What is Internal Communication? Getting Back to Basics

Stuart Sinclair - February 12, 2020

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a fresh look at your work. Sometimes you need to step back and consider whether what you are doing is really effective. This is especially true of internal communications.

It’s all too easy to fall into a rut with your internal communications strategy, especially as it is rarely allocated top priority in either time or budgets. It’s tempting just to keep on doing what you’ve always done. But, when handled poorly,internal communication plans can actually do more harm than good. So let’s get back to basics and really address what we’re trying to do.

What Internal Communication is NOT

A good starting point is to clarify what you should not be doing with your internal communication strategy.

It’s not about making lots of noise…

Don’t fire out messages just to look busy. A constant stream of announcements, new priorities and news updates will have a negative effect. Information overload is a very real problem in the modern office and employees will cut off if you constantly bombard them with unnecessary messages. Effective internal communication is not, in the words of experts Liam FitzPatrick and Klavs Valskov [1] “making noise for the sake of it.”

It’s not about imposing cooperation…

You can’t force feuding managers to like each other. Equally, you can’t pressure reluctant team members to swap information. Ultimately, your role is to introduce clear internal channels of communication, which will hopefully lead to greater understanding and cooperation between employees. But it is not the role of internal communications to enforce rules which could lead to additional stress and resentment. Don’t step over that line.

It’s not about fire-fighting…

A common mistake is to view internal communication as a tactical fallback when emergency strikes. For example: “We’re getting bad press about Directors’ bonuses. Can we encourage everyone to spread the word that this is a lovely place to work?” Your strategy has to be long term, strategic and cooperative. Yes, your employees can be your best advocates in times of trouble, but only if you’ve already put in the work to gain their trust and loyalty.

A Definition of Internal Communication

Now we know what to avoid, it’s time to get to grips with the academics’ definition:

“The planned use of communications actions to systematically influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of current employees.”

Tench and Yeomans[2]

This can be broken down into three vital concepts:

  1. Planned – communications with careful thought and consideration behind them
  2. Systematic – communications that follow a logical and organised approach
  3. Influence – communications that persuade, rather than command

Put all these three elements together and you’ll automatically improve your internal communications.  

30 ideas to engage your employees and transform your business.

What Internal Communication IS

Let’s take a look at what a strong internal communications strategy actually involves:

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 on the company strategy moving forward. You can’t expect your teams to understand the big picture, unless you take the time to show them.

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 opening channels of communication. 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.

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 strategy, 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 in order to prevent confusion. Make it clear what is expected with a concrete plan of action. 

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. In order to gain buy-in, your employees need a chance to have their say. Effective internal communication 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.

It is about the three Cs…

Good internal communication always involves 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.” [1]

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. This will differ according 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.

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[1] Internal Communications, A manual for practitioners, Kogan Page (2014)

[2] Exploring Public Relations, Pearson (2006)