Developing an internal communication strategy
Developing a well-thought-out internal communications strategy and a plan to execute it is critical to the success of your organisation. With this guide, you will understand how you can use internal communications and engagement to support your organisation’s business strategy.
On this page:
- Why you must be strategic
- Winning senior leaders over is critical
- Using stories
- Challenges for internal communicators
- Steps to develop your strategy
Why you must be strategic
The aim of internal communications is to help your department or agency deliver its business strategy by engaging and informing employees. Speak their language to sell your vision.
If employees know what needs to be done, and what their role is in achieving this, they can align their efforts to the strategy. It’s not enough just to tell employees what the strategy is; you have to equip them to deliver it through good internal communication and engagement.
This isn’t easy and you have to work hard at it.
Reputation and brand
Employees are the key to your reputation and brand.
For customer-facing organisations, internal communication and engagement is probably more important than any other communication discipline. And in every part of public service it sits at the heart of reputation management.
Reputation is built on 3 things:
- what people say about you
- what you say about yourself
- whether you do what you say you’re going to do
It’s not hard to see where employee advocacy – where a staff member speaks positively about your organisation, both as an employer or employee – fits into this.
If a customer has a good experience, 9 times out of 10, it’s due to how they’ve been dealt with. They might go on and tell other people, and use you again. If a customer has a bad experience they are more likely to tell anyone who will listen, damaging your reputation.
While a glowing media story will highlight what you do and your achievements, if it isn’t matched on the ground in terms of customer experience, it’s worthless. In fact, it’s more damaging – as broken promises are worse than no promises at all.
Your staff will often act as your customers’ touchpoint with your organisation. So, building and maintaining a good external reputation begins with building staff engagement with and understanding of your corporate objectives, values, and brand.
Employees are a key component of your brand and what you offer customers – whether they’re dealing face to face, on email, or over the phone.
The overall success of your organisation’s business strategy depends on employees translating your brand values into appropriate behaviour on the ground. The critical points of contact between a customer and your organisation – telephone conversations, email exchanges and face-to-face engagement – are sometimes referred to as ‘moments of truth’. At each point of contact your brand promise is tested.
The greater number of contacts, the greater the danger of inconsistency.
In large organisations the ‘moments of truth’ can be managed by several departments, who may have different priorities, so the danger of inconsistency grows. Tighter management and coordination of internal communications is required to help consistency.
If employees understand your vision and values, and how they can put them into practice in their day-to-day jobs, then you are much more likely to achieve your business strategy.
Winning senior leaders over is critical
Getting senior management support for your strategy is critical. ‘Support’ isn’t just getting it agreed by the management team and then you going off and delivering it. It’s making the strategy integral to the success of the organisation.
Ways you can do this are to:
- link it to your organisation’s business strategy
- show how your internal communications activity is supporting and helping to deliver this
What’s in it for leaders?
Change is a constant for all organisations. There is no ‘steady state’ anymore, only constant flux, with organisations needing to be more agile and innovative to succeed. This makes it even more important for employees to have trust in their leaders, and confidence they can deliver and manage the change.
Over at least the last 50 years there has been a marked shift in public trust, based on a series of high-profile public and private sector scandals. This has seen the public become more cynical and lose confidence in the decisions made by politicians and businesses, and their reporting in the media.
This shift from ‘deference to reference’ has been accelerated by the rapid growth of the internet and increasing popularity of social networking and alternative sources of news, away from the mainstream media.
This change has spread its way into the workplace, and poses new challenges for senior leaders and internal communicators when trying to shape an authentic narrative and build trust. Research shows only 51% of employees have trust and confidence in the senior leadership of their companies and only 44% believe senior leaders are trying to do their best for their employees. (From Bill Quirke, Making the Connections: using internal communications to turn strategy into action, Gower, 2008: 109).
There are 4 enablers identified to better employee engagement which are key considerations when developing and delivering your strategy:
- Strategic leadership or narrative
- Engaging managers
- Employee voice
These are all key considerations when developing and delivering your strategy.
This is visible, empowering leadership that provides a strong strategic narrative about your organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.
Organisational integrity is where the vision and values on the wall are reflected in your day-to-day behaviours. What your leaders say must align with what they do. Any gaps are quickly spotted, leading to employee cynicism and disaffection.
Your strategy must:
- set out a compelling and authentic strategic narrative showing clearly what your organisation stands for
- clearly reference the civil service reform agenda
The strategic narrative is where the organisation sets out its vision for the future.
Internal communicators need to identify opportunities where they can bring this to life and articulate the corporate strategy and vision. The narrative must:
- feel actionable and achievable
- paint a compelling but realistic picture of the future and the role of employees in that future
- build confidence in the organisation and its leadership
For the narrative to be clear it needs to be meaningful, timely and relevant. You need to avoid the tendency that some organisations have to put the onus on the employee to translate and make sense of their messages. A strategic narrative is an ongoing story and can come in all shapes and sizes.
Let your managers do the talking
Survey after survey shows managers are the most important and preferred channel for employees. So, the single most important factor in delivering any internal communications strategy must be your managers.
Line managers and leaders are estimated to account for two-thirds of the impact on employees’ attitudes and behaviour. In comparison, the formal channels – where internal communicators traditionally spend most of their time – account for less than 10% of the impact, but take up the majority of the time and budget (Quirke:2008:106).
So, making sure your leaders and managers do the talking, preferably face-to-face, is key to your strategy.
Challenges for internal communicators
Developing a successful strategy means preparing for the challenges ahead. They’re difficult to predict.
Watch the video: How can internal communicators influence leaders (2 minutes 30 seconds)
The 4 Cs
Before writing your strategy you need to be aware of some of the challenges which can get in the way of success. Bill Quirke, one of the leading authorities on internal communication and the management of change,has summarised these as the 4 Cs:
Watch the video: Challenges: the 4 Cs of internal communications strategy (3 minutes 47)
Future direction and challenges
It’s clear the environment for internal communicators, and the skills they need, are changing rapidly. Here, we look at what to say about the future direction of the profession, and what internal communicators should be doing to meet the new challenges.
Kevin Ruck, Co-founder PRAcademy and Editor of “Exploring Internal Communication”
“Smart internal communication practitioners will finally realise that they hold the key to unlocking higher levels of employee engagement by facilitating employee voice. The era of internal information transmission is coming to an end. Craft communication skills are less important. Polished prose is perceived as propaganda.
Organisations that embrace the potential of giving employees a voice will see their culture energised with increased innovation, generating ideas that improve performance. Ambitious practitioners will grab the opportunity to be at the centre of new, less deferential, ways of management. They will become expert curators of important knowledge. This will give them more va va voom in their own role and career development.”
Steps to develop your strategy
Choose an approach and format that works for you and your organisation. We suggest the following steps to developing your strategy:
- approach to developing our strategy
- where we are now
- where we want to be
- how are we going to get there
Internal communications is too important to be left to the internal communications team alone. A successful communications strategy needs to be integrated into the strategic fabric of your organisation.
No one will do this for you, but they will help you if you can persuade them by showing what’s in it for them and the organisation. As part of your approach you must invest significant time in the right areas. One of these is creating strategic alliances and partnerships across the organisation.
Start in your own department
Colleagues in your own department need to understand the influential role internal communications can make to support the reputation of the organisation.
You also need to have a good grasp of the key campaigns and initiatives they are working on and show what you can do to support them.
HR and organisational development are departments you need to be working closely with. In some organisations internal communications will be located within these departments. HR needs to be involved because internal communications is not just about distributing information – it’s about creating understanding and engagement. HR has often a large agenda, including:
- change management
- introducing new values and ways of working
- improving performance management
Each of these agendas will need effective internal communications.
This close strategic partnership will do 3 things:
- increase the influence of internal communications across the organisation
- improve business performance by breaking down silos
- provide a critical support network for lone internal communicators and small teams.
As natural allies, internal communications and HR should assess the communication processes that tie their organisations together. This will help share data and avoid duplication of effort.
Your internal communications strategy must support your people strategy. It must share key performance indicators, around engagement for example, so you are all working in the same direction.
But it’s not just HR you need to have a strategic partnership with.
It is critical that communications have a strategic role in the planning and running of your organisation. It is likely that the director of communications sits on your management team and will be able to influence strategy and business plans.
Employees, in customer-facing departments, represent your brand and influence your reputation in their day-to-day interactions. So it is clear you need close partnerships with operational departments and heads of customer services. That way, you can work with them to influence their business plans and managers at a local level.
The best practices to developing your internal communications strategy are:
- employees are key to your reputation and brand; never tire of telling senior managers that
- understand your organisation’s business strategy; if you don’t, the chances are no one else will
- it’s not enough just to tell employees what the strategy is; you have to equip them to deliver it through good internal communication and engagement.
- build trust in your senior leaders
- let your managers do the talking
- understand the challenges you are up against and make the step-change in your skills and approach to deal with them
- keep your strategy simple, evidenced-based, and focused on outcomes
- internal communications is too important to be left to the internal communications team alone