It's that time of year when my attention turns outside in and I take another long look at the role of internal communications. Sharing knowledge around the preparation and implementation of good internal communication strategies always leads me to emphasis the fact that you can't have good external relationships if your internal relationships are poor or neglected.
Relationships of all kinds give our organisations the permission they need to do what they do and to keep their licence to operate. Sadly, internal relationships often fall by the wayside with employees taken for granted by the organisation's leadership. Much has been made of employee engagement and the need to ensure that everyone is delighted, enthralled and active in the workplace - which is great but, as humans, it is a rare thing if this actually comes to pass, particularly in an era that features zero hour contracts, unsafe work spaces, stress, burnout and the odd oppressive boss. What might be considered 'gold standard' internal communication is swiftly cancelled out by bad behaviour - whether that's the boss, the colleague or the employee themselves.
So what's next for internal communication? We've already seen the evolution of titles - employee engagement executive, employee relations officer, chief happiness officer and so on - but have we actually seen an evolution of the role? I don't think we have but it is getting there. Many internal communicators have moved on from 'sending out stuff' and simply actioning executive demands for information sharing and tools like Slack and Trello have helped internal organisational culture move forward a little (although there are growing reports of task update fatigue as employees struggle to use the collaborative tools and actually complete their work).
My thinking is that there's some internal rethinking for organisations to undertake and that has to start with an audit of their people, values, culture, tools and systems. Each of these things informs the other and a cohesive, effective internal communication strategy can only be formulated once this is done (and if you need some help understanding just how it is done, then we can help).
Internal communication is everyone's responsibility but not everyone's area of expertise. Bringing people together, facilitating good relationships, developing a healthy values-based internal culture is the realm of the internal communications professional and always has been. Communicators for sure - but also connectors, facilitators and encouragers specialising in building a workplace culture where people are empowered not just to get the job done but to do a great job.
Funny thing experience. When you are looking for a job, experience tends to be the focus of the interview. What experience have you got? How is it relevant? Where did you get your experience? If the 'experience indicators' aren't immediately obvious on your CV, it is highly unlikely that you'll even get to the interview stage.
Surprising then that the emphasis given to experience at the recruitment stage is so poorly reflected by employers when they consider the experience they are providing for their employees. I wonder how different recruitment would be if, during an interview, the prospective employee was asked about their experience and they related their experience of being employed. Describing in detail how their current or former workplace made them feel. Whether or not they were rewarded, developed, trained and recognised. Whether the employing organisation truly valued them and the contribution they made. Whether they were listened to - and acknowledged. Or perhaps they would explain how they were ignored, stressed and under-resourced, motivating their current job hunt.
Public relations builds and sustains the relationships organisations need to keep their licence to operate - and that's all the relationships, not just a select few. All relationships include the internal relations for the organisation which includes the internal communications strategy and function. If you don't have good internal relations then your external relationships will fail and your reputation will falter - and underpinning all this is the workforce experience.
For years employee engagement has been the elusive 'X Factor' for organisations - 'if we get good engagement then all's well and our employees will magically become staunch advocates for us on social media and other external platforms' goes the riff which, to be fair, is only one step up from the great myth of 'employee satisfaction'. It's a myth because I might be 'satisfied' with my job for many reasons and those reasons will probably have nothing to do with my loyalty, commitment or care for my employer. For instance, I might tick 'yes' on the job satisfaction survey because the hours I work allow me to pursue a part-time career as a magician, or allow me to take care of an elderly relative, be a volunteer life-guard, pick the kids up from school - or any number of pursuits. I might tick 'yes, I'm satisfied with my job' because I'm frightened my manager might find out if I tick 'no' and make my life a misery. Satisfaction is not an adequate measure of internal relationship health and neither is engagement, which is only a mild improvement on satisfaction. The concept of 'engaged employee' is a surface measure of an individual's reaction to their workplace but not a measure of relationship health.
Work has changed and as security has been substituted for flexibility so employee requirements have changed. Studies have shown that employees look for purpose in their work often before pay. That the organisation's values must align with their own if they are to remain committed and loyal to their employer. Employee engagement requires a culture that facilitates collaboration and that collaboration helps everyone comply with what is necessary to get the job done. The experience must include a sense of place so the employee understands the environment they belong to, their place and role in achieving the purpose and the opportunity to work to and provide value.
As always, new job titles emerge to describe new times - we can find chief happiness officers, masters of contentment, experience innovators and many more besides. But the titles don't change a core undertaking if the experience is going to be genuine - and that undertaking is internal communication. You can't build good relationships without good communication. Communication that helps build knowledge, address behaviours or change attitudes. The internal communication strategy must be designed to convey the working experience of all those inside the organisation, listening and engaging in conversations that help inform organisational culture and any necessary change. What it must never be is 'sending out stuff', churning out email newsletters and uploading information to a stale old intranet - heading in that direction will take employees towards the door rather than towards the heart of the organisation.
Still photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash
Video and motion graphic by Catherine Arrow for PR Knowledge Hub
We change all the time. Every day, a little difference creeps into our lives and shifts the way we either work, play or view the world around us. Yet organisations and businesses struggle with change as if it were a dinosaur, unrecognisable in today’s world, out of place and time. Strange really that this should be the case but perhaps change becomes a challenge simply because organisations - of all sorts - fail to recognise that change is a constant in every life.
Change for the sake of it is rarely a good thing - my motto ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ holds fast in this context. But without change we don’t grow. Our development is stilted and futures become uncertain. When change fails the likelihood is that the reason for change is uncertain, the people involved - and it is people who are at the heart of change - have been left unrecognised or ignored. Above all, change fails when communication and collaboration collapse in a crumpled heap at the feet of mismanagement or poorly executed governance.
Public relations and communication professionals have been at the centre of change management for decades - even before change management became a discipline in its own right. We know that organisations need to maintain critical relationships in order to keep their licence to operate and relationships, by their very nature, are subject to change.
When dealing with change we must deliver to outcomes and effective, timely delivery is driven by first asking (and answering) some simple but complex questions.
We can ask the questions, do the research, formulate a plan, implement excellence in communication and compete the change - but what about the stumbling blocks? The obstacles? Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is an inadequate understanding on the part of the governance team as to why the change is taking place - and what life will look like once it has occurred. Reactive change implemented on the fly seldom succeeds. Purposeful change, driven by vision and mutually beneficial outcomes is the way to lead progress.
You can delve into acres of research, review countless methodologies and investigate the many alternative approaches to change management and all of it will be helpful. But at the heart of effective and productive change is the desire and willingness to improve the organisation, service or product, an understanding of the critical relationships that must be maintained with stakeholders and communities and ultimately, the delivery of tangible benefits to everyone involved.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.