Internal communications: A defining moment but a big test of leadership and capability

It is normally external communications that gets all the recognition and accolades (assuming any are given out) when an organisation is dealing with a crisis and its response to it. In the case of this pandemic - partly because no one company is being singled out and receiving the full glare of media scrutiny, but mainly because of the universal shift to homeworking - the significance and essential nature of internal communication is getting most of the attention.

At a time when the majority of employees are working from home and in danger of feeling cut off and isolated, keeping them informed, connected, engaged and feeling supported is the key priority for most organisations. The quotes below are taken from conversations that we have had with a number of corporate comms/affairs directors over the past week.

“People need information as well as empathy and care”

“We want people to feel connected and we want them to know we care for them”

“We are trying to find creative ways to keep people engaged and maintain a sense of belonging and community”

The paramount importance of the welfare of their employees is reflected in the external narratives of most companies, where the messaging focus has shifted very quickly to what they are doing to support the health and well-being of their staff.

Employers' treatment of their staff has therefore become one of the key business stories of this pandemic. A few companies have already been called out by the media for their perceived shabbiness in this respect. But the large majority of companies have risen to the occasion and demonstrated that they do genuinely care for their employees and that they are keeping a watchful eye on their welfare.

As well as a basic duty of care, there is also an element of common sense to this. The Corporate Affairs Director of one of the big airport groups last week said to me, “we are conscious of the powerful link between treating our staff well and how, in the future, consumers and Government will remember those businesses that really stepped up to the plate”.

Combine all of the above with pre-existing employee expectations of how they should be communicated to and the values that their employer espouses and stands for, and it is not difficult to see how employees have become the number one stakeholder audience.

So, whilst tone must come from the top, it is a huge opportunity for the internal communications function to step up, to demonstrate (in some cases prove) its importance and value. It is a moment of truth and potentially a defining moment for the function. “I really feel that this crisis will serve as an inflection point for internal communications”, said the same corporate affairs director mentioned above.

But, given the demands and expectations that are being placed upon the function, which we know to be unprecedented, it is also going to be a big test of leadership. If the function is to emerge from this with its reputation significantly enhanced as it undoubtedly could do, as opposed to any shortcomings exposed, it must have strong and credible leadership.

Strong leadership is critical for a number of reasons. The function is flat out and besieged by managers and leaders across the business (often from many different markets where the pandemic is in different phases), all of whom need and want to communicate with, and check up on the welfare of, their remote, homeworking team members. Furthermore, HR, who are having to update their policies on an almost daily basis (in line with daily, changing government announcements and guidance) are constantly asking the internal comms team to communicate more and additional information.

This requires strong leadership since the team has to step in and make tough decisions and judgment calls about what really needs to be communicated, to whom and when. Otherwise employees will be deluged by communications and switch off at a time when they most need to be connected and well informed. Doing that from home is no easy task.

A director of communications, in a call with me this morning, observed that she had had to rein in the HR function, warning them that they can’t keep swamping people with new information and guidance. To quote her: “They want to send out stuff when it is ready, which sometimes may be late in the evening when they have pulled it all together. I had to tell them that it needs to be sent out at the right time, not just when it is ready. They were just fire hosing stuff so we have had to tighten things up”.

In our recent report, 'Employees – Transforming spectators into fans', in which we identify the key characteristics and qualities of a progressive IC function, we make the point that, “Internal Communications is the only function with the oversight to ensure that the tsunami of superfluous communication that many employees are sent is stopped”. This is particularly common in big organisations where leaders are prone to hire their own internal communications managers, who then judge that they best keep their bosses happy and justify their salary by producing a constant stream of content (which can often fall into the ‘vanity publishing’ category).

A compliant internal comms team that executes on request (the traditional post box, information and news dissemination function) and that attempts to ensure that the communications requirements of leaders and managers are being acted on, without pushing back and coming up with a different solution, will gain no kudos nor catalyse any reappraisal of its role and value.

The second reason that strong leadership and capability is important is that tone of voice, language, and the general nuances of communication (e.g. finding and maintaining a tone of authenticity which is not dissonant with employee experience) are just too important to get wrong in the current situation. It can easily land badly and not as intended, causing reputational damage and erosion of trust and credibility amongst employees (once lost not easily won back). It is an art and a skill, more so now than ever, and managers and leaders alike need advice and guidance on how, what and when to communicate. Leaders will be more inclined to take that advice from someone they trust and defer to.

 “Much of my time has been spent writing, scripting, directing – ensuring my colleagues on the senior leadership are talking frankly, personally, empathetically and authentically. A breath of fresh air compared to some of the over-engineered, highly scripted interviews of the past.

Getting the right balance between guidance and protocols and engaging and empathetic communications can be challenging. Rules and protocols are still necessary in our industry”.

This experienced advice, guidance and leadership is especially important now, since with employees at home and not in close proximity, leaders and managers are having to take ownership of their communications - they have to tell the story themselves and make a concerted effort to engage and connect with their team(s). For those managers and leaders who have historically not taken ownership of their communications and engagement, it will be a fast and steep leaning curve and they will need to feel they are in safe hands.

A Chief People Officer once remarked to me that, “Communications functions do not work at their best when an organisation looks to them to do all the communications. There is a far more valuable, senior and difficult role that needs to be done to equip leaders to communicate and connect more effectively”.

This, anecdotally, has “turbo charged” some leaders who have thrown themselves at the task and discovered that they are better at it than they thought and are seeing the benefits. This then gives them further motivation. “They are becoming more thoughtful about how they engage their people”, I was told in another recent conversation. This transformation in line manager communications, always a frustration and an Achilles heel in every organisation, assuming it is being experienced elsewhere, could be one of the big positives to come out of this......if it is sustained.

But all of these things – comms strategy, narrative, messaging and tone of voice - are going to become more challenging over coming weeks, as some companies try to keep compassion to the forefront of communications at the same time as economic and commercial realities bite harder and require tougher decisions about operations. The need for strong leadership and capability will only become more evident.

I sincerely hope that this will be a defining moment for a function that has been underestimated and undervalued for far too long. A reappraisal of its role and strategic value is long overdue (see the report I refer to above) and this could be the catalyst.

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