One of the more persistent ideas in the communication world is that internal and external communication will eventually converge.
Indeed, some practitioners already view the two disciplines as integrated and interchangeable.
They do draw on similar skill sets – writing, production, and digital channel management most prominently. There is also a decreasing distinction between the reach of the audiences: in the age of social media, internal communications can leak externally, and external communication often confirms and validates internal intentions and ambitions. But the fundamental differences between internal and external communications remain.
An analogy I frequently use to describe both the similarities and differences between external and internal communication are not unlike those between American Football and Rugby.
The stadiums look similar.
They are played on grass fields with oblong balls and players of various sizes.
But they are by no means the same game.
American Football allows a forward pass, enabling the game to be played in front of the ball—in much the same way external communication is played outside the company firewall. In this wide-open environment, the players are armored for their protection.
Rugby has no forward pass, meaning the game is played behind the ball, in the same way internal comms is played behind the firewall. There are no pads, no helmets, in much the same way as internal communication’s more intimate relationship with its audiences would render such armor ineffective and superfluous.
It may be easy to lump IC and external comms into a single bucket. Certainly, taking the example of Dan Lyle, who went from American college football to become one of English rugby’s most celebrated players, it is quite possible to excel in both. But I’m sure he’d be the first to say that Rugby and American Football are two different games.
The biggest difference between IC and External Comms
So, what’s the biggest difference between internal and external communication? The nature of the audiences and their relationship with the organization.
Employees spend a many hours a week in the organization, represent it to others, and depend on it in order to maintain their networks of personal and professional commitments in life. Customers, on the other hand, depend on the organization to provide but one of the many specific goods or services they require in the course of their daily lives.
I would call that distance between the two “organizational citizenship.” Unlike being a “customer” who consumes something the organization produces, say corn flakes or transportation services (or in the case of investors, its profits), an employee’s role as an organizational “citizen” has two primary elements: involvement in the community that produces the product or services, and involvement in the process that produces them. An additional role can be that of a public representative or advocate for the organization.
The customer’s role remains largely transactional despite the increasing importance of customer advocacy in social media.
The employee’s role as an actor within the internal community resides within an intricate web of interactions with brand, culture, strategy and market dynamics, and the employee’s productive role reflects active involvement with processes, tactical objectives, and interaction with other functions and locations.
Internal and external audiences play different roles. Communicating with them so they can effectively and sustainably fulfill those distinct roles, in my view, make internal and external communication different games – as different as Rugby and American Football. Recognizing their differences is the key to being capable to play and win at both.