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.
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.
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.
The popular US singer-songwriter, of course, enjoyed a 2006 smash with “Better Together”.
It’s a concept that today’s IC and marketing departments would do well to heed.
Marketing expert Scott Vaughan believes marketing teams need to look inwards first to boost their external offering.
Scott, who is the CMO of Integrate, a marketing technology software provider, wrote in this blog post: “While marketing teams rightly focus heavily on external customers and stakeholders, we’re missing an important audience in our mission; we must extend our focus to educating, inspiring and showcasing our work to key internal stakeholders.
“Ironically, marketing is notoriously bad at internal communications and collaboration. The storytelling component is often absent, and the data shared is sporadic.
“Neglecting to dedicate necessary time to involve other departments in marketing’s efforts greatly limits a company’s collective ability to delight customers and grow revenue.”
It’s not the first time experts have suggested marketers are too focused on external audiences – to the detriment of their own colleagues.
So how can marketing and internal communications teams become more in sync?
Scott continued: “One of the best ways to get continuous or additional internal support required to help you execute your next big initiative is to dedicate some time to not just sharing results — awesome, average and even atrocious — but involving the key stakeholders in jointly setting the target KPIs and metrics.
“This means locking arms early in the process with peers who can help you move the needle. If they help set the target KPIs, there is ownership in helping you and your team hit them.
“Your internal communications efforts will help you improve your marketing results if applied diligently and consistently.
“Marketers’ trademark is storytelling, engaging audiences and getting them to act.
“There’s no time like right now to start applying those mad marketing skills – internally, as well as you do externally.”
Cumbria Police cited ‘an internal communications error’ as the reason why a controlled explosion was carried out on a ‘suspicious’ car.
Bomb squad officers carried out the explosion outside Workington police station in February after concerns were voiced about a Vauxhall Corsa parked outside.
However it turned out colleagues had parked the car outside the station after helping its owner, who had been taken ill.
The gaffe cost £2,000, according to BBC News. This includes repairs and recovery of the car, as well as overtime costs in connection with the incident.
A force spokesperson told BBC News with “information known at the time, appropriate action was taken with public safety prioritized.”
The forced intended to “ensure this does not happen again,” he said.
An IC fail can indeed have unintentional, not to mention serious, repercussions – just ask Vauxhall.
An IC faux pas saw news of the French car manufacturer PSA Group‘s £1.9 billion purchase of General Motors’ European unit, which includes Vauxhall, leak in the press.