Ever since I did my first piece of corporate communication work, an audit of UK external and internal communication for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in 1997, I saw the massive strategic potential of internal communication.
Yet, in the last twenty years, I have seen internal comms used less and less as a strategic tool, and more and more to drive the easier-to-measure but more nebulous objectives of “awareness” and “employee engagement”.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
At the turn of the century in London, there were actually large internal comms strategy firms who were looking at ways to use communication to identify specific groups of people, and mobilise them to help organisations achieve specific objectives.
Rather than driving awareness with infotainment indiscriminately broadcast to all employees, internal communication strategists focused on developing, delivering and facilitating complete messaging for people who needed to act on it, or those who needed to be aware so they could lead, follow, or get out of the way.
The strategic approach to internal comms was never repudiated. But in the early 2000s, it was overwhelmed by the drive for employee engagement.
Employee engagement is not explicitly anti-strategic.
The quest to measure it, and the corresponding push among corporate leaders to drive and demonstrate ever-increasing employee engagement scores, has had the effect of subordinating any other business purposes for internal communication to the two-fold purpose of raising employee engagement scores, and increasing the percentage of employees participating in employee engagement surveys.
Why does that conflict with the strategic use of internal comms?
When your job as an internal comms function is to make sure 100% of employees submit their engagement surveys and feel sufficiently happy to deliver an 80% to 100% engagement score, there is little tolerance for emphasising the selective delivery of hard messages to the minimum number of people necessary.
Some stakeholders squeal that such selective engagement is “discriminatory,” and other express concern for the potential impact on engagement scores.
It has also become a resourcing and sponsorship issue.
Some years back, when “precious” IC resource was being focused on “engagemen-tainment,” comms departments responded to urgent requests from senior stakeholders for change communication support with “toolkits” – essentially giving these stakeholders uncustomised instructions in “how to communicate” and telling them to take a hike.
This approach not only further diminished the active practice of strategic internal communication, it also had the perverse impact of distancing internal comms from potentially supportive senior stakeholders.
Now, as more and more businesses and practitioners are actively questioning the value of all-employee engagement and “engagemen-tainment,” a window is reopening for internal comms to become a strategic function again.
Moreover, if it doesn’t, how will IC otherwise be able to retain any perception of value, if it is neither driving engagement nor driving alignment and action?
Some ways to make IC more strategic in this transitional period:
1. Start proactively helping your business stakeholders, not just your engagement stakeholders
2. Conduct interviews and learn more about the business’s priorities, and then look more at how you can support and accelerate them
3. Kill off eyeball and awareness measurements.
4. Develop measurements that track the flows of messages and attitudes in different parts of your business
5. Invest in influencer research and/or social mapping to find the three percent of people who are driving 90% of your conversations
6. Develop a two-tier communication platform: a brief and snappy infotainment approach for all employees, supplemented with a more adult and comprehensive approach for influencers, leaders and managers
7. Don’t be afraid to use the same vehicles for delivering lightweight and heavyweight content, but do make sure they are effectively signposted
Embracing a strategic approach to internal communication offers massive advantages. For organisations, it offers the possibility of greater alignment and faster results.
For communicators, a clearer path to making a difference and a more tangible set of tasks and tools, and a greater opportunity to be seen as strategic assets and even, leaders.
Why not start now?
Mike Klein is an internal communication strategist, writer and blogger, based in Delft in the Netherlands.
His blog, Changing The Terms, has been recognised by Communication Director Magazine as one of Europe’s top communication blogs.
He is also currently Vice Chair of IABC’s Europe-Middle East-North Africa region.