by Michael O'Neill
March 6th, 2013

Internal or employee communications as a practice has forever been in the shadow of its more glamorous external communications counterparts — just look at how industry awards are categorised. It has tended to be the “poor cousin” in communications departments in terms of budget and resource allocation. Sometimes it is a small part of a HR manager’s job description, and quite often it’s an afterthought.

Traditionally the internal communicator role meant staff newsletter manager, staff event organiser, or intranet administrator. While these channels are still important, technology has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for two-way employee engagement.

More importantly, in the heated global contest for talent, organisations are undergoing a mindset shift in their approach to internal communications. Increasingly, internal communications is being recognised for what it is — a strategic business function integral to retaining, empowering and mobilising employees in the pursuit of the firm’s goals.

Content: inform, involve, inspire

A primary function of internal communications is to keep employees apprised about what’s happening in and around the organisation. After all, informed employees will do their jobs better when they understand what the organisation is trying to achieve. And so the staff newsletter was born — carrying re-purposed news releases, messages from the CEO and business leaders, featured employee of the month, company events and staff initiatives.

Today’s communicators are not only looking at how to inform, but also how to involve and inspire. To this point, increasingly I’m finding myself in discussions with peers and clients about how to get employees involved in “co-creating” content, how to get on-the-ground staff on videos and blogs to share what they do with their colleagues in other departments, and how to get input from staff on what they’d be interested in hearing about.

Intranets have become more sophisticated in their capabilities for visual and interactive content, hosting videos, polls and quizzes. Staff newsletters are going electronic, pushed out on mobile devices and directly into the hands or pockets of employees, and even enabled for comments and “one-click-to-share” like an online newspaper.

Channels: connect, collect, collaborate

Nothing beats a face-to-face interaction but as organisations — small and large — become increasing global, communicators need to rethink how technology can help employees stay connected to the firm, collect and share employee stories and best practice, and facilitate collaboration across functions and geographic locations.

New platforms to connect, collect and collaborate include custom-built mobile apps for instant information cascade to field staff and the ability to tailor and target messages by staff function, and interactive employee blogs that are linked to, and even being built on, social media platforms like Facebook to facilitate sharing and socialising. Not to forget the relatively more established collaboration tools like instant messaging, as well as sharepoint and internal wikis – which are in effect “mini-intranets”.

Centrally-managed corporate screensavers are being used as “internal advertisements” to help familiarise staff with organisational values, provide a fun countdown to significant events, and so on. The beauty of technology-driven platforms is the ability to track — number of clicks, views, shares, comments — helping communicators plan better content and to some extent quantify results.

With the opportunities of course, come challenges. Aside from writing skills — a traditional cornerstone of the practice, today’s communicators are expected to create and develop content in multi-media formats for new “social” platforms, requiring new skillsets and mindsets. Today’s communicators are also expected to perform as business outcome drivers, requiring an intimate understanding of not only the organisation’s culture and values, but also its business priorities and the ability to help inspire and drive outcomes through networks and collaboration.

In today’s hyper-speed world, ensuring business critical information is efficiently cascaded, and ensuring an increasing mobile and global workforce is aligned with organizational goals has never been more crucial. It’s an exciting time for internal comms practitioners. And it’s a brave new world.

Valerie Tan is  senior vice-president, Singapore, at Weber Shandwick

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