Internal communication: everything you need to know...
Gain a clear view of what internal communication is, how
to get it right, and the benefits you can start to enjoy.
Like a human being, a company has to have an internal communication mechanism, a 'nervous system', to coordinate its actions.Bill Gates
In most organisations, the internal communication (IC) team has little margin for error. In John Kotter’s Leading Change, it was estimated that over six months, a typical employee is deluged with 2.3 million words of communication in the workplace. Over the same period, communication about a strategic project is likely to average 13,400 words, which includes:
In short, the critical strategic project gets just 0.5% of their attention. It’s up to internal communicators to make sure that message is clear and to the point. We look at how to do just that, along with many more things, in this everything you need to know guide.
This page is packed full of useful, up-to-date information. We look at the key concepts behind successful internal communication, but, just as importantly, provide plenty of practical guidance for you to apply in the real-world. Essentially, we show you how to help your business influence the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours of your current employees for the better.
But the biggest idea of all?
It’s that the core purpose of internal communication is to identify and share company goals so that employees know what they are working towards.
Always let that principle steer your approach, but, if you were to remember only one more thing, let it be this:
Every internal communication must bring change, or you have wasted your time.
We’ve centred this page around three key areas:
Kicking off with two authorities on the subject, academics, Tench and Yeomans, define internal communication as:
The planned use of communications actions to systematically influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of current employees.
That word “planned” is crucial; indeed, Roger D’Aprix explained that taking the strategic viewpoint is critcial, in his book Communicating For Change.
Meanwhile, the Business Dictionary goes with:
The sharing of information within an organisation for business purposes.
Building on all three definitions, and throwing in a good few years’ experience, we generally distil our definition to three points:
Internal communication is about outcomes, not activity, and aims to build trust with every employee.
Internal communication is not shouting at staff with a constant stream of announcements, new priorities, and random activity just for the sake of looking busy.
That’s our whirlwind account of what internal communication is (and isn’t), but, if you find we’ve done nothing more than simply whet your appetite, make with haste to our fuller description:
The overall distinction is fairly obvious – internal and external communication have different audiences and messages – but how the two should work in harmony, less so. And, interestingly, organisations which have gained a mastery of both know exactly when to blur the distinction, to great effect. You can read about how Nationwide Building Society and HSBC successfully planted feet in both camps here.
But, going back to the original question, here are the five key differences been the two areas of communication:
More recently, certain thought leaders have begun to draw distinctions between inner and outer loop communication.
As Simon Terry puts it: Nobody works in only one loop. All our work involves a continuous process of transition between an Inner Loop of focused execution and an Outer Loop of learning, collaboration and discovery. The Loops are not places or tools. The Loops are patterns of our interaction around our work. Those patterns are ever-shifting based on our work needs. After a decade working on the adoption of social technology one thing is clear to me, we need to spend more time focused on the right ways to help users transition to more effective ways of working.Simon Terry
We’ve already touched on some of the gains successful internal communication can bring, but here’s a more in-depth look, split into four areas.
Shortly after Greek scholar, Archimedes, discovered the law of buoyancy and famously shouted “Eureka!”, he leapt out of his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, so eager was he to share his discovery.
When we unearthed the seven types of problem internal communication combats, our reaction was admittedly slightly less fervent, but, we believe they’re truly critical to businesses, all the same. And they spell out “Eureca!”:
Engagement Understanding Retention Effectiveness Change Advocacy !egal
Without a robust internal communication strategy, morale will suffer, the best employees leave and attempting any change or engagement programme ends in disappointment.
Effective internal communication is a keystone for successful organisations; it binds the organisation together, gets colleagues collaborating around specific business goals and creates transparent and productive work environments where staff thrive.
This is all the more vital given the changing nature of the modern workplace. With people on the move, remote workers, and disconnected employees, the hard-to-reach workforce have presented a new set of unique challenges.
Life expectancy for organisations is plummeting and many businesses face an existential threat. Internal Communication is seen as the organisation's life support system. And just as technology has raised human life expectancy, so it can arrest modern business mortality rates.
Being able to advise senior leaders on what an audience group is really thinking will be highly valued. For example, if you’ve done your research by listening carefully to the workforce, you will know why some facets of a planned change are doomed to fail because employees will never accept them. Knowing your audience is pivotal to you being invited to play a part in strategic discussions.
So, you benefit, the workforce benefits, and the business benefits.
Strategise, plan, choose channels, and perhaps try an internal communication campaign – they’re our four key areas for this “how to” section.
For an IC strategy to be fruitful, each activity must lead to change and each employee must know where they fit in the overall vision. And, ultimately, where someone sits is less important than how they add value.
What’s more, your strategy will get the very best results if you can persuade managers and senior leadership to listen to feedback and communicate personally.
And when senior leaders do receive feedback, they need to be able to act on it in a way that you can communicate about. One of your crucial tasks will therefore be to make sure that senior leadership gets the service, support and guidance it needs.
There is value in this to the business, as well as to your personal standing within it. A knowledgeable communicator is an influential communicator.
A robust internal communication strategy should:
You will need to make sure your IC strategy can do three things:
In Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners, FitzPatrick & Valskov provide a model starting point for setting up an internal communication team. Presented as a virtuous circle, we've seen many consultants adapt it over the years to help project leaders organise their thoughts:
You may come under pressure from HR, PR or Marketing to sit within their department. Where your desks and chairs are situated matters far less, however, than understanding what you are trying to change and where you can add value to the business.
For more on this topic, check out our blog and find out about six common IC fallacies and flaws.
In many ways, empathy lies at the heart of successful communication. Therefore, always try and put yourself in your audience’s shoes when developing an internal communication plan. And if you don’t know why you’re doing it, don’t do it.
Whatever you need to communicate, these five essential questions can provide the foundation of your plan:
You’ll also need to track whether you’re making progress towards your target or whether you need to tweak your plan and reshoot.
To learn more, read the answers to these internal communication planning questions on our internal communications plan blog, and find out how to avoid three common pitfalls: overload, disconnect, and me, me, me.
When thinking about IC channels, keep three key things in mind:
If our overriding mantra is that results, not process, matter most, so your internal communication channels must match the task in hand. How you say something is often as important as what you say. Different employees will have different needs: be it a quick read in their tea break, an app they can consult out on the road, or safety information always at hand.
There are four main internal communication channels for you to consider:
Recent research from Gatehouse found organisations are investing heavily in face-to-face communication and rate it as more effective than digital or print. Most effective were conferences, road shows and round table sessions with senior leaders. And although less effective, digital channels are used most often. Organisations are moving away from email in favour of mobile apps and social channels such as Yammer and Jive. But these channels lack both a clear purpose and leadership activity – a major problem. For print, employee magazines were rated most effective and desk drops least.
For each channel, you’ll have the choice of how you communicate: pushing information out to employees, or enticing them to come and find it when they’re ready, for example. Our friends, FitzPatrick & Valskov, again come in useful here, this time summarising the various channel options:
If you like Italian epic Spaghetti Westerns and want to know more about internal communication channels, gallop over to:
Now, if we look at the above table and get a bit more specific, a top 10 of internal communication tools emerges:
For more information, see our blog: The Most Effective Internal Communication Tools For Your Business In 2019
We’re honing in on this particular channel/tool – and giving it its own section – simply because it’s such an effective one for connecting with the hard-to-reach workforce, and a perfect fit for the modern working world. An IC mobile app can bring a disconnected workforce together, build awareness and commitment, all while helping to retain good people and support major change.
Internal communication apps are a powerful force in driving employee engagement, employee-generated continuous improvement and innovation.
In an increasingly digital age, the workforce is no longer confined to the office and it can be a challenge to rebuild company-wide communication. Employee apps can play a transformative role, seamlessly connecting every member of staff to create happier employees, greater productivity, satisfied customers and increased profit.
So, how do you convert a disengaged and disconnected workforce into an organisation where every employee knows their contribution is valued?
Look for apps that foster internal communication through:
The benefits include retaining good people; supporting major change; recognising discretionary effort; and creating brand advocates.
Read more about the opportunities offered by Internal Communication apps here.
After you’ve got to grips with your IC strategy, plan, and channel, you might well be ready for an internal communication campaign. Here are our five top tips for an engaging and effective one:
Get people interested by building a teaser into your internal communication campaigns, so that by the time you officially launch your announcement, employees have already bought into the fact that something exciting/important is coming. You might build tension with “coming soon” hints, or a new logo or image that gets a buzz going around the business. Better than another email.
Be bold and try something that will tickle your audience’s imagination. A good example of a creative internal communications campaign came from insurance giant AXA, which used Valentine’s Day-themed cards to re-energise a disaffected workforce. The cards asked employees for one reason they liked working at AXA, and one thing they would change.
Make sure there is a clear link between your internal communication campaign and a business-critical decision.
Put a human face on what employees might perceive to be dull rules and regulations. You might create a cartoon character, an avatar or designate a named member of staff to front your campaign. This will work even better if you ae running and ongoing campaign and your human face can answer FAQs along the way.
Co-creation can be a powerful tool for internal communications. When it’s right for IC to be a joint effort, try to get a broad range of employees involved.
Here, we’ve hand-plucked from the business world some famous cases of internal communication – some great successes, but also some abysmal failures. For 1-4, we drew three key lessons:
The starting point for every IC has to be: “What do we want people to do?”
Example of good internal communication: Nationwide’s BIG Conversation resulted in a refreshed strategy and new marketing campaign.
You will only be adding real value if your IC links directly to business needs.
Example of good internal communication: Logistics provider XPO wanted to leverage great ideas from hard-to-reach colleagues across 104 sites. A bespoke app delivered return on investment of 6.5:1.
Get out to talk and listen to employees.
Example of bad internal communication: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong fired an employee during a morale-boosting call with 1,000 staff.
Internal Communication is a two-way street.
Example of bad internal communication: PayPal President David Marcus told his staff to use their product or quit.
For the final three rules, we also drew three key lessons:
Understand the working methods of those you need to convince. If you need to tear up past precedent and innovate, again tailor your IC to the way users like to work.
Example of good internal communication: Seymour House
Seymour House runs ten outstanding childcare nurseries and wanted to get staff across the group engaging better with each other to share great practice.
However big or small your organisation, line managers and local leaders are your allies. But the message has to be right.
Example of bad internal communication: Yahoo’s Head of HR sent out a motivational memo full of praise for the company’s “positive momentum”, “the buzz and energy in our offices” … then told staff to quit if they disagreed.
The role of the Internal Communicator remains absolutely pivotal – and cut yourself slack in how you judge success.
Internal communication case study: XPO – what success looks like.