Word Magician or Strategic Advisor? How to Demonstrate Value as an Internal Communicator
— February 20th, 2023
Why is it that we have a constant need to prove our value as Internal Communicators?
How many of us throughout our careers have been asked to "Knock up a poster" or how about "sprinkle a bit of your magic" onto a message or "create a database for a social event,"?
How does that make us feel as skilled professionals?
It was both reassuring and exciting to read that 62% of respondents in the 2022 Gallagher State of the Sector report felt that their influence had continued to increase over the past 12 months, with 85% agreeing that they are viewed as trusted advisors by leaders (an increase of 21% from 2019!)
Undoubtedly the pandemic has played a major role in this growing influence with many internal communicators working around the clock as superheroes, becoming a central, real-time point of reference for employees concerned about their safety, their security, and the potential impact on their loved ones.
However, according to ITPR (Information Technology Public Relations, May 2022), almost one in five UK Business Decision Makers felt that Internal Communications does not affect an organization’s bottom line, which suggests we still have some way to go to prove our value (along with the ROI on our comms budget.)
Connecting Business Goals and Employees
When we think about demonstrating value, most of us will instinctively think of KPIs and measures, and while being an essential part of our value toolkit, I know you’ll recognize—and have probably lost many hours contemplating—that it’s not always possible to put a number on the work that we do.
So how do we demonstrate and value the softer yet essential deliverables of internal communications such as employee experience?
As the discipline that works across every element of an organization, internal communicators are in a unique position to provide the red-thread for employees; connecting them to business purpose and goals.
Yet being brought in at the last minute and/or only being asked to rewrite copy makes our roles very tactical. We have to lead more strategically to prove our value.
This isn’t a quick or easy task, especially for those of you who are a team of one or operating in an organization that historically has never appreciated the value of internal comms. But it is both possible and necessary for us to be valued for our skills.
IC should not be about one-way communication of business goals to employees. We have the skills and expertize to be able to bring these to life for our colleagues by relating their jobs to the organization's purpose and therefore their own perceived value.
Organization Strategy and Vision
As an IC it’s essential that you understand and can clearly articulate your organization's strategy and vision so that you can use it as the foundation for all your communications and the hook from which many of your messages should hang.
Gallagher's State of the Sector reports that around one-third of internal communications professionals report either to HR or Corporate Communications, with 12% reporting directly to the CEO and 10% to Marketing. All of these functions should provide clear visibility of business strategy and plans.
If they don’t or you’re unsure and need more information, think about:
- Visiting your company website. What does that tell you about the future and direction of your company?
- Reading your Report and Accounts. The narrative should give you a feel for current and future performance and strategy
- Researching any external interviews/communications made by your leaders
- Reviewing your company Induction Plans. They should clearly articulate the strategy for new joiners
- Asking your managers to share the latest strategy and plans (in some organizations managers may also feel detached from this which is an area where ICs can really add value)
As part of this process, make a note of key initiatives that will require internal communication such as well-being, sustainability, and diversity. etc., alongside those that will require major changes within the business and overall employee experience. You will want to be proactively involved in these.
Make Data and Insight Your Best Friend
Once you understand your plans and strategy, how are they going? ICs are perfectly positioned as the eyes and ears inside an organization.
As part of your people and communications plans you may already run Employee Engagement and/or Pulse Surveys; you’ll likely hold Town Hall sessions and share social and digital content.
All of these produce a good mix of qualitative and quantitative data providing a valuable ongoing performance measure.
Pay particular attention to the qualitative data. This is where employees will share golden nuggets of information which you can use as "color" for your narrative. As ICs we’ll be looking for things like:
- Are there any gaps in understanding? What can we do differently to inform those gaps?
- Is there an area that is receiving great feedback – how can we build on that/replicate it?
- Are communications landing? Do we have the correct channels in place?
- Are messages being received and/or understood more positively in some teams rather than others? Why? How can we support this? for example delivery/channels/frequency
Use your peer IC networks and research to benchmark your data and gain valuable insight on best practices, and how you might achieve in in the areas which you need to improve.
Create Your Vision
Your understanding of organization strategy and employee insight will inform your Comms Strategy. You’ll use this to engage and influence your leaders and stakeholders, so get your creative communications juices flowing.
Think about your audience—these are people used to seeing strategy presentations packed with charts and numbers. Bring it to life by using real stories, videos, and infographics to underpin the insight and your vision for communications.
It's easy to blur strategic and tactical communications, so keep this high level—this is your vision of where you want to get to. Keep the "how you’ll get there" elements such as channel types, and audience groups for your tactical plan.
Your strategy goal is to clearly demonstrate that you understand the organization, you know where the strengths, challenges, and opportunities lie from a communications perspective, and that you have a plan of how to engage and support these. It should also show how you propose to prove the effectiveness of your actions with both hard and soft measures.
Engage and Influence
Now it’s time to unleash your expertise.
Start with your advocates—peers and stakeholders who you are already engaged with and who appreciate the value of communications. These are likely to be individuals with whom you’ve already delivered successful communications or who appreciate the benefit of involving an IC in their projects.
Ask them for direct feedback—warts and all! These people will act as an invaluable sounding board for your strategy.
Also, talk to your managers. How do they feel about communications? Do they agree with your strategy? What will help them? What do they need from you? Here is an audience, often requiring more support around communicating to their teams, who could become loyal advocates.
When you’re confident that you have a robust and engaging Comms Strategy it’s time to use it to influence your leaders.
The purpose is to showcase your understanding of both your organization and communications on the journey to becoming a trusted advisor. This is unlikely to happen as the result of one presentation/conversation, but will clearly position you as someone with the skills and expertise to provide a valued contribution to the leadership team.
This doesn’t mean that there necessarily needs to be an IC role on the leadership team, but that IC are considered valuable, strategic contributors.
My preference is to run this session with the full leadership team, with the aim of getting their commitment to meet with you individually to discuss their own plans and objectives.
By following this framework, you should make a positive impact on the leadership team. Some teams will be more receptive than others and so depending on their initial mindset, it may require more conversation and engagement before they start to open up to you.
You’ve proved your expertise in IC, now it’s time to deliver by showcasing the "WIIFM" (What’s in it for me?). When you’re speaking individually with leaders:
- Ask about their goals and what success looks like for them
- Respectfully challenge. Don’t be afraid to use your insight and experience to encourage a different perspective
- Tell stories to share relevant experiences such as how and where you’ve made a difference in similar circumstances, and how you might be able to support them to deliver
- Use language that they can relate to (keep it strategic)
- Ask to be brought in early to initiatives to provide a comms viewpoint
- Use your insight and external benchmarking to support your proposals
- Promote to work that you are doing to support initiatives to others —individuals like to be credited with success and it will encourage others to get involved
- Use your influence with your internal (and external) network to encourage relationship development and collaboration
- Keep them closely involved with progress and timings (particularly regarding changes to the plan–one slip can undermine the creation of trust)
This list is by no means exhaustive but will hopefully give you a broad range of ideas. It may not be possible to implement them all, particularly if you’re a lone IC. The key is to create value by prioritizing what will have the greatest impact on your employee audience and your stakeholder goals.
In 2014 the IPR (Institute for Public Relations) published a report called ‘What does good look like?’, where qualitative insight demonstrated four factors that contributed to internal communications teams driving business value:
- An organizational structure that connects internal communicators with the rest of the company—up and down the chain of command
- An innate understanding that strong internal communication will have a positive return for the brand and the company that need not be proven at every juncture
- An arsenal of tools and practices for both listening and communicating a message
- A strong commitment to keeping employees across the company informed in a timely fashion, often before stories break in mass media and digital channels
These factors still hold true today.
Let’s ensure that this year shows a reduction in the need to prove ourselves and sees a continuation of more ICs becoming influential, trusted advisors and an integral part of strategy development, alongside delivery.