If you’re a professional communicator, distinguishing between the different categories of internal comms will help you build better boundaries, writes Advita Patel.
After working in internal communication for almost 20 years, I thought writing a blog about different internal communication categories would be easy enough.
I was wrong.
I procrastinated much longer than I intended, as my list of what types of work we did was ridiculously long. But I realized that one of the key complaints I often receive from other professional communicators is how often things get added to their role, so we end up doing a little bit of everything.
Internal communication is the backbone of any successful organization. Our function helps to keep colleagues informed, engaged, and aligned with the company’s mission and goals. If we have been embedded successfully within the organization, we can significantly impact colleague morale, productivity, and the business’s overall success. But if we’re treated as post boxes, and we don’t have a strategic direction, then we will be seen as nice to have rather than a must-need.
After careful consideration, I reduced the categories to five categories I believe internal communication professionals fit into:
1. Strategic Communications
In my podcast, Calm Edged Rebels, which I host with my good friends Jenni Field and Trudy Lewis, we dedicated an entire episode to strategy versus tactics. So I have to admit I was a tad reluctant to add this to the number-one position because I think strategic is a word that’s often overused without a proper explanation. How many times have you heard, “we need to be more strategic”, but there’s been no real substance behind the statement? Nevertheless, if appropriately done, strategic communication communicates organizational goals, vision, and mission to employees so they understand what they need to do to contribute and add value.
A colleague must understand the company’s overall direction and how their role fits into the big picture. As strategic internal communication professionals, we must look beyond our organization and put ourselves in the place of our leaders. We need to look at what’s happening across the industry and pre-empt any challenges that we may need to prepare for, such as working with colleagues to build knowledge on climate change. This type of communication should be clear, concise, and consistent.
Key takeaway: As a strategic internal communication professional, you should have strong relationships with your leadership team. You should be invited to board meetings and used as a trusted advisor. The information we gain should be used to ensure that all colleagues clearly understand the company’s direction and goals and how their role contributes to the organizational success.
2. Operational Communications
From my experience, I’d say that many internal communication professionals probably spend around 70% of their time in this category. Operational communications are used to communicate day-to-day operations and updates to colleagues. This includes updates on policies, procedures, and other operational details that colleagues need to know to do their job effectively – writing an internal newsletter, updating the intranet, and working on an awareness campaign.
One of the risks with operational communications is that we can default to quantity rather than quality as we’re constantly churning stuff out. We must align our outcomes with the overall strategy and check our milestones to stay on track.
Key takeaway: Be mindful of the value add you bring if your role is mainly operational. Are you making a difference and enabling change in the organization?
3. Employee Experience Communications
Within the industry, we seem to be moving away from employee engagement and more into the employee experience. Employee experience communication fosters a positive work environment, encourages employee involvement, and can promote teamwork. We often support regular team-building activities, listening exercises, open forums, and opportunities for colleagues to provide feedback.
Usually, you’ll find communication professionals focusing on this area of work reporting to HR. It’s vital in this role to be mindful of where your part ends and the HR role starts. With the explosion of equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, many internal communication professionals have managed this critical work. However, many are falling into the tokenistic trap because the support isn’t there for them. It’s one of the reasons Priya Bates and I have written a book about how internal communication professionals can support EDI better so we can build a culture of inclusivity. There’s a big difference between creating a comms plan for EDI and delivering comms for an EDI strategy.
Key takeaway: Develop a positive and engaged workplace culture that values colleague feedback and promotes teamwork so you can create a more personalized employee experience.
4. Change Management Communications
When you’ve worked in the industry past ten years, it’s highly likely you’ve been involved in some change management communications. This is where you work closely with change leads to communicate and manage change within the organization, such as mergers, acquisitions, or reorganizations.
This type of communication is critical for ensuring that colleagues understand and support the changes. Change often fails due to human error and poor consistency in how we communicate. If you’re working in an organization that goes through frequent transitions, you understand the basic frameworks like Kotter’s eight steps or Lewin’s freeze framework. This knowledge will help when you need to work closely with project managers.
Key takeaway: Ensure that colleagues are informed and prepared for change and understand its impact on their role and the organization.
5. Emergency and Crisis Communications
After going through the pandemic, I think most communication professionals understand good crisis comms. However, I was still surprised when I uncovered that not everyone has a crisis communication plan. Emergency and crisis communications communicate critical information during an emergency or crisis. This includes natural disasters, workplace accidents, and other emergencies.
Not having a clear and well-established communication plan in place is a considerable risk. Often during a crisis, we can struggle to think clearly, and essential information can be missed, leading to further chaos and potential reputation damage. If you’re working in a volatile industry prone to frequent crises, ensure you’re prepared for all eventualities.
Key takeaway: Keep a copy of your crisis plan printed and in a different location that’s secure. Remember to inform your colleagues, as they are more likely to be your advocates if they are kept in the loop.
Don’t forget to set boundaries between categories of internal comms
I hope that gave you some insights into the different categories of internal comms and areas of work we can often get involved in. But do remember that it doesn’t really matter what area you work in; it’s more important to put appropriate boundaries in place.
Because we can be a helpful bunch, we’re often approached to get involved in all sorts of activities and different categories of internal comms, which can take us away from our main deliverables.
By Advita Patel
Advita is a chartered PR practitioner, qualified confidence coach, and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. In 2020, she was named on the Northern Asian Top 100 Power List and was recognized as a global influencer for employee experience on the Top 101 list for Inspiring Workplaces.
Having worked in internal communications and change management for more than 19 years, she is the founder of consultancy CommsRebel, the co-host of the award-winning podcast, CalmEdgedRebels, and the co-founder of A Leader Like Me.