What is Internal Communication and why does the CEO need to know?

Mark Terry - November 8, 2018
Internal Communications

Key points

  • Internal Communication builds trust with every employee
  • It is about outcomes, not activity
  • IC is about giving staff the big picture and the tools to collaborate

Internal Communication helps a company build a relationship of trust and understanding with every employee to drive productivity, innovation and loyalty.

IC has one fundamental purpose – adding value to your organisation, whether that is helping it achieve its core mission or making a success of a one-off project. Across the private, public and voluntary sectors IC is vital to the existence of every organisation.

So while it might seem counter-intuitive, a good starting point is to understand what Internal Communication is NOT.

What Internal Communication is not

IC is not shouting at staff with a constant stream of announcements, new priorities and random activity just for the sake of looking busy. It is not piling reams of information onto a groaning and chaotic intranet. It is not, in the words of IC specialists Liam FitzPatrick and Klavs Valskov[1] “making noise for the sake of it.”

Likewise, the role of an Internal Communicator is not to get feuding managers to like each other or force reluctant members of the same team to swap information.

So what is Internal Communication?

  • IC is about giving staff the big picture and the tools to collaborate.
  • It is about showing employees in disparate departments they are all part of the same endeavour, moving towards a common purpose.
  • It is about translating business strategies into practical ideas that mean something to employees on the ground.

It takes strategic thinking on the part of IC professionals to achieve this. IC has therefore become very sophisticated, with enterprise-wide engagement campaigns devised to meet specific business goals replacing the simple corporate magazines and videos of 15 years ago.

The component parts of this approach can, however, each seem quite modest rather than lofty. Printed safety posters, employee surveys, an intranet news story singing the praises of the accounts department charity cake-bakers … IC in action is hugely varied.

And an organisation’s Internal Communicators may be in-house professionals or members of a specialist consultancy brought in for their pinpoint expertise. One thing is sure and that is that IC is no longer tucked away at the back of HR. Instead it is a leadership skill required right up to CEO level.

Definition of Internal Communication

IC has been defined by academics Tench and Yeomans[2] as:

“The planned use of communications actions to systematically influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of current employees.”

Deconstructing this, we find three vital concepts: planned, systematic and influence:

  • Planned means that careful thought has gone into it.
  • Systematic implies a logical, scientific approach.
  • Influence underlines the whole point about effective IC: you have to persuade people, not just tell them what to do.

The Business Dictionary[3] defines IC as:

“The sharing of information within an organisation for business purposes.”

Here we would highlight the concepts “sharing” and “business purposes.”

“Business purposes” should always be our point of departure – how will the business benefit from this piece of work? “Sharing” resonates with the principle that IC aims for mutual understanding. It is not one-way communication. As Quirke[4] has pointed out, successful change requires more than firing off a memo.

What does good IC look like?

Good Internal Communication is about outcomes, the result of all the ”noise”, not the “noise” itself. These outcomes will differ according to the challenges facing each organisation.

  1. While one company’s top priority might be keeping its best staff from deserting to a competitor, another could be facing a battle to reduce costs and convince its staff the cuts will be in their long-term interests; Business Y might need to sell more, Business Z to persuade the community it is a good corporate citizen. Once an IC practitioner has identified their organisation’s immediate challenges, they can begin to think strategically about addressing them through targeted communication.
  2. Good Internal Communication is also a conversation where the organisation asks its employees for their views, takes their suggestions and constructive criticism into account then shows them how it has done so. It doesn’t expect every employee to agree with every management move, but to know that their opinions have been considered. Senior leadership must ensure they trust, and are seen to trust, their staff to offer feedback, even about the leaders’ performance.
  3. Good IC is often a case of the three Cs: being clear, concise and compelling:

“Essentially, the IC team has a duty to distil down the endless mission statements, strategic imperatives, call values and “must-win battles” into something that makes sense to the employee, helping them to actually do something that makes the difference.”[5]

So it is about selection rather than throwing everything into the mix, and it is about making company policies/directives/initiatives as relevant to Tom on the shopfloor as to Jill in the Boardroom, no matter how big or small a cog they are in the wheel.

Getting it wrong

IC is not a tactical fallback when emergency strikes: “We’re outsourcing customer service to a call centre and we have to tell 17 employees they’ll now be working for the catering team.” Or: “We’re getting bad press about directors’ bonuses. Can we encourage everyone to spread the word that this is a lovely place to work?” On the contrary, IC only works if it is strategic, with Internal Communicators treated as trusted counsellors, able to incorporate well-thought-out communication at every level and every stage of business life.

All for one and one for all

IC can only work effectively if it breaks down silos. You may be able to inspire employees to work together in pursuit of an overarching goal, but they also need to be motivated to do so (which is where pay/rewards and job satisfaction come in) and have the confidence that they can achieve it (which is where the right training comes in.) Information alone will not be enough to get you to “Mission Accomplished”. Internal Communicators do best when they understand the impact of their colleagues in other departments, and the need to work together productively and creatively.

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[1] Internal Communications, A manual for practitioners, Kogan Page (2014)

[2] Exploring Public Relations, Pearson (2006)

[3] http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/internal-communication.html

[4] Communicating Corporate Change: A Practical Guide, McGraw-Hill (1996)

[5] Internal Communications, A manual for practitioners, Kogan Page (2014)