Of all the company disciplines, internal communication is the most poorly defined. We all know exactly what Sales are trying to achieve. There’s no question what the role of Accounts is. And it’s very clear what happens in the Production department. But when it comes to internal communication, the clarity of purpose can be harder to pin down. It doesn’t help that there are numerous definitions floating around, each different from the other, each pulling out a different focus and function.
This has never been more apparent than during the Covid crisis. With the spotlight suddenly turned on to internal communications, it was required to perform a range of functions never before needed. The internal communications definition was now under scrutiny. Was it the role of internal communications to monitor health and wellbeing? Were internal communications now required to work seamlessly across a dispersed workforce? Should internal communications tools extend to include instant messaging in times of crisis?
This previously overlooked discipline suddenly became a crucial function of the business.
In this blog, we look at the definition of internal communication in the light of the ground-breaking events of the pandemic. We explore its various forms and drill down into the common key purposes behind them. In the post-pandemic world, it becomes clear that the internal communication definition still has many interpretations. However, behind them all is a distinct and straightforward purpose that can easily be applied to your organisation. We also explore the seven essential elements that should be addressed in every internal communication strategy.
Is it ‘Internal communication’ or ‘internal communications’?
Let’s start right at the beginning and get our terminology straight. Should it be internal communication (singular) or internal communications (plural)? Is there a difference between the two, and if so, what is that difference? In this case, there is a simple and clear-cut answer.
The comprehensive view of how a business communicates with their employees
The tools, tactics and channels that enable this internal communication
So, it’s clear that in this instance, we are defining the practice of internal communication in the singular and how this can be directed to meet your business needs.
Is internal communication the same as employee engagement?
Another query that often arises when creating an internal communication definition is the apparent cross-over with employee engagement. While there are many similarities between the two – employee communication, talking to managers, encouraging feedback, developing a strategic narrative – they are different processes. The internal communication process is quite distinct:
Internal communication is an action
It is a function that uses information and interaction to inform and motivate employees.
Employee engagement is a reaction
It is the outcome you get as a result of investing time, money and strategy into communicating with employees.
It’s also important to recognise that employee engagement is affected by issues that sit outside the internal communication remit. Salary, training, recruitment, and cultural policies will have a crucial part in the overall employee engagement levels across the company. However, the critical requirements highlighted by the pandemic remain firmly within the remit of internal communication. Those actions of informing and interacting with employees will form the basis of any post-pandemic internal communications strategy.
Some definitions of internal communication
So, what is internal communication? We have an abundance of internal communications definitions to explore. When you’re looking to define internal communication, it’s clear there are many options to choose from. Some are very simplistic in their approach; others attempt to encapsulate every element of the internal communication function. Let’s take a look at some of the options:
“The sharing of information within an organisation for business purposes.”
“The function responsible for effective communications among participants within an organisation.”
These two top-line definitions are a good starting point, focusing on the basic elements of the function of an internal communications department within an organisation. Ultimately, the fundamental role of the department is to ensure all employees are kept fully informed and up to date with company developments.
This requirement has never been more evident than at the outset of the pandemic. Businesses were suddenly forced to revaluate the effectiveness of their internal communication channels. Were they up to the challenge of reaching an unexpectedly remote workforce? If not, it was abundantly clear they needed to be.
However, if you’re looking to improve internal communication within your company, you may want to take this further. Tench and Yeomans look beyond the simple sharing of information and explore the possibility of positively influencing the mindset of employees:
“The planned use of communication actions to systematically influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of current employees.”
Tench, R and Yeomans, L Exploring Public Relations
Along these lines is the consideration that internal communication can motivate employees to improve their overall performance, as proposed by Grossman.
“To help leaders inform and engage employees, in a way which motivates staff to maximise their performance and deliver the business strategy most effectively.”
Russell Grossman, Government Communication Service Head of Profession for Internal Communications
Another crucial point is providing an opportunity for a two-way conversation between employees and management. Kevin Ruck’s definition of internal communications focuses on the importance of the employee voice being given serious consideration:
“Corporate level information provided to all employees and the concurrent provision of opportunities for all employees to have a say about important matters that are taken seriously by line managers and senior managers.”
Dr Kevin Ruck, PR Academy
While the words and focus differ with each definition, it’s clear that effective internal communication is not just a matter of sending information out. Now, more than ever, it is a strategic service. Internal communication is responsible for helping employees understand the overall company vision and motivating them into achieving your objectives.
Employers have also come to recognise that it is a listening service. It’s there to help you identify staff issues and allow you to fix problems before they start affecting your bottom line. When your workforce is dispersed and face-to-face contact is no longer possible, you need to ensure your two-way communication is operating at its maximum capacity. You’ll need to incorporate listening to successfully define internal communications in the ‘new normal’.
The 9 common key purposes
There are numerous definitions of internal communication in business, and each takes a slightly different approach. However, there are common factors that keep cropping up. These internal communication best practices and functions are fundamental to a rounded understanding of the concept. Your internal communication definition for the post-pandemic world should incorporate each of these common purposes.
Key Purpose #1: Transmitting information (and making sure it’s understood)
It may be obvious, but it’s not always easy to carry out effectively. Every internal communications plan should have a strong focus on delivering corporate information and clarifying and explaining, so it is readily understood by all. Selecting the right methods of internal communication are crucial to delivering on this point. The Covid crisis highlighted this requirement, with not just business outcomes but also the safety of staff relying on the correct interpretation of information.
Key Purpose #2: Imparting purpose (and giving employees a wider view)
The importance of internal communication is never more tangible than when employees begin to see the meaning in their work. When employees are fully informed, they can understand the impact of their role and what part they play in the bigger picture. With managers no longer actively supervising their teams in person, internal communications took on a more important role. The pandemic has made us see how fundamental this level of understanding really is.
Key Purpose #3: Sharing vision (and bringing everyone on board)
Your aim is to ensure everyone is working towards a common goal. Of all the internal communication ideas, this one is crucial to a fully aligned workforce. You need to be selling the CEO’s plan for the future of the company, and at the same time, giving employees a voice so that it becomes a shared outlook for all. Company conferences may no longer be the standard way of imparting this vision. That’s when you need to define internal communication to take on this role.
Key Purpose #4: Connecting people (and reaching every single employee)
Your internal communication channels need to be focused on building connections between leadership and employees, between departments and divisions and between individual colleagues. With a widely dispersed workforce, some working remotely and some in the office, you’ll need to break down barriers before they take hold. Consider implementing internal communications software to help you reach out to every employee. It will level the playing field and give everyone equal access to information and each other.
Key Purpose #5: Building trust (and making your leaders visible)
Authenticity and openness are crucial to success. Especially in times of tension and upheaval, you need to establish steady confidence in your leadership. When communicating change, or managing a crisis, communication from the leadership team needs to be 100% trustworthy for employees to be willing to step up to the challenge. Your internal communication definition needs to put leaders forward. Both internal and external communication works best with a face behind the message.
Key Purpose #6: Boosting morale (and recognising hard work)
A robust internal communication plan will not only inform and connect employees it will also inspire them. By building a culture of recognition and purpose, individuals will feel empowered to go above and beyond the limits of their role to serve the higher purpose of their company vision. It’s easy to overlook these ‘smaller’ ambitions when there are the pressing concerns of sustaining profits and headcount in times of turmoil. However, recognising and celebrating effort will ensure that your employees put in maximum effort. It will also boost their overall health and wellbeing.
Key Purpose #7: Collecting feedback (and giving employees a voice)
One of the common internal communication mistakes is the failure to actively listen to what your employees have to say. By implementing two-way channels that give your employee a voice and a platform to raise it, you will be fulfilling one of the critical purposes of internal communication. The internal communications app has come into its own during the pandemic. It provides an effortless way of collating feedback from every employee, wherever they may be based.
Key Purpose #8: Monitoring mood (and gathering regular insights)
One of the vital types of internal communication is the pulse survey. It’s critical to know the overall mood of your employees. By keeping a pulse on the organisation, you proactively address emerging issues and queries, correct misunderstandings, and adapt your strategy to suit. An employee app will help you conduct regular pulse surveys to check the health (both physical and mental), mood and morale of your workforce.
Key Purpose #9: Measuring impact (and knowing if your strategy is working)
Keeping a close eye on internal communication metrics is the secret to a successful strategy. If you’re looking to optimise the impact of your messaging, internal communication software will help you effortlessly monitor and track the effectiveness of your communications. Never underestimate the need to continually evaluate. The pandemic has had a positive effect in this area, with businesses becoming more aware of the need to monitor the impact of their efforts.
The 7 strategy essentials
So, now we’ve addressed the key purposes behind your strategy, let’s take a look at what a solid internal communications strategy involves:
Strategy Essential #1: It is about explaining the big picture…
Your aim is to make employees feel like true insiders. They don’t just need to know how their department has performed against this month’s sales target. They need to know how the company as a whole has performed. Beyond that, they need to understand how this will impact the company strategy moving forward. You can’t expect your teams to understand the big picture, unless you take the time to show them. The importance of internal communication really becomes apparent when you bring employees on side.
Strategy Essential #2: It is about giving staff the tools to collaborate…
If you want your employees to work together, you’ll need to provide the means for them to do so. Practically, this means implementing internal communication tools that perform flawlessly and seamlessly. Whether that means installing an intranet providing areas for sharing, organising meetings and away days, or introducing an internal communications app with built-in collaboration channels, you’ll find these opportunities are welcomed and well-used.
Strategy Essential #3: It is about remembering the frontline workers…
Frontline workers are amongst the most critical employees in the business. Whether they deal directly with customers or patients or create or deliver goods, they all make things happen. However, they are frequently the most underserved employees regarding access to communication tools and technology. Wherever your frontline workers are, you need to connect with them instantly. This is where an internal communications platform comes into play. An easy-to-implement employee app is a simple solution. It effortlessly improves communication with frontline workers, re-establishing channels and creating a network of team-building connections.
Strategy Essential #4: It is about translating strategies into ideas…
The language of business strategies can be complex and off-putting. If you want your teams to act on a new plan, you’ll need to translate it into practical ideas that mean something to your teams on the ground. Communicating change in the workplace needs to be handled carefully to prevent confusion. Make it clear what is expected with a concrete plan of action.
Strategy Essential #5: It is about two-way conversations…
Your employees need to feel their voice has been heard. Too often, internal communication is a one-way message, such as an email from the CEO with fresh new orders for the troops. To gain buy-in, your employees need a chance to have their say. An effective internal communication process is a conversation where the organisation asks its employees for their views, takes their suggestions and constructive criticism into account, then shows them how it has done so.
Strategy Essential #6: It is about the three Cs…
The best methods of internal communication always involve the three Cs: be clear, concise and compelling. As specialists Liam FitzPatrick and Klavs Valskov say; “Essentially, the internal communications team has a duty to distil down the endless mission statements, strategic imperatives, call values and “must-win battles” into something that makes sense to the employee, helping them to actually do something that makes the difference.”
Strategy Essential #7: It is about focusing on outcomes…
It is all about outcomes. Your focus is the result of all the activity, not the activity itself.
Internal communication strategies often fail because they forget to measure the success of the messages themselves. Measuring internal communications is an essential, not a nice-to-have. This will differ according to the challenges facing your organisation. For some, it may be reducing costs. For others, it may be retaining staff. The key is to identify your priorities and keep assessing the success of your internal communications accordingly.
A new approach for the post-pandemic world?
What is internal communication? At its heart, it’s about informing and connecting with your employees, ensuring they feel part of the bigger picture. Whenever you explore examples of good communication affecting a working relationship, you’ll find that employee engagement is a fundamental element for success.
Ultimately, it seems that the definition of internal communication does not need to change in light of the Covid crisis. What the pandemic has highlighted, however, is the critical importance of getting your internal communications working smoothly and effectively.
We can see that there are core elements to every internal communication strategy that define and delineate what you should be aiming to achieve. It should be seeking to align employees to the company vision by informing, influencing and engaging people across all levels of the organisation. In addition, it should be doing this by a variety of two-way communication channels which resonate and connect with every employee. Once you have this in place, you will have achieved a solid internal communication definition.