Where should internal comms live? From PR to HR, Caitlin Kirwan considers the most logical home for your IC function.
Should internal communications be part of HR, corporate comms, marketing, PR, or perhaps another department altogether? It’s a dilemma as old as the industry itself, but it’s somehow still being debated.
As a seasoned internal comms pro, I’m all too familiar with the feeling of being passed from pillar to post and constantly having to ask where budgets will come from. At the core of it, there is still a lack of clarity and understanding about the true purpose and strategic direction of internal communications, which often results in a to-and-fro between HR and PR or Marketing.
So why does it even matter? Well, a homeless internal comms function often finds itself being pulled in all directions without a clear strategy or scope of responsibility. We get stuck in “reactive mode” – chasing our tails, exposed by a lack of remit, and never having the opportunity to proactively make an impact.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
It all comes down to purpose, strategy, and direction. And where we sit within the company really does make a difference.
Let’s take a look at the most common approaches.
Internal communications as part of the corporate comms or PR function
28% of the 2,000-plus IC professionals who contributed to Gallagher’s state of the sector 2023 report said they were part of a corporate communication, PR or corporate affairs department. The percentage increased in line with the size of the organization, rising to 49% for those with 10,000-plus employees.
This is the most common home for internal comms, sitting alongside other structured communications disciplines. In my experience, this setup brings a strong pipeline of content and a much closer alignment with external comms and branding activities.
On top of that, being part of the corporate comms function often enables more sleek and professional internal campaigns by offering access to tools, platforms, and reporting data that were previously only available to external comms.
That sounds great… let’s all join corporate comms!
I hear you. But hold your horses, there are also downsides to consider.
The case for cozying up with PR and corp comms says that IC and PR are pretty much the same thing but for different audiences. Some PR folk even describe internal comms as “….a branch of public relations that deals with communication within a business”.
I disagree. According to Forbes, corporate PR focuses on maintaining, building, and protecting an organization’s reputation in the marketplace. So where does this leave us on the internal side of things?
We are not the same as public relations or corporate affairs. We’re not solely here to promote the company’s brand or build its reputation. With IC as part of a broader corporate comms function, the connection to employee engagement, culture, or belonging is often weakened. Which, according to the state of the sector 2023 report, is the entire purpose of internal communication.
An IC function that is more focused on pushing out one-way content than increasing employee engagement by supporting culture and belonging is unlikely to achieve its potential and add real value.
So what’s the alternative?
Internal communications as part of the HR function
The data tells us that the second-most common approach is for internal communications to be part of a HR department, favored by 21% of contributors.
In the 2023 report, 74% of IC professionals said the main purpose of internal communication is to support culture and belonging by “creating an inclusive workplace where employees feel valued and energized”, knocking “strategic alignment” off the top spot for the first time in years. While creating clarity around the company’s strategy and building a sense of ownership are still top priorities for us, the increased weighting on culture and belonging shows a growing convergence between HR and internal comms.
The majority of IC pros will agree that we’re here to help engage and motivate employees through the messaging we share, which closely aligns with the HR objectives of attracting, engaging, and retaining talent. And one major flex of the HR department is its grip on demographics and knowledge of the workforce.
HR colleagues know our audience better than anyone.
My experience of managing internal comms as part of a broader HR department has primarily been within organizations with less than 3,000 employees and without a broader corporate comms function on offer. I always felt a much sharper focus on employee engagement, and a clear drive to use internal comms as a tool to engage, inspire, and motivate employees.
I had much closer alignment with employee survey results, working on communication strategies and amending approaches in response to feedback.
But, of course, there are also drawbacks to this approach.
While there is clear overlap with HR, a key difference is that IC creates and shares company messaging while HR manages employee relationships. And this is an important distinction to make, as it can be easy for HR-owned IC teams to become distanced from crucial content and messaging about the company that sits outside of the HR department’s sphere.
Internal communication serves the broader purpose of translating external messaging and branding for the internal audience; creating internal brand advocates who are on board with the company’s strategy and direction.
When part of HR, I found that the divide between internal and external comms felt more prevalent and I needed to work harder to forge relationships with colleagues in PR and marketing to ensure internal audiences weren’t forgotten.
So where does that leave us?
There are clear positives and negatives for both approaches.
While the focus on employee engagement and the insights into our internal audiences that HR offers are critical for impactful internal comms, alignment with corporate comms, PR or marketing brings invaluable expertise in messaging, campaign planning, and content creation.
Corporate comms and HR aside, the remaining 51% of IC professionals told Gallagher they had the following reporting lines:
- 15% – CEO / Executive team
- 10% – Marketing
- 10% – Shared between two departments
- 3% – Operations / Strategy
Some argue that successful internal communication is a company-wide effort that should involve everyone in a leadership role, HR departments, team managers, and PR. While this is true, it doesn’t help us distinguish the all-important reporting line which ultimately dictates the teams’ objectives, purpose, and budgets.
Where should internal comms live? Additional factors to consider
Ultimately, the approach you decide on will depend on what’s needed to provide the best employee experience within your organization.
For organizations with fewer than 2,000 employees, organizations going through a significant period of change or transformation, or organizations with high levels of disengagement, absence, or attrition, my recommendation is always for internal comms to live within HR.
In these circumstances, the closeness with the workforce – its makeup and demographics, its frustrations and fears – is absolutely critical for impactful internal communications. However, internal communicators need to ensure they maintain strong relationships with those responsible for external comms to ensure employees do not miss out on important messaging and content.
Larger organizations with more than 2,000 employees who are not in a transition phase or experiencing widespread people-related challenges have a little more flexibility.
Rather than living within the PR function, my recommendation is for internal communications to operate as its own team within a broader corporate communications department. Effective collaboration and strong linkages with the HR department is a non-negotiable, but living within corporate communications offers great opportunities to level up internal campaigns and build both brand and strategic alignment.
So there we have it!
It all comes down to building strong internal relationships, and it’s the responsibility of every internal communications professional to collaborate with stakeholders from right across the business and keep an employee-first viewpoint.
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By Caitlin Kirwan
Caitlin Kirwan is a communication and engagement professional with over 10 years of experience leading internal communications. Since launching her career with BMW in 2012, she has managed national and global internal comms and engagement programs across multiple sectors for organizations including Deloitte, PayPal, and DAS.