Advocacy Thought Leadership

The Value of Internal Communications Lies in Flexible, Informed Practitioners

Editor’s note: This is the 8th in a series of 12 guest posts from industry thought leaders predicting key trends that will impact the public relations industry in 2013. Hosted under the hashtag #PRin2013, the series began Jan. 7, 2013, with a compilation post previewing all 13 predictions.

It’s almost a cliché to say that organizations don’t value internal communication as much as they do external.  The fact that it’s mostly true is gravely disappointing, at least to internal communicators, who will decry management’s lack of understanding of their specialty.  In past years, you’d read that “this is the year when internal communication comes into its own,” or something similar, usually related to some sort of whiz-bang (usually electronic) communication tool.

This year, if the past two years are any indication, we will see positive changes in the perception of value of internal communication. But it will be us – the practitioners – who will have changed.

What is the role of internal communication? In most organizations, it’s disseminating information, and that accounts for the relatively low esteem such organizations have for the function. In the best organizations, the internal communicators are forging partnerships across silos, building strong relationships deep into the organization, and have the chops to serve as counselors at the highest level on the process and function of communication within the enterprise.

Internal communicators are discovering that employee engagement needs a business outcome beyond mere engagement, and they’re using research to better understand the connection between engagement and metrics outside human resources to that end. They’re acting as gatherers of business intelligence, fostering knowledge processes, and delivering value well beyond simple message delivery.

They’re not wedded to their communication tactics, opting instead for a flexible approach that shies away from trendy toys not supported by research.  They’re answering questions, such as:

  • How well do employees understand our business strategy and their role in it?
  • How connected to our organization are they?
  • What is their level of enthusiasm for us as a place to work? To what extent do they identify with us apart from their paycheck?
  • What actions do they take in support of us? Whom do they influence at and away from work?

As the internal communicator prioritizes subject matter, there’s a clear distinction between nice to do and mission critical that depends less on leadership sponsorship than receiver utility. They represent for the recipient, always asking, “what do we want people to think, feel or do as a result of this communication?” They’re not satisfied when someone answers that question with, “awareness.”

Lest we believe that these characteristics are mere pipe dreams, consider:

The most recent GAP study from the University of Southern California shows a 13% increase from 2009 in budgetary responsibility for internal communication, with a corresponding decline in product PR. Plus, measurement of communication activity impact on employee attitudes ranked second-highest after impact on reputation. Both of these findings indicate a more prominent role for internal communication in organizations.

Organizations that manage change effectively and that have effective communications are 2.5 times as likely to outperform their peers in financial performance, according to the Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI study. The study also notes that managers and leaders continue to be critical to both communication and change management success. Thus, the best internal communicators are essential partners with leadership in service of change effectiveness.  Never have internal communications been as relevant and urgently needed as today.

Organizational reputation depends so much on user experience, and user experience on direct communication with an organization’s employees.  The emerging trend, therefore, is an internal communicator who carries a robust understanding of customer service, strategy, operations and the process of communication.

We still will need peerless skills in the world of words, whether as writers or editors, and much as with journalists, we’ll need visual communication capabilities too – still and video photography, multimedia, etc.

As long as we recognize and embrace this shift, we will seize the day. We are becoming what we always wanted, and needed, to be.

Sean Williams is the owner of Communication AMMO, Inc., which helps organizations plan and execute communications effectively and measure the results. His current and past clients include Ernst & Young, Western Reserve Academy, Ketchum Pleon Change, Avery Dennison, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, and Western Financial Group. A member of the Institute for Public Relations Commission on Measurement and Evaluation, he also is an adjunct professor of Public Relations at Kent State University, and has created graduate classes in PR Measurement/ROI and social media measurement for Kent and another university.

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Sean Williams


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