Gerard Corbett

Should We Take the “Internal” Out of Internal Communications?

By: Gerard Corbett | October 22, 2014 | 

Should We Take the "Internal" Out of Internal Communications?

By Gerard Corbett

“Internal communications” is an anachronism.

Born from the recognition that employees were becoming a critical constituency, companies at the turn of the century began establishing internal communications departments to develop employee morale.

According to one historical source, internal communications was a mechanism to help employees understand a company’s mission and instill a sense of pride in the organization.

The method of implementation varied, of course, depending upon politics and the persuasion of the CEO in command.

Sometimes it resided with “human resources,” or more affectionately, “employee relations,” and often it was located in legal or corporate communications.

In this pro’s experience, corporate communications was always the best department for handling specialized employee or internal communications, because nothing succeeds like consistency.

Should We Let Go Of Internal Communications?

These days, however, it seems to be a hodgepodge of organizational dysfunction and redundancy.

How well the function operates depends on which way the winds are blowing, who’s in charge, and what are the priorities and politics of the boss.

Taking a page from Richard Edelman’s manifesto that “Communications Marketing” is the next wave, maybe it’s time to let go of “internal” and “employee” as modifiers of communications to employees and simply designate the umbrella term of “communications.”

Here are some reasons why.

Information in this Century is Realtime, Ubiquitous, and Instantaneous

There is no need to isolate and insulate.

Because of the speed of information, people have many channels and avenues to get information when it transpires.

It is best given directly from the source to those for which it is most critical when it happens.

Employees are Stakeholders

Employees can influence the movement of shares as much as they can sway the effect on customers.

They are the front line and should be treated and honored as other constituents.

Employees are Adults

Employees are educated, intelligent, and decision makers.

They are not to be coddled, cuddled, or conscripted.

Employees are Equal

They are as significant as stockholders, media, analysts, government officials, and executives, to name a few.

Their stature is no less than any other constituent.

They have a stake and can use it responsibly.

Employees are No Longer Mushrooms

No doubt you understand the comparison.

That said, the sunlight of full disclosure is the best disinfectant.

If the employee is trustworthy enough to hire, treat them as you would other favored constituents.

Employees Know More than You Think

Even without your formal communications strategy.

Given all the facts, employees will surprise you every time with their information, insight, innovation, and intuition.

This is even more evident in many of the start-ups emanating from the innovation capitals around the globe.

Many times the front line is where the magic happens, so open the floodgates and convey ownership and dialogue equally to all constituents.

So, is it really about “internal” communications anymore?

About Gerard Corbett

Gerard (Gerry) F. Corbett is Founder, Chair and CEO of Redphlag LLC , a strategic branding and communications services and counseling firm. Gerry also is an Instructor on Personal Branding at UC Berkeley, Extension. Gerry has more than four decades of technology, PR and marketing experience in several Fortune 200 firms, is past chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America and an avid photographer, career coach and blogger.

  • DaveMinella

    I’ve been advocating for this exact change since I began at my current company. My department is formally know as the Public Relations and Internal Communications Department, and aside from the fact that I hate constantly writing/typing that entire phrase, it just seems a bit redundant and overly specific.

  • Terrific post. The phrase that screams at me is “employees know more than you think.” So very true!

  • Excellent post. I love the idea of dropping “internal” and just communicate with people.

  • JimHolben

    I enjoyed this post. Being in agency PR, I can’t provide that much insight, I am just curious if Internal Communication is still prominent at larger companies to ensure consistent messaging to employees?

  • This is great. I was thinking just from the title, too, how often companies get in trouble saying things to their employees they’d be embarrassed to have get out. And of course, they often do.

    Different topic than what you’re writing about, but I do think it’s interesting to think about it all together …

  • I would say yes, but I’ve found that communicating with employees is still an afterthought in a lot of companies. The last two big crises I was brought into, they said the same thing: they’d been working on the external strategy for months but it only recently occurred to them that they needed an internal strategy, too. So folding it in with PR, either in name or function, could mean it just gets lost.

  • I too am a fan of the ‘internal’ communications under the corporate communications umbrella for the reason you stated, consistency in messaging, not to be insulated or isolated but respected and informed as you would any of your stakeholder groups.

  • biggreenpen Liking the new avatar Paula 😉

  • annelizhannan Thus my post!  The urge to raise awareness of this issue prompted my thinking!

  • RobBiesenbach Rob, for many companies it is an afterthought.  But in today’s instantaneous world all stakeholders are vital and should be treated as such.

  • gerardcorbett

    RT ginidietrich: What do you think? Where does internal communications belong? See what has to say gerardcorbett

  • PRJobCoach

    RT ginidietrich: What do you think? Where does internal communications belong? See what has to say gerardcorbett

  • shelholtz

    Employees who work for companies with high levels of engagement routinely say their companies communicate effectively with them. In fact, companies with strong internal communications are four times more likely to have large populations of engaged employees. 

    Where the department resides isn’t important; support for strategic internal communications is. I’ve encountered brilliant communications efforts from departments reporting to Corporate Communications, HR, and even Legal. I’ve also seen awful internal communications emanating from those same functions. Ideally, internal communications reports directly to the CEO, but alas…

    In any case, a strategic internal communication plan well executed can create alignment and line-of-site that are so vital to organizational success. The information needs of employees are unique and different from those of other audiences, so a dedicated function is indispensable.

  • Shel:
    Your points are well taken. My point in composing the post was to raise the fact that employees are a critical and vital constituency. And you are on point in saying that alignment is vital to organizational success. That said, a key driver is leadership at the top and how employees are viewed and treated by the person at the top. I am not convinced that the information needs of employees are so unique that it requires a separate function. All constituencies are vital to organizational success. Authentic, open and frequent communications to all audiences should be de rigueur.

  • shelholtz

    gerardcorbett I disagree that the information needs of employees aren’t all that unique. They need to be able to apply broad messages to their jobs. Employees — notably those at lower levels — relate to their work through their engagement with their work teams, project teams, and their relationships with their immediate supervisors. Most employees at lower levels and remote from headquarters generally couldn’t care less about the general news that gets shared with external stakeholders — I know this from vast experience conducting focus groups, surveys, and interviews. They need localized information that is never crafted for external audiences, and they need interpretation of broad news and issues that help them understand what it means to their own jobs. 

    That said, anybody who thinks internal communications is the crafting and delivery of content one-way — that it’s just reporting — doesn’t understand a thing about internal communications!

  • Gerry, thank you so much for spending part of your day with us here! I recently had a friend ask me why we use “reputation management” in our industry because, to him, it seems like it’s slimy and dark to say we manage reputations. He has a point and I relate that to you for the same reason I think “internal” could very well be dropped. The important part is that we communicate with employees and treat them like adults. I remember when the economy tanked and I had to lay off half my staff. I wanted to protect them from the ugly truth when it was happening, but I discovered they much preferred to be told the truth…that more than half of our clients had given notice. Once I became 100% transparent, we worked together as a team to find solutions. Solutions I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

  • ideakid88

    ginidietrich gerardcorbett We need more than a name change, we need an attitude change to achieve the benefits of good comms to staff.

  • pwsoneil

    Thanks for the the provocative article, but I do not agree with the premise. Employees do have very unique communication and information needs. Some met by execs and managers, some by coworkers and some by HR. But facilitation and coordination of this information is critical, especially in larger organizations. Employees drive the brand. Information and communication drive the culture that delivers it. While you note in the comments that you want to raise the importance of employees as a stakeholder, the practice of internal communication needs more attention, not obfuscation inside the corporate structure to ensure it achieve maximal effects.  I also many of Shel’s thoughts stated in the comments below.

  • NTerryCareer

    MeghanMBiro ginidietrich YES! love this “Employees can influence the movement of shares as much as they can sway the effect on customers.”

  • pwsoneil

    sorry meant to say, “I also AGREE with many of Shel’s thoughts stated in the comments below.”

  • ginidietrich Gini, you are always welcome.  Spin Sucks is the ultimate platform for cogent thought and healthy debate.  I appreciate the opportunity to sound off on this type of issue.  I also agree with your thinking.  Transparency and authenticity always rule the day.  No one has ever been able to convince me otherwise in my four decades of working in this business.  If the company is open, transparent and real, employees will respond in kind.  (I know there are exceptions.)

  • shelholtz Once again Shel, good thoughts.  And by the way, no one was suggesting “one way.”  Not sure where you picked up that assumption.

  • Darryl Mead

    Thanks for covering this topic and I too agree with a lot of what you’ve covered. I’m about to go into a new role leading internal communications for a brand where that term doesn’t quite sit right with the spirit of the brand. It feels too corporate, but I’ve struggled to find another title that works better. Making it just Communications risks conflicting with the marketing and customer comms, but I guess that should help achieve the right customer and brand outcomes?

    It’s not about internal comms, its about adult conversations. 

    Anyway – great post.

  • shelholtz

    Hi, Gerry. I wasn’t suggesting that anyone here was calling for one-way communication with employees. It is, however, something I’ve often heard in the past. I’ve also encountered many employee communications departments who define their mission as “keeping employees informed.” It’s important, of course, but just one dimension among many that distinguish internal communications from other types.

    I appreciate your surfacing the issue and sparking the discussion!

  • shelholtz Appreciate the point Shel.  Thanks for raising it.  Frankly, one way communications should have ended years ago.  It is sad in that some firms “one way” is an ongoing practice.  However, enlightened managements know that communications involves eyes, ears, and lips.  Listening today to all constituencies is as vital as speaking with them, sometimes it is more important.

  • I’m not sure where this conversation gets us.

    Surely the location of IC depends on the organisation and the problems its faces.  A firm with serious issues about quality or safety might have one view, another which needs sting external advocacy might see it another way and when its about employee engagement and retention maybe the HR team is a good home?

    In other words, strategic communicators belong where they add strategic value.

    The point about the porosity of your reputation is well made, but I can’t think of many organisations where the need to control or influence what staff say outside is of more strategic value than say getting them excited about the job in hand, helping them deliver more because they are involved in work or are safe at work because they understand the risks of what they do.

  • Bob Bennett

    I agree this is a great topic of conversation, but I propose that the need for internal communication still exists for the reasons illustrated in the blog:

    – Information is almost real time, but the few minutes or days ahead of time that an employee hears about things the better they feel. One of the gripes anyone has, employee, spouse, friend, etc., is why didn’t you tell me. It bulds trust.
    – Employees are your most important stakeholder and should be reinforcing the message when it is announced ‘externally’ not trying to understand it or defend it. A very positive impact on customers.
    – Employees are equals, and consequentially should have the information at the same time as the ‘insiders’ do, otherwise they may feel as though they are considered the same as an ‘outsider.’
    – Employees are not mushrooms. They have a lot to contribute and should be asked/informed of decisions before they are announced so appropriate modifications and enhancements can be included.
    – Employees know more than you think. This reinforces the point above, but also quells the ‘rumor mill,’ eliminating speculation and replacing it with fact.

    Brand (what you do) is important, but reputation (how you do it) is even more of a necessity. It is the employees that deliver that reputation, but management must start by creating the culture that allows that to happen – and I believe that includes keeping employees participating and informed.

  • LiamFitzpatrick It gets us a healthy debate, lots of discussion and more people thinking about it.  So thank you!

  • Gerry and all — Several thoughts here – some of which will relate to a trio of posts on the Institute for PR’s site I’ve pasted below. 

    I believe that at the heart of the “erase the distinctions” thinking is that every form of communication is, in the end, all about marketing — selling stuff. One professor friend of mine says that’s why he is a fan of PR persuasion and integrated marketing communications. At the end of the day, he claims, we need to sell more stuff. 

    This thinking short-changes nearly every significant and important contribution of reputation management, issues management, community relations, government relations and, importantly, internal communications.  It advances customer acquisition to the forefront of organizational mission when we know that organizations who behave in that way lose the moral permission to operate. 

    All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing. 

    Secondly, in organizations where internal communication as a function is absorbed by other departments, it inevitably gets poorer. In four organizations I know of, the person leading communications has no clue about internal comms, no interest in internal comms and no concept of its value. (Hence the third of the links below.)

    Finally, the only way one can conscience eliminating the function as a separate piece is if we can make internal comms so intrinsic to leadership that it’s not needed. When managers and supervisors consider communication implications of their decisions, engage in real dialogue, think longer- rather than shorter-term, then we can declare the End of Internal Comms. — Dr. Ana Tkalac’s initial salvo on internal comms — Ward White’s follow up post on Dr. T’s thoughts — My additions to both of these posts

  • Interesting article that’s certainly got people thinking.
    Internal Comms has never been truly internal. Any good IC pro knows that. We always take into account the various external and third-parties who have a say and interest in the inner-workings of our companies e.g. suppliers, customers, contractors, works councils and unions.
    That’s certainly been the case over the past 12 years I’ve been working in this field and will continue to be. What’s changed is our role – from creating to curating conversations internally as everyone is empowered to have a say about the reality of their workplace.
    They’ve always had a voice, it’s just companies are finally realising the importance of active listening and acting on it.
    The mushroom scenario you so eloquently described has never been truer. Employees don’t wait to be told info. That’s not new – they never have.
    People have their own opinions, beliefs, preferred communication styles and strength of feelings, that doesn’t stop when they come to work.
    Assuming any internal comms stays internal is foolhardy, I often say you’re only ever an employee magazine left on public transport away from a headline.
    My view? There’s always a need for companies to be transparent, to trust their employees and communicate with them. That’s with – not to and not for – but with.
    Good effective IC requires two-way conversations, and for employees to know that given the plethora of sources to obtain info about the company they are employed by, that they have a single source of truth.
    Regardless of what moniker you choose, reporting lines, budgets etc, in my experience a company without a dedicated focus on internal comms tangles itself up in mistrust, rumours and speculation. They still exist in companies with a comms focus, but the accountability for the single source of truth I’ve mentioned is there, and I see the tangible results that brings time and again.
    Always good to have this discussion, it’s not going away as it’s too important to ignore the importance of good comms to drive business success.
    Rachel Miller, @AllthingsIC.

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