How to start an internal communications program from scratch
— October 22nd, 2019
No business can function without internal communications in some form. After all, at its most basic, employees have to talk to each other to get their jobs done.
For small businesses where everyone knows each other, a basic system of emails and meetings may be good enough. But as businesses grow, the need for a better organized and more strategic approach to internal communications – with an Internal Communications (IC) department spearheading the work – is required.
Yet some businesses are slow to make the investment in the skilled IC professionals and tools required to make large-scale communication between departments effective.
This was the case at Formica before Laura Barbour was brought on as European Engagement Manager. “When I walked in, it was the first time they had internal communications. There were no formal channels of communication in place,” she said in our webinar on engaging non-desk employees.
She’s not the first internal communications expert to be faced with starting an IC program from scratch, and she won’t be the last.
Participants in a Poppulo global survey confided that 45% of their internal communications were unplanned an ad hoc. That can be OK for some types of communication, but when business leaders need to get messages out to thousands of employees, you need the type of organized plan and process that only comes with a devoted internal communications program.
If you’re in charge of bringing a formalized IC program to a business that has never had one before, these tips can help.
1. Make your case to the C-suite
So much of your ability to build an IC program that works depends on having the support of the main decision-makers at the company. In order to implement a strong IC strategy and get the staff and tools you need to accomplish it, you need a decent budget. And just as importantly, you need the power to make institutional changes that some departments will be hesitant to embrace—change is always a tough sell.
One of the most important steps you can take in getting a new IC program up and running is getting the big bosses on your side. Luckily, the business case for internal communications is strong. Not only can a good IC program save a company money and improve efficiency across departments, but you can also prove its value as you go.
Internal communications can improve ROI in a way that’s measurable, which is something the C-suite tends to go for. So show them case studies and research to back up your claims, and offer to make measurement a key part of your process so you can demonstrate your gains over time.
2. Get to know the employees and their situation
As important as the top bosses are, understanding the people you need to communicate with is just as critical. Before you develop a strategy, take time to learn about the company’s workforce. What do their days look like, and what unique challenges do they face? You can probably gain some insights from data you have, but make sure you supplement that information by setting up times to actually listen to employees in different roles.
Early on in her role with Formica, Barbour set up listening sessions with the company’s factory workers in order to hear from them directly about their jobs and experiences with the company. She had the added challenge of working with employees who were unhappy with the company at the time she started. But the time her team spent listening to them both showed the employees that someone cared about their issues, and provided her team with important knowledge on how to build an IC strategy that made sense for the way they worked.
In almost any IC strategy, managers are on the frontlines with a significant role to play in getting information out to employees. They’re closer to the people you’re trying to reach than the C-suite or the internal communications team, which means they know the best way to get the message across effectively. And because they’re a part of the same community as the employees they work with, they often have the trust of the teams they represent.
Barbour saw the potential power in working with Formica’s managers. “Often, they’ve been here for 20 years. They’re also unionized. They see themselves, I would say, more as a leading hand than as a leader of the business.”
But she also saw how they’d been neglected. “We’d given them no training; we hadn’t even recognized them as leaders.”
A key part of her team’s IC strategy was, therefore, to provide training and development for those managers. By equipping managers with the skills to do their jobs better in general and to enable better communication in particular, you can improve employee engagement and IC results at the same time.
4. Find the right tools to enable internal communications
fIt’s no coincidence that the first three tips all involve people. People are the most important part of successful communication. But in larger organizations where you have to facilitate communication across thousands of people in dozens or hundreds of departments, you also need the right tools for the job.
And 53% of the businesses in our survey said they don’t have the right tools or software for their internal communications needs. The sooner you identify the type of tools you need and incorporate them into your plan, the faster your IC program will start to see the results you (and your bosses) seek.
The types of tools required for IC will depend on your particular business needs. For employees that spend most of their time at a desk, IC software tools allow you to efficiently reach large numbers of people and track their engagement with the messages you send.
In Formica’s case, many of the company’s employees spent their days on the shop floor with no access to technology. Since they can’t depend on email or online chat tools to communicate with people in those roles, they created communications stands for day-to-day communication.
Part of your job at this stage is analyzing the particular situation and needs of the many employees at the company so you can find the right tools that match how they all work.
Internal Communications has to start somewhere
When you’re just starting out, the prospect of pulling together a full IC program for a large organization can seem daunting. But the only way to move forward and build out a program that enables effective and efficient communication throughout the company is to dive in and get started.
By starting the process with getting internal buy-in at different levels in the company, and getting to know the experiences of employees in different roles, you’ll be in a strong position to develop a program that works for your particular company. From there, a strong IC plan and the right tools will help you make your goals a reality.