The delivery of internal communications has historically been very output focused. The strategic advisory conversation that often needs to be had about outcomes can be lost within the actual process of communication.
It has also been constrained by a narrow definition. Business communications are not just messaging and information. It’s about conversations, dialogue, listening, as well as non-verbal cues such as behaviour and processes. Internal communications is not just a function, it is part of the fabric of an organisation and tells you so much about its culture.
Internal comms also has an image problem that has affected its ability to attract the best talent. It has long been the poor relation in the communications family.
This has partly come about because employees are theoretically a known quantity. Leaders think that there is an element of common sense to communicating with them and that is it is therefore less of a specialist skill just requiring someone to do the ‘crafting and drafting’. Compare this to external audiences where there is often uncertainty and therefore a greater willingness to defer to (and pay more for) the expertise of the external communications team.
But circumstances have changed and the position of employees in the stakeholder hierarchy has been transformed. Business leaders have witnessed the power of social media in the hands of a new generation of digitally-savvy, independently-minded employees who have high expectations of their leaders and who are more than happy to publicly air their grievances and co-ordinate action. They are no longer just an important audience but an influential channel; they are influencers themselves.
Never has it been truer that reputation is driven from the inside out. Hence business leaders now regard employees as an audience that needs to galvanised and turned from spectators into active fans.
The strategic imperative of change is the other factor that has driven rearrangement of the stakeholder ranking. In an increasing number of industries change is key to survival and most business leaders are driving some sort of change through their organisation, sometimes radical and existential. But unless this change is credible internally it will fail or take longer to execute.
A group communications director from a well-known FTSE 100 leisure group articulated this in a recent email to me. She remarked: "I am paying my head of internal comms more than my head of external comms because I know that if we are really to change, and to persuade the outside world we have changed, we have to change on the inside".
As the people function it is incumbent on HR, in partnership with communications, to identify and codify the expertise that CEOs and business leaders need to help them navigate this new complicated landscape.
It is clear that the purpose, scope and impact of the internal communications function, along with its organisation, urgently need to be redefined, re-thought and updated. For a start it needs a real heavyweight leader, with a seat at the top table, who can speak plainly and deliver uncomfortable truths. It needs a different blend of skills and capabilities that has to begin with data and insight. As one HRD recently said to me: "no data, no legitimacy".
It also has to be given a wider engagement remit – one that is focused on creating stronger emotional connections between employees and the organisation and its leaders. It needs a much stronger influence over all communication within a company, including non-verbal behavioural cues.
It has to become more of an anticipatory discipline, which means being involved in senior-level discussion across a wide range of subjects.
There is an opportunity here for HR to anticipate all of this and reshape the internal communications team so that it's more strategic. A team that focuses on creating emotional connections and building emotional commitment is more likely to create the internal environment that will enable the outcomes that most leaders badly want and need – trust, belief, agility, willingness to change, followership, advocacy and galvanised employees.
Nick Helsby is CEO of Watson Helsby