‘Getting’ Internal Comms – do your colleagues and leaders understand what you do?

30 July 2020 | James Blake

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“Ah yes, internal comms… you send out those emails, don’t you,” a senior colleague once said to me.

Not only were ‘those emails’ just a small part of months of hard work putting the communications around a massive office relocation together, but he was also speaking to me at the end of a successful internal event about the subject.

He’d just had the opportunity to quiz the Chief Executive directly about the relocation. He’d just seen an animated video all about the benefits of the move and how each team’s needs were being looked after.

And he was also holding an illustrated brochure explain the relocation in more detail.

“So how many are there of you in internal comms? Two?” he furthered.

“What does the other person do?”

Sound vaguely familiar? Do your colleagues ‘get’ internal comms? Or do they think it’s all surveys and laminated posters in the lifts?

Does it matter if they don’t, providing business messages are reaching them and that they feel part of your organisation?

Internal comms ‘just happens’, doesn’t it?

According to the feedback from our Internal Comms Director Carly Murray’s increasingly famous LinkedIn industry posts, it seems that ‘fluffy’ internal comms is still one of those things which ‘just happens’.

Sometimes it can be treated like the poor relation, the dowdier cousin of flash external communications teams with their fancy media lists and shiny press releases.

Some will say it’s better than it used to be, and COVID-19 has certainly put internal comms in the spotlight like never before. But how often have you heard, ‘we better send out an email to everyone’ suggested as an internal comms strategy at the end of the meeting when everyone was packing up?

Carly’s post provided a fascinating glimpse into the I/C world from your perspective.

And the struggle, it seems, is real folks.

Perhaps before we start asking why people don’t get it, we need to try and define what internal communication is and what it does? A pretty standard definition is that it’s the overarching view of how a company communicates with the participants in its organisation (thanks Wikipedia!).

But that only really tells half the story – according to you, it’s about storytelling, stakeholder management even behavioural science. Internal comms gives clarity where there’s confusion, explains what, how, and to who messages should be shared, it influences and shapes people’s work experiences and drives change.

Internal comms is critical to brand trust, advocacy and reputation too.

So that’s what my other colleague was doing all this time!

As Communications and Engagement Consultant Lindsey Simpson from Spark Team Communications said in the post’s comments; “Most organisations wouldn’t dream of not having an external communication function of some kind. They see the value and the need to plan, resource, measure and evaluate to make sure activity meets business goals.

“Internal is just the same, except your audience is your people who are actually delivering for you. Great IC rarely happens by accident.”

How would you frame your definition of internal comms?

What don’t people get and how we can help them?

It seems internal comms teams are more often than not judged on their outputs and not outcomes. As my colleague confirmed people see the email, see the poster and attend the event, but have no idea of the work that has gone on behind the scenes, the meticulous planning, strategising or the behavioural science behind it.

Perhaps people don’t need to see the workings if the result is engaging, relevant and results in inspiring messages being sent out that improve understanding and drive action.

Perhaps people don’t need to get it at all so long as the internal comms helps leadership to understand what, when and how they actually need to communicate and the power brilliant communication can have?

But then does this more service function approach just add weight to internal comms being seen as a bit of an add-on, a bit of a luxury item? Surely it does the brilliance and experience of internal comms teams a disservice when they should be leading the conversations about change, or the campaigns which need employees on board.

Andrew Hesselden, Director of Coralfish Communications, perhaps hit the nail on the head in the post.

“What people don’t get about internal comms is that people broadcasting have channel preferences that are often different to the preferences of those receiving. That multi-channel is cumulative, and that’s distinct from being repetitive. That sending, clicking, receiving, reading, understanding, and buying-into are six completely different things. That we measure with purpose in order to take corrective action not simply for gratification, and that you have to win people’s attention and can’t always take it for granted.”

Even after COVID, when the perceived value of internal comms teams rocketed, a little of bit internal comms PR is still needed it seems.

It’s incredible how successfully delivering on a board member’s goals, and objectives can give an internal comms team’s image a boost.

It can be a penny dropping moment, especially if that board member’s only concern is the financial performance of the business. If what you do in changing the values, culture, and vision affects their own goals and objectives, then as an internal comms team, you won’t be short of internal advocates.

Leaders need to be seen to be leading – internal comms teams can facilitate that and prove their worth at the same time.

Advocacy starts at the top

Where internal comms ‘sits’ in the business, and which directorate it reports into is important. As is the value of having a CEO and director who gets it and understands that nothing can be done if employees and teams don’t know what’s happening and aren’t engaged with it.

So, it helps if the internal comms teams report into a director who understands what they do, because Internal comms often still needs someone to pad up and go into bat for them with other SLT members.

Is it where internal comms sits or who leads it that can drive positive perception? Most internal comms professionals can recount tales of when they were aligned to and nestled in cosily with HR.

It’s easy for internal comms projects to be tucked into a locked drawer or be viewed just through an HR lens while ‘their’ policies are given the full light of day, even though internal comms is a crucial driver of employee engagement.

Tagged onto the external comms team or even marketing (shudder!) can be a surefire way to guarantee internal comms updates come last at the daily scrum agendas too.

While reporting directly into the CEO can give internal comms visibility and clout, it’s only a benefit if the CEO understands internal comms and how it affects the bottom line.

Even then, you might need to keep continually reminding them about why internal comms is so crucial in driving your employee value proposition and for retaining and attracting talent.

Having a committed and passionate advocate responsible overall for internal comms, whether they are the CEO or not and who can make sure internal comms are involved in projects and campaigns right from the get-go is key it seems.

Of course, we know you’re brilliant creative people who are leading change and driving your businesses forward with great internal comms projects.

We understand the hard work and talent that drives each and every campaign.

Even if your colleagues don’t (yet!)