Internal and external comms might be merging – but caution is needed
— February 6th, 2021
The workplace is changing and within it the communication profession.
I vividly recall a clear distinction between external and internal communication and cases where the two then-separate disciplines didn’t even work together.
For years internal communication, if it existed in a company, was frequently perceived as a poor and very distant cousin of - or totally unrelated to - much more glamorous externally facing communication.
Business acumen in internal communications – Why it matters and how to build it
And it was typically associated with one company newsletter and disengaging HR communication.
However, over time, internal communication has risen in importance and in recent years the two disciplines have been gradually merging. This, I believe, will strengthen the function in general and the combined capabilities will make communicators more valued as strategic and trusted advisors.
While I fully support bridging the gap between internal and external communication, collaborating, aligning messages, and developing an integrated approach, the two disciplines are not the same, and can learn from each other in some areas, such as emotional impactful storytelling, creativity, strategy development, and solid metrics.
Both disciplines overlap but each contributes to the overall picture with its own specifics. There are some commonalities though, for example the necessity to focus on content quality as communicators try to capture the attention of busy and also distrustful audiences who are vocal, challenging, sophisticated and knowledgeable.
Trust is key but currently in crisis, and although the latest Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2018 shows that trust in CEOs has rebounded from 37% in 2017 to 44%, we still find the world suffers a loss of trust.
The report clearly shows trust shifts unpredictably from one year to another as 2018 also brought a substantial decline in the credibility of a ‘person like yourself’; on the other hand, there is renewed confidence in experts, namely technical experts (63%) and academics (61%).
People are becoming increasingly skeptical of news organizations and their intentions behind delivering news; in addition, 63% agree that the average person does not know how to distinguish good journalism from rumor, and nearly seven in 10 worry about fake news being used as a weapon.
These concerns and actions have had a dramatic impact on trust in the media overall: in 22 of 28 countries, media is now distrusted. This tension points to the need for new operating models and new ways of communication.
The blurring lines of internal and external communication are helping respond to this trend ensuring consistency of messaging; however, there are a few critical areas to consider:
- Corporations are no longer in control of the message
For decades, companies have left messaging to a handful of authorized and highly trained spokespeople. They have used one-way communications to issue formal announcements internally and externally and have generally forbidden employees from saying anything at all.
However, a traditional top-down approach doesn’t work.
Social media has enabled anybody to share their views about a company. The empowerment of customers, employees and other parties muddles up waters of communication, making everybody a communicator of a better or worse quality.
- Internal and external messaging must align
Due to social media and easy access to a lot of information, all our stakeholders have become very knowledgeable and the core message must therefore not dilute, and must be aligned for both external or internal audiences despite different methods of delivery.
In principle, there’s no internal and external content anymore, there is just content – and a lot of the time what is suitable for an internal audience will work externally as well and vice versa.
However, depending on the audience, it may need to be tailored slightly with regard to the tone, vocabulary, emphasis, etc.
- Compelling storytelling is critical
We as communicators daily compete with many sources of knowledge and information overload, and therefore, compelling storytelling has never been so important. Psychology backs this approach up as there are studies of how story affects the human mind.
Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.
- The power of collaboration
Operating in silos has a counterproductive effect; therefore, the link between communication teams and teams within the business is critical. For communication to be successful, there needs to be a continuous dialogue, interaction and debate between the communications function and other areas of the wider business to make sure the right messages are getting out at the right time.
- Whose responsibility is it?
Time and time again this question appears. Should a combined internal and external campaign be handled by the internal team or the external team, or both together? And where does internal communications stop and external start? As part of the merger of the two, individual responsibilities should be discussed and agreed upon.
However, communicating clearly and in an engaging way is also a responsibility of everybody within a business, so empowering and coaching our leaders and colleagues to be great communicators is just as important as crafting and delivering their messages for them.
More and more organizations blur the lines of communication through implementing social media in their communication practice. They use it to communicate with their staff as well as to promote their corporate and employer brand. A great example of this joint internal and external venture is HSBC’s Twitter feed – HSBC Now.
Through one platform HSBC can engage with their employees, while at the same time encouraging a positive external view of HSBC as a diverse and interesting business, worth working for.
Another example is turning employees into engaged brand ambassadors by implementing a platform enabling staff to share corporate curated content on their private social media.
This is a voluntary program which any employee can join and which can be extremely powerful when promoting business as a partner of choice and employer of choice - it’s genuine and authentic.
Last but not least, some of the leaders are individually pioneering social media as a tool for communicating and getting in touch with employees – take the BASF executive who set up his Twitter account for this purpose.
The current changing and fast-paced reality presents challenges and opportunities which external and internal communication needs to tackle but it will be much more successful and impactful if done in collaboration and through aligned, compelling and regular messages to all audiences.