Internal Communications – Are You Forgetting Your Most Important Audience?

Thought Bubbles

December 10, 2020

By Dan Ward, APR, CPRC

If you are developing a public relations strategy for your company, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

That’s not a personal judgment; it’s research. According to a 2018 study by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., a majority of companies don’t have a long-term communications strategy focused on what is commonly known as any company’s most important audience: its employees.

But if an audience is “most important,” how can it so often be overlooked? Think about the problems PR and marketing are commonly called upon to solve … “our sales leads are down,” “we need to enhance corporate reputation,” “we need better engagement on social media.” If we see those simply as external problems, it stands to reason that they need external solutions, right? Maybe not.

Internal Impacts External

Truth is, your internal audiences have an impact across the board, not only on productivity, but also in the brand image you present to your external publics. That’s why communicating effectively with and through them is so important.

Typically, in any public relations strategy, businesses have only a few “official” spokespersons … the CEO, head of communications and perhaps division/department leads. Employees are instructed not to speak to media on behalf of the company. But what about communication with friends, family and neighbors?

Whether or not you consider your employees official spokespersons, they are speaking for you. They are brand ambassadors within their own networks and communities. In our business, we often talk about influencer marketing, connecting with trusted ambassadors who can influence purchase decisions. Guess what? Your employees and co-workers are influencers. So, it makes sense to arm them with the tools and messaging they need to have an influence.

A Product is What You Sell. Employees Are Who You Are.

Your employees are the company … your product or service is not. I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court; companies ARE people. They are led by human beings. The work is done by human beings. The culture is influenced by the words and actions of human beings. The people you hire are a reflection of your company. And if they are uninformed about the company, you won’t like what that reflection shows.

Most of us have realized these truths more and more in the last year, as COVID-19 has forced companies to focus on their internal teams. We’ve transitioned to new forms of communication to connect teams. We’ve stepped up the frequency of that communication. We’ve increased our attention on the mental well-being of our people. That’s a good thing, and many of the steps that companies have taken should continue as best practices long after the pandemic ends.

Whether COVID-19 related or not, here are a few thoughts on best practices for your next internal communications program:

  • Focus on the person, not the job description – Every member of your team has a role to play, but they are not defined by that role. Communicate with them as individuals, focusing on the human in human resources.
  • Be transparent Transparency in internal communication is key to employee retention. Be open with the team and trust them with the information you share. According to noted retention expert Dick Finnegan, “the number one reason employees stay or leave … or engage or disengage … is how much they trust their boss.” Once we transitioned to a work-from-home environment in March, I began a weekly email message to our team, providing updates on the status of the business, victories by team members, new business results, etc. I plan to continue even after we return to the office.
  • Remind your team that health includes mental health – Hopefully what we’ve experienced in the last year has erased any remaining stigma regarding seeking support for mental health needs. Your internal communications should demonstrate that your companies see this as important. Share details about mental health benefits in your insurance plan. Encourage people to take more frequent breaks to clear their minds. Take an interest in the emotions they are feeling.
  • Share your external plan and messaging internally – Make sure your team understands the “why” behind your external communications plan and assign them action steps. Remember their role as brand ambassadors and arm them with the messaging you are sharing externally. When their neighbors ask about where they work and what the company does, do you want them to make up their own “elevator speech” or would you prefer they share a message that is consistent with your marketing goals?

When our client, Beacon College, began preparing for a return to in-person instruction this summer, we worked closely with them on a message platform that they shared internally with administrators, faculty and staff. They knew the critical importance of internal communications in ensuring message consistency.

  • Set clear objectives and measure success – Your objectives for internal audiences should be just as measurable and specific as those you set for external audiences. What do you want employees to know and do with that information? Measure their awareness and understanding of the message and whether they are taking action. And hold your supervisors accountable for success.
  • Consider internal communications in every aspect of your plan When companies approach us for crisis communications planning, they usually focus on media relations. What do we tell the media? How do we craft our message? Who should serve as spokesperson? We start by identifying ALL audiences, beginning with internal. You need to inform your internal stakeholders about the impact of the crisis on the company and on their role, and make sure they know what steps the company is taking to address the situation. Remember, they are your ambassadors.
  • Promote internal communication investment Your leaders may not recognize the importance of internal communication strategy. They may look to the communications function solely in its role in marketing the company, speaking on its behalf, and driving awareness and perceptions that impact sales. When developing your public relations strategy, make sure to demonstrate why internal communication is so important and the ways in which success drive overall business performance.

Each of your company’s audiences deserves a focused, targeted plan. But only one audience can be most important and can directly impact your success in reaching all others. As you develop your next communications strategy, look inward first. You’ll be happy you did.

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