How to reinvent your internal communications department (before it’s too late)

Posted on January 14, 2016 2:59 pm by | Internal | Intranets

saving employee communications

The employee communications department is at risk of becoming irrelevant. There already are voices calling for companies to do away with them, arguing that a function focusing on one discrete audience is anachronistic given everybody’s ability to see what everybody else is saying.

I noted in a post about a year ago that BBC’s former HR and Internal Communications Director, Lucy Adams, wrote, “Internal communications as a narrowly defined function and approach is dead.” Gerard Corbett—a PR agency CEO and former honcho at PRSA, wrote that “Maybe it’s time to let go of ‘internal’ and ‘employee’ as modifiers of communications to employees and designate the umbrella term of ‘communications.’”

Most internal communication departments spend most of their time creating and distributing content. Much of that is done through email and intranets, which have become the replacement for newsletters and magazines (and something called a “magapaper”). Find the most popular workshops and seminars on internal communications and you’ll find they’re all about writing and producing better content for intranets and email that employees will want to read or watch.

It remains vitally important for a dedicated internal comms function to report news and other information employees need to know. While they may read the same reports other stakeholders read (like customers, shareholders, and local communities) and have access to sites like Glassdoor.com, where employees praise or condemn their organizations with granular detail, employees have special contextual needs those channels don’t serve. In addition to finding out the company is acquiring a small startup, for example, they want to know how the acquisition will affect their jobs, their reporting relationships, their access to resources, the way they get their work done.

Reporting alone, however, is not enough to sustain employee communications’ relevance. Everything about business and work is changing; so is the way people get, share, and use information outside the workplace (and even inside, since it’s easy for employees to bypass official channels). Employee communications departments need to recognize the realities of the modern workplace and reinvent themselves in response. In addition to reporting (whether it’s through print publications, the intranet, email, test messages, posts to internal social networks, town hall meetings and other face-to-face events, or apps you haven’t even heard of), these are the roles a modern internal comms department needs to fill:

Facilitating employee-to-employee communication

Employees have always communicated with each other. In meetings, in locker rooms, in van pools, in cafeterias, they have shared their opinions and grievances. It is incumbent on internal comms departments to make peer-to-peer communication valuable to the company (and to ensure most of the informal conversation supports rather than undermines company goals).

Given the right tools and an understanding of how using them will make their lives easier, employees will readily communicate with one another in pursuit of productivity and efficiency. In organizations that don’t provide the right tools (or the basis for understanding why employees should embrace them), a lot of employees will begin using “unsupported” tools. I know one CEO who had never heard of Slack when he found three of his company’s teams had made it their go-to information-sharing channel.

When employees communicating with each other, it is, of course, employee communication. How do internal comms departments help companies benefit from it?

  • Help employees understand how it is more than just irrelevant chatter, but rather a better way to get work done.
  • Encourage employees to make the most of it
  • Recognize individuals and teams that achieve extraordinary results with it
  • Observe conversations and make continuous tweaks to improve the channel to make it even easier and more relevant to staff
  • Ensure important information shared on the network reaches the people who can benefit most from it
  • Monitor it to find issues and opportunities for communication as well as new programs or processes to address issues that may not have surfaced elsewhere (see “Data analysis” below)

Employee-to-employee communication is also the primary means by which employees’ voices are heard by leadership. Employee voice is one of the core characteristics of engaged companies (see “Leader communications below). Nobody is in a better position to give employees that voice than employee communications departments.

Message Mission Control

Intranets and internal social networks aren’t the only messaging channels that should fall under internal communications’ jurisdiction. Any messaging technology introduced in the enterprise represents a channel for employees to communicate with one another—and again, that’s employee communication.

Most new messaging technologies (dating back to voice mail and the fax machine and continuing right on up to Yammer and other social networking platforms) are rolled out—usually by IT—using the “Godspeed” method: “Here’s email, everyone. Godspeed.”

In a Deloitte white paper, “Social software for business performance,” the authors describe internal social networks deployed along with training and pilot groups focused on managing “exceptions,” the non-routine issues employees encounter that break standard processes. Being strategic about the introduction of internal social networks led to significant and measurable business results. McKinsey agrees, noting that employee use of social software (both internal and external) can improve productivity by 20-25% and unlock up to $1.3 trillion in value annually across the consumer packaged goods, retail financial services, advanced manufacturing, and professional services sectors.

But none of that will happen if the channels are simply thrown at employees to figure out on their own how to use them. As a result, most implementations fail as employees visit a Yammer or Chatter (or whatever) network only to find low-value conversations or, worse, the lonely chirping of crickets. (It’s also why there is such inconsistent and inefficient use of email.) Slack (the fastest-growing piece of enterprise software in history) and other tools adopted by employees organically tend to succeed because enthusiastic workers show their colleagues how they work, and that enthusiasm spreads.

Very few companies assign responsibility for “message mission control” to any department. IT isn’t the right department to handle the norms and behaviors for internal messaging, since their expertise is hardware and software, not behaviors. It’s also not HR’s role, since these channels have little to do with compensation, benefits, collective bargaining, and the other routine work of Human Resources. But given that all of these channels are used for employees to communicate, management of how they are introduced and enhanced belongs squarely in the employee communications department.

Channel management

The intranet has become the default dumping ground for the very same articles that internal comms departments used to publish in magazines and newspapers. Along with email (employed because it’s a “push” rather than a “pull,” like the intranet), these channels represent pretty much all that most communicators are using to distribute messages to employees.

Digital communication has been problematic since the intranet was first touted as a panacea to solve all of a company’s communication woes. The biggest challenge created by killing print was reaching employees who didn’t have email addresses or access to intranets (including production and field workers). Mobile technology can solve much of that problem, but most organizations have been slow to configure internal communications for mobile, or have limited their actions to releasing a few tools as an afterthought. At the same time, intranets have become bloated with useless information that’s impossible to navigate. In most organizations, employees go to the intranet when they have no choice—to enroll for benefits, order business cards, submit expense reports, or find a policy.

In general, they don’t rely on the intranet for news. In employee communication surveys, when asked to rank information sources, employees often cite the intranet as the preferred news source, but this is often in the absence of alternatives or based on a lack of knowledge about other channels that could be better. In organizations where I have been involved in intranet or internal communication audits, employees report that they get the news through other channels, including the grapevine, frequently before it appears on the intranet. Other surveys have shown how infrequently employees check the intranet (as little as once a month) and how low they rate their satisfaction with it (often below 20% of the employee population). Arik Hanson recently made a case in IABC’s CW magazine for cutting the intranet loose or, at least, dramatically overhauling it.

The public’s approach to getting news outside the company is undergoing a massive shift. According to a July 2015 report from the Pew Research Center...

The share of Americans for whom Twitter and Facebook serve as a source of news is continuing to rise. This rise comes primarily from more current users encountering news there rather than large increases in the user base overall…The report also finds that users turn to each of these prominent social networks to fulfill different types of information needs.

In order to ensure important company news and information reaches employees, communicators need to assess the effectiveness of channels and employee preferences. We also need to explore channels not yet available inside the organization. During one audit I conducted for a consumer packaged goods company, manufacturing employees scoffed at the idea of using the intranet for news, even though it was available on their smartphones. When given the option of subscribing to receive text alerts about news of specific interest to them (about their facility and the products they manufactured), there was palpable excitement. Yes, they said, they’d subscribe in a heartbeat, check for updates regularly, and read them as soon as they arrived.

In the media world, the repurposing of content to accommodate the characteristics of different channels is an irreversible trend. The Washington Post, for example, doesn’t really care if you read its stories on its website, in its print edition, or via Facebook Instant Articles. The Huffington Post announced last week it is scaling back its live video operation in order to concentrate on injecting videos into a multitude of social channels. According to Arianna Huffington, “The way the world consumes video has changed dramatically, and we’re changing along with it to deliver video as efficiently as possible. Instead of creating shareable videos by doing eight hours of live video every day, we will be creating videos to be shared directly on an ever-growing range of platforms.”

I was involved recently in a study of internal communicators’ use of digital signage. In nearly every company we talked to, digital signage ranked lowest on the communication channel food chain, if it ranked at all. Yet a few communicators noted that employees responded unexpectedly well to messages addressing company news, values, and culture.

Internal communicators need to recognize behavioral shifts in information consumption while assessing the wisdom of using of multiple channels in order to get the most bang for their internal communications bucks. And that includes print which, unsurprisingly, is making a comeback (and which companies were foolish to abandon in the first place).

Inspiring and sharing employee-generated content

In addition to assuming responsibility for employee-to-employee communication channels, internal communications departments can initiate campaigns and programs that inspire employees to create and share valuable content.

By way of example, consider companies that launch Instagram campaigns like MAN Diesel and Turbo, where a communicator asked employees to share photos from their locations that reflected the local culture. Employees submitted hundreds of photos were using the campaign hashtag, which were used to publish a coffee table book distributed to all staff, a mosaic of the entire company. One plant manager was so inspired by the photos that he had them enlarged, papering the cafeteria walls with them so employees would be reminded that they were part of something bigger than just their local facility.

Or look at Deloitte, which eight years ago turned to employees to produce recruiting videos, investing money that would otherwise be spent on outside production in cameras and software employees could borrow. The result was the Deloitte Film Festival and a moving display of the affection employees have for the company.

Rather than approach employee-generated content as one-time programs, internal communicators need to integrate it into communication in general, identifying where a call to action for content can enhance any message.

Data analysis

In PR and marketing circles, data analysis has become a top-of-mind activity. Digging into “big data,” reviewing the data that comes from monitoring services, tracking sentiment in various forums, and a broad range of other techniques are now a marketing and PR requirement. SHIFT Communications has been lauded for becoming the first (and still the only) PR agency to qualify as a Google Analytics Certified Partner.

In employee communications, however, data analysis remains confined largely to studying survey results. We can do more. At Intel, for example, employee software that uses language-processing and machine-learning algorithms to figure out how employees were feeling when they posted to their internal blogs. According to a Wall Street Journal article...

While the blog comments were positive overall, the software identified agitation among employees who responded to a post by the company in June announcing it would pay double the employee-referral bonus if an employee referred a minority job candidate or a veteran and that person was hired. Some who posted comments wondered if this was reverse discrimination or if Intel was breaking the law…While the employees were clear in what they were saying, the company used the sentiment-analysis software to drill deeper into what other motivations might lie behind their comments. What the software revealed…was that ultimately people were expressing frustration and fear based on a misunderstanding—a wrong impression that their own jobs were at risk…What the software also showed Intel…was that the company needed to better communicate with employees going forward.

Internal social networks, internal messaging platforms, internal blogs, all these employee-to-employee communication platforms can provide internal communicators with a ton of actionable data they can’t get anywhere else—not even from surveys or focus groups. Add routine monitoring of external sites like Glassdoor.com, and internal communicators can begin to craft strategies to address what’s really on employees’ minds, not just what they say they’re thinking when the company surveys them.

We have to make it our business to start collecting and analyzing that data.

Coordination with other communication functions

The overarching premise behind the call for folding employee communications into corporate communications is that employees have access to all the same news everybody else does, regardless of its source or the channel through which it is delivered. This is true, but that news lacks the context employees need. There are two fundamental ways to provide that context:

  1. Produce internal communications that explain what the news means to employees in general and helps them modify their behaviors accordingly
  2. Arm supervisors with enough information to help them communicate with their direct reports what the news means specifically to them (see Supervisor Communications below)

In order to be prepared to create this content, internal communicators need to know what PR, corporate communications, and marketing are planning to release, with enough advance notice to do their homework, craft the content, get necessary approvals, and release it in a timely manner.

Internal communicators can also help other communication teams identify great content for distribution to external audiences they might not otherwise find.

Change and culture communication

When the proponents of dismantling the dedicated internal comms function make their case, they usually neglect to explain how the corporate communications department will equip itself to handle change and culture communications. These are internal communications specialties that simply aren’t part of other communicators’ skill sets.

Currently, though, most internal comms departments engage in this kind of effort reactively. Communicating change effectively doesn’t start when change is announced. It starts with regular, ongoing communication of the factors and conditions that could lead to change so employees are prepared, rather than surprised, when the hammer finally comes down. Also incumbent on internal communicators is knowing the company’s various employee profiles so they can proactively address the reasons employees might resist change.

We also need to do a better job of connecting the dots between the company news we communicate and the change initiative to which it is related. Announcing the hire of a VP in a newly created position is one thing; pointing out that it is connected to a change program designed to produce better customer relations is another.

Communicators also need to weave messaging about the culture into as much communication as possible. We know that culture is one of the biggest factors affecting engagement. A culture employees want to be part of produces emotional capital (a dimension of social capital), defined as the aggregate feelings of goodwill employees have toward a company and how it operates. Among the elements of emotional capital is attachment, the idea that employees believe they belong to a community of workers (including leaders) who share their values and interests. Communication needs to regularly reflect those values and shine a spotlight on employees who live them.

Leader communications

Another component of emotional capital is authenticity, defined in this instance as the employee belief that what the company and its leaders say and what they do are aligned. A vital part of your content strategy needs to include content that offers rock-solid evidence that leaders are, in fact, walking the talk (or explaining when it looks like they’re not). We can craft that content ourselves, but we can also share content from employees that demonstrates that alignment is recognized at ground level.

In addition to surfacing communications from employees, we can also curate material published externally as well as the results of the PR department’s efforts. We also need to facilitate dialogue between leaders and the front line that improves line-of-sight and makes it easier to identify and address the issues and (in some cases) skepticism leaving employees doubting the sincerity of leader pronouncements.

All that data we’re now analyzing is also an opportunity for employee communicators to help leaders adjust their communication to better meet employees’ information needs. The more internal communicators can help executives achieve their goals, the more they will turn to us to help them connect with employees.

When I worked at Mattel in the mid-1980s, Tom Kalinske—who had a marketing background—was named president of the company. I set him up with a face-to-face meeting with the craftsmen who worked in the modeling department. These were the guys who carved wooden doll heads that would be used to make the mold from which the plastic heads would be mass-produced. Kalinske had little experience with this class of employee and he was very nervous. “They’ll eat me alive,” he worried. Of course, they were so thrilled that the company president was taking time to talk with and listen to them that the meeting turned out great and Kalinske couldn’t wait to do it again. (This kind of executive communication activity also fulfills the engagement requirement that employees feel they have a voice.)

Communicating for engagement

When it comes to engagement, most leaders delegate to Human Resources based on the belief that engagement is all about the relationship between employees and supervisors. In fact, a recent study found that fewer than 2% of CEOs even look at engagement survey results more than once, opting to outsource the issue to HR.

In fact, there are at least four key enablers to engagement, and “engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people” is just one of them (see “Supervisor communications” below). The other three (according to the UK engagement initiative, Engage for Success, all have direct internal communication implications:

  • Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative about the organization, where it’s come from and where it’s going
  • Employee voice throughout the organization, for reinforcing and challenging views, between functions, and externally. Shift the perception of employees as the problem to the source of the solution to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise, and ideas.
  • Organizational integrity—the values on the wall—are reflected in day-to-day behaviors. There is no say-do gap. Promises made and promises kept, or an explanation given as to why not.

There has been precious little research done on the communication-engagement connection, but there are a few nuggets we have gleaned from the few studies that have addressed communication:

  • Poor communication has been cited as a cause of disengagement
  • Good communication is always cited in firms with large populations of highly-engaged employees
  • Companies that communicate well are four times more likely to have high levels of engagement

Ultimately, internal communicators need to firmly establish engagement as one of the top-line strategic goals for everything they do.

Each of these are opportunities for communicators to work with leaders to build engagement through actions that are equally important as the employee-manager relationship.

Incidentally, recognition is also a key element of emotional capital. Recognition is more than awards programs managed by HR. Every time we call out an employee or team for doing something awesome—in an article, by sharing their own status update or one from a colleague, or making sure the CEO points them out during a town hall meeting—it’s perceived as recognition. Not only does that help others understand the kinds of behaviors that get recognized in the organization; it builds engagement.

Supervisor communications

Of course, the employee-manager relationship remains a key element of engagement, but that doesn’t mean it’s an HR-only issue. While no company can ensure every manager and supervisor exhibits just the right set of behaviors to build engagement among their reports—people get promoted into manager and supervisor positions for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to build great relationships and manage effectively—there is plenty we as communicators can do to help them build their capabilities. We can, for example, build a resource for managers that help them manage better. Some companies have manager portals on their intranets. Back in the late 1980s, ARCO published a quarterly journal called mgr that was kind of an ARCO-focused Harvard Business Review. While at Mattel, I published a quick-and-dirty newsletter called Manager Briefing designed to bring managers and supervisors up to speed on issues we knew their staff would be asking them about.

Employee advocacy

A cottage industry has grown over the last few years around employee ambassador (or advocacy) efforts. Services like GaggleAmp and Dynamic Signal make it easy for employees to share company content with their online communities, for example, while consultancies promise to help you launch an advocacy program that will surface volunteers and turn them into brand ambassadors. Even LinkedIn has introduced an employee advocacy software product.

Ample resources exist to help you figure out how to do this yourself, like this.

Since frontline employees are more credible to public audiences than CEOs and paid spokespersons, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, taking advantage of engaged employees makes perfect sense. But where should an employee advocacy program reside? In many cases—such as PepsiCo—employee communications is the home of such programs. That also makes sense, since these programs are all about employees communicating, and communication to employees about communication is at the program’s heart.

Measure, measure, measure

Leadership understands numbers. They care about numbers that help them understand the impact of an investment on the company’s bottom line. Internal communications measurement must be ongoing and it must make that connection. It doesn’t matter how many people read or liked an article (though that’s good information to help communicators make tactical adjustments). Leadership only cares whether the communication produced a behavioral change that led to greater productivity, increased sales, better recruitment, improved retention, or some other relevant data point. They want to know how internal communication is helping them meet their goals, help them sleep better at night.

We need to report the outcomes of our work regularly to senior management, along with recommendations about taking those results to the next level.

Call to action: Go forth and communicate

The word “communication” has its origins in the Latin communis, which means “to make common.” Those who believe the function of communication is confined to the craft side of the equation—the production of articles and videos and the like—are missing the point. These are just some of the tools available to us to create a common understanding of business strategies, changes, cultures, values, and other dimensions of work that can produce engaged employees (along with higher profits, more productivity, greater market share, and other tangible business results) or non-engaged employees (and the continued slog through mediocrity).

If all your internal comms department does is produce stuff, odds are you’ll find your department folded into a broader corporate communications function. If you use all the tools and strategies available to build great communication in your organization, your dedicated employee communications department will thrive.

Leave a comment and let me know what your internal comms department is doing beyond the traditional sharing of content. I’ll collect it and share it in a future post.

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