What is internal communication?

by Lee Hopkins on July 6, 2006 · 23 comments

in internal communications

Cross posted from the very fine Forward blog – thanks, Erin and Paull!


What is ‘Internal communication’?

Internal communication is a subset of effective business communication, which is built around this simple foundation: communication is a dialogue, not a monologue. In fact, communication is a dual listening process.

So Internal Communication, in a business context, is the dialogic process between employees and employer, and employees and employees.

So many times that latter process is forgotten by strategists and PR professionals – it should always be remembered that communication between employees is very often far more powerful than any communication from employer to employee.

Whereas the ‘top-down’, employer-driven communication is great for setting a communication agenda or discussion point, it is the peer-to-peer employee communications that determine the tone of the response back to the employer.

So, to sum up, ‘Internal Communication’ is the conversations that businesses have with their staff and those staff have with each other.

What activities and tactics are traditionally used for internal communication?

Over the years there have evolved various ways of communicating internally.

We started with informal and formal one-to-one and one-to-many meetings, where ‘the boss’ would communicate in a highly one-way fashion with employees.

Of course, the employees would then informally discuss with each other their views and opinions, out of earshot of ‘the boss’.

Communication then evolved to include printed materials for formal, top-down message transmission – newsletters, annual reports, memos, and so on.

The advent of digital technology, and in particular the internet, introduced email into the business setting and with it the nature of communication radically changed.

No longer did a communication take a little while to produce, allowing for a period of reflection and consideration. Now anyone could ‘bang off an email’ at a moment’s notice, often without consideration of the impact of the message.

Those who were unskilled and untrained in the art and impact of communication suddenly found themselves causing more angst than they realized.

Training took place amongst senior managers in the more enlightened organizations to show them the effects of poor communication habits.

Today, digital technology has evolved to the point where not only can employees and employers freely email each other, forward messages without any editing (showing the whole conversational trail), and forward those messages outside of the corporate walls, but also employees and employers can use these emails to bring about grievance procedures, litigation and dismissal.

Equally, employers now find themselves at the mercy of employees who may email each other with libellous comments about competitors or fellow employees. Deleting these emails from personal inboxes has proven to be no defence against litigation and investigation by external regulators and legal agencies.

Today there are a plethora of techniques and technologies used to communicate, both up/down and side-to-side within an organization:

  • One-on-one meetings

  • Staff/team meetings

  • Emails

  • Voice mails

  • Video broadcasts

  • Intranets

  • Audio files (usually downloadable audio, but increasingly sent out via rss technology ['podcasts'])

  • Staff-to-staff newsletters

  • Corporate newsletters

  • Annual Reports

  • Quarterly Reports

  • Roadshows

What’s the importance of internal communications? Why do smart organizations spend so much time on it?

Smart organizations recognise that employees will always talk with each other, so it is better to set the agenda and informal discussion points than have them dictated by an uninformed staff.

This is no different from external communications, where the role of the PR practitioner and business communicator is to engage with and reflect the position of the employer or business to that employer or business’ larger group of ‘publics’ – that is, anyone who may have any impact on or be impacted by the organisation.

A large number of studies by both professional management groups and professional communications bodies consistently finds that ‘communicating with employees’ is a useful and powerful way of engendering greater ‘engagement’ – the propensity of the employee to want to come to work and want to contribute to the success of the company.

Some professional employee consultants argue that ‘engagement’ is at a lower level now than, say, twenty years ago (mostly due to the changes in job security, the shifting demographics of the workforce and the more fluid requirements of businesses to be able to change to meet the demands of their rapidly changing marketplaces).

Smart employers realize that in environments where employees are able to move from one employer to another with relative ease, it is in the company’s best interests to retain the smarter and more productive employees; doing all they can to communicate with them, inform them, influence them and enter into some sort of psychological contract with them is a wise move.

Equally, in environments where employees have less chance to move, smart employers recognise that an unhappy and trapped employee is a potential liability.

Four essential elements of successful internal communications

If you ensure that your internal communications have taken into consideration the following four elements, you can be assured that your message will have a very high chance of not only being noticed, but actually achieve its communication goal:

  • Is focused on one (only) specific strategic business issue

  • Is written in language the receiver is able to comprehend

  • Has an outcome that is specific and measurable

  • Is delivered in a timely manner and in a medium that the receiver is willing and happy to receive it in

Links to further resources

Books of note:

Handbook of ManagementStyles, C. and Ambler, T. ‘Brand Management’. In The Financial Times of Handbook of Management. Pitman. 1995; pp581-593

Do not forget that a brand needs managing externally as well as internally. Employees need to have their expectations and conscious and unconscious ‘messages’ about their company’s products, services and processes managed. A great chapter in a superb management tome. What – you’re not in
terested in other aspects of management or business? Then you are destined to be a middle-manager at best. Do yourself a favour and learn how to read a company balance sheet. It may seem as boring as… well, vanilla icrecream, but trust me – every senior communicator and ‘C’ level business person can read a balance sheet; those who can’t don’t rise to the top.

P&G99Decker, C. Winning with the P&G 99: 99 principles and practises of Proctor and Gamble’s successasdf London : HarperCollinsBusiness. 1998

A fascinating look at the internal processes of one of the world’s most successful companies, including their internal communication processes – did you know that memos are still their preferred business proposal and ideas communication channel? Read the book and find out why.

Grouchy GrammarianParrish, M. The Grouchy Grammarian: A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better. New York, Wiley, 2002

The title says it all and if you are serious about communicating you need this book at your side.

Articulate executiveToogood, G. The Articulate Executive.

Because good communication is not just good copy; delivering speeches is an important part of business communication and this book outlines some fantastic ways of communicating in person, in groups and on video.

You and Co.BrBrand You 50idges, W. Creating You & Co. : Learn to think like the CEO of your own career New York : HarperCollins. 1997 and
Peters, T. The Brand You 50.

These two books should be essential titles in your personal and professional bookshelf. In the next decade you will be passed over for promotions and opportunities if you are just a ‘plain vanilla’ communicator. These two books will help you move out of the ‘vanilla’ level of communication and help you stay employed.

As the Institute of Future Studies in Copenhagen notes (and they are not alone in predicting this), in the decades to come there will be two types of worker: ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’.

First-world non-creative work will increasingly be outsourced to low-cost ‘factories’ (the third world, perhaps?), leaving only ‘creative’ workers in place. Creative workers will live with uncertainty, tumultuous change and a portfolio of jobs and clients at any one time. The ‘creatives’ will be the consultants (either internal or external to the organisation), leading to a situation where you will either be a creative worker, or unemployed.

Bloggers of note:

  • Ron Shewchuk – master internal communicator and a ‘must read’

  • Steve Crescenzo – equally impressive and equally a ‘must read’

  • Shel Holtz – covers the whole spectrum of strategic and tactical PR, including internal commu
    nications

  • Lee Hopkins – communicator with a focus on internal and external marketing/communication tactics

  • IABC Employee commons – the premier online meeting place for skilled internal communicators

Other resources:
The Epic 2015 multimedia presentation. A perfect example of how to create a presentation that knocks the competition for six whilst delivering the information in such an easy-to-process manner that its power and message still resonates months later. Everyone that has ever seen it has gone very quiet and eventually whispers “wow!”

Ragan – North America and Canada’s leading communications professional development company. Like Melcrum below, they are always running workshops, seminars, webinars and forums. Like Melcrum they too have a series of journals and magazines for specific elements of the business communicator’s life.

Melcrum – leading (particularly in Europe and Australasia) communication research and development organisation with a vast range of resources, including journals, for the communicator who wants to be more than just ‘entry level’ for the rest of their life.

IABC – the International Association of Business Communicators. Invaluable networking, professional development and career planning and guidance.


Disclaimer: links to books carry my Amazon affiliate link, so I potentially earn a small percentage of any sales made as a result of click throughs from this post. In Australia I strongly recommend you contact Bruce Macky at Dymocks as Bruce can very often get the books quicker to you than Amazon.

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  • Tiffany Matthews

    February 4, 2008

    Tiffany Matthews
    Internal Communications Specialist
    Kaleida Health
    Buffalo General Hospital
    100 High Street, E-103
    Buffalo, NY 14203
    Phone: 716-859-2286
    Fax: 716-859-3565
    Email: tfarmer-matthews@kaleidahealth.org

    Dear Esteemed Colleague:

    There is no question that internal communications within a corporate setting is no walk in the park. You are the consummate middleman – you must deliver the messages of your executive team to a workforce of hundreds or thousands (who may not even care!). I can completely understand that dilemma.

    Further, we are constantly challenged to do better – improve communications and the communication process (and can you have that done by yesterday? Thanks!).

    I am writing to you from Kaleida Health, Western New York’s largest healthcare system. My goal is to supplement our internal communications department functions. I am hoping that you can give me some advice and guidance on how to rise to that challenge and how your department functions. It doesn’t matter to me how reserved or unorthodox your methods are or were; if those methods achieved your department’s goals and improved communications within your company, I would love to hear about it.

    I would also like some information on how your company acknowledges employees for doing things that are above and beyond their job description, or for longevity at the company. We currently have a program at Kaleida Health that is in need of some ideas.

    I know that we are all immensely busy, but a few minutes of your time would be greatly appreciated. I will take the liberty of contacting you within the next two weeks to obtain a time that will be suitable for both of us to chat. I am hoping you can direct me to the appropriate staff member(s) if I have reached you in error.

    I thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to speaking with you soon.

    Sincerely,

    Tiffany Matthews
    Internal Communications Specialist
    Kaleida Health

  • Tiffany Matthews

    February 4, 2008

    Tiffany Matthews
    Internal Communications Specialist
    Kaleida Health
    Buffalo General Hospital
    100 High Street, E-103
    Buffalo, NY 14203
    Phone: 716-859-2286
    Fax: 716-859-3565
    Email: tfarmer-matthews@kaleidahealth.org

    Dear Esteemed Colleague:

    There is no question that internal communications within a corporate setting is no walk in the park. You are the consummate middleman – you must deliver the messages of your executive team to a workforce of hundreds or thousands (who may not even care!). I can completely understand that dilemma.

    Further, we are constantly challenged to do better – improve communications and the communication process (and can you have that done by yesterday? Thanks!).

    I am writing to you from Kaleida Health, Western New York’s largest healthcare system. My goal is to supplement our internal communications department functions. I am hoping that you can give me some advice and guidance on how to rise to that challenge and how your department functions. It doesn’t matter to me how reserved or unorthodox your methods are or were; if those methods achieved your department’s goals and improved communications within your company, I would love to hear about it.

    I would also like some information on how your company acknowledges employees for doing things that are above and beyond their job description, or for longevity at the company. We currently have a program at Kaleida Health that is in need of some ideas.

    I know that we are all immensely busy, but a few minutes of your time would be greatly appreciated. I will take the liberty of contacting you within the next two weeks to obtain a time that will be suitable for both of us to chat. I am hoping you can direct me to the appropriate staff member(s) if I have reached you in error.

    I thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to speaking with you soon.

    Sincerely,

    Tiffany Matthews
    Internal Communications Specialist
    Kaleida Health

  • Mary Learning

    I am an MBA student preparing an Organizational Consulting Project for a professional not-for-profit volunteer organization. The concepts on internal communication fly across all organizations but in volunteer organizations comprised of busy professionals who have other ‘day jobs’ the feedback loop is often very loose and incomplete. I’m looking for literature that addresses these issue in particular and any thoughts on how to resolve them. Would you have any guidance?

  • http://n/a Mary Learning

    I am an MBA student preparing an Organizational Consulting Project for a professional not-for-profit volunteer organization. The concepts on internal communication fly across all organizations but in volunteer organizations comprised of busy professionals who have other ‘day jobs’ the feedback loop is often very loose and incomplete. I’m looking for literature that addresses these issue in particular and any thoughts on how to resolve them. Would you have any guidance?

  • http://leehopkins.net/ Lee Hopkins

    G’day Mary, I’ve not got any lit in particular, but will put the word out amongst the gang…

    Also, have a look here for possible useful links:
    http://t.pm0.net/s/c?1ao.8arb.2.56fg.15p9

    Lee

  • http://leehopkins.net Lee Hopkins

    G’day Mary, I’ve not got any lit in particular, but will put the word out amongst the gang…

    Also, have a look here for possible useful links:
    http://t.pm0.net/s/c?1ao.8arb.2.56fg.15p9

    Lee

  • Patidarpawan201

    i m a engg. student making a persantion on inter comm. busnias gets a lot of help help from this site . r u have any other infor. about this topic ?

  • http://www.LeeHopkins.net/ Lee Hopkins

    I would suggest you visit my main articles website — http://www.LeeHopkins.com — to find more articles on business communication and internal communication

  • Mtandie

    this is amazing, crystal clear and easy to understand. Thank you so much!!

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  • Internal communication

    Agreed to many points however in my opinion internal communication is the glue that holds an organization together. Without it, you’re just a collection of disconnected individuals each working individually at her own job. With it, you’re a unit with power far beyond the sum of your parts.
    http://engage4more.com

  • http://www.LeeHopkins.net/ Lee Hopkins

    That’s a great analogy, thanks.

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    *Sent:* Tuesday, 27 November 2012 3:54 PM
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    *Subject:* [bcr] Re: What is internal communication?

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  • http://www.kizi2.com/ kizi

    Your work surpasses so many other articles I’ve seen online. You are very talented at what you do and I hope you continue.

  • amandi

    I’m university student please help me..”selecting a business organization of your choice,write an analytical report of the strengths & weaknesses of the communication network used by it,for both internal & external communication”..this is my topic i can’t understand what i do…please help me…

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