What IS internal communication?

by Lee Hopkins on January 31, 2007

in Uncategorized

Internal comms is more than just one piece of a jigsaw puzzle What is ‘Internal Communication’?

Note: this is cross-posted from the Forward blog and is a follow-on post from my recent vidcast and podcast on employee communication. You can listen to some fantastic podcast interviews I recorded with great internal communicators, and there are more to follow…

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
  • Voicemails
  • 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:

  1. Is focused on one (only) specific strategic business issue
  2. Is written in language the receiver is able to comprehend
  3. Has an outcome that is specific and measurable
  4. 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:

Peruse Shel's book Holtz, S. Corporate Conversations: A Guide to Crafting Effective and Appropriate Internal Communications.

Buy this book and you will possibly have the only book you will ever need on this topic – seriously!

Shel Holtz is a master writer who quickly and easily transports you to the nub of internal communications. A brilliant book.


Styles, C. and Ambler, T. ‘Brand Management’. In The Financial Times 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 interested 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 icecream, 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.


Decker, C. Winning with the P&G 99: 99 principles and practices of Proctor and Gamble’s success

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.


Parrish, 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.

book4.jpg Toogood, 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.



Bridges, 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 communications

Les Potter – master internal communicator

Steve Crescenzo – possibly the most brilliant internal communicator currently giving roadshows and seminars. Certainly the funniest, if his blog is anything to go by!

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!”

A presentation I gave to PR students at UniSA presentation in late 2006 (pdf) / (powerpoint show with movies – zip)

Ragan Communications – 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.

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