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Top 13 hopes and trends for Internal Communications in 2019

Tim VaughanTim Vaughan·

What’s in store for internal communications in 2019?  How is the role of IC going to evolve in the digital workplace?

Are too many communicators still going to stay content as internal PR practitioners rather than being valued as strategic advisors and key drivers of organizational objectives and business goals, adding (and proving) value instead of being seen as cost centers?

While advances in technology – for example, Artificial Intelligence, the prevalence of video and image-based communications and the escalating popularity of company mobile apps – will inevitably play an even more impactful role in internal communications and employee engagement, there is no single silver bullet, no matter how many shiny new objects come along.

It’s always going to come down to a very nuanced and sophisticated use of data-driven strategies and tactics, deployed and measured with ease and precision over multiple channels, to deliver relevant and personalized content tailored for defined audiences.

People already deluged with information are simply not interested in being on the receiving end of company information that isn’t relevant to them.

So, to get a sense of what might lie ahead for IC in 2019 we sought the views of several communication leaders, including authors of some of the most widely read Poppulo blogs of the past year, Chelsea MooreAdrian Cropley, Ann Melinger, Tereza Urbankova, Kyle GillisLisa Pantelli and Michael Blash.

We also went back to contributors to last year’s 9 Top hopes and trends for Internal Communications in 2018  –  David GrossmanZora Artis, Mike Klein, Priya Bates, Sean Williams, and Jim Shaffer – to get their views on how the year panned out and how they think 2019 is going to shape up.

The result is lots of thought-provoking insights from some of the best in the business into the state of the employee communications sector and where it’s headed.

To each of all these wise and generous souls, I would like to say a huge Thank You.

 

 Chelsea Moore, Editor-in-Chief,  Your GSK News

The increasing use of mobile and growing distrust of big corporates has ushered in an age where employees expect to receive relevant bite-sized content on the device of their choosing and to have an honest two-way conversation with their employer. What do I mean by this?

Expect to see even more real and less polished communication. Instead of heavily produced broadcasts and expensive video production, we’ll see more Workplace live streaming and quick and dirty mobile phone videos. Acronyms are out, and straight talk is here to stay.

Plus, as humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, employees want their news to be even more bite-size – think 60-second videos, BuzzFeed-style listicles, animated gifs, and even memes – and hyper-relevant. Luckily, machine learning is finally coming into its own for internal communicators, allowing us to learn our employees’ user behavior and auto-target them with helpful content. Pretty cool huh?

What is the impact of this on internal communicators? Digital capability building is already happening –  as traditional skills are making way for things like mobile journalism, interactive content production, and social media community management.

And finally, before we throw everything into the mobile-first camp, it’s worth grounding ourselves in what the data is telling us. We know from user behavior that not all employees are willing to cross the threshold and use their personal devices to consume company news and information – at least not yet.

A multi-channeled approach that gives them choice over how they receive content, and when they receive it, is key

 

Adrian Cropley, CEO & Founder, Cropley Communication and the Centre for Strategic Communication

 

When I look to 2019 for the Internal Communication function, there are so many thoughts about where we should put our focus as professionals.

However, mainly it is about significant opportunities to demonstrate our relevance as a function more than ever before.

We are in a world of an ever-evolving communication environment, impacted by new technologies like AI, changing audience needs and expectations along with distrust of formal communication.

This provides our greatest opportunity to focus our role on providing the right advice and counsel to our organizations. As professionals in internal communication, we should embrace and adopt new technologies that will not only help free-up our time but help our organizations communicate better.

We should build our ethics and governance competencies, so we can take an active leadership role and be the organization’s conscience.

Our employees are overwhelmed and confused and at times unsure of what to believe and trust, so we need re-establish trust through what our organizations say and do.

So, let’s make 2019 the year IC is truly seen as the strategic advisor.

 

 Ann Melinger, CEO at Brilliant Ink

In an increasingly complex business environment, I’m encouraged to see that communications are becoming more and more personal, and I believe that trend will continue in 2019.

As communicators gain access to more sophisticated tools and technology, we can more easily target and tailor our communications for different audiences.

In fact, we’ve worked with many of our clients to build personas to represent various employee segments, and to help guide communications activities and messages.

Taking a more personal approach to employee communications can also help companies fulfill their D&I commitments.

After all, being diverse and inclusive is not just about having diversity among your employees – it’s about ensuring ALL your people feel welcomed and included inside your organization.

 

Tereza Urbankova, Head of Global External Communication, Animal Health, Boehringer Ingelheim


We now live and work in an increasingly mobile world which impacts many areas and disciplines. I think one of the biggest trends in internal communication in 2019 will be the continuous rise in mobile, both technical and physical.

Statistics show that in 2017, around 1.54 billion smartphones were sold (Statista). Businesses have been also pursuing not only a ‘mobile first’ approach but even ‘mobile only’.

Technology innovations have encouraged the development of company apps as one of the ways to engage employees.

I believe that corporate mobile apps will become even more common as they facilitate employee communication, and strengthen their engagement and loyalty.

For internal communicators, the challenge and opportunity is to leverage the potential of mobile to encourage collaboration and improve performance.”

 

 Kyle Gillis, Corporate Communications Specialist at Magna International

In 2019, I believe you’ll see more image and video-based communications as opposed to long-form written communications.

This shift has been growing for a few years and there will always be a placed for long-form written newsletters or leadership messages, but just as people are watching more digital content on Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms, Internal Communications professionals will try and tailor messages to fit these consumption habits whether it be through the form of digital signage or short video messages.

 

 Lisa Pantelli, Director, Become Communications

For me, 2018 has seen a shift in conversation. More attention and interest has been placed on the use of data and insight into the design of internal communications and engagement strategy.

In my opinion, the sector is hugely behind in the adoption of data and insight but I think a lot of this stems from a lack of investment in the skills of those who have responsibility for driving positive change.

My hope for 2019 is that we’ll see less talk and more action and people actively seeking out ways to improve their approaches to strategy. I’d like to see internal communicators increasing the use of data and gain confidence in having conversations based around this. It may not happen in one year, but, hopefully, we’ll be a step closer to earning the respect that we deserve and just maybe finally see average engagement figures increase!

 

 Michael Blash – Corporate Communications Executive, Chief Commercial Officer, Inkbench

This is an exciting time to be a communications professional. We live in an age where people are immersed in communication at every moment. They receive, share and create information from more places than ever.

Their interaction is like never before. And, they expect communications that are tailored to their interests and channel preferences.  We also have amazing data at our disposal and new platforms that make the creation and management of the explosion of personalized communications possible.

My concern is that we not limit ourselves with the “internal” label. The audience may be internal, but they live in a barrier-less communications environment.

Communicators who add the most value will understand the uniqueness of internal audiences and also know how to operate in a world where communications flow freely virtually everywhere.

And checking in with last year’s contributors to see how 2018 panned out and what they think 2019 has in store:

 David Grossman, CEO & Founder, The Grossman Group

Last year at this time, my hope was for communication professionals to work even more on how they approach their role and elevate their leadership skills.
As I reflect on some of the research I’ve seen recently and our experience with the global clients we are fortunate to serve, the good news is that my hope is becoming even more of a reality.

In 2018, we saw more monies and budgets allocated to staff development and training than in prior years.  It’s not enough, in my humble opinion, but it’s sure a step in the right direction.
For many of us, our role is expanding and we have an opportunity to be even greater strategic thought partners.  We are able to add more value than before and further help drive the performance of our organization.

We’re helping cut through the clutter for our audiences to help them make sense of the real issues that are facing the global organization today – global uncertainty, the impact of currencies and tariffs, market consolidation, competitive threats, and more.   

That requires even greater leadership on our part.  And it’s a truism that the first person anyone needs to lead is himself or herself.  We must continue to elevate how we lead and communicate, so we, in turn, can help others like senior leadership, do the same.

And therein lies a great opportunity for 2019 – play an even greater role in elevating the capability of leaders.  There’s more at stake today than before given the transformations happening in every organization.

Someone needs to help create line of sight to what matters and the performance needed to succeed.  Communications professionals – as good as we are! – can’t do that. That’s the role of today’s modern leader.  

Not to mention to inspire, motivate, engage, create dialogue, give feedback, and more.  These leaders weren’t promoted because they were strong communicators; they were excellent individual contributors who now happen to manage a team.

And they need training to communicate better, not to mention need to be held accountable, measured, and given tools to help them create relevance and line of sight.  All four components must be in place to drive the kind of behaviors and results we want to see.

Big picture:  I also am seeing companies invest more in internal communications.  They get the connection between communication and engagement. They know an engaged employee is more likely to stay and be productive.

And they know engagement is also about re-recruiting your best people.  Finally, an opportunity is to balance high-tech with high-touch. There are more tools than ever to communicate with employees.

While these tools are valuable to meet people wherever they are, they can’t replace a relationship with a supervisor who gives clear direction, asks (and answers) important questions, demonstrates they care, interprets strategy for the team, and more.  Lots we can build on….and lots of opportunities, too. Sounds like we will be fully employed in 2019!

 

 Zora Artis –  CEO 3AC; Director, International Executive Board at IABC

When I reflected on this last year I felt rather strongly about organizations needing collaboration and convergence to flow across all functions, including internal communications.
Surely, an organization benefits when its functions and common goals align, when their people live and breathe the brand? My IABC colleague and fellow communicator, Wayne Aspland, and I sought to find out if this was the case.

We conducted a global study looking at strategic alignment and communications. Senior communicators from 227 small to large multinational organizations took part. Strategic alignment was almost unanimously considered important to business but fewer than two-thirds thought they were achieving it and just one-third thought their colleagues actually knew what their corporate story was.

Now, we can look at this in two ways. Firstly, that there’s an obvious concern that communicators, particularly internal communicators, are not cutting through.
Alternatively, we can see it clearly as an opportunity for communicators to change our approach and add value to leaders. It’s more than alignment with corporate strategy, it extends to alignment with purpose, values, vision, and brand. Amongst our buzzwords this year are purpose, values, and culture.

The spotlight is on these at the C-suite and at board level. As communicators, we can and should be able to step up as strategic advisors.

As for 2019:  

 – Looking at emerging trends, we need to think about the impact they will have on human behavior and expectations. Inevitably, those that affect an external audience will also impact employees. After all, the basic human needs will stay the same even while expectations change. These needs are self-improvement, authenticity, relevance, peace-of-mind, and fairness.

What can we – as communicators, innovators, and creative thinkers – do to address these needs within our organizations? How are we using AI, personalization, co-creation, and experiences to find ways that better connect with our audiences?
 –  Moving beyond tactical to strategic, we can step up by investing in ourselves beyond communication competency. Let’s think about business acumen. Let’s understand the business, the financials, the risks, the strategy and how it all connects.
 – Our broader profession is being disrupted. Many organizations are chasing cost efficiencies and bringing creative and production skills in-house. But where does that leave creativity? Just a few years ago, we had Richard Edelman saying communicators should look for the big creative idea, in the same way, that advertising has done so well. With creative and production skills going in-house, organizations need to focus on clever thinking, to find a gem that will cut through with internal and external audiences alike.

 

 Mike Klein, Principal, Changing the Terms

Looking ahead to the coming year, I see a number of hopeful and concerning trends.  On the hopeful side, employee demand for “consumer-grade” technology is being increasingly met with IC technology tools that still deliver great insights for IC folks.  In turn, this is enabling better use of analytics that can be presented more convincingly to senior management.

That much being said, the overall business case IC is presenting to the C-suite is still fragmented. The profession, with the notable exception of IC Kollectif’s Next Level report – has done little to aggregate and integrate one or more truly compelling cases for investment in IC. Vendor research is great but we need to do more as a profession to integrate and communicate the key common threads. This was a hopeful trend for last year that didn’t really materialize.

Moreover, just as the pursuit of “employee engagement” has been hampered by the lack of consistency around a definition of that term; the same trend is emerging around “employee experience” as vendors, consultants, practitioners, and organizations identify differing and inconsistent definitions.

Three definitions jump out: “employee user experience (of IT/organizational systems),” “the recruit-to-retire employee journey” and “employee-centric culture”. All are valid. None are mutually exclusive – and none are interchangeable either. Huge potential for misalignment.

 

 Priya Bates, President, Inner Strength Communication Inc.

Your hopes and concerns for internal communications in 2019:

In 2019, I hope to see continued attention for an elevation of Internal Communication. I feel like we’re just starting to make our way up the mountain but still have some time to go before we hit the peak and gain real momentum.

Last year, we saw:

  • A marked increase in technology platforms being built focused on employees. These platforms are being built to create connection, encourage collaboration, and build community.
  • My business had a great year with potential customers finding us simply by searching online for Internal Communication Strategy or Internal Communication Expertise.
  • An increased focus on IC. I heard stories of organizations looking for Internal Communication expertise and having trouble finding them.
  • Traditional PR practitioners, consultants, and agencies started to add Internal Communication services to their offerings.
  • Organizations hiring people into Internal Communication positions with little to no expertise or training.

My fear is founded on the lack of Internal Communication expertise resulting in poor execution that hurts the reputation of the discipline we love.

The strategic experts know that Internal Communications done well has the power and potential to enable, engage and empower employees. When Internal Communication is instead treated like a traditional, top-down, broadcast process, we turn press releases into memos; intranets into editorially neutral newsrooms; and programs into launch-and-leave campaigns that everyone learns to ignore because of their lack of relevance and influence. Let’s stop delivering Internal Communication that doesn’t matter.

This is a critical time for Internal Communication. We know we have the power to solve real business problems with communication solutions. We know that strategic practitioners have the expertise and courage to align communication objectives to real business goals.

They are not afraid to hold themselves and their organizations accountable to measurable results. If we simply focus on short-term stuff, versus the relationships and conversations that will influence our people, impact results, and build trust; we’ll never gain respect for Internal Communication that many crave.

I’m not saying that PR (or HR) agencies and practitioners should not deliver Internal Communication. By all means, we need to build the bench strength of our function through volume and value, but for goodness sakes, let’s get it right. Anything less than Strategic Internal Communication that leads to better business outcomes will hurt us all … our organizations, our clients, our reputation and ourselves… in the end.

The biggest opportunity for 2019 is training. Executives are enlightened and realize that there are gaps that they suspect stronger communication can solve. They intuitively know something is missing, but they don’t know how to fix it. What they often get is a tactical or campaign-based solution that may be sexy in the short-term, but provides little long-term or bottom-line benefits.

Those practitioners, consultants, and agencies need to take advantage of training from the experts and there are no excuses today. The technology platform companies like Poppulo are aligning with experts around the world to offer free professional development live and online.

Conferences are putting more focus on the internal opportunity. And training (both in-house and 1:1) is now available through experts around the world who are passionate about Strategic Internal Communication.

As an expert, the opportunity of the elevation of Internal Communication excites me… but I truly believe we need to build important foundational skills in order to drive true influence and impact.

 

 Sean Williams, Vice President, True Digital Communications

For almost three years, I led a task force on internal comms measurement to develop standards that would make measurement easier and therefore more common.
During the year we published the draft standards and presented them frequently in 2018 (and with Poppulo last year), in person, in webinars, and blogs. Unfortunately, we didn’t find organizations willing to help us test them — even for free! (contact me if you’re willing!)

Last year I said that for 2018 internal comms MUST change to be a business function rather than an internal PR team and our failure to embrace this marks us as unserious, unstrategic and really, unimportant. We don’t get the budgets our external comms cousins do and IC budgets continued to constrict in 2018.

This is partly related to our lack of measurement, but also because we fundamentally do not consider ourselves business people who use communication to help solve critical business issues.

So, as we head into 2019,  we still are behind the curve. But with improved automated tools —  AI, Augmented Reality, chatbots, and others – there are sure to be advances in measurement just on the horizon. It will likely need much human interpretation, but we will see steps forward.

The continued adoption of digital workplace carries with it the promise for better, more cogent and more applicable measurement if only the developers of those packages see the value in deeper measurement.

The other latent trend we see is the return of human contact after a bit of a pause where software and digital tools were primary. We see now the limitations of a single bet and are paying some attention to managerial effectiveness once again (see this Poppulo Top Tips paper).

Depending on economic performance, we should see more accountability demanded of IC departments — and that means stronger strategic planning, SMART objectives, and a focus on completing the value chain from outputs to outtakes, outcomes, and organizational impact.

The correlations need only to march along the chain; there’s little expectation of linking an activity (output) to specific impact measures. What will be essential is that communication outcomes correlate to impact. Measurement for strategic value and improvement is a better fit for most communicators than measurement only for ROI.

 

 Jim Shaffer – Founder and CEO, the Jim Shaffer Group
There continues to be a small but slowly growing group of communication practitioners who have repositioned themselves as business people who improve results, add value and generate significant ROI for their organizations.

Sadly, there’s a much larger group of communication practitioners who are more enthralled with communication as a craft rather than as a way to improve their organization’s results. Their time is invested in distributing formal and informal communication channels that are fun to read, look at and listen to but don’t make money or save money.

When communication budgets focus on improving business results, adding measurable value and producing positive ROI their customers and shareholders will benefit.  But when those budgets are generating little to no return, they fall into a category that lean professionals refer to as waste.

Unfortunately, many craft-oriented communication people are protected by business leaders who don’t know that communication practitioners in other organizations are hard at work improving quality, service delivery, costs, speed, and safety. How long can they protect this little secret? How long can they get away with producing waste?


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