The unrealised potential of Internal Communications

As a head-hunter who has conducted many communications searches, and has a strong interest in the discipline, I have always been struck by the difference in approach taken to employee communications and engagement vs external communications and stakeholder engagement. External communications (particularly with consumers) has clearly defined outcomes, it is underpinned by insight, research and strategic analysis, and it is designed to influence the attitudes and behaviour of the stakeholder concerned.

Employee communications, however, is rarely underpinned by rigorous data-led insight, nor a deep understanding of why and how employees think and behave as they do. Its role is often merely to communicate – a transfer of information without any specific outcome in mind. The inference is that employees don’t need to be understood, influenced and persuaded in the way external stakeholders do.

This probably stems from the view that a) employees are paid and b) in close proximity, and therefore a known quantity. It also probably has something to do with the fact that the function originated in command-and-control cultures where employees were told what they deemed to need to know.

But when one considers that employees are, if anything, the most challenging and complex of all stakeholder audiences, and arguably the most important, it is intriguing.

I shine a light on this because it matters. It matters because Internal Communications can and should be a pivotal, insightful, dynamic, outcome driven function, but for too long it has been understood, resourced and used as a transactional function, generally limited in its impact.

This undoubtedly still affects perceptions of its value and capability. Lacking a reputation for doing interesting and valuable work as it often does, the function has problems attracting the brightest and best and this is the second reason it matters.

The final reason it matters is that employees (existing and potential) have shot up the stakeholder hierarchy, and culture, engagement and purpose are up there with strategy, transformation and reputation. CEOs are now much more interested in internal communications and employee engagement but are they getting the insight, strategic clarity and advice they need on critical people engagement issues and opportunities?

Leaders now need the capability and expertise to help them build connections with employees and to help them understand and influence employees’ thinking and behaviour. Do they have someone who truly understands how to steward their internal reputation and help them build trust, belief and a sense of what they stand for and a sense of purpose that resonates with employees

There are undoubtedly some more progressive teams out there but a complete rethink and reframing of the function’s purpose, remit, blend of skills and capability and its leadership is long overdue.

Our latest paper, “Employees – Transforming spectators into fans” describes how and why Internal Communications needs to reinvent itself. It sets out a more ambitious and insight-led remit which involves a dramatic shift in emphasis, away from communicating and towards influencing and connecting. A different blend of skills and capabilities is required within the function as well as leadership of the highest calibre, something that the paper also analyses and explains in detail

There is so much more that Internal Communications could and should offer when equipped with a different blend of skills, directed by a different purpose and orchestrated by a leader of vision, weight and internal influence.

#internalcomms #watsonhelsby #nickhelsby #unrealisedpotential

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