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Internal-External convergence: a call to action

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A few days ago, while having a brief getaway to Lyon, France, the city where the Rhône and Saône rivers converge, I found myself thinking of another convergence – between internal and external communication.

Last week’s IC Kollectif Global Report devoted considerable attention to this seemingly inevitable trend, among other topics. Its findings offer room for optimism, but are also a clear call to action.

I have long contended that IC and External Comms are distinct disciplines, requiring different skills, attitudes and approaches – akin to the differences, in sporting terms, between Rugby and American Football. Nothing in the report’s findings convinces me that this fundamental reality has changed.

In fact, the most encouraging finding is that if anything, respondents (a good mix of IC Folk and senior communicators with broad internal-external remits) find more appreciation than ever for the critical importance and distinct nature of internal audiences even as the IC and external comms functions increasingly overlap.

Still, other trends are challenging. The long-fought battle over control of internal comms in organizations is largely being resolved, with IC moving back under the purview of Corporate Comms or PR in more and more organizations. At the same time, more progressive ideas like the integration of employee advocacy and ambassadorship into external communication strategies and the idea that employees be well informed about changes before they are made known externally, are still far from commonplace.

The net effect: IC remains a distinct discipline, one that could coexist with other specialties as part of a more sophisticated and strategic approach to corporate comms. But there is also the threat we could yet be subsumed into a high-tech vortex of old-school PR.

Here are the most important conclusions I draw from the report – and, concurrently, from my own experience in the fast-changing world in which we operate:

1. Same field, different games

The distinct dynamics of internal and external audiences have not and will not change. Internal audiences tend to have far more invested in relationships with their organizations as participants (careers, finances, personal reputations) than they do as consumers.

But what is changing are the boundaries and the timescales. We are playing football and rugby on the same field at the same time, with some of the key players playing multiple positions simultaneously. I see from my own experience that can lead to pressure on communicators to oversimplify. IC folk – or increasingly, communicators coming from a strong IC perspective – will be critical to resisting this tendency..

2. Internal people are all external influencers

Even though we have been talking about this for years, the IC Kollectif findings reflect a less-than-universal emphasis on organizations seeing their internal people as an external communication channel.

But at a certain level, anyone who works for an organization – employee, contractor or volunteer – represents the organization and its brand externally. When organizations decline to embrace this critical role – consciously or subconsciously – they miss opportunities. They leave their people to freelance on key subjects, or even to behave inconsistently, when their organization comes up in conversation with customers, employees, or other critical stakeholders.

This represents an area of opportunity for IC-oriented communicators to deliver significant value – by using proven approaches to connecting with and mobilizing internal audiences while seeking to engage their members in externally-facing activities. But IC folk need to be confident in positioning ourselves as credible in addressing external challenges, when engaging with PR folk who are less-than-familiar with the way we IC folk actually work and deliver.

3. Challenge opacity (the practice of being “untransparent”)

Old habits die hard. This cliche is particularly true about the way in which organizations handle sensitive information. Confidentiality remains an essential part of doing business. The need for it is even intensifying in a technology world where innovation drives competitive advantage.

Even though many organizations are attempting to inform internal audiences before external audiences or simultaneously, this is not yet practiced consistently. Moreover, the risks coming from maintaining a gap between what is known and what is said are also intensifying. There is a difference between opacity for business necessity and withholding uncomfortable and inevitable messages for the sake of managerial comfort and privilege. Employees are far more likely to forgive the former rather than the latter, and less likely to be restrained in sharing their thoughts when illegitimate opacity is suspected.

4. Level – or tilt – the analytics and platform playing fields

When it comes to analytics and measurement, IC folk have a history of being underequipped and outgunned by our PR counterparts. With access to tools that give us great ability to collect the right numbers, we also have the ability to better define the questions that the numbers can answer.

But technology has no value if there is no access to it.

Companies which spend millions on management conferences and brand-name engagement surveys still resist investing in the platforms that would allow for effective measurement of day-to-day communication effectiveness while allowing for faster and deeper multidirectional communication. And then they challenge communicators to defend the return on investment that their activities generate without having giving them access to these basics.

For IC folk, a crucial battle is for the ability to track, measure and deliver communication internally at the same level as it can be done externally, and then take things a step further by asking the right questions and measuring the things that make a real business difference.

5. IC Folk can still lead

“We know the business inside and out.” That is not an arrogant boast, but a reflection of how we understand the flow, amplification and impact of communication on both sides of the firewall. Even in a world where internal and external communication are converging, one should not assume that externally-oriented practitioners will automatically lead in that world. Ambitious communicators with strong understanding about how internal communication actually works have a strong foundation and skills that this new world will need.

Bonus. Why IABC is well positioned in this new world

Looking at the overall picture presented in The Next Level, I think the landscape it describes is one where the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) could play an increasingly important role in supporting IC professionals in crossing over to broader roles.

IABC is not an IC organization. But it has long had a very strong contingent of IC pros and leaders among the many disciplines represented within its ranks.

An enhanced selling point for IABC membership is that it offers an excellent place for IC practitioners to broaden their career paths by building relationships with practitioners from other disciplines, and for PR folk and generalists to deepen their knowledge and network with those who have more of an “insider’s” perspective.

Adding in access to certification programs relevant across a full range of communication disciplines: the Communication Management Professional and Strategic Communication Management Professional credentials, IABC faces this future with several reasons for optimism. (Full disclosure: I am Regional Chair for IABC in Europe-Middle East-North Africa and have been an IABC member for 17 years).

It is time to Change The Terms

Internal-external convergence presents real challenges to IC folk. Firming up our thinking as a discipline, and becoming more adaptable to operating in an integrated communication picture, is neither optional nor something we have much time to embrace. But our strength is that we know that this integrated world will not work without an understanding of the dynamics of communication within organizations, and how IC differs from what happens on the outside. It is this understanding, our belief in it, our willingness to speak to it and our ability to deliver through it, that will give us the ability to change the terms in our direction.

ABOUT MIKE KLEIN and CHANGING THE TERMS

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a communication practice focused on writing, strategy, content, change consulting and coaching, with an emphasis on tapping into the value of the social dynamics occurring in every organization.

Changing The Terms is based in Delft in the Netherlands, and works with large corporates and startups in Europe and North America. Mike is an MBA graduate of London Business School, is Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators in Europe – Middle East – North Africa, and authored “From Lincoln to LinkedIn”, a book on the role of social dynamics in organizational communication. To download your free copy, click here.

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