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As the importance of Internal Communication and the number of available roles seem to grow, there has been a lot of discussion, in person and online, about what Internal Communication actually is.

As an owner of an agency that is dedicated to Strategic Internal Communication, I’ve personally seen an uptick in clients looking for expertise. More are simply googling Internal Communication Agency and finding me from various parts of the globe. There has truly never been a better time for those focused in Internal Communication.

That’s why it’s also not surprising that traditional Public Relations (PR) agencies, Marketing agencies, and technology companies are turning their focus from the outside-in, wanting to take advantage of the growth opportunity. It was also amazing to see the number of sponsors at the recent IABC World Conference in Vancouver, Canada and the PRSA Employee Connect Conference in Phoenix and realize that the majority of them were email, mobile app, survey, and influencer platform companies all claiming to engage the internal employee audience.

As clients and employers complain about a gap between roles and expertise available, we are also seeing a trend of practitioners without internal communication expertise being hired into dedicated roles. In fact, one of the big surprises at my Toronto-based Strategic Internal Communication conference last year, was the number of practitioners who were recently hired into or handed the internal communication responsibility, without having ever experienced internal communication as a discipline. They came from marketing, public relations, government relations, human resources, operations and administration and were hungry for education and training.

Many were equally frustrated with how difficult it was to engage employees. In fact, forget engagement, they simply wanted to figure out how to make employees aware of what was going on. Discussions online also focused around what the role of internal communication really is? Isn’t it simply PR and Marketing practice turned inside to a new audience? Weren’t we simply trying to promote and ‘sell’ strategies, values, products and services to employees?

It got me thinking of how I could explain the difference between PR and Marketing practices and what I see as best-in-class strategic internal communication practices. The analogy that kept creeping into my head was that the difference in approach was the same as the difference between dating and marriage.

Think about it.

PR/Marketing is like Dating

2.jpegWhen you’re dating someone, there is no commitment, so what you do or what you say is focused on attracting someone and making the case for them to stay with you (if that’s your goal). PR and Marketing has always been sexier than Internal Communication.

Dating is a series of events, each designed to get someone’s attention and prove your value and worth. Each event should be exciting, fun and new. When External Communication professionals are proactively communicating a campaign, they are trying to get the attention of the reporter or the public. Sometimes they’re creating awareness, but often they are driving some sort of call to action by your customer or publics. In a crisis, they are trying to tell their side of the story. The recipient, whether media, influencer, or customer makes a choice every instant to listen or ignore, without feeling committed.

When PR and Marketing professionals are asked to deliver internal communication, I often see them turn press releases into internal memos and programs into launch-and-leave campaigns which often create frustration and fatigue among employees. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen eyes rolled, by employees, at flavor-of-the-month programs and implementations that failed to create adoption, lacking the stickiness factor leaders were looking for to signal success.

Internal Communication is like a Marriage

3.jpegThat’s why I think of Internal Communication like a marriage. An employee makes a commitment when they accept a job offer and they are expecting the organization to live up to their promises. They’re hoping it’s the start of a meaningful relationship.

They know there will be a honeymoon period when everything is exciting and new, but at some point, they will fall into a combination of routine and a series of highs and lows. In a marriage, there is a requirement for communication every day. Regular communication can help build relationships that result in comfort and trust. A lack of communication tends to create uncertainty, resentment and often fear.

Couples in a marriage are encouraged to talk about their plans and their values. They discuss their opportunities and failures. They navigate change as their relationships evolve. They are with each other through good times and bad, taking time to celebrate their wins and mourn their losses together. Those that trust each other, survive, those that don’t, or find themselves headed in different directions, leave, or simply decide to be unhappily stuck and resentful.

I see a lot of similarities here to the Internal Communication approach.

  • We work with organizations and executives to build the foundations – goals, strategies, values, purpose – and clearly articulate them to employees.
  • We ensure there is a regular conversation going on so that there are rarely any big surprises that could cause disruption.
  • We take the time to listen to perspectives and make sure everyone has the potential to contribute to outcomes.
  • When there is a crisis, we help employees be aware and understand our perspective while helping them navigate change. Sometimes we help the organization apologize authentically when we’ve made mistakes.
  • We try to explain our thinking when we’ve made tough decisions that have an impact on stability.
  • We make the case for evolutionary and revolutionary changes to ensure we fight the battles together.

Employees don’t expect everything to be spun positively; instead, they are seeking authentic conversations. And when those conversations stop; are infrequent; seem untruthful; are at odds with behaviours and actions; or appear to be hiding something - employees begin to disengage or leave.

It’s for these reasons, you can’t simply treat Internal Communication like a sales or PR campaign. If you do, you risk skepticism, fatigue, and the potential to teach employees to ignore you.

Should PR/Marketing professionals deliver Internal Communication?

1.pngI think anyone who wants to learn about Internal Communication should have a chance to experience its potential power. I, myself, focused on Sales and Customer Communication early in my career before finding a passion for Internal Communication about 20 years ago.

The bottom line is that there are not very many career Internal Communication Professionals out there today. Many who deliver the role internally are often fighting for the tactics versus advising at the strategic level. Others who switched to Internal Communication roles from journalism did so because they loved to write, not necessarily because they wanted to be accountable for business results.

What I love about those practitioners focused in business operations is they have an appreciation for results and measurement to drive success. Combining business knowledge, sales/marketing skills, to the nuances of strategic internal communication can be a great combination.

The world needs more strategic, skilled Internal Communication experts

When I started my business five years ago, I knew that my purpose was bigger than just making a living doing the work that I love. I wanted to truly establish Internal Communication as a key enabler of business success. I also knew that I wanted to build strength from the inside-out – training professionals personally and organizationally to deliver Internal Communication in a way that would help enable, engage and empower employees to navigate change and deliver business results.

We’ve been excited to work with organizations going to transformational change but also with professionals interested in the discipline through our annual Strategic Internal Communication Conference and our training sessions. The truth is, we’d prefer to come in to help proactively manage strong conversations and relationships versus fixing relationships with employees when they are at risk (which often is the case – and this honestly requires more effort, time and money).

Whether you are a communication professional or team who wants to use Internal Communication to help your organization succeed ; a consultant or agency who would like to grow business with new or existing clients; or a business or HR professional who knows you can benefit from Internal Communication done right - join us at our November workshop, or contact us and ask for 1:1 or group mentoring.  Together, we can help build strong, mutually-beneficial and lasting relationships between organizations and their people.

Let us know what you think of this perspective? I'd love to hear your opinion. For more information, contact us.

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I've always been a big believer in life-long learning and investing in myself. From making the decision to pay for my own IABC membership for the first few years of my career, to soaking up every book, article and opportunity that presented itself, I believe professional development (PD) has been a key contributor to my success.
After over 20 years leading Internal Communication in corporations, and spending the past three years as a strategic consultant, here’s my biggest ‘AHA’: There are no rules, just learning. The goal is to focus on the experience versus the expectation.
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