The changing face of internal comms

“Internal communications has advanced a long way from the house journals of yesteryear”, says Paul Baines, professor at Cranfield University, as he describes how companies these days better appreciate the value of management-employee relations and its role in a company’s success. He adds that one reason for this is because organisations need to adapt more quickly to change than their competitors in a fast-evolving world.

Internal PR plays an important role during mergers and acquisitions, strategy development programmes, and re-branding/positioning initiatives. The problem is getting employee buy-in, as Baines illustrates through examples: “Employees are not always particularly supportive of their employer brand, as occurred for a period inside the NHS. Such a lack of internal support can then leak out in the quality of customer service or in social media gaffes, as occurred with disgruntled HMV workers who had been sacked when the company went into administration in 2013. Staff loyalty becomes particularly important during difficult trading periods, especially when other staff are being laid off.”

“However, newer techniques are becoming increasingly important from internally-focused crowd-sourcing schemes (for new product/service development as undertaken by the UK Coalition government on entering power when looking for public service cost-cutting initiatives), to corporate responsibility programmes designed to engage staff in ‘good’ and cohesion-inducing initiatives (such as Kellogg’s breakfast club for disadvantaged kids initiative), to internal noticeboards like Yammer, which allow staff to interact much better.”

Value-based branding

Baines believes that internal comms will becoming increasingly important in the future as firms shift away from branding based on attributes to branding based on the organisation’s value system: “If you don’t believe me, consider Starbuck’s statement when it came under pressure to pay more corporation tax in 2013. It was frightened not only of losing customers, but valuable staff as well.”

What pleases Laura House, head of change and internal communications at PR agency H+K Strategies, is that the huge changes in internal comms over the last ten years mean that the days of having to spend large chunks of time in new client meetings explaining why employee engagement is a good thing are now over. Discussing today’s main challenges, she says: “In 2014, many organisations are under massive media scrutiny as well as facing unprecedented financial pressures and much higher consumer expectations. This in turn puts pressure on employees and especially on leaders, so culture has a bigger role than ever in terms of guiding employee behaviour to safeguard reputation and build the brand.”

Technological disruptions

House says that while the world is better connected than it ever has been before, this opens up the door to risk as well as opportunity as, outside work, employees may be sharing all kinds of messages about their company that have the potential to either make or break the corporate reputation.

Meanwhile, inside their organisation, they may be struggling with technology that just isn’t as intuitive or robust as they’re used to, massively limiting opportunities for collaboration. But House has a simple tip: “Before doing anything, think about the outcome first. What do you want to be different?”

According to Liam FitzPatrick, managing partner at internal communications consultancy AgendaStrategies, there have been two major changes in internal comms recently: “First, the number of skilled professionals who are focused on it has bloomed! In the past it was a job often given to some harmless old buffer who was seeing out their career and needed a job where they couldn’t do any harm. Now, at every level, there are skilled people who know what they are talking about. Second, PR consultancies have woken up to the fact that internal comms matters to comms directors and are offering these services. The question is whether the PR agency model can cope with internal comms where you need an intimate knowledge of the audience and its history – something that isn’t easy to acquire.”

Engage, engage and engage

The main challenge for internal PR practitioners these days according to Kevin Ruck, co-founder of training provider, The PR Academy, is: “to connect what they do with employee engagement and business change. Some people think the ‘engagement’ word is tricky and it’s best not to think about it. However, 70 per cent* of business leaders believe that engagement is critical, so it cannot be ignored.”

Technology is all well and good for connecting people, but Ruck emphasises the importance of traditional approaches: “There is no substitute for senior managers getting out and about, listening to what employees have to say and explaining how the business is progressing. My tip for best practice is simple. Invest some time and resource into finding out what employees think about internal communication and develop some measurable objectives for practice. That is the path to greater professional recognition.”

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