Are internal comms roles “dead”… or is IC heading for a renaissance?

In the nearly 20 years I have been an internal comms pro, Internal Communication has been prematurely pronounced dead on a number of occasions, to be subsumed into “sexier” or more exalted specialties.

In his blog post earlier this week, London’s Dillan Shikotra makes a similar prediction:

“My prediction is that Internal Communication will evolve into ‘employee experience’. It will look more holistically at all the touch points an employee has with the organisation, starting from offer, onboarding, training, right through to offboarding & beyond. Job titles such as Internal Communications Advisor/Manager/Director will be replaced by Head of Employee Experience, Employee Engagement Manager and Employee Experience Executive. And we are seeing this already, with companies like Sky, Vodafone and Airbnb appointing their very own ‘Head of Employee Experience’. “

Dillan adds:

“What does this mean for us IC practitioners? It means we must evolve like Pokemon Go characters. It will require us to have a deeper understanding of employee needs, be subject matter experts on digital/social media channels, challenge the leadership team more and stay current on new ways of working. We will need to move from a channel based approach to an employee experience approach. It’s not going to be easy, but then change never is. We’ll also need to start working more closely with our HR, L&D and IT colleagues to ensure the first interaction with the company is positive (strong employer brand), that everyone has a positive onboarding experience, that 2-way communication channels are in place from day one and that the employee’s voice will always be heard.

Those who embrace this change will be the ones who will drive & shape the next phase of this evolutionary journey of internal communications.”

What made me take notice of the piece was that it received a large number of likes and positive comments—somewhat more than the usual for an opinion piece about internal comms.

But the enthusiasm for having the adoption of sexy nomenclature by trendy companies portend “the new future” for internal comms needs to be tempered by a few realities:

  • The “Head of Employee Experience” and related job titles themselves, with their focus on employee touchpoints with tangible processes as well as communication moments, sounds much more like an IC-savvy HR roles rather than a defining evolution of internal comms, because IC serves other key purposes and stakeholders than HR departments and their current pressing need to keep millennial (and other) employees happy.
  • Political upheaval, especially in the West, will create unprecedented demand for internal communication to drive and sustain perceptions of organizational stability and resilience in the face of what is happening in the larger context.
  • If the political upheaval leads to economic turmoil, and internal communication has been able to demonstrate its value to a given organization, IC may play a key role in helping the organization retain and connect key people even it shrinks or merges.
  • Even if the impact on business of the current political crises is relatively painless, organizations are unlikely to subsume the change communication, employee advocacy, operational support and leadership comms that IC professionals currently lead into a function with an unrelated or even a conflicting purpose.

I bring these points out not to scold Dillan – whose piece raises valid points and who has opened up a potentially critical conversation about the future of the profession. But I encourage IC practitioners to consider an alternative view, that rather than being on our deathbed as a profession, Internal Communication’s best days may soon be to come.

Already, we add value across a variety of crucial organizational activities.  And as our world looks turmoil in the eye, we may find ourselves playing many crucial roles in enabling our organizations to survive and even thrive.  We may need to adapt, but there is no need to surrender.



A Hard Place Between Two Rocks: A future for the Strategic Internal Communicator?

As I pursue a positioning as a “Strategic Internal Communicator” and an advocate for “Strategic Internal Communication”,  I have found two recent conversations quite challenging.

The first, with Liz Guthridge, a long-time co-conspirator and one of the endorsers of my book, “From Lincoln to LinkedIn”, who said “I think Strategic Internal Communication is too small and restrictive of a playing field.  These really are leadership issues (emphasis mine, as it generally is on my own blog) that greatly affect the company’s operations and reputation. Plus, with today’s hyper-connectivity, I think it’s hard for traditional internal communication people to manage these issues.”

The second was with “Silvia”, who recruited me to come back to Europe for a contract a number of years back, and who has since developed a career coaching service.

In an hour-and-a-half analysis of my strengths and  weaknesses that I signed up for while contemplating a return to permanent in-house work, she concluded: “You aren’t an Internal Comms Manager or a Head of Comms.  You are a writer.  You love writing.  You show no evidence of any skill at organizing events or managing a team and that’s a big part of what people want.   On the digital side, you don’t really have the technical piece. And why limit yourself to Internal Comms?  Haven’t you heard that ‘Content is King?’”

Never mind that I have fifteen years of credentials as an activist in the internal comms profession, have written a book on the subject, and am genuinely passionate about what I do.

To put it bluntly, the Strategic Internal Communicator (me, in this case), is in a hard place between two rocks—the immovable commitment of HR folks (and the people who recruit for them) to hiring people for top IC positions on the basis of broad executional and transactional skills rather than deep strategic acumen and fluency, and the tone adopted by some people who have “graduated upwards” from IC who think these are loftier matters to be addressed by souls with mightier positions on the food chain.

But, as George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

At the core, the strategic internal communicator has three main roles in an organisation that is capable of making full use of his or her talents.

The first is to take ownership of the organisation’s strategy and vision and weave it thoroughly into the fabric of conversations in the business—particularly through shaping its words and narrative.

The second is to identify those places where the organisation’s words and action contradict or fall short of its vision and narrative—and either address those gaps rhetorically or challenge the organisation’s leaders to close or transcend them.

The third is to understand where the levers of influence lay in the organisation, and provide those influential people with the information and context required for them to make a real difference.

Event producers, web masters and executive coaches don’t do that.  CEOs don’t do that.  Strategic Internal Communicators do that–and we do a lot of other stuff in order to get the organisational headroom to do that.

Sure, the never-ending drive for corporate efficiency will continue the drive for overspecification of top IC roles.  And the never-ending drive for higher fees and status will continue entice excellent IC pros to drop their tools and migrate ever upward.

The need for organisations to maintain coherence and inspire confidence in an increasingly connected and competitive world means there will always be need for our talents as Strategic Internal Communicators.

But for us to be able to make full use of those talents, we must fight for our place.  Even if it is a hard place and if it means being unreasonable.


Yet Another Post on Who Should “Own” Internal Communication

As seen by this piece in London’s PR Week, the raging debate over who should “own” internal communication continues to rumble on predictable lines.

“Should it be HR”?

“Should it be comms?”

“What’s best for the ‘employee engagement’ agenda?”

I have no definitive answer. But I do have a strong opinion.

Internal communication should be owned by the leader who has the most motivation and the clearest objectives for its use.

Sure, there’s a lot of concern for the ‘employee engagement’ agenda, and that often falls under HR’s remit.

But ‘employee engagement’ is not the only important item on an organisation’s overall agenda.

And there is considerable dispute about whether “employee engagement” should be an objective for its own sake, or thought of as a collection of behaviors, attitudes and processes and interventions which can be adjusted to aid the fulfillment of specific individual and organisational goals.

As a practitioner, there is nothing like working for a motivated sponsor.

Prestige-wise, it may sound better to report to the CEO. Culturally, perhaps to Comms. Ideologically, perhaps to HR.

But if the real action in your organisation is going on in Finance, Commercial, or IT, and the organisation’s success depends on real engagement, commitment and delivery of the changes in that area, isn’t it better to work for a sponsor who has real skin in the game, and can see IC as a key to his or her success? A sponsor who will fight to give IC the resources, remit and headroom to get the job done?

Aligning Internal Communication towards the highest point of organisational need instead of the most natural organisational fit doesn’t simply change reporting lines. In setting the stage for lower resistance and higher impact, it changes the terms.