Is there a strategy issue in Internal Communications?

Internal Communications

Is there a strategy issue in Internal Communications?

Jonathan Davies


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4 mins read

Wed, Aug 7, '19  

It’s one of the rallying cries of the Internal Communications profession: stop being so tactic-driven and start being more strategic. So many column inches are devoted to the topic that it’s hard to keep up.

Those seeking to influence Internal Communications specialists are forever writing about what an Internal Communications strategy is, how to develop one, how to measure success, and more.

Is it a real crisis, though? Or is it a bunch of bluster from people who want to feel more important by sitting in the boardroom and talking turkey with the C-suite?

Some experts believe it’s really real: they say in order to be taken more seriously and get the budget, resource and kudos they need to do their jobs, Internal Communications specialists need to become much more strategic. They have to understand how businesses work. They need to convey Internal Communications’ importance by giving senior leaders more than just vanity metrics, by getting more into the behavioral impact Internal Communications strategy can have on employees and, by extension, the wider business.

But to say that risks demeaning the profession, and those Internal Communications specialists working hard to make a difference.

Those same Internal Communications specialists that “must” become more strategic are also bogged down in tactics. They want to be more strategic, but they’re tasked with publishing to the intranet, organizing town halls and all-hands calls, creating campaigns for awareness or to incite action. If they’re lucky, they might have an annual plan they can point to; many fly by the seat of their pants, only able to be reactive rather than proactive. 

It’s hard to think more strategically, to develop long-term plans that align with the wider business, when you have daily and weekly targets to meet, or when you’re expected to drop everything when a senior leader decides they want to communicate. 

The experts say yes, there is an Internal Communications strategy problem

We asked Mike Klein — Internal Communications specialist; Chair of the IABC’s Europe, Middle East and North Africa arm; and author of Happeo’s Present and Future of Internal Communications research series — for his thoughts on why Internal Communications specialists and true Internal Communications strategy can sometimes be separated by a chasm. He saw three wider themes emerging: the demand from on high for deliverables; the expectation that Internal Communications specialists will be able to tackle both the minutiae and the blue sky thinking; and the question of what we actually mean when we talk about strategy in Internal Communications.

Says Klein: “In many organizations, there is a bit of an anti-strategic vicious circle,” he says. “A senior stakeholder asks for a campaign and a deliverable; they expect it to be delivered, and the communicator delivers it without substantial question, either about its specification or its applicability to an overall approach.

“The over-specification of Internal Communications roles is also a factor, as demands for a practitioner with expertise in niche execution skills reflects pressure to get the most bang for the buck from new hires. It's not impossible to find someone who is both extremely multi-skilled and strategic, but it's also not likely that such a person would have the time and space to learn the business, develop senior relationships and drive selective prioritization."

“Finally, the question of strategy in Internal Communications is a bit muddled as the conversation often veers from discussion about how to communicate company strategy to developing an Internal Communications strategy to making strategic choices about how to deploy limited resources. Organizational strategies, in turn, are also often muddled as leaders may lack the will or permission to drive prioritization and alignment with values, purpose, mission and vision, or even with the thrust of the organization's strategy itself.”

Remember, tactics are still important

So what’s the problem here? Is it that Internal Communications specialists are lacking strategy in their list of essential skills for the role? Or is it a time thing — they’d love to be more strategic, but resources mean even the Head of IC is getting their hands dirty with low-level deliverables?

“The discussion around strategy is an important one, however it can often inadvertently come across as derogatory about tactics,” says Helen Deverell, Internal Communications specialist and Director of HD Comms. “Without tactics we wouldn’t be able to communicate, so they are an essential element of what an internal communication function does." 

“However, for the tactics to have an impact, they need to be supported and directed by a robust strategy. The role of a senior internal communicator absolutely needs to be a strategic one and internal communicators in less senior roles need to understand that strategy must form a part of their professional development.” 

“Time is also an issue,” Helen continues. “Organizations can be chaotic which leads to internal communicators firefighting, leaving them little time to think, let alone create a comprehensive strategy. However, the irony is that if you had a strategy, you’d be less reactive and have more time for the things that matter.” 

“The impact of not having a strategy is huge. Without clear objectives we can’t measure the impact we’re having, and it will be much harder to convince leaders that we are an integral business function.”

The verdict, then? Internal Communications leaders must take a leading role in aligning the function with the overarching business strategy, ensuring the C-suite understands the important role Internal Communications plays in guiding employee behavior. But it’s equally important for those Internal Communications leaders to have a supporting team — however large or small — to help them put that Internal Communications strategy into practice. Someone needs to do the aligning and the blue sky thinking, but someone else needs to lead on the deliverables, those tangible things that will help prop up the strategy and make the dream a reality. 

Internal Communications is perhaps the one function in an organization that truly touches everyone. Without thinking strategically, those Internal Communications specialists are just treading water, helping to keep the boat sailing but doing so without a rudder. Internal Communications strategy is what helps steer the boat, keeping it in time with the other boats around it and making the organization’s flotilla as impressive and robust as it can possibly be. 

The question now is: how can you balance the need for strategy and tactics while also having time for work/life balance. We’ll leave that one for next time…