No such thing as an ‘internal’ memo

Why internal communications never stay internal

March 21, 2016

Head to Google News and search for the term ‘internal memo’, the results should immediately tell you something: internal memos don’t stay internal for very long.

Increasingly used as a source for exclusive content by editorial desks all over the world, internal memos are ideal fodder for journalists.

Firstly, it gives them incredible insight into the internal workings of a company.

What tone does the company take? Who sent the memo?

Was it addressed to everyone in the business, or a select few?

If the memo is a response to a crisis (which it often is), is the company accepting responsibility, or is it blaming someone else?

All of these insights are perfect building blocks for a compelling article that will not only deliver clicks and generate conversation, but also shine a light on something previously unknown – the ideal one-two combo for hungry journalists.

Secondly, external sharing of an internal memo usually means having a source inside the company that’s willing to share. Given the extent of internal communication funnelled through email, it has become as easy as forwarding a message to a journalist to leak a story. And if there’s one thing that reporters love more than a good story, it’s scooping the competition with an exclusive. Leaked internal memos really are the Holy Grail for news desks.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently made front-page news after a reporter got hold of an internal email addressed to all Apple employees that clarified the company’s position over the contentious FBI request to help them decrypt one of their iPhones.

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson made headlines after his chief of staff sent an internal memo which warned senior officials not to speak out in favour of staying in the European Union, undermining the Mayor’s position.

Clearly, the media’s appetite for hunting down and publishing internal memos is only going to increase.

So what should you – as an internal comms professional – keep in mind when addressing the company as a whole?

• First things first, treat every company-wide memo you send as an exercise in both internal and external communication. You have to be prepared for everything that you write to be published in a news article, but that doesn’t mean that you have to shy away from answering hard questions – honesty is always the best policy. Some of the more progressive companies have even volunteered internal memos to the press; back in 2014, Microsoft issued Satya Nadella’s email to all employees on his first day as CEO as a press release.

• The second most important aspect to crafting a great internal memo is to use accessible language that is understandable to everyone. Tim Cook’s email is a masterclass in great communication. In just over 500 words, he eloquently outlines Apple’s position on a complex matter using simple-to-understand language without a hint of patronising his audience. When addressing a large and varied audience there’s no place for ambiguity; resist the urge to use industry-specific phrases, steer clear of acronyms and work hard to boil down sentences into clear, concise points. All of this will ensure that everyone who reads the memo understands it, leaving no room for different interpretations.

• The third (and most important/overlooked) aspect is to remember that an internal memo should always be a two-way dialogue. Invite colleagues to share their thoughts with you, strive to understand each person’s point of view and value their input. If a journalist does get hold of an internal memo and contacts you for comment (depending on the severity of the situation), work with them to help them understand the company’s position, so any coverage accurately reflects your internal attitudes.

The line between internal and external communication will continue to blur, and it’s clear that industry-leading companies are no longer viewing the two as completely separate entities — maybe it’s time your company did too?