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.

Introduction

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:

  • a CEO speech of 30 minutes
  • a team meeting of 60 minutes
  • a 600-word report in the company newsletter
  • a memo of 2,000 words from the project manager.

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.

What do we cover on this page?

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.

What you’ll learn

We’ve centred this page around three key areas:

  1. You’ll discover what internal communication means in the 21st century and why it’s crucial to the longevity of your business.
  2. You’ll learn how to create both an internal communication strategy and an internal communication plan.
  3. You’ll be able to evaluate whether an employee engagement app, a blog from the CEO, or a poster blitz is right for the message you need to communicate – and why you’ll most likely need something completely different next time.

What exactly is internal communication?

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:

  1. Giving staff the big picture and the tools to collaborate.
  2. Showing employees in disparate departments they are all part of the same endeavour, moving towards a common purpose.
  3. Translating business strategies into practical ideas that mean something to employees on the ground.

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:

What is internal communication and why does the CEO need to know?

What are the important differences between internal and external communication?

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:

  • Purpose: IC guides, informs, and motivates employees and helps them stay on track; external communication shapes society’s view of the company or brand – its reputation.
  • Means: Both use multiple means. For IC, these include newsletters, presentations, and employee engagement apps; for external communication they incorporate advertising, websites and annual reports.
  • Audience: IC speaks to staff from the newest recruit to senior leadership; the audience for external communication ranges from customers to shareholders and government.
  • Frequency: IC is usually more frequent.
  • Scope: IC flows within the business; external communication in society at large.

Inner and outer loop 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

Inner and outer loop communication venn diagram

A backbone for businesses: the key benefits of internal communication

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.

Overcoming 7 key problems

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 “Eureka!”:

Engagement Understanding Retention Effectiveness Knowledge Advocacy !egal

Diagram - overcoming 7 key problems in internal communication

A keystone for success

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.

Keeping organisations alive

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.

Increasing your influence

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.

How it’s done: instigating internal communication success

Strategise, plan, choose channels, and perhaps try an internal communication campaign – they’re our four key areas for this “how to” section.

Internal communication strategy

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.

Adding value to senior leadership

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.

The rule of threes

A robust internal communication strategy should:

  1. Ensure every communication is dovetailed to specific business goals.
  2. Give employees what is known as “line of sight”, i.e. when they grasp the company’s overall vision and their personal role within it.
  3. Make sure every activity leads to action that changes something.

You will need to make sure your IC strategy can do three things:

  1. Deliver brilliant content and tools through writing, design, and digital.
  2. Forge partnerships across the business with individual leaders or teams.
  3. Offer strategic advice to leaders.

Where to begin

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:

Diagram - setting up an internal communication team - the virtuous circle

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.

Internal communication plan

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.

Where to begin

Whatever you need to communicate, these five essential questions can provide the foundation of your plan:

  1. Why: What is your overall business or project goal? This is the critical launchpad, defining what value you are going to add.
  2. Who: Who is this specific bit of communication aimed at? What do you want people to do differently as a result?
  3. What: What are you actually asking people to engage with – and why should they care?
  4. When: Are other messages or events going to overshadow your timing? Do you need to get a message out urgently, or can you afford to wait?
  5. How: What channels will work best for the content and the audience you have in mind? And what communication style should you use?

Tracking and evaluation

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.

The medium is the message: picking an internal communication channel

When thinking about IC channels, keep three key things in mind:

  1. The channel must match the task
  2. It must have a clear purpose
  3. Face-to-face communication is most effective, but digital is the most used

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:

  1. Face-to-face: from team meetings to roadshows
  2. Digital: from email to internal TV
  3. Print: from magazines to posters
  4. Workspace: from noticeboards to window decals

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.

Choosing a channel

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:

Table of internal communication channel types

If you like Italian epic Spaghetti Westerns and want to know more about internal communication channels, gallop over to:

Internal communication channels - the good, the bad and the ugly

Now, if we look at the above table and get a bit more specific, a top 10 of internal communication tools emerges:

  1. Blogs: A letter or blog from the CEO, ad-hoc or quarterly, establishing a personal connection with the workforce; a Day in the Life of staff members across the organisation.
  2. Pulse: Measure the ongoing health of your organisation with regular and scheduled checkups in the form of eNPS (Net Promoter Score) or a happiness Index.
  3. Recognition: Help staff say thank you to each other, link to company values, promote across the organisation and create a culture of recognition.
  4. News: Celebrate a company milestone, give staff notice of disappointing sales figures or announce the new Chief Exec.
  5. Events: For example, Tell the Boss – the chance for a Q&A face-to-face or comments in writing. Leaders must be prepared to listen and accept criticism.
  6. Innovation and continuous improvement: Idea capture and management apps to rejuvenate the 20th century suggestion box.
  7. Surveys: Ask people for their opinions about their job, the company, and their work conditions. But senior leaders must act on feedback and make changes.
  8. Competitions: Award prizes, but link the challenge to specific business goals.
  9. Reviews: Integrate in-house or customer reviews and invite employees to comment and share within a closed secure environment.
  10. Dialogue: Two-way conversation, whenever and however you can.

For more information, see our blog: The Most Effective Internal Communication Tools For Your Business In 2019

Internal communication mobile apps

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.

Driving engagement and innovation

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:

  1. News: Promote company news in a dedicated feed, creating higher visibility, interest, and participation.
  2. Hubs: Post information, jobs, knowledge, documents, videos and more to themed boards using easy to create cards.
  3. Conversations: Build awareness, understanding and the commitment to business goals and change across your organisation.
  4. Notifications: Send push notifications to smartphone or email users to remind or update them in a timely manner.
  5. Social: Encourage participation with familiar social tools including polls, likes, ratings, comments and tagging.
  6. Groups: Create open or private groups to filter updates, personalise an employee’s experience and make it relevant.
  7. Events: Reduce the administrative burden for employee engagement, HR and Innovation calendars, events, and meet-ups.
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.

Internal communication campaign

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:

1. Use a teaser

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.

2. Get creative

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.

3. Be business critical

Make sure there is a clear link between your internal communication campaign and a business-critical decision.

4. Make it human

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.

5. Birds of a feather flock together

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.

Get real: some modern-day examples of internal communication

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:

  1. Define your purpose
  2. Link internal communication to value
  3. Listen!

The examples are all linked to FitzPatrick’s 7 Golden Rules:

Rule 1: Activity means nothing without results

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.

Rule 2: Value benefits the business

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.

Rule 3: In the thick of it

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.

Rule 4: Shut up and listen

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:

  1. Tailor your approach
  2. Encourage leadership by example
  3. There are different ways to judge success

Rule 5: I did it their way

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.

Rule 6: Make the most of managers

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.

Rule 7: There is no silver bullet

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.

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