by Michael O'Neill
August 2nd, 2013

If communications is the Cinderella of the business world, then internal communications is the Cinderella of the communications world. Internal communications is viewed as industrious but drab, never one for being invited to the Corporate Ball.

When I headed up corporate communications at an international financial institution I was treated by various organisations to days at international rugby, a prime seat to watch Venus Williams play in the French Open, lunch at the Cartier Polo, a sublime Sarah Chang concert at the Royal Festival Hall, the list goes on. When I headed up internal communications at a global industrial company I received maybe a single invite, to a Varsity Rugby match which I was going to anyway.

Little wonder internal communications does not entice the young and talented. This is not a trite point to make, and I don’t complain… well, just a little. Historically, internal communications has suffered image problems and lacked a premium on talent, resources and priority.

While many a CEO would talk a good game about “our people” or talk about the value of “human capital,” more was said than done. The first major trend to talk about is the emerging story of how internal communications is becoming a key focus, and moving beyond the rhetoric. Many a CEO now realises that when business and economic challenges present themselves, they have spent too much of their human capital.

However, this trend does not mean everybody knows what to do about it; there is still a time lag between realisation and activity on the ground. All too often what the internal communications function within an organisation does is a four-step process:

1. Internal communications manager gets told “we need a campaign” for employees
2. They figure out a campaign to show how “we care”
3. Launches the campaign “telling them we care”
4. “Cascades” the campaign down the organisation

And the result? Surprise, surprise, it doesn’t work, it breeds cynicism. Employees are flooded by initiatives, programmes, inspirational messages and the like, expertly generated by the communications function but somewhat lacking in real effect.

Internal communications requires better strategy, more experienced talent and greater resources dedicated to success. A second key trend is the decision to invest, and this time more deeply, in internal communications.

Much of internal communications in the 20th century was really communicating about what we do. There was a tendency to focus on the tools and channels to use for internal communications, rather than what was going down these channels. There is a proverb which states that when someone points their finger to the moon, the fool looks at the finger. There has been a lot of foolishness in internal communications.

Things are changing with a third trend, because of a realisation that in the 21st century we live in an extremely crowded communications space. The environment has changed greatly, and is more fluid and challenging. The outcome is that we will never be less transparent, have less information and be less connected than we are today, but also we are simply overloaded. This means less focus on tools and channels, and more on the people using them.

In the 21st century we have to communicate to engage, explaining why we are doing what we are doing, and extending our reach to connect with each other to create positive participation and change in a fourth trend of building the internal company story. Our ways of interacting in society and communication have become much more related to our experience of each other. Our interest in a product or service thus becomes more based on how we experience the product or service, and so we will pay more or less as a result.

Look at all the coffee shops and baristas, for instance. It’s only a cup of coffee, or is it an experience? In terms of internal communications today this means communicating not to a workplace but to a community of workers, and being sensitive to employee experience of working for the company.

They expect to be communicated to with respect and as participants in the overall enterprise. This has created a fifth trend of learning how behaviour impacts the company internally.

There is a positive benefit to any organisation that decides to put a premium on internal communications, because a well-informed workforce is a productive workforce. When employees feel part of the mission they work harder for it, and being treated as an important constituency goes a long way to achieving this result.

Employees don’t want to be onlookers; they want to be respected as part of the company effort, playing their role in a strategy they are educated about. This means communications departments have to react rapidly to the trends impacting internal communications.

Core to understanding the future of internal communications is understanding how it has a lot to do with dialogue, which is the sixth trend to be aware of, and despite being so central to the very idea of communication is the newest.

This last trend is addressed by our approach to help organisations to become better at communicating called the “Dialogue Box,” which integrates the message and behaviour holistically. It helps companies to explore what kind of dialogue they need to have with their employees to address internal and cultural challenges, by breaking dialogue down into zones: intelligence, emotion, interpretation and narrative.

The Dialogue Box allows managers and leaders to understand the intelligence and emotions of their company, and how this links to the ways employees interpret events and information, and the narrative, which emerges within the organisation as a result. The result is the end zone of effective dialogue.

In essence, the Dialogue Box is an innovative approach to internal communications which radically alters the approach to how organisations can plan, implement and focus their internal communications, the fine details of which are already being incorporated into our work with clients

David Cowan is senior consultant, Internal Communications, at Weber Shadwick

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