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Strategic Internal Communications – Aligning the Functions

Priya BatesPriya Bates·

The Internal Communications Journey from tactical delivery to strategic alignment: the courage to change the conversation

Internal communication aligned to organizational strategy helps employees deliver business results. I’ve always believed this to be true and have seen the ‘magic’ happen with organizations I had the privilege to help through major transformations and change.  

When things go wrong, and strategy isn’t delivered, programs aren’t used, retention rates are at risk; we hear leaders lament about the lack of employee engagement. If they only understood, delivered what was asked, stuck to the plan…

Yet, Internal Communication has traditionally been an area that is underinvested and undervalued. The Poppulo Inside IC Global Summary report confirms that although Internal Communication professionals have made progress, we still spend more time delivering tactics than strategy, and being reactive versus proactive.

I’ve heard many communication professionals express frustration with the lack of budget, support, resources and understanding of our potential. As a change leader, I’ve always known one thing to be true: we need to change our own behaviour before we can change theirs.

With many of my former corporate employers and now with the organizations I consult with, I’ve had to grow the internal communication infrastructure and effort, often from scratch. Over the years I’ve learned that changing the conversation is the key to educating internal partners about the power internal communication can bring to their initiatives and organizations.

Here’s some advice for internal communicators who want to become more strategically focused:

1. Stop simply taking orders

When conducting workshops with Internal Communication professionals, I show an image of a waiter taking an order while a group sits and talks around the table. We have to ask ourselves if we simply want to be seen as the order taker, or whether we want to sit at the table and be part of the discussion. By always saying yes and going away and delivering what was asked, you will always be seen as the order-taker. Imagine if you were sitting at the table and were part of the conversation. What would you say? What advice would you provide? Is what they’re asking for the right solution for their problem?

2. Understand the purpose of internal communications by asking what success looks like

This is the most important question to ask in every conversation you have and there is a right and wrong answer. If success is simply delivering the memo, newsletter, video, program without any thought to what impact it will have on the organization, we’re bound to under-deliver. Success should focus on the outcome we are expecting…the business result, participation or understanding. If the initiative is simply to check a box, to deliver a promise of communication, we risk communicating content that is not relevant and likely to be ignored. We all have organizations and individuals whose emails and messages we delete as soon as we receive them. By communicating without purpose, we teach our audience to ignore us, and this is a death knell for communication professionals. It proves our lack of value to the audiences we are trying to engage. When an internal partner cannot provide an answer to what success looks like, we need to be prepared to say. “No.”

3. Focus on partnership versus ownership

For years, I’ve battled against the ownership conversation. We first started fighting with I.T. on who owned the intranet, we then started fighting with HR on who owned employee engagement and internal communication, today we’re in a conversation about who owns digital strategy. The companies that I’ve worked with most successfully were the ones where communication was seen as an integral partner around the table. In order for projects and organizations to succeed, we need to get out of the silo-mentality and learn to truly collaborate. I want experts to be at the table and want them to know that I’m a partner who will help them succeed. I respect the expertise and influence each brings, and they respect my expertise in bringing their program to life. The relationships we build across departments will help us deliver our roles successfully. We have a key role to play in integrating efforts.

4. Prioritize your work against the business strategy

Every internal communication professional must understand their organization’s strategy, its priorities, its values and what it is trying to accomplish. We should not only be helping educate the entire organization on the strategy, but we ourselves should have a plan  aligned to that strategy. Review the plan. What are the key initiatives and programs planned? How can you support those programs with your existing infrastructure? How will you help employees be aware, understand, act and believe? What are the programs that need dedicated Internal Communication support to succeed? Based on resources, you may only choose one or two strategic projects to support, but once these are successful, you will be in a position to ask for more resources.

5. Always evaluate and conduct a debrief

With any internal partner or client, we should always start with a briefing to understand business goals, target audiences, and how we will measure success. This information is then fed back in a basic plan that outlines the communication strategy, implementation plan and evaluation of outputs and outcomes. At the end of the program, loop back to outline what worked, what didn’t and the results of the program. If it’s a feature story, provide hits, comments, and a summary of how well it did versus other stories. This forms a foundation for a different conversation on what advice we would provide for next time. For larger programs, you can ask to be brought into the conversation earlier and request resources and tools to be more successful in the future. Debriefing also helps clearly connect your role in delivering the results. Don’t assume that connection will be made automatically.

In order to move from delivering tactics to delivering strategy, Internal Communication professionals need to have the courage to change the conversation. Ask yourself what changes you need to make today.


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