Internal Communications: Whose job is it? - Who shouts the loudest?

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Research exclusive to HR magazine reveals a mixed picture regarding responsibility for internal comms with HR and PR the favourites.

Who looks after internal communications (IC) in your organisation? Is it your HR department, or is it the PR people instead? Does it sit slightly awkwardly in marketing, or is it a dedicated department in its own right?

The debate about who should take responsibility for IC is resurfacing. But according to results of research HR magazine ran exclusively with IC- specialist agency Karian & Box, both the demand for, and the idea that HR professionals can manage it, is getting stronger all the time. Earlier this year HR magazine inserted its own questions on the role HR should be playing in IC into the second IC Survey run by Karian & Box. The poll updates the first survey carried out in 2005 and was answered by more than 1,000 external and internal communicators.

The encouraging news is that 22% of respondents said IC was already part of HR while marketing and operations accounted for 18% and 13% respectively. In addition, today's internal communicators are well represented by people with a background in HR: 10% have either been or are currently in HR. However, there is clearly a battle brewing between those in PR and HR.

Opinion was fairly evenly split when respondents were asked who should take the lead in IC. While the majority (54%) wanted a dedicated IC unit, it was a close-run thing between HR and PR, with an 18% and 21% preference respectively. In HR's favour is the fact that the people function is perceived to be more likely than PR to manage IC as a priority: 33% of those who said it is managed by HR felt it was given high enough priority. This compares to 18% who said it is a high enough priority among those who work in PR.

But the news is not all good. The survey also asked respondents if they thought HR was well equipped to deliver effective IC. The verdict was not wholly favourable. Only 52% said yes, with 38% actually saying no, and 10% being unsure. In addition, respondents were asked if HR could actually impede the delivery of effective internal communication, and here the verdict was even worse. Nearly half (48%) said it could, with just 22% confident of HR's ability to deliver IC appropriately.

Ghassan Karian, author of the report, says there is corporate confusion about what skills HR and PR have for IC. "It could be that respondents genuinely think that HR professionals are less well equipped to perform communications, and that the task of delivery should be given to a dedicated team with a different and more refined skillset," he says. That said, he also appreciates that the main areas of internal comms are best suited to the HR discipline. "The focus on employee engagement, behaviour change and the alignment between communications and organisational change can sometimes be alien to communicators who come from a PR background and do not understand the language of employee engagement."

Internal comms agency Summersault works for clients including Siemens UK, TUI, McDonald's, Severn Trent Water and The Welsh Assembly. Its editorial director, Gemma Houltby, says she has experienced both HR and PR professionals leading communication projects. She says: "From our experience, there is no definitive answer as to whether PR or HR should 'own' internal communications." However, she admits she tends to lean towards PR: "HR departments know the employee base extremely well and have an enviable insight into how the inner workings of their business relate to the wider company strategies and goals," she says. "However, PR people have a 'nose' for newsworthiness, they look ahead, understand the most effective channels of communication and are well-versed in taking core messages and transforming them into exciting communication. In a nutshell, they have many of the key skills needed for great IC. But internal comms has traditionally been the poor relation of PR and that's a difficult mindset to overcome."

Two main areas of responsibility

According to the IC Survey 2008, organisational change communications and communicating organisational strategy and goals are the two responsibilities IC practitioners cover most regularly - 60% and 44% respectively - both of which sit squarely within HR. When asked what aspects of communications organisations measure, the most common response was employee satisfaction and engagement (75%), with the second-most popular response being the employee's understanding of key business messages (up from 35% in 2006 to 54% this year). So, is it about time HR took the mantle of internal communications too?

Paul Brasington, chairman of the Association of Communicators in Business (CiB), says IC has historically been an HR role: "10 to 20 years ago internal comms staff were often part of the personnel department. There was then a trend for IC to sit in the corporate communications department, and the links with public relations and marketing were emphasised. More recently, there has been movement back into the HR department because these disciplines need to be co-ordinated and focused on engaging staff effectively."

He adds: "There continues to be a great deal of debate about where internal comms should sit. There is no one right answer. The only thing that really matters is that internal comms works well. Whatever its location, it needs to work closely with human resources as it is all too easy for the two to undermine each other if they are not in synch."

A dedicated department

Just 54% of organisations said they have a dedicated internal comms department, and this is also shown by the fact that internal comms is a relatively new career, with most people working in it for fewer than 10 years. Shopping channel QVC is one of those companies with a dedicated IC manager, Gene Cleckley. He oversees the 'QVC Difference' programme and is involved with everything about the company's culture and vision that touches staff. Included under this umbrella is the recently launched QVC intranet, employee magazine In the Loop, the QVC Forum and employee council set up to encourage communication between management and team members. He believes partnership is what matters.

"Because of many cross-over goals and objectives, IC often falls naturally within HR as its role is to help build and maintain the company culture and drive employee engagement," he says. "But I think it is most effective when the function partners with HR, marketing and PR to communicate corporate messages. It's also vital to develop relationships with the CEO to be seen to add value to colleagues throughout the business." He adds: "Whichever way a company chooses to integrate IC, there must be at least one dedicated company specialist. This individual needs to fully understand all of the internal issues associated with that particular organisation and should boast strong influencing skills so that they can become part of the decision-making process at the very start."

Co-operation is clearly the main concern, but when even the largest companies such as BT - normally an HR exemplar - don't do this, it is always possible? Its last big internal comms projects was not at all HR-centric, but was instead led by the marketing team. To educate call-centre staff about its new BT Support Squad service to deal with customers' 'IT gremlins', (as recently featured in TV adverts with Dragons' Den regular Peter Jones), it was the marketing team who was responsible for devising a project with agency Playgroup. Aspects included staff arriving for work to find their desks cordoned and taped off, akin to a crime scene, to convey the message that their computer had been attacked by IT gremlins. Staff had to learn the brand messages and pass a test before they could go back to work.

Karian says what the research shows is that HR needs to step up to the plate. "The overall picture is that while communicators - whoever they are - feel valued in their role, the level of interaction and understanding between communicators and leadership may not be enough to ensure that they are both on the same page when it comes to aligning business priorities with the right messages." Maybe it is time to see where IC fits in your organisation.

WHO TAKES INTERNAL COMMS SERIOUSLY?

In July the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB) polled 179 businesses to find out how seriously internal communications was taken. It found that only 11% of respondents said there was someone responsible for IC at board-level, despite 67% of respondents saying IC was 'fairly' or 'very' important.

The study followed encouraging CiB research in March 2008, which found that 50% of businesses claimed that spend on IC was going to be higher this year than last year, with just 34% saying it would stay the same.

Who owns IC though? The debate is still as hotly contested as ever. The five main skills internal communicators ought to have (according to CiB) are:

An understanding of the business: 74%

Writing and editing: 54%

Listening: 49%

Strategic thinking: 48%

Face-to-face communication: 40%

The cost of failing to communicate

It has never been more important to bring internal comms into the mainstream. On 6 April 2008, the final phase of the Information and Consultation of Employee Regulations (2004) came into force. It requires all businesses with more than 50 employees to keep their staff in the picture about what is happening internally, including providing information about the company's economic situation, changes in job and departmental responsibilities and possible redundancies and/or restructuring. Complaints about failing to establish acceptable communications procedures can be brought to the Central Arbitration Committee, and organisations that are found not to be complying with the regulations can find themselves faced with a fine up to a maximum of £75,000.

Inchcape When co-operation pays

Inchcape, the car retailer with 14,500 employees worldwide, wanted to improve levels of customer service by launching its 'Customer 1st' initiative in 2008. The company, which originally started life in the 1800s as a Calcutta trading company, wanted to take people through the organisation's history. Inchcape felt this was the best way to motivate and inspire its workforce. In its favour was the fact that Scotland's famous Bell Lighthouse, built in 1811 by Robert Stephenson, was actually constructed on Inchcape Rock - named after the founder of the company. The story of its construction was recently featured in the BBC's Seven Wonders of the Industrial World series. Working with agency Line Up, a 12-minute video and presentation featuring group CEO Andre Lacroix (pictured above) was shown to staff. Inchcape's managing director, Duncan Beale, said he opted for the "third way - working with both the HR and communications director at Inchcape" for this internal communications exercise. He explains: "Creativity was probably led by the corporate comms team, but HR took the lead more when it came to content. Comms people tended to be better at wrapping the message into a cogent and relevant dialogue, while HR was slightly better in terms of articulating intellectual issues." The roll-out of the videos is still going on, and all new recruits are shown it.

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