The case for internal communications

Posted on February 4, 2015 9:26 am by | Internal

Internal Communications“Internal communications as a narrowly defined function and approach is dead.”

So sayeth former BBC HR and Internal Communications Director Lucy Adams, who adds that “a fundamental re-think of communications—and more importantly relationships—with our employees is needed.” According to a report from O’Dwyer, Adams noted that the all-staff email at BBC is “possibly the most loathed of all internal communication.”

Well, no shit. And if Adams’ description defined the internal communications function, I’d have little choice but to agree. One distribution tactic, however, does not comprise the employee communications discipline as practiced by the best communicators and organizations.

Adams is not alone in predicting the demise of the employee communications function, however. PR agency CEO Gerard Corbett—a former PRSA Chair and CEO—penned a guest piece for SpinSucks last October in which he called internal communications “an anachronism.”

“...Corporate communications was always the best department for handling specialized employee or internal communications, because nothing succeeds like consistency. These days, however, it seems to be a hodgepodge of organizational dysfunction and redundancy. How well the function operates depends on which way the winds are blowing, who’s in charge, and what are the priorities and politics of the boss…Maybe it’s time to let go of ‘internal’ and ‘employee’ as modifiers of communications to employees and designate the umbrella term of ‘communications.’”

Corbett argues that “there is no need to isolate and insulate” employees, who are just another stakeholder audience with access to multiple channels for accessing information. Among Corbett’s other reasons to make employees just another audience for communication: They’re adults, they’re equally significant as other stakeholders, and, he writes, “Employees know more than you think, even without your formal communications strategy.” Adams, the former BBC communicator, says the “knowledge-based economy will rely heavily on employees making a conscious choice to give their creativity and their knowledge to their employers.”

While Corbett and Adams are absolutely right about all these things, none of it supports the dismantling of a dedicated communication function unless that department is engaged wholly in the production and distribution of one-way, top-down, one-size-fits all communication collateral. In fact, some of their arguments reinforce the need for a department dedicated to meeting the information and communication needs of employees at all levels of the organizational hierarchy.

I started my career in employee communications and even as I broadened my experience into media relations, financial communications, crisis communications, and a host of other externally-focused disciplines, I have never stopped doing internal communications work. The reason is simple: I believe no organizational communication is as important as employee communication. Employees can lift a company through difficult times or they can tank it. How a business communicates with its staff can determine which.

Off the top of my head, I can think of 11 good reasons to keep employee communications separate from (but working closely with) the Public Affairs/Corporate Communications/PR team.

1. Employees almost always become a second-class audience when PR is responsible for communicating to them

This is the case that trumps all others.

The nine arguments below are important reasons to maintain an independent internal communications function. It’s not hard to suggest that any communications generalist can learn how to do these things. After all, doctors learn to become lawyers, scientists become executives, and quarterbacks become running backs.

But invariably, when internal communications becomes part of the public affairs/PR/corporate communications department, it generally has to sit at the kids’ table.

In most PR departments, the press is king. Communicating to employees is far less glamorous and is often perceived as something entry-level communicators do in order to earn the credentials to be promoted into media relations jobs. A dedicated internal communications department is, well, dedicated to employees.

2. Employees are an equal audience to others

Interestingly, you don’t hear anyone calling for the end of investor relations as a distinct function, or government relations. Why not? Because these audiences have distinct characteristics, distinct impacts on the organization, and distinct communication needs. Employees, as a group, have those same criteria.

With employees, it’s not a matter of isolating or insulating them. Rather, employees need more and different information than what the media, consumers, customers, and others receive. In general, the communication needs to answer some specific questions, the most important usually being…

  • What effect does this have on my employment?
  • What impact will this have on how I do my job?
  • What impact will this have on the people I work with?

Ultimately, internal communication is about creating alignment between the big-picture goals, plans, and strategies proclaimed from the top of the organization and the employee on the front line. While that doesn’t happen with all-employee emails (or newsletters), it doesn’t just happen when employees read communications designed for generic publics. The notion that it can reminds me of an exchange between Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple:

Oscar and FelixFelix Ungar: Where the hell am I gonna get gravy at eight o’clock?
Oscar Madison: I dunno, I though it comes when you cook the meat.

The unique information employees need doesn’t just come when content is crafted and shared with other audiences. It doesn’t come when you cook the meat.

The messages for employees transcend what the public sees. Employee responses to town hall meetings in many organizations frequently include something like this: “Yeah, I already know that; tell me what I don’t know.”

There’s also the argument that nothing communicated internally stays internal. This was true even before digital technology. (I remember working with an organization that rejected the purchase of fax machines because this new technology made it too easy for employees to share internal information outside the organization. Photocopiers posed a similar risk.)

Getting internal-focused stories in the public press won’t guarantee employees will see it. Most media outlets won’t even want to run it unless there’s something explosive in it, since the employee spin is of little interest to the non-employee audiences the press serves.

3. The models and metrics for employee communications are different than they are for any other audience

To begin with, internal communications is an ongoing process. While there may be campaigns (hospitals, for example, often turn to their internal communicators to promote hand-washing), most of the effort is about ensuring employees at all levels have line-of-sight to leadership and understand the connection between high-level messages and their day-to-day work and behaviors.

The models employed by strategy-focused internal communicators are also vastly different from the earned-media models that occupy most of the time of most PR practitioners. There is, for example, the internal “cascade,” ensuring the downward distribution of information to local supervisors with appropriate interpretation to make it meaningful for the front-line staff who report to those supervisors. There’s also a need to feed information back up to leadership. In many cases, strategy dialogues and other techniques unique to internal communication are called for.

Strategy dialogues start at the uppermost levels of the company and work their way down, involving two meetings for each team, facilitated by the manager or supervisor. At the first, employees talk about the forces that led to the strategic direction, why the new priorities were selected over others, and other underlying issues driving a change or plan. The information collected at these meetings is fed back to leaders, who begin a second round of meetings to focus on plan execution, including metrics that will be used to assess employee progress.

This is just one of many models and processes unique to internal communications, and you just have to wonder how much time a generic communications team would devote to a tool they cannot replicate with other stakeholder audiences.

Then there is the internal communications audit, a significant undertaking designed not just to assess the effectiveness of communication (something practiced often by external communicators), but to map the way information flows through the organization in order to identify choke points and pinpoint opportunities for improving the two-way movement of communication and ensure the right information is getting to the right employees at the right time.

4. Employees actually want to hear from leaders

The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer reinforces a long-standing view of the public: CEOs are among the least credible spokespeople for an organization. Internally, however, the inverse is true. Employees want to hear from their leaders. The old saw the employees want information only from their immediate supervisors is pure bunk.

What do employees want from leaders? They want to know the vision and the mission so they can decide whether they want to be part of it. They want leaders to excite them, inspire them, and help them feel like they’re part of something bigger than just their own jobs. They want to know that their employers’ values align with their own.

Employees also count on executives to set expectations for the organization that their own supervisors can then interpret for the local team.

This kind of communication—aiding executives in their messaging to staff and then in facilitating the interpretation of those messages at each level, to each team—is a unique internal communications specialty. To compare it to, say, explaining the value proposition of a product to a customer is at the very least a stretch.

5. Employee communicators are best suited to facilitate multi-directional communication

Good public relations is a two-way process, but the opportunities to actually facilitate the upward flow of communication are rare. Complicating matters is the fact that few external stakeholders have any reason to temper their responses to company communications. Many employees, however, are inclined to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, fearing repercussions for speaking their minds. Internal communications is not just about establishing channels for two-way communication; it’s also incumbent on internal communicators to help nurture a culture in which employees feel secure and comfortable sharing their views, even when they diverge from the company line.

6. It’s usually not a good idea for employees to learn company news from secondary sources

One of the arguments for consolidating internal communications in a department of generalists is that employees have access to all the same news and other information the public does. Thanks to the Internet and social sharing of news, employees can’t be constrained in what they know by content produced in-house that spins or limits what the company shares.

While that’s true, employees routinely are unsatisfied with the information they get from external sources. In any number of internal surveys designed to assess employee reaction to communications, workers routinely note that they want to know what they haven’t heard. This often means they’re looking for details about how the news relates to them personally, their work location, their jobs, their futures.

Further, employees who get news from the media are often disheartened that they didn’t get the update directly from the company. Smart internal communications ensures supervisors and managers are in the know and prepared to answer questions when the news breaks to employees, which happens at least concurrently and at best just before it goes public.

7. Establishing channels for employee knowledge and information sharing is not an external communications strength

It’s a rare communicator who deals exclusively with external audiences who has experience with SharePoint. Or SocialChorus. Or Jive.

These are just some of the tools that were designed specifically for internal purposes, tools many internal communicators work with routinely. It’s not just tools, though, with which internal communicators build familiarity. There are tactics in internal communications that have no parallels in the PR world. I have already talked about strategy dialogues, facilitated sets of meetings that cascade through the organization to surface issues and build support for business plans or change initiatives.

Increasingly, employee communicators are as concerned with facilitating communication among employees as they are in crafting communication to them.

Keep in mind that this means communicating with and facilitating communication among diverse business units, geographic locations, employee hierarchies, and other entities. What gets the message across to the leaders in the C-suite won’t necessarily work for hard-hatted workers who descend each day into a mine. Getting these groups to communicate with each other is a singular challenge, one that practitioners schooled in internal communications already know how to approach.

8. Most external communicators are unfamiliar with a lot of internal communication channels and tactics

Tactics for increasing informal recognition are one example of skills common in an internal communicator’s toolkit, as are a number of other approaches rarely (if ever) practiced for other stakeholder audiences. The set of skills required to employ internal communications-specific tactics are best recruited for a department that needs them that can also focus on enhancing those competencies.

9. Companies that communicate effectively with employees are four times more likely to have higher engagement levels

External PR practitioners ply their craft in pursuit of a broad range of goals, but building employee engagement is not one of them. The word “engagement” is tossed around a lot these days. We try, for instance, to get people to engage with posts to our Facebook brand pages. But employee engagement is an entirely different beast, a field if study unto itself, built on volumes of research and best practices.

Employee engagement needs to be a factor in any internal communications strategy. That will be most effectively done within a function dedicated to achieving the goals of an internal communication strategy.

10. Strategic employee communications accounts for multiple internal networks and channels that are not a PR focus

Mapping internal influence networks, for example, keeping them current and employees come and go, and as they shift jobs and locations, and leveraging these networks on a regular basis, is an increasingly common internal communications activity. One French study found that tapping a middle-level group of influencers produced significantly greater reach for a message than having the same number of senior executives deliver the same message.

In addition, internal communications departments partner routinely with other internal-focused functions like Human Resources and Training. Those relationships are important to internal communicators, but would be less so to communicators who are accountable for reaching all audiences.

11. Internal communications is the organizational central nervous system; when it works well, it makes the external communications job easier

Because internally-focused communicators work exclusively within the organization, they tend to become more familiar with all of a company’s moving pieces than just about any function other than HR. When employed strategically, the smooth flow of the right news and information to the right people is like a central nervous system, allowing an organization to synthesize all the information it receives from all parts of the organization, coordinating and influencing the activities of all those various teams, departments, units, groups, and committees. That function is worthy of a dedicated team of experts committed to its maintenance and improvement; relegating it to just one more activity of a group focused on other stakeholders would not bode well for the nervous system’s healthy function.

On the other hand…

None of this means that internal communications must be ineffective in organizations where it is practiced by PR generalists, particularly smaller organizations.

But the larger the organization gets, the more complex its employee networks and nuanced the communication needs become.

It is only in the last dozen years or so that executives have warmed up to internal communications as a strategic management function. (Not every CEO was as savvy as FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, who believed employee communications was so important that the department reported directly to him, rather than through HR, PR, Legal, or some other staff function.)

With executives just waking up to the importance of their relationships with their employees, now is not the time to minimize the function. “Employees are our most important resource” is repeated so often it has become a cliche. If we mean it, then now is the time to recommit to treating them that way with a robust communication function that has the skills and resources to meet their unique and important communication needs.

02/04/15 | 7 Comments | The case for internal communications



  • 1.If all you do is produce and distribute one-way, top-down, one-size-fits all communication collateral you should already be extinct. Game, set and match, Shel Holtz. Great read, thanks.

    Jon Weedon | February 2015 | Isle of Man

  • 2.Brilliant. Thank you Shel.

    Ron Shewchuk | February 2015

  • 3.I’m from the structure follows strategy school. Before discussing where internal communication should reside, it’s important to understand how it’s going to add more value by shifting its focus from activities to results—from outputs to outcomes.

    Internal communication functions in most organizations are cost centers. They need to become value creators. They can become value creators by assuming three roles that will make them more relevant.
     Move from a news and information distribution business to one that builds information rich environments where people have the information they need when they need it to perform at their peak.
     Identify and eliminate root causes of communication breakdowns that prevent people from improving business results. The upside should be improvements in quality, service, costs, sales, productivity and safety at a cost that’s less than the gains created.
     Build leaders’ communication capabilities from the CEO to the first line leader. The internal communication function should reduce the amount that it fishes for the leaders and increase the amount that it teaches leaders to fish.

    Where it resides situational. Important criteria include where it can do best by the ultimate customer and where it can get the care and feeding needed to continually increase value to the enterprise.

    JIm Shaffer | February 2015 | Annapolis, MD

  • 4.Hands down, one of the best and most thorough articles on the importance of the internal communications role. If anyone can read this start to finish and still make an argument that employee communications can be managed well as one-tenth of an external communicator's position, I'd be interested to hear it.

    Becky Graebe | February 2015 | Cary, NC

  • 5.A great strategic analysis of the discipline of internal communications. Comparing it with the objectives and strengths of other communications functions such as government relations and PR makes an important point. I was intrigued by point 10 - mapping internal influence networks and keeping them up-to-date. Thanks for synthesizing these ideas Shel.

    Dyna Vink, ABC | February 2015 | Ottawa, Canada

  • 6.Excellent article. I wake up every day thinking what can the comms organization do to add value - how can we make the difference that will cumulate in our results. Our goal in 2015 is to increase the level of employees engaging in conversation to a whole new level.

    Kim Thompson | February 2015 | Benton Harbor, MI

  • 7.Interesting read. I have a Marketing/Sales background and was brought into a corporate communications function to approach communications with an integrated lens. I'm proud to say that one-way, internal-only communications are becoming a thing of the past. We use our News Room to develop a story for multiple audiences - including employees. It's all about knowing what your audience needs and providing relevant, timely communications.

    Kathleen Wolf | February 2015 | Benton Harbor, MI

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