contractors, labor unions, and strategic partners are among audiences that don’t fit under the “public relations” label. For a host of reasons, they deserve to be engaged in a sound, well-planned, responsive, two-way, multi-channel conversation with the organization that, at some level, they serve.

Employee Communication Needs are Unique

This is where I fall on the “employee side” of the question. (If you call your employees “associates,” that’s fine, too. Same thing.) The fact that there are internal groups who are not employees does not mean that they should be bundled into the same communication loop as employees. They might get some of the same messages, but even though they qualify as “internal,” the information needs of actual employees are distinct and any strategy to communicate with them needs to recognize and accommodate that uniqueness. More than any other stakeholder group, in fact, employees deserve to be the focus of a unique communication approach. And, frankly, each of these group’s unique needs should be considered in order to develop a communication approach that produces its own strong, measurable results.

Just how distinct a group is the employee population? Roger D’Aprix, one of the most important thought leaders in the field, once called them “informed insiders.” Sure, a board committee is made up of insiders, too, and one hopes they are well-informed. But are they connected to the employee grapevine? Doubtful. Would they appreciate the volume of communication an employee needs just to be able to do their job? Ha! Do they need morning huddles with their supervisors just to stay current? Give me a break. Do they need to align their day-to-day work with company objectives? Only if their relationship with the company is full-time, which, let’s face it, is hardly ever the case.

When I was a volunteer leader, I was informed about things the organization felt I needed to know to fulfill my function. Did I have a clue what was going on with staff? Only if I had lunch with one of them, and then only what they chose to reveal.

Employees, as a group, stand alone.

It’s not only that I find “internal” to be too broad a word. It is also an adjective. “Employee” is a noun. There can be no doubt who is the subject of a communication effort when the very name of the function identifies the very people at whom it is directed. “Internal” is just a direction.

While I have wondered often (if idly) about the use of two different labels for the same organization function, Peter Vogt first put the idea in my head that it matters. Paul has been an employee communication leader at Microsoft and eBay, among other companies. It was while he was running global employee communication at BBVA in Madrid that I interviewed him on my FIR Interviews podcast about a weekly employee video series his team produced. Here’s what he said about the issue at hand (it’s less than 1-1/2 minutes long):

The model I created—the subject of a multi-part series of posts, the first four installments of which I have already published—is designed to move the employee (or internal) communication function past the one-way content-distribution model that is leading so many companies to question the need for a discrete department at all, regardless of what it’s called. The model’s core is based on communication’s ability to affect four work dimensions: culture, enagagement, the customer experience, and the employee experience. Two of these, engagement and the employee experience, are absolutely unique to employees. Board committees and volunteer leaders do not participate in engagement surveys, nor do the factors that drive engagement matter to them (unless you can show me a board member who needs an engaging boss). For the same reason it’s called “employee engagement” and not “internal engagement.”

The employee experience is even more employee-focused. The characteristics of the employee experience, like employee engagement, are unique to those who come to work every day, day in and day out, and spent their whole day there. The employee journey (the employee equivalent of the customer journey, which many companies have mapped) begins with recruitment and ends with an employee who either retires or departs the company for some other reason. In between, there are activities like onboarding and performance evaluations as well as factors like pay and benefits, opportunities to learn (and use what they learn on the job) and follow a promotion track.

Job satisfaction is another category of the employee experience. I would never knock volunteer leaders (having been one), but I have never heard a volunteer leader express concern about volunteer-life balance. Job satisfaction has never been called “internal satisfaction” (which strikes me more as something I’d feel after eating particularly good meal paired with a great wine).

Then there’s culture, which includes the workplace environment, and work processes and practices—again, highly employee-focused factors.

Ultimately, communication by itself cannot change anything. What it can do—and do very well—is affect the conditions that allow change to happen. If we do our jobs well, that change in conditions leads to a meaningful and measurable impact on the company. The conditions we seek to change are not the same conditions as those for other internal stakeholders.

If you or your company prefer the “internal” moniker, that’s fine. I’m far more interested in what the function does than what it’s called. Frankly, if we don’t start doing things that make a difference to leaders, the function will be called “marketing” or “public affairs,” because those are the departments that will assume responsibility for it and employee/internal communicators will have to find new livelihoods.

But I’m sticking with “employee communication.” I know I’m bucking the trend, but this is not a popularity contest. Employees are a distinct, well-defined group of people who deserve to be singled out, not mooshed together with others, diluting the message for everyone. If you don’t like it, too bad. I hope we can still be friends.

Photo courtesy of pixiedust8605’s Flickr account.



  • 1.First of all, LOVE "Shelsplain" and "you can call it Earl for all I care." Thank you for giving me my first (and potentially only) truly hearty laugh of the day.

    Second, I take all your points on "employee vs. internal" -- and I get the model (and will use it to help explain why I care about some of the things my leadership thinks of as "HR stuff"). But, a question: What do we then call communication to those internal to the organization, but OUTSIDE the employee population (so, " Boards of directors, committees, volunteer leaders [notably in nonprofit organizations], contractors, labor unions, and strategic partners")? Many of us do this in addition to our work as employee communicators...so how do we title that?

    Amy Gooen | July 2017 | DC

  • 2.That's a great question, Amy. A lot of discussion around this has been happening on LinkedIn, by the way. I don't mind having an "internal communication" category in which a distinct "employee communication" function is a subset, as long as it remains a discrete function. Given that these individuals are not employees, though, I would like to see communication aimed at them coming from the PR or Corporate Communications department. Contractors, for example, may be inside the building but they're more interested in the mission, values, and change initiative of their own employer. It's why we need to have strong coordination between external and employee comms.

    Shel Holtz | July 2017

  • 3.Hi Shel
    Refreshing to see your support for "employee communication." I think it is too easy to lose sight of the importance of communicating effectively to employees when this is shuffled under the impersonal umbrella of "internal," and for the several other reasons you have mentioned.
    Important research from Nigel de Bussy of Curtin University in Western Australia found that employees are by far the most important stakeholders in enabling a company to achieve stronger financial performance. He surveyed 626 Australian organizations with 100+ employees, measuring the extent to which making a priority of each of the main stakeholder groups influences financial performance.
    His research showed that the coefficient for employee orientation was 0.84 compared with much lower values for customer orientation (0.36), suppliers (0.35) and communities (0.32). The coefficient for shareholder orientation was minimal at 0.08.
    The takeaway: a strategy to make employees the most important stakeholders of an organization produces far better financial results than giving priority to other stakeholders, even customers.

    Kim Harrison | July 2017 | Perth, Western Australia

  • 4.Kim, thank you SO much for sharing that research. I was not aware of it. Couple the impact on financial performance that the public now ranks how companies treat employees as the most important factor in earning their trust (according to the 107 Edelman Trust Barometer) and you have a pretty compelling reason to make employees your most important stakeholder As for the customer experience, highly engaged and informed employees are far more likely to strive to achieve the company mission and put customers first.

    Shel Holtz | July 2017

  • 5.Thanks for the calloutt Shel. We're buds - we've known each other for decades! Love ya man!
    - peter (not Paul)

    Peter Vogt | July 2017 | Palm Springs

  • 6.Yikes, Peter. I was writing about Paul Barton just before I got to the bit about you. Clearly, he was still rattling around in my head. (And he'll be guest-co-host of the FIR podcast on Sept. 11.) Sorry about that! Fixed!


    Shel Holtz | August 2017

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