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Communications

Back to Basics: The Purpose and Role of Internal Comms

Simon Rutter

External Contributor - Award-winning Sr Communications Strategist

19 Oct 2023

The purpose and role of internal comms have been open to debate and confusion since it became professionalized at the dawn of the Millennium.

In this article, I’ll look at what internal comms is, what it means in practice, why it’s increasingly important for organizations, and the key challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for it. 

Strategic alignment 

Internal communications is the process of communicating with your employees to ensure they understand your business strategy and their role in delivering it. If you do this effectively, your people will know what they need to do and, crucially, why they’re doing it. 

The role of internal communications is principally about helping to create and maintain the strategic alignment of the organization. This is important for many reasons, including…

  • Successful execution of your business strategy: Put simply, you’re only going to make progress on your company goals if your people know what they are. According to research from Gartner, inability to cascade objectives to teams and individuals is one of the top reasons organizations fail at strategy execution
  • Gives meaning and motivation: Your people can see how their day-to-day work makes a difference, which is motivating 
  • Enhances employee engagement: This fuels greater productivity, and therefore profitability  
  • Helps with wellbeing: Keeps your people focused on what matters most, so they avoid overwhelm and burnout 
  • Attraction and retention of talent: Organizations that communicate effectively with their people find it easier (and cheaper) to attract and retain top talent 
  • Boosts your external reputation: What goes on inside is always reflected outside. If you’re organization is aligned internally, external stakeholders will respond positively to this 
  • Fundamental to a healthy corporate culture: Consistent, clear, and aligned internal communications is foundational at companies with thriving cultures    

What does that mean in practice?

No matter what size of organization, internal comms teams should be focused on taking the corporate strategy and translating it for employees in a way that’s accessible and understandable. 

The most effective way to do this is to adopt a storytelling approach and create what is sometimes referred to as a ‘corporate,’, ‘strategic,’ or ‘core’ narrative – essentially, a way to get everyone on the same page. (This comprehensive Harvard Business Review article goes into more detail.)

In its most basic form, such a narrative will include… 

  • Important context the company operates in – for example, market or industry conditions  
  • How the company has evolved (particularly important where growth has been via acquisition) 
  • The purpose, vision, and mission of the company – why does it exist, where does it want to get to, and how does it intend to get there?
  • Strategy – what choices has the company made about where it wants to focus its resources? 

The key is to clearly connect the dots for your people between all these various elements. When you have this, every piece of communication that goes out can link back to the core narrative. They are all able to show how they fit into the bigger picture.

What are the benefits of this approach?

  • Communications start to make sense to people – because they can see how everything works together 
  • Messages begin to cut through – because they’re connected to people’s day-to-day reality 
  • People remember  humans are hardwired to remember stories better than facts and figures 
  • Communications become consistent – your people hear the same message repeatedly, which reinforces their understanding 

Content and channels 

The main challenges are to create a narrative in such a way that it’s compelling, and get it in front of your audiences. The relentless march of social media and ever-shortening attention spans mean internal comms teams need to find ever-more interesting and arresting ways to engage their audiences. Stories are increasingly being told through video, animation, and even employees themselves are generating content that helps tell the company narrative. 

Of course, it’s no good creating amazing content if you don’t have the channels to reach your audiences. Internal communications functions need a solid channel strategy, which involves analyzing their audiences and deciding the most effective ways to reach those people based on the messages they need to communicate. Typically, channel strategies feature a mix of online (Teams, Email) and offline (Face-to-Face events) activities, which gives them the best possible chance of reaching what can often be a wide variety of people (desk-based and non-desk-based) in many locations/countries, and with different communication preferences/cultures. 

As always, data is king. Before setting any channel strategy, IC teams should research their current strategy/lack thereof, ask for input from employees, and continually test and learn. With the pace of technological change, new channels and possibilities are constantly coming on stream.  

People managers are the glue

Employees look to their manager first for immediate, practical guidance on what they should be doing, why, and (sometimes) how. Indeed, according to this insightful Workvivo blog, people managers have the single biggest impact on team performance and account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. This means people managers play a critical role in helping their people understand what the strategy means for them. They need to understand it themselves, then communicate it in a way that resonates with their teams. 

While the core narrative will help with consistency of message, people managers are usually not natural communicators or storytellers. So, they will need help with engaging their people in the strategy. This is where IC teams come in – for example, by helping people managers with training and tools on how to connect the strategy to their own work, and that of their teams. For internal comms teams to have any chance of success, they need to be allied with their people managers and stay in regular contact with them to receive ongoing feedback on what’s working/isn’t, and change where necessary.  

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Why is the role of internal comms becoming increasingly important? 

The world of work has witnessed seismic, irreversible shifts since 2020. From remote/hybrid working to the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, for the first time, many companies are appreciating the impact that effective internal comms can have on every area of their business. Organizations of all sizes and sectors have invested in creating new functions or bolstering teams, and 83% of chief communication officers (CCOs) have reported that their C-Suite influence is growing, a long overdue recognition of their value.  

In fact, it’s fair to say that most of the changes happening in the future of work are going to be profoundly impacted by, and have a bearing on the work of, internal communications. These include… 

  • Remote/Hybrid working  as employees become more dispersed, keeping them aligned to the strategy is critical for leaders and people managers 
  • Global economic uncertainty  against the backdrop of increased volatility, organizations that can keep their people focused and are agile in their approach to strategy delivery will win 
  • Changing expectations of work – Gen Z and Millennials particularly want and expect to work for employers with a strong sense of purpose  
  • Tackling the burnout epidemic – record numbers are overwhelmed and stressed because of work. Prioritization through strategic communications helps to keep people focused, calm, and healthy 
  • The rise of Employee Experience  with an ever-tightening talent market, organizations are trying to stand out by delivering a consistent, positive experience across the entire employee lifecycle. Effective internal communications play an important role at every stage  
  • The blurring of internal and external communications  there is no longer a divide between your four walls and the outside world. Companies must stay aligned internally or their reputation, and market value, will take a hit  
  • Endless change  the new normal. Organizations have undergone five major company-wide changes in the past three years alone – and nearly 75% expect to multiply the types of major change initiatives they will undertake in the next three years. Yet research from McKinsey shows that 70% of such programs fail – with poor communication and a resulting lack of employee engagement one of the main reasons  

Key challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for internal comms 

Internal communications is at an exciting and pivotal moment in its history. Never has it had so much attention and appreciation. Yet in many companies it remains undervalued and underfunded. The industry faces several key challenges, including…

  • Identity crisis – Internal communicators are not agreed on what the purpose and role of their work is. In this year’s State of the Sector report by Gallagher – Employee Experience & Communication, 74% said the purpose of internal communications is to support culture and belonging. If the profession is not clear on its purpose and role, how can they expect their stakeholders to understand and recognise it?
  • Getting distracted  there is a growing employee expectation that companies should be speaking out on topical events. While many of these issues are important, too often they are nothing to do with the company strategy. This inevitably creates more noise and confusion, and distracts scarce resources away from what IC teams should be doing  
  • Hybrid working – this brings the risk of creating a two-tier workforce, with those connecting face-to-face potentially experiencing increased levels and different types of communication, which can be more impactful (think in-person events vs. virtual)  

While these challenges are formidable, there are some incredible opportunities for internal communications, for example… 

  • Setting strategy, not just translating it  Internal communicators should grasp this moment to start influencing business strategy, providing their unique input. After all, a strategy is a story, so the earlier internal comms are involved in the process, the more impact they can have 
  • Meaning and fulfilment – despite the rise of skills-based hiring, the gig economy, and transactional jobs, for many their work still represents a significant part of their life (and identity). Effective internal communications helps imbue people’s work with much-needed meaning and a sense of fulfilment, no matter how menial the job may seem 
  • Hybrid working – Internal communicators who are thoughtful and creative when planning in this environment can reimagine their channel strategy, including how to maximize face-to-face meetings, and explore the incredible variety of communication possibilities from online platforms such as Workvivo

Internal comms is an essential ingredient in business success. In today’s fractured and frantic world, aligning your people around your strategy has never been more important. While the profession has existed for a long time, in many respects it’s just getting started. 

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