The confounding challenge of communicating internally

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Humans sure do love to put things in boxes.

People. Pigeons. Business functions. The practice of boxing and categorising plays an essential role in determining which things we see as similar, and which we see as unique.

There are, for this reason, two things that should never be put into the same box:

Internal communication and marketing. †

Unfortunately, though, they often are. Heck, at a recent industry awards night, we heard internal comms professionals speaking about the industry as if it were a plain-featured sister of marketing. ‡

It isn’t.

Oh my gosh, it isn’t. Sure, both use collateral to communicate a message, but their business objectives and audiences couldn’t be more different. And more importantly, both contribute significantly to business performance and the bottom line.

It’s a concerning comparison because it suggests a fundamental problem with the internal comms function and how they see their contribution to an organisation. These assumptions can also have a significant impact on leaders trying to make a difference to their people, organisation and industry.

Here are three common issues we’ve seen in medium-sized enterprise all the way to the Fortune 50, and suggestions for how leaders facing these challenges can overcome them.

The organisation structure hinders effective internal communication

A systemic problem in many organisations is combining internal communications with other functions — usually Marketing or HR — along with a shortage or lack of communication specialists.

HR-led internal communications have the advantage of being people focused, and great people, leadership and culture professionals understand the role of communication in building culture and creating great employee experiences. However, they tend to lack the specific communication knowledge and technical skills needed to execute effectively.

Conversely, marketing-led internal communications often have more communication experience, yet tend to apply external communication tactics. Leaders in these organisations frequently find themselves confounded by rigid style guide constraints, one-size-fits-all solutions, and communication that completely misses the mark with the intended audience.

Neither organisation structure is conducive to great internal communication, yet restructuring is rarely a viable option. Instead, there needs to be a more collaborative approach, with plenty of trust and a clear understanding of where expertise is lacking.

In an HR-led company, it might mean hiring a communication expert or engaging an external communication specialist to help execute on campaigns and co-create a communication strategy. In a marketing-led company, leaders will likely need to fight to ensure their unique knowledge of the audience is incorporated into communication.

THERE’S A complete failure to understand the audience

Good leaders have a deep understanding of their people, which makes them the ideal person to lead communication. Unfortunately, many internal communication folk fail to realise this.

Internal communications need to stop defaulting to lazy, generic corporate language and messaging, and strive to understand the people inside their organisation.

Even better, they can work with other leaders to build an in-depth understanding of each unique segment inside their organisation, then tailor each message and campaign accordingly. Yes, this means getting out of the office and actually talking to people — the horror.

They waste time and money justifying their existence and LOOKING FOR RELEVANCE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES, rather than offering real value to leaders.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: sweating the precise colour value and font weight specified in the external brand guidelines makes stuff-all difference to the effectiveness of an internal campaign.

Nope — crafting the right message, finding the right narratives, using the right language, appealing to emotions, understanding the psychology of communication and using creativity to bring it all to life, does.

Internal communications needs to stop acting as censors and custodians of The Brand, and start helping leaders make a real difference to their people. They should be the biggest champions of new ideas and bold visions. They need to go beyond simply justifying their existence and realise that making leaders look good to their peers, people and stakeholders doesn’t devalue their own contribution in any way.

They treat the internal communication function as an afterthought

Unfortunately, a common process in many organisations is for leaders to finish a program, policy, or other piece of communication, then ‘run it by comms and marketing’.

Few good things come of this approach.

The problem is that it forces internal communications to take the role of editor. If an editor were required, an editor would’ve been hired. An editor is not required — a communication expert is required. One that can help translate a message or idea into a compelling experience that makes a difference.

The process needs to be collaborative, with leaders sharing their vision and intentions early and internal communications working with them to achieve it by bringing their unique skills and expertise, rather than attacking it with a red pen and a condescending attitude.

 

Of course, you might be lucky enough to have a wonderful comms team and an org structure that supports communication. But if not, the best place to start is a frank conversation with the relevant people.

And if that fails?

Well, get in touch. We’d love to help.

 

† Also: Samuel L. Jackson and snakes; loneliness and cheeseburgers; sharks and tornados; etc.

‡ Marketing in turn tends to be seen as the unsexy cousin of advertising. Enough with the hierarchical bullying already, there’s honour in every profession.