I wanted to pen down my thoughts on the evolving internal communications function based on numerous queries that have come my way from students, practicing professionals and educationists. This post also articulates the role of the internal communicator, key skills and competencies needed to excel in this field and the various career opportunities that exist.
Internal communications, a field that actively engages and communicates with internal stakeholders (employees, leadership, contract staff and alumni) is growing rapidly. Several research reports and trends point to internal communications as being among the fastest growing areas of communication with a rate of between 25-30 percent. Significant improvement in communication effectiveness is associated with a nearly 20% increase in a company’s market value.
Internal communications is a sub-set of organizational or corporate communication which also includes domains such as advertising, public relations, event management, marketing communication and direct marketing. In short, internal communications empowers employees to do their jobs to the best of their ability and ensure that all are aligned to the organization’s goals.
The Growing Influence of the Internal Communicator
Internal communicators are experts and specialists who collaborate with leaders and human resources to help achieve a common understanding, build connection and recognize employees. There are numerous benefits of consistent internal communications such as enhanced productivity, greater commitment, improved working environment, lower turnover, increased customer orientation and better business growth.
Internal communications aims to support leadership in crafting suitable messages, managing communication channels, writing, organizing, editing and reviewing content. It also coaches employees in understanding the organization’s values, mission, their role and responsibilities and promotes adoption of appropriate communication strategies. Measuring impact of communication, seeking and evaluating feedback, building a sense of community and assisting human resources and business groups to motivate and improve engagement among their employees are among other objectives of internal communications.
Internal communications in recent times has grown in stature. Long known as the ‘poor cousin’ of public relations it is today valued by most organizations due to its impact, reach and importance.
The internal communicator acts as a consultant and the role is crucial for the organization’s success. Traditionally internal communication departments were aligned to the human resources group and over time gained respect and credibility as independent practices. Today, while some organizations have these professionals report to the Executive Office others build this expertise within the ambit of the corporate or marketing communications function. Still others allow this team to work as independent entities giving professionals the freedom of intervening on organizational development, culture transformation and change communication needs.
Partnering with Human Resources
The partnership with human resources (HR) in instrumental to the success of the organization since both these groups has a common stakeholder – employees. HR is a stakeholder but internal communicators do more than just liaison on projects. Instead internal communicators are consultants who guide and coach HR on the nuances of effective communication. HR’s core strengths are in defining and administering policies and programs that make the organization a great place to work and supporting any employer branding effort. Internal communications on the other hand supports these initiatives by giving guidance on what works, which channels to use and how to ensure messages reach audiences appropriately and translate into tangible benefits for the organization.
Due to the continued importance of communication, growth of social media, increased span of control and varied scope of the role, the internal communicator is sought after by most internal groups for advice and intervention while engaging potential clients, investors, prospective employees. Their span even includes corporate social responsibility, risk management, information security, office communication, crisis management, communication training, campus communication and recruitment marketing.
Exciting Nature of Work
Internal communicators are dedicated to improving continuous two-way flow of communication between the organization and its internal constituents. They support the organization at multiple levels – framing key messages, building and managing communication channels such as intranets and portals, reviewing organizational climate, ensuring consistent two-way flow, acting as internal brand custodians, program managing large company-wide transformational communication programs, sharing best practices, coaching employees on knowledge sharing and working as ambassadors of the organization’s culture.
A typical communication program roll-out will require planning, strategizing, budgeting, messaging, influencing, facilitating, measuring and reporting. The program might involve design and production of collateral which can be managed in-house or outsourced depending on budgets and the need. It will expect the internal communicator to have a sound business understanding, leverage an internal network of contacts, have a good grasp of writing and bring creativity and consulting skills to the table.
The scope and scale of communication interventions are defined largely by the business environment and the organization’s interest in employee engagement and communication. Most multinationals operating in India leverages the skills and experience of professionals from their global network to introduce best practices in the region. Issues like attrition, stiff competition for the limited talent pool (specifically in the IT industry) and engagement are also drivers to champion internal communications.
Internal Communicators – Expected Skills and Competencies
The roles and responsibilities of an internal communicator are the effective creation, delivery, measurement and reporting of employee communication. A representative job profile will include supporting the CEO’s office, managing editing and publishing content, establishing periodic face to face interactions with leadership and employees, overseeing the intranet and usage, monitoring business activities and instant reporting about newsworthy events to employees, conducting and analyzing internal surveys, collaborating with corporate communication or marketing with feedback and suggestions related to internal activities.
In this role knowledge of management theory and practice relevant to sector of operations helps immensely. That includes how communication works, what models exist, how audiences receive information, which channels are effective and what are the latest trends sweeping the industry and domain.
It is vital to learn more about the local culture and legal issues in communication. Internal communicators are expected to have an eye for detail and ear for local communication and news. They must have the ability to spot opportunities and translate them into concrete, measurable communication.
As an internal communicator one must also understand the nuances of communication politics and planning which includes the basics of audience, content and return of investment.
Among the essential skills expected of an internal communicator are writing, planning, managing complexity and media management. The softer aspects include influencing, relationship building, networking, listening, process implementation and professional knowledge. Knowledge of social media, design, photography and video editing are extremely handy and today most internal communicators are expected to be experts in these areas. Also see internal communication interviewing tips.
Positions Available in Internal Communications
The entry level expectations for the internal communicator are to have direct experience in organizing communication programs and delivering tangible results. The individual must have supported colleagues in appreciating the quality of communication, encouraged participation on internal communication channels and tools, written messages for a variety of media and influenced decision makers on the objectives and measurement of communication. Most internal communication requirements are advertised as word of mouth referrals and therefore professionals entering this domain may come in with experience in journalism, event management, content writing, public relations and marketing.
At the next stage also known as the Specialist level the individual is expected to own and manage medium sized programs within business groups, demonstrate expertise in translating briefs into concrete interventions, drive adoption of messages and periodically review channels for consistency.
Moving up the ladder will require the individual to be adept at relationship building with senior stakeholders, supporting change management efforts, conducting focus groups and surveys that help stakeholders gauge pulse of their employees, tackle tough human resources issues, collaborate across teams to maximize the impact of communication.
As the role matures the internal communicator will need to establish frameworks, think ahead of the curve by identifying trends shaping the future of the workplace, assign value to communication goals, build accountability to communication impact and think like a business leader.
The career path is well defined and an experienced professional can grow to lead internal communication teams with designations ranging from a Director to a Senior Vice President. Internal communications today is a powerful domain and has a seat at the table on most company boards and leadership teams.
Internal communicators are also aligned by business based on their level of expertise and interest areas. Therefore you may see opportunities to service internal business needs in groups such as technology, consulting, business process outsourcing and marketing management.
Apart from the core functions, there are other specific positions available for those interested in joining the internal communication team. These include designers, client liaisons, recognition managers, community relation managers, content writers, corporate citizenship officers, internal branding specialists, leadership coach, leadership communicator, social media integrator, culture communicators, human resources communication managers, internal researchers, intranet managers, international business communicators, newsletter editors and internal event managers.
Joining the Internal Communications Team
The professional seeking an opportunity in this domain is expected to have an excellent knowledge of English, great listening skills, have a background in one of the marketing communication functions, good drafting and copy editing skills, expertise with online and social media tools, deep knowledge of the industry and understanding of cultural and legal nuances in communication. At the entry level in India the internal communicator can expect to earn close to INR 1-2 lakhs per annum.
For students and practitioners interested in entering this field there is always a debate in their minds on being a specialist versus a generalist. Getting deeper into a domain has it pros and cons. Focusing on one field can limit your learning and exposure in others. On the other hand internal communications as a domain will always be around as a need and career if there are organizations who believe in improving employee engagement and increasing business value.
How professionals begin their career in this function continues to be a topic of discussion. In India and these parts people who enter this field usually come in with a knowledge of PR, advertising, corporate communications, journalism, direct marketing or event management. Or even a combination of all these! Very often internal communications is just another element in their portfolio within the corporate communication function they handle. Leadership traits are an asset especially since most leaders look to the internal communicator to own and drive a lot more than is expected of their immediate span of control. By demonstrating the ability and confidence to manage corporate assets such as intranets, newsletters, employee engagement programs and leadership messaging one can gradually be entrusted with larger responsibilities in internal communications.
Challenges facing Internal Communications
Credibility and respect for the practice are necessary for it to blossom. The internal communication practice is quite nascent and therefore there is immense potential for growth and learning. Some organizations prefer a ‘one person – fits all’ approach – expecting a professional handling PR to also manage internal communications. Sometimes, HR owns it and sometimes the executive office. It is quite rare to have a separate entity driving internal communications which is possibly the best way forward.
Often the expectation is to manage more with the limited set of professionals and those who do not have the relevant experience or interest are saddled with the responsibility of internal communications. There is also a perception that internal communication doesn’t make an ‘impact’ unlike a public relations or an event management activity therefore this practice gets limited attention often at the organization’s peril. Very few professionals are keen to focus on this specific domain due to a lack of visibility it provides for the individual. Also organizations believe it is a skill which anyone can have without investing in skills and experience.
Today there is more emphasis to build expertise for this practice but unfortunately, it is rarely taught as a separate subject in management institutions in the country. At best, it is combined under a larger Marketing & Communications module.
Employee engagement is a hot topic in retaining the best talent across industries globally and internal communicators are ‘thought leaders’ who advise human resources and leaders on strategies. They articulate the need for executive presence, cascading internal messages and championing internal campaigns and events.
Unfortunately, limited investment in developing strategic thinking and planning, creating standards, improving professional’s learning and lack of measurement are stifling growth.
Interestingly, India and China are top of mind worldwide as these nations serve as case studies for global organizations expanding their footprint and presence east or in other emerging regions. Indian and Chinese communication professionals are actively sought to understand how internal communications works in their geographies. Some organizations like Cisco, Accenture, BT and IBM have set benchmarks in this domain – more from their efforts in improving processes, practices and integrating workforces.
The other challenge internal communicators’ face is information overload. Today a professional is overwhelmed with so much information that they are unable to make sense of it completely. The internal communicator is expected to coach employees and provide leaders with alternate solutions to ensure messages are received, understood and acted upon.
Apart from these concerns managing grapevine as a channel of communication, measuring return on investment for communication and building suitable social tools internally are top of mind for internal communicators.
The Future of Internal Communications
There is a shift in the way employee communication is taking place. With more and more organizations debate the impact and implications of Web 2.0 on their staff the internal communicator is expected to serve as a consultant in distilling trends and recommending relevant solutions for integration, knowledge management and learning.
Also with increased targeted ‘internal’ marketing to career levels such as the key ‘manager’ community internal communications will need to structure direct messages and database manage its internal constituents better. The internal communicator will need to be seen more and more as a ‘people’ integrator who can construct a 360 degree plan that supports the employees’ life cycle of with the organization from the on boarding to the alumni stages.
In the next five years, there will be an increase in the demand for specialists in internal communications and strategic consultants who can leverage evolving trends in employee communications.