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Internal Communication Strategy, The Profession

Six “near-myths” about internal communication

There are a lot of things that are believed about internal communication that are, at best, rarely true.

These beliefs undermine perceptions of #IC’s value and impact and make it difficult for real #internalcomms professionals to be effective. Yet they persist because they are easy to believe, and perhaps there are occasional bits of evidence that make them easy to believe.

That’s why I call them “near-myths” – in that they are mostly untrue and counterproductive.

I also argue that the continuing belief in them produces lousy results for organizations, and a lousy climate for IC pros to operate in.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. It’s a cost center

It can be a cost center when there’s no strategy or intent behind it. But when internal communication is focused on aligning organizational intent with the actions of staff, it can be an engine for cost optimization, or even cost reduction.

Why? Because it can help reduce the time employees spend on unproductive activity. And, as we know, “time is money.”

2. It should be under HR because “it’s a people thing”

Yes, “internal communication is a people thing.”

Kind of like “sales is a money thing.” But most organizations don’t put sales under finance.

Unless your company’s main differentiators are in the areas of culture and talent attraction and retention, internal communication can have more impact from reporting to whatever functions and activities are your biggest drivers.

That way, IC can help employees focus on the knowledge, behaviors and conversations that drive improvements in performance.


3. Anyone can do it – or you need tons of different skills to do it

There are a lot of people who think responsibility for internal communication can be delegated to a junior employee or even an intern. And others who come up with job specifications that imply that an IC professional has to be a flawless and proactive writer, event planner, graphic artist, project manager, and executive coach (at a salary in the range of a junior accountant or engineer).

These practices reflect a bigger near-myth: that there’s no value in treating IC as a strategic function, and of hiring IC professionals capable of going toe-to-toe with the C-suite on matters of policy and strategy and meriting inclusion in strategic conversations.


4. It should just be treated as a part of public relations

There’s certainly a need for internal communication to align with what’s being said to external stakeholders like customers, investigators and political decision-makers, and some may think it’s more efficient to just send your employees the information you send to other stakeholders, without making internal communication “a thing.”

But treating employees as one stakeholder group among many, and sharing just the same information with them neglects three important realities about employees:

  • Employees have a more-than-transactional relationship with their organizations and their jobs. For many, work is not a mere exchange of work for cash. Relationships matter. Shared values and objectives matter. Pride in a well-known or well-loved brand matters.
  • Employees own, or at least drive, your relationships with your customers. That means they need to be more knowledgeable than your customers are, to be able to answer their questions and maintain or increase customers’ confidence.
  • Employees are one of your leading external communication channels – talking about your company and your brand not only with customers, but also with their friends, families and neighbors.

5. Everybody understands what employee engagement is

There are persistent beliefs that there is a common definition of employee engagement, and that it can be credibly measured on a scale of 1-100.

But the people who push the use of employee engagement surveys define engagement in a number of different and conflicting ways. Like “discretionary effort”, “job satisfaction”, “commitment”, and “willingness to recommend their company” either to customers or potential employees. The almighty 1-100 scale belies startlingly different motivations employees have toward their jobs and their organizations.


6. You can’t measure the impact of internal communication

A lot of these near-myths are based on an implied foundation myth that “it’s impossible to actually measure the impact of internal communication.”

It’s true that it’s impossible to measure the impact of internal comms solely by using most of the measures that are commonly used: employee engagement scores, eNPS scores, click rates and open rates.

But it’s entirely possible to measure the impact of internal communication if you measure the changes that take place after you baseline what your world looks like before you start communication initiatives.

If you want to change behaviors, start by measuring the behaviors you want to change, before you start communicating about them.

Then communicate the changes you want to see, and measure the growth or decline in those behaviors as your communication efforts continue.

When you put your mind to it, it’s not only possible, it’s actually easy. And that’s what I teach in my Measurement Masterclass.


In closing

I know that these aren’t the only near-myths, or even, flat-out myths which people believe about internal communication. But if you want internal communication to move from being seen as a cost – or even as a nuisance, challenging these “near-myths” is critical to changing the game.


Want to change the game? Drop me a line at mike.klein@changingtheterms.com and let’s talk.

Insights, Internal Communication Strategy, The Profession

Why quantitative research alone doesn’t tell the whole story: the IC Index and the need for caution

One of the biggest issues with using purely quantitative surveys for insights about communication is that what they don’t tell us can be more pertinent than what they actually say.

The recently-released IC Index report, based on a UK-focused study looking at internal communication, is a case in point. 

It hit the streets this summer with a considerable amount of fanfare.  Conducted by London-based employee research firm Ipsos Karian and Box, involving 3000 respondents and collected with the backing of the Institute of Internal Communication, it purports to provide “a UK-wide employee view of what good communication looks like.”

As such, it is not an insignificant piece of research. But by looking only at employee preferences – and particularly at employee ratings and rankings of desirable channels and tactics,it overlooks or glosses over some crucial issues IC pros need to consider when formulating strategies and assessing priorities. 

Here are some insights that become clear on reading the IC Index report – none of which were included in the report’s own text.

  1. Employee content preferences do not (always) equal strategic priorities

Naturally, employee preferences need to be taken into consideration when formulating internal communication strategies.  

But if internal communication is going to be a function that helps move the business forward, and delivers measurable impact on performance, it needs to help leaders to lead at least as much as it helps followers to follow.  

A look at the top employee-preferred topics by “net demand” (the difference between employees seeking more information on a topic and those desiring less) not surprisingly noted communication about pay and benefits as a runaway favorite, well ahead of second choice “my organization’s strategy and direction.”  

Choices in the bottom half included “external context”, “how my organization is helping customers,” “my organization’s achievements and successes”, “my organization’s purpose and mission,” and “my organization’s values and culture.”  

All of these are items which, in my experience at least, register more highly on leadership’s agenda – and are key to driving alignment both strategically and operationally.

  1. Employee “general” format preferences tell us little about specific needs

In the IC Index, the results appear to show a strong preference for email.  

But this preference reflects responses to the question of “Which of the following do you prefer to to receive general news and updates about or from your employer?” – and where the options are “emails”, “1-2-1s with my line manager,” “company newsletters,” “team meetings,” and “my colleagues (word of mouth).

I don’t deny the importance of email – indeed, my #WeLeadComms project is sponsored by #Workshop, one of the more innovative email platforms on the market.

But given that this question only probes “general news and updates,” the IC index tells us little about what types of messages employees prefer to come from which channel, and nothing about which channel actually delivers specific types of messages most effectively.  

Also, by focusing on current employee preferences, the IC Index downplays the attractiveness of comprehensive employee communication platforms, as these have still to become fully widespread in the UK.  Indeed, many of the respondents sharing opinions about employee communication platforms have never actually experienced them – thus making their preferences hypothetical at best.

  1. Asking employees if they are clear on the company strategy does not mean they are clear on the company strategy

One of the major flaws in quantitative employee surveys is that, rather than checking genuine understanding of such details as strategies and priorities, they simply ask respondents whether they feel they understand or are clear about strategies and priorities.

The IC Index gives a 57% “positive” rating to the question “my employer has been clear on the organisation’s strategy and business priorities.”  But research done at MIT showed that only 28% of executives and managers executing strategy could list three strategic priorities.  

  1. All employees are not equal – especially when it comes to consuming and sharing content.

There is a lot of emphasis placed in the report on the IC Index’s findings about the amount of time that respondents self-reported that they engaged with “internal comms” content – with the headline for that section being “You have 15 minutes (or less!)”

The actual results are quite a bit more nuanced than that.  The Index says:

25% say “none-hardly any time”

43% say “up to 15 minutes per day”

23% say 15-30 minutes per day 

7% say 30-60 minutes per day

2% say over an hour per day.

Rather than looking at these results from a “you have 15 minutes or less to engage with each employee” perspective, an alternative approach involves recognizing:

  • About 10% of your people engage deeply with your content
  • 25% essentially pick up all of their company information by word of mouth
  • Any gaps in the formal internal communication are likely to be filled with interpretations shared via word-of-mouth

If you buy the interpretation that we need to make the bulk of IC interventions more “snackable” – you also can’t overlook the fact that word of mouth will be the main way employees will get any substance beyond the initial “snack.”

Moreover, the key isn’t to assume every employee takes 15 minutes to engage with their companies’ internal communication and boil everything down so that everyone gets the same pre-digested 15 minutes of content.  

It’s about making sure that the two minutes, fifteen minutes or sixty minutes that they engage with your content actually count.

  1. The IC Index plays on preferences to dangerously downplay word-of-mouth

It does not surprise me that only 9% of index respondents consider word-of-mouth a preferred communication channel, or that 19% say that they rely upon it.  

But unless companies are to suddenly decide to make all employee communication 100% transparent and 100% “snackable”, word-of-mouth and internal influence will continue to play a critical – and largely misunderstood – role in internal communication, particularly in driving the penetration and recall of internal messaging even by those who shy away from engaging with formal internal communication.  

Because effectively influencing internal word of mouth also involves engaging a relatively small number of highly influential “internal influencers”, focusing on improving internal influence can be a highly cost-effective and time-effective approach to sharpening internal communication and increasing alignment.  

But you wouldn’t pick that up from the IC Index.

  1. The “not-so-magificent seven” paints a rosier picture than warranted

I’m not a huge fan of Net Promoter Score (NPS) or its internal version, eNPS.

But given its reliance on the traditional 1-10 sentiment scale, the most attractive feature of the NPS is that it only ascribes genuinely positive feelings to those giving answers of 9-10, while those at 7-8 are considered “passives” at best, and those below 7 are considered negative or “detractors.”

The one-to-five scale used by Trustpilot and TripAdvisor addresses this more visibly. A 3.5 (the equivalent of a 7 in the IC Index) is not considered an “excellent” score when a 4 is considered the norm in all but the most problematic cases. 

Yet the IC Index insists on considering 7s as “excellent” scores in order to paint a favorable picture of the status-quo thinking pushed through the report’s narrative.  

In the section “The big picture looks good”, all of the sectors mentioned achieved “excellent” ratings from at least 50% of respondents.  But, I suspect, those numbers would plunge if 7s were treated as more neutral (or, as they are in less-trusted employee engagement surveys, treated as politely hostile.)  

In closing

I do not deny the value of the IC Index – particularly as a baseline for measuring the changes improved IC technologies and more resilient cultures could bring in the future.  

But it has the potential to become a charter for complacency, particularly when it comes to the crucial role of internal influence and the opportunities presented by improved technology.

Its omissions – and the report’s generally cheerful tone – could lead practitioners to overaccentuate their strategies towards current preferences rather than future opportunities. 

The report also serves as a cautionary example to internal communication pros to consider adding qualitative questions to their own research to help put quantitative findings into a genuinely meaningful context.