Internal Communications has matured and developed as a specialist discipline within the broader communications function in recent years. And as it develops, more and more research is being conducted into both the function itself and the possibilities it holds for a business — what Internal Communications skills are best suited to the modern workplace? What should you include in an Internal Communications strategy? What channels work for which sort of employee base?
Alas, much of the talk and the work has been fairly surface-level, focusing on tactics and deployment rather than the reasons why and the overall value of the function, or of Internal Communications’ importance to the future of work, especially as the digital workplace continues to transform the way we interact with our employers and how work cultures develop.
Perhaps that’s why there has traditionally been discord between the value Internal Communications specialists put on the discipline, and the corresponding value business leaders and the C-suite put on Internal Communications. If it’s there, it’s a gap the industry needs to address urgently if it is to continue to develop and have meaningful impact on workplaces in the 21st century.
Is there a gap in the perception of Internal Communications’ importance?
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) wanted to investigate the value and effectiveness of Internal Communication on both sides of the fence, and how Internal Communications specialists can build better relationships with business leaders to better influence and shift perceptions of the industry and its value. They found that CEOs generally had a “reasonable understanding” of the value and role of Internal Communications, but that while they saw the function as strategic, their examples of strategic Internal Communications often revolved around tactics — a common problem when discussing Internal Communications’ importance.
However, when they asked CEOs which departments within their organization were most valued, unsurprisingly the majority identified operational or sales departments; while Internal Communications was important, it wasn’t key to growth or smooth running. Some CEOs, though, did acknowledge that their Internal Communications specialists were passionate, had belief in the organization, and wanted to make employees feel good — all valuable things, if not strategically important on face value.
Things are changing, though. Research by VMA Group, quoted by the CIPR, found 77% of Internal Communications specialists felt that CEOs and MDs truly valued the function of Internal Communications. Why, then, is there a perception of a gap in how the C-Suite and Internal Communications specialists view the function? Is it simply down to the debate around strategy vs tactics currently taking place — that the more tactics-focused businesses don’t feel they are seen as strategically important — or maybe a lack of confidence in the IC function?
Internal Communications specialists are pushing Back
Mike Klein — Principal of Changing The Terms, Chair of IABC in the EMENA region, and author of Happeo’s Present and Future of Internal Communication research series — believes the tide is turning as Internal Communications specialists are pushing back on their business leaders’ expectations.
Klein — whose final report for Happeo looks at how Internal Communications is changing in a powerful, substantial and decisive way — writes on LinkedIn: “In line with wider belief in IC’s impact is the seed of a shift in how business perceives IC’s value. In various places, IC professionals are pushing back when management demands ROI analyses and projections from communication activity — asking leaders to calculate what the value of communication input would be for a given intervention, or the risks involved if it were communicated badly or inadequately.”
He says this “pushback” is important on several levels:
“It represents an unprecedented empowerment of the IC professional — to challenge leaders to put a number on how their assistance is valued instead of having to justify it defensively.”
“It gets leaders to put some “skin into the game” and assign value to the IC role.
“It provides grounds for prioritization — a crucial addition as IC professionals are otherwise often given little guidance or scope to de-prioritize interventions that add little value other than to tick some manager’s box.”
Klein continues: “It’s also important, especially for leaders, to remember that IC expenditures tend to be tiny compared to spend on comparable activities like external communication, marketing, sales incentives, recruitment advertisement and new-hire bounties. A change in attitude towards IC from it being a small cost center to a highly-efficient driver of value and leverage could make a huge difference, without resulting in massive financial cost or deep organizational restructuring.”
Bridging the gap: Talking the language of the C-Suite
At the risk of repeating ourselves over and over again, when it comes to being seen as more strategic and business-focused there are a few essentials tasks to take care of:
Build a business case and link it to the overarching strategy
Develop KPIs and objectives that clearly impact the business in a real way
That last bit is especially important. When it comes to Internal Communications’ importance, it’s about outcomes, not tactics. Focus on the change you want to effect internally, and then ladder back to how you can achieve that change. Don’t just think about what you should publish on the intranet today; think about how the intranet can help you to achieve those outcomes.
You know what else is important? Thinking outside the little IC box. IC guru Advita Patel told us how she took a course on finance for non-finance people to learn more about the terminology used by the CFO’s department, and how she can now sit around the board table and not only follow the conversation, but also have meaningful input. If you don’t understand what the financial or overarching business strategic targets are and why they’re important, how can you communicate them and add value to the business?
Here’s the technology bit
In the aforementioned CIPR research, one CEO in the tech industry says: “Internal communication should be pervasive across what we do. I think that’s something that is often missed. It isn’t a single vehicle, it’s not a single document you send — it has to be right across all your activities — a framework that defines how we interact with all our employees.”
That’s where Internal Communications platforms and methods can help practitioners to build business cases, be visible and prove the strategic importance of what they do. By harnessing collaboration and communication technology such as your G Suite intranet, you can get the hard stats that prove business growth correlates with IC campaigns and employee experience.
The only question left, then, is which Board member you start getting on board first.