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THE NEW RULES OF INTERNAL COMMUNICATION

Internal communication has changed. The rules that guided its practice yesterday are no longer fit for today’s playbook. Strategies and tools that worked in the past can no longer guarantee success today. Employees whom PR professionals seek to influence with communication are no longer the same in orientation and in the ways they receive and consume information. One way, top-down communication has lost sheen. Employees now expect their organizations to communicate with them in a way that mirrors their communication experiences of today.

In this new employee economy, long-term commitment to an organization is an old school mentality. Employees move at the slightest opportunity to any organization that suits their fancy at the time, especially those that share their values and goals. They also want to determine when and how to work. And they demand “emotional salaries”, something more than pay-cheque in line with their individual personalities.

This situation demands a new approach to internal communication and a new set of rules to help organizations articulate the fittest versions of themselves to remain competitive. Unfortunately, many PR professionals are still stuck in the old communication regime. The few who succeed are those who understand what internal communication really is, how it has evolved over the years, the communication channels that can do the magic today and the new rules that set the stage for success in the work.

What Is Internal Communication?

I see internal communication as the process of establishing and maintaining relationships between an organization and its employees using communication tools.

In an article, Rethinking Communication: A Stakeholder Approach, published in Corporate Communication: An International Journal, Mary Welch and Paul R Jackson define it as “the strategic management of interactions and relationship between stakeholders within organizations across a number of inter-related dimensions.”

In fact, the whole idea behind internal communication is to build good relationship with employees by promoting their understanding of an organization. This makes it easy to win their co-operation and support for the achievement of strategic objectives of an organization.

From Employee Satisfaction To Employee Engagement

The era when the whole work of internal communication was focused on enhancing job satisfaction is gone. Many studies have revealed that, back in the 1940s it was enough to just entertain employees and they would be happy. Thereafter, you had to inform and persuade them. Today is the era of open communication, when you have to challenge and stimulate them, manage change and engage them. This involves sharing knowledge and know-how as well as employee involvement.

In his article, Less Vacant, More Engaged, published in Employee Benefit Journal, Alison Coleman captures the evolution of internal communication in these words:

“Fifteen years ago, it was enough to simply ask staff if they were happy in their jobs. A decade ago, the emphasis shifted away from satisfaction towards commitment and the measuring of positive attitudes toward the organization. The focus is changing again, this time toward levels of engagement and measuring of that.”

Defined as “the level of an employee’s psychological investment in their organization” in the 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report, employee engagement can be measured by what employees say about their organization, whether they intend to stay in the organization for a long time or not, by their level of motivation to help the organization succeed.

What Channel Is Right?

A channel is right when it delivers your internal communication objectives. Several studies have shown that the best channel that promotes collaboration and problem-solving is internal social networking. Intranet, electronic publications, video, print publications and digital signage are  excellent for creating awareness, and emails and leadership town hall meetings are good for driving change. Studies have also revealed that face to face, Intranet and emails are the most used channels of internal communication.

Introducing The New Rules

Most of the rules of Internal Communication may have changed, but principles such as transparency, involvement, honesty, consistency, timeliness and open communication abide. Principles are broad and flexible guidelines for action; rules are prescriptive,  detailing what should or should not be done in order to bring principles effectively to life.

The new rules spring from the developments in information and communication technology, generational shift in the global workforce and the demands of employee engagement. Understanding and applying them in internal communication campaigns is the foundation for their success.

I believe I have not done anything special in this article. The rules are not my inventions. They are everywhere in Internal Communication literature. What I have done is to identify, bring them together and offer some advice on how to implement them. These are nine of them,  and in no particular order are they listed as follows:

RULE 1: Communicate the Big Picture

The big picture represents an organization’s vision, mission, values, long-term goals and objectives. Communicating it closes the gap in employees’ understanding of what an organization stands for and where it is heading to.

In the new employee economy, much more than pay cheque matters to employees. They need a relationship, and they are looking for organizations that can give them a sense of belonging and share their values and goals. They want to be part of something big, something meaningful to their individual lives and something that adds to the advancement of society and humanity at large. Communicating the big picture nurses these subliminal urges and moves them to behave in ways that promotes their realization. That way, they get engaged, become the organizational citizens and align their decisions and actions with that of the organization to help it succeed. Jessica Walter nails it in JPL’s ebook, Strategic Internal Communication: “Communicating clearly about strategy and goals help leaders and employees create alignment among decisions and actions that impact the company’s performance over time”.

RULE 2: Communicate Social Purpose

Defined as the core reason for being in business beyond profit motive, social purpose is the way to go in the 21st Century, especially as social awareness has motivated people to demand a greater sense of responsibility from businesses.

Smart organizations are embedding social purpose in their businesses in order to connect with the humanity in their current and potential employees. By having social missions’ at the core and the goals of creating both economic and social values, they are perceived as businesses that impact the world positively and in a sustainable manner.

Several studies have revealed that millennials prefer to work for companies with social purpose. 69% of PR/Communication students are interested in social purposes, according to 2017 Global Communication Report. And a PR authority, Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA), UK has confirmed that “Campaigns with social purpose embedded are more effective in increasing emotional engagement, driving revenue, share price and ROI.”

RULE 3: Embrace the Visual

There is no disputing the fact that “visuals express ideas in a “snackable manner”, making it easy to better communicate and engage employees.

Studies have revealed that 65% of the population are visual learners. They digest information so presented quite easily. And visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than texts, according to some studies.

What is more? The 2017 European Communication Monitor (ECM) Survey reveals that 84% of communication will be visual by now (2018). The study cited above-average growth in the use of visuals such as online videos, instant photos, instant photos and online animation when compared to three years before the study.

In communication, visuals are the currency of the moment. In this age of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and streaming services, visuals call the shots. Imagine YouTube getting more than one billion visitors every month. That is 1/7 of the world’s population. What does that tell you? Ignore visuals and you miss the mark in achieving your internal communication objectives.

RULE 4: Set Agenda for Peer-to-Peer Communication

Ninety percent of internal communication received by employees does not come from formal internal communication media according to the ebook, Disrupting the Function of Internal Communication by IC kollectif. Rather, they come from peers, other employees, especially a group of influencers who constitute 3% of the total employee population but drive conversation with 85% of the other employees.

Employees turn to these influencers because of distrust for official communication from the top. Edelman Trust Barometer 2017 puts CEO’s credibility at 37% and peer credibility at 60%.

What does this mean for PR or Internal Communication professionals? It means that identifying and turning to the influencers in order to achieve internal communication campaign objectives makes good sense; but, ensure you set a clear agenda for what they should be talking about from the start

A good way to start is to identify and establish relationships with the influencers. Then, provide them with accurate information in a timely fashion. Embrace technology platforms that will help bring more employees into the conversation. Encourage teamwork. There is an overwhelming body of evidence from several studies that peer to peer communication promotes good human relations at work. And good working relations drive employee engagement.

RULE 5: Personalize your content

Accenture’s 2016 Report, The Power of Personalization, defines personalization as “the act of dynamically curating experiences in each individual and context in a seamless manner across all interactions and channels.” In Internal Communication, it means giving employees the information they want, in a style they want it and through their preferred channel.

How do you do that?

  • First, segment employees by age, management level, hobbies and behaviours (both online and offline)
  • Group them according to their similarity in needs, behaviours and preferred channels of communication.
  • Consider employees life cycle. This helps you determine who needs what information. Attempting to engage starters in the company with messages meant for middle managers or top managers will not gel.
  • Keep employees life experiences in mind. Stories that minister to their personal life experiences, addresses their interests and concerns, especially about their health, hobbies and living environments are likely to hit the right spots.

McDonald’s did this when its Internal Communication Manager created stories about the staff who had lost their homes during a wave of wildfires but went ahead to distribute free food to firefighters. This resonated very well with employees.

  • Use Relationships. Let authorities employees trust endorse or add personal messages to what you offer. Research shows that line managers are the most trusted sources of professional information.
  • Use the right tool or technology. What is right for a particular group of employees is what they prefer. It could be email, social media, intranet or face to face communication.

Personalizing contents for employees tells them that they are special and that they are not just a number in the books of the organization. This drives engagement.

RULE 6: Embrace 24/7 News Cycle

The advent of social media, smartphones and other digital tools has fed our appetite for real time information. Media houses now operate a 24/7 news cycle, keeping us informed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It has become the norm, and employees expect their organizations to communicate with them that way.

What is the implication for PR Practitioners? We need to embrace digital communication, update our digital skills set, fast track editing and approval processes and ensure the internal communication channels we use are fast and interactive. Only then can success be assured.

RULE 7: Go Social

“Go social or be damned” is a new rule of Internal Communication today. With a diversified workforce and a high percentage of millennial who prefer social channels of communication to conventional ones, organizations cannot afford to ignore social media in their communication mix.

Discerning organizations are investing in Enterprise Social Networks, defined by Altimeter Group as “a set of technologies that create business value by connecting the members of an organization through profiles, updates and notifications.” They are using Yammer, Sharepoint, Snapcomms, Chatter and other platforms to give their employees a voice, encourage interactions and promote employee engagement. And they are formulating comprehensive social media policies to prevent internal information from leaking outside. You can do the same for your organization. But effective internal social media does not come so easy. Success is determined by the quality of contents, the level engagement and dialogue as well as the level of optimization, according to a research by APCO Worldwide.

RULE 8: Be Accountable

Accountability is the name of the game in PR today.  With so many organizations struggling to survive in a global economy that rolls from one crisis to another, budgets are tight. So, PR professionals are expected to demonstrate Returns On Investment (ROI) in all PR efforts. Internal communication is not an exception.

The way out is to measure and report what matters to the top management. They will always want to know the level of employees’ awareness of the organizations’ vision, mission, values, long-term objectives and programmes designed to achieve them. This is because employees’ buy-in, which guarantees success of the programmes,  cannot be assured when they are not even aware of them. Employee feedback surveys, training sessions and quizzes are some of the methods you can use.

Another area of interest to management is the opinion employees hold about the organization. They recognize that their opinions drive their attitudes and behavior towards the organization. Surveys, quizzes, briefing/training sessions, focus groups and web analytics are methods you can use.

Employees’ attitudes matter to the management. Good employees’ attitudes toward an organization are a fast lane to employee engagement. The good old employee attitude survey still counts. Enterprise social networks such as Yammer can help you analyze their emotions and track their attitudes.

Measure employees’ behaviours toward your organization. It tells how engaged employees are with an organization. Visits for intranet stories, level of participation in collaboration sites, physical attendance to meetings, willingness to go the extra mile, level of punctuality, level of absenteeism all tell a lot about employees’ bevaviour.

Of vital interest to management is the business impact internal communication makes. The best method is to assess employee retention rate, employee performance and productivity.

When you measure employees awareness, opinions, attitudes and behavior before and after internal communication campaigns and top it up with how the programme has impacted the bottom-line, you prove to the management that you are accountable and that internal communication is not just an expense, but one that plays a vital role in the success of the organization.

RULE 9: Embrace Employer Branding

Anita Van de Velde, in her white paper, Employee Economy, defines employer branding as “the process of promoting an organization’s brand proposition as the employer of choice to specific target groups where there is a business imperative to recruit and retain specific skills in the successful delivery of the organization’s business plan and future strategies.” This definition captures the spirit, soul and raison d’être of employer branding.

It is not surprising that employer branding is the wave of the moment. It was the top investment priority for CEOs in 2017 according to a report in Harvard Business Review. The trend is likely to continue. After all, the war for talents is fiercer and employee engagement is harder than ever before. But with employer branding, organizations can weather these storms. Reason: it helps to build their reputations as a good place to work.

When rules change, the person with power is the one who quickly studies, understands and allows the new rules to guide actions in whatever he or she does. It is a new dawn for Internal Communication in particular and Public Relations in general. Those who will succeed are professionals who will flow with the tools, rules and practices as they evolve.