Internal communications

Internal communications
Internal communications (IC) is the function responsible for effective communication among participants within an organization. The professional practice of Internal Communications draws on the theory and practice of related professions, not least journalism, knowledge management, public relations, media relations, marketing and human resources, as well as wider organizational studies, communication theory, social psychology, sociology and political science.
History of internal communications
Large industrial organizations have a long history of promoting pride and a sense of unity among the employees of the company, evidenced in the cultural productions of Victorian-era soap manufacturers as far apart as the UK's Lever Brothers (right) and the Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo, New York. Internal communications is fundamentally a management discipline, but as a discrete discipline of organizational theory it is correspondingly young. Stanford associate professor Alex Heron's Sharing Information with Employees (1943) is an outlier among texts which focus solely on the factors involved. Theorization in academic papers accelerated in the 1970s, but mainstream management texts mostly post-date 1990.
Role of IC in the organization
People at work communicate regardless of the intentions of their managers or leaders. The purpose that a formally-appointed IC manager or IC team will serve within a given organization will depend on the business context. In one, the IC function may perform the role of 'internal marketing' (i.e., attempting to win participants over to the management vision of the organization); in another, it might perform a 'logistical' service as channel manager; in a third, it might act principally as strategic adviser. It is important to distinguish between communications on behalf of the organization and the day to day intercourse within work groups or between managers and subordinates. Minzberg  talks about the fact that communications is intrinsic to the work of a manager - it is the very essence of work in many situations. This article is less concerned with the interpersonal communications that take place in most workplaces and which are explored by writers such as Phillip Clampitt. There are a number of reasons why organisations should be concerned with internal communication. Importantly, there is commonly a legal requirement for organizations to communicate with their workers. In Europe, for example, the EU has made very specific provision about workers' rights to be informed and consulted. Effective internal communications is one of the key enablers of employee engagement (see, e.g., the UK government-sponsored Macleod Report  for a summary of research) and thought to add significant value to organizations on all metrics from productivity to customer research (needs more detail?). As noted in Quirke (2008):"Traditionally, internal communications has focused on the announcement of management conclusions and the packaging of management thinking into messages for mass distribution to the 'troops'". Research indicates a limit to the value of this 'broadcasting' model of IC. Without feedback loops and harnessing the active involvement and mediation skills of frontline supervisors or team leaders, broadcasting tends to be more effective at influencing senior and middle managers than frontline employees - see, e.g., Larkin and Larkin (1994). As the IC function matures within the organization, then, it may come to play a wider role in facilitating conversations "upwards", "downwards" and "across" the organization, perStohl (1995). Organizations increasingly see IC as playing a role in external reputation management. Joep Cornelissen in his book Corporate Communications touches on the relationship between reputation and internal conversations. This trend reaches its full potential with the arrival of new 'norms' and customer expectations around social media, for example in the work of Scoble and Israel. Market researchers MORI have likewise highlighted the effects of employee advocacy on an organisation's external reputation. IC managers try to get senior leaders to think strategically about how management decisions can be perceived internally and externally. The focus of IC is often to ensure that employees can support a decision and understand how it impacts their work.
Internal communication strategy
There are two sides to strategy in internal communications. In the first instance there is the organization's strategy — what it hopes to achieve and how it plans to go about achieving it. That strategy will be supported and, to some extent, delivered through effective internal communications. In this context internal communication can help on several different levels:

  • Tell: simply informing people of the direction, non-negotiable
  • Sell: anticipating some form of backlash, requiring some persuasion
  • Consult: seeking specific areas of input to the decision-making process
  • Involve: seeking varying degrees of involvement and co-creation

Secondly, and more importantly, internal communications needs a strategy of its own. It should be positioned more than a simple plan of tactical interventions in support of business activities. The strategy should consider the following: Market: What does the organization know about its audiences' needs? How should its audiences be segmented?

  • Message: What is it the organization's message is trying to achieve? In what tone should it be conveyed?Media: Which channels work best for the different audience segments? How will it maximize reach and cut-through? Are there clear editorial guidelines for each?
  • Measurement: Are there clearly defined success criteria? What are the leading and lagging measures? As well as informing all of the other three M's, it should be used to demonstrate value and measures of performance (ROI, message penetration, hit rates, quality of feedback, etc.

The strategy will inform the best way to organize effective communications. Five general modes of IC practice are itemised below, ranked loosely according to their position along a spectrum from tactical to strategic activities.
Message distribution
The American political scientist and communication theorist Harold Lasswell popularised the concept of the communication channel in his 1948 paper The Communication of Ideas. Formal channels typically fall into one of four broad categories: Electronic: - Communications that are delivered and/or accessed electronically, either by computer, telephone, television or other devices. Examples include email, intranet, video and webcasts, DVD, electronic newsletters, podcasts, blogs, wikis,voicemail, conference calls, SMS text messaging, screensaver messaging, Desktop alert messages, desktop news feeds and internal social media tools (e.g.: internal Twitter-style sites such as Yammer). Print: - Paper-based communications. Examples include magazines, newsletters, brochures, postcards and other 'desk drops', posters, memos, communication packs or 'toolkits' for line managers, etc. Face-to-face: - One-to-one and one-to-many forums where people are physically present. Examples include a 'cascade' of team meetings or briefings, conferences, site visits, 'back to the floor', consultation forums, 'brown bag' lunches, round-table discussions, 'town meetings', etc. Workspace: - the working environment. Examples include notice boards, plasma and LCD screens, accessories (e.g.: mousemats), window decals, etc. Informal channels reflect the non-linear dynamics of a social network and can be as influential, if not more so, than official channels, often more likely to stimulate and create discussion and dialogue. The channels may manifest themselves via the rumour-mill, water-cooler conversations, social networking, graffiti, spoof newsletters, etc.
Selecting channels
One of the key challenges any internal communicator will face is how to select the right channels - and the right mix of channels - for both the audience and the message. Bill Quirke offers a simplistic guide; See Weick for some theoretical grounds for this basic insight. The practical considerations are: Availability: what channels either already exist within the organisation or can be introduced effectively? Audience: who are they, where are they based, how do they prefer to access information and how effective will the proposed channel be in reaching them and engaging them? Objectives: what does the organisation want people to learn, think, feel or do as a result of the message? Content: what is the context and substance of the message? (For example, sensitive messages may need to be communicated face-to-face, rather than by, say, SMS text message.) Timing: how urgent is the message? (For example, communications in times of crisis which require quick dissemination of important messages.)
Traffic control
A typical large organisation IC function will be concerned to monitor and limit the quantity of information flowing through each internal channel, prioritising according to the relevance of a given message to the audience implicated in that channel, as well as the urgency and impact of the message. Such organisations typically face a risk that channels (such asintranet news, or email) are over-used for inappropriate, low value messages, causing vital audience groups to filter them out.
Channel development and administration
IC teams will often (but not always) hold responsibility for the administration and development of several of the organisation's communications channels. The range of media available is wide - and growing fast with new electronic media. Initially, IC tends to focus on the existing resources of the organization, typically an intranet, email distributions, and newsletters. One common element of channel development and administration involves managing supplier relationships - agencies external to the organization typically specialise in one main channel area, such as audiovisual, or print production.
Line manager 'cascade'
Sending information down the line to local supervisors, expecting them to deliver it without any corruption, interpretation or deviation has long been the main focus of 'cascaded' internal communications (for example, UK guidance from The Industrial Society, now the Work Foundation, focused on giving managers very clear instructions about what to say and how to say it). However, in recent years thinking has evolved and literature now concentrates on empowering managers to facilitate discussion rather than cascade management of messages which will have little authority or impact. This is a particularly strong theme in the writing of TJ and Sandar Larkin.Clampitt (2005) lists three approaches managers use to communicate with their employees. Employee communication is an important skill for all line managers, irrespective of their seniority. Like any skill it requires training and development. Often, organisations do not invest the appropriate amount of time and effort in developing managers' communications skills. Too often this leads to managers abdicating responsibility for communications to their 'internal communications department' and a lack of confidence in facilitating discussion in their teams. This raises debate around the following issues: The nature of supervisory relationships and organisational communication, The potency of managers as a channel of official communications, How best to support managers in their roles.
Social Media
Social media is becoming increasingly discussed in the field of Internal communication. However, there is little documented evidence of where it is being used successfully as part of a planned campaign of employee communications and it is often confused with digital media.
Message design and production
Basic IC services to an organization begin with editorial services - either fine-tuning messages drafted by participants in the organization, or drafting new material on their behalf. IC practitioners might simply correct basic grammar, etc., especially in organisations where many participants may be operating in their second or third language. Or they might re-work it to conform to house style or its branded equivalent, 'tone of voice'. The skillset involved relates closely to media professions such as journalism, copywriting and film or print production. Message design may be iterative, or involve a range of participants in an approvals process.
Project communications
IC practitioners may be seconded to a specific project team, to support the stages of the project that carry a communications or engagement component. Project communicators might produce a schedule of communication objectives and milestones for the project; a map of vital stakeholders (senior individuals or large groups / segments of the overall population); and a message framework to guide project participants towards a single, coherent message about their work. They might also contribute to the project's aggregate risks 'log' on the reputational risks, and work-up contingency plans covering unintended situations.
Change communications
Organizations are increasingly turning to communications to help implement change. It is useful to distinguish between change - the act of altering something within an organization (such as the introduction of a new IT system or the closure of a office) and 'transition' - the process through which an individual passes as part of the process of coping with change. The use of the two terms interchangeably causes some confusion. Change communication is often focused on logistical matters - making sure that people understand a change and how it will impact on their work and lives.
Transitional communications
Transitional communications (for want of a better term) will often draw heavily on HR thinking and practice and may reflect psychological models such as that proposed by grieving, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross). Many IC practitioners and consultants present themselves as having expertise in strategic change management. The reality is that they often get involved at a tactical level helping to communicate change messages on behalf of a wider change team.
Crisis communications
Organizations occasionally face unplanned reputational crises which can destroy brand value or even finish the organization. At such moments, the support of the internal constituency becomes especially valuable, as employees' friends and relatives seek their account of events, and as talented and motivated participants consider whether or not to remain with the organization. As with Media relations and PR, the role IC plays in a crisis can be decisive for the success or failure of an organization, as it responds to a critical challenge. Organizations with a mature IC function may have contingency planning in place, ready to be tailored to the particulars of the situation. They are also more likely to have 'well flexed', well-rehearsed line management communications capability, etc., making crisis communications more effective. Less mature IC functions may find it difficult to bring senior leaders' attention to the internal audience, when critical stakeholders such as investors or customers appear more likely to desert the organization. Although unplanned and usually under-resourced, the quality of an IC function's response in a crisis often has a decisive impact in the maturing of an IC function within an organization. Effective responses bring IC up the list of priorities for senior leaders, following the crisis.
Internal communication roles
In recent years the practice of internal communications has professionalised. There have been a number of reports on the skills and career outlooks of practitioners, including work by UK recruiters Watson Helsby and the VMA Group. In common with the Ulrich model for Human resources practice, IC may be delivered via a 'business partnering' relationship, acting as adviser to a given function or unit on IC issues relevant to the delivery of their strategic plans and projects. As a representative of the audiences with a stake in the developments under discussion, this can be both an awkward and a privileged position to occupy, requiring skills of diplomacy and objectivity.