AB Thinks  →  18th December 2018

Exploring the Convergence of Internal and External Communications

Katie Macaulay conducted a survey on the blurring of lines in communication and revealed the results at the CIPR National Conference in November.

In August 2018, a petition from Google employees to the company’s leaders found its way to Reuters. Employees were raising concerns about Dragonfly – the proposed specially censored search engine for China. According to Reuters, employees were asking for more openness on what Google is building.

The senior team responded by calling an all-hands meeting. During the Q&A, someone in the room began relaying what was being said to New York Times journalist, Kate Conger. She immediately began sharing the discussion on Twitter. When Google’s leadership team became aware its comments were reaching the outside world, it immediately halted the conversation. Employees were livid. By making an internal discussion public, they had lost a valuable opportunity to have an open conversation with their leaders.

I am a keen advocate of greater alignment and consistency between internal and external communication. But I am also an advocate of the right message, for the right audience at the right time. Internal and external communicators have much to gain from collaboration, but we ignore at our peril our respective specialisms and the differing needs of our audiences.

Degrees of convergence

To find out how far internal and external communications are converging today inside our organisations, I carried out an online survey. I asked: “Today, how often does your organisation communicate with an internal and external audience simultaneously?” This might be a podcast, a website for both audiences, a social media campaign or your CEO’s blog. Almost a third said on rare occasions, and 46 per cent said at least once a month. Only 10 per cent said never.

How far will internal and external communications converge inside organisations in the future? Almost 90 per cent of respondents expect to see an increase in convergence.

The drivers

What is driving the collision of our worlds?

A key driver is trust, or rather the breakdown in trust. This year’s ‘trust barometer’ is Edelman’s 18th annual trust and credibility survey. It analyses responses from 33,000 people across 28 countries. Trust in the UK is at an historic low. We are experiencing a total collapse in trust in the institutions that shape our society.

Only 43 per cent of the UK adult population say they trust business to do the right thing. This drops to 38 per cent for 16 to 18 years-olds. The reasons given will be familiar to everyone in the room; you will be grappling with these issues every day:

  • Executive pay
  • Tax evasion and avoidance
  • A lack of honesty and transparency
  • Corruption
  • Employees being taken for granted or mistreated.

Another factor driving convergence is the nature and needs of the internal audience itself. Traditional models of employment are becoming obsolete. Work has become a thing we do, not a place we go. For many employees there is a convergence of work and home. For others, work is becoming more transient and flexible. According to the Office of National Statistics, 12 per cent of the working population are freelancers and 4 per cent are working in the gig economy. All studies suggest those numbers are set to rise dramatically.

Social and economic trends

Ultimately, social and economic trends are challenging the notion of what it means to be an employee. Which begs the question, who will we be communicating with in the future?

For many years, internal communication (IC) has suffered from technology and channels that were, to be frank, not fit for purpose. Finally, our channels are coming of age. With Bring Your Own Device, Workplace by Facebook, IC apps, we are managing to leapfrog over our shaky internal channels. We are communicating with employees on devices and at times of their choosing not ours. And, with the rise of voice-activated technology, how long before employees wake up and say: “Alexa, play my team brief?” Internal communications is being taken out of the workplace.

Internal advocates

The Edelman research tells us that people are more likely to trust their peers, their neighbours, people like them, rather than experts or those in authority. In response, organisations are asking their employees to market their organisations directly to the outside world. Here is a recent example from the pizza chain Papa John’s where franchises tell the brand story.

Our survey asked: “Do you actively encourage your employees to act as brand advocates?” Although 60 per cent said yes, it is clear not all organisations have processes and platforms in place to help employees be those brand advocates. Indeed, 48 per cent do not know how many employees follow their company on social media.

Two Walmart directors stood up at a social media conference recently and said: “Great content is great content. There isn’t internal or external anymore, but what we call ‘eternal’.” I doubt we will all be calling ourselves ‘eternal communicators’ anytime soon. However, our survey asked: “Do you believe the content you create for employees could be of interest to wider audiences?” A staggering 71 per cent said yes.

Content that travels

Therefore, I predict we will soon be measuring the success of our content by how far it has travelled across audience groups. Which means, we need to start telling stories that matter to people. As the author Seth Godin so eloquently writes: “Either you are going to tell stories that spread, or you will become irrelevant.”

One piece of content spread ridiculously well last year is the film All That We Share. It was produced by the Danish cable television channel TV2 to communicate its programming strategy to both an internal and external audience. There are less than three million households in Denmark but this film notched up more than 250 million organic views around the globe.

The film reminds us when we reduce our message to one fundamental human truth, and when we communicate that truth with emotional resonance, we create human communications that transcends boundaries.

Transcending boundaries

What will happen to our report lines and working practices in an age of convergence? A report entitled Beyond Communications from the recruitment agency VMA concluded: “Roles are broadening, and functions are becoming more integrated. CEOs do not care about reporting lines any more than they care about who ‘owns’ the employee engagement survey or the company Twitter feed. They care about results, drive and vision. They care about value.”

At AB we are seeing clients adopt a weekly ‘newsroom’ approach where both internal and external communicators discuss and plan content together. This way of working has its challenges. It requires a fundamental shift in thinking, process and speed. And for some, it can be quite uncomfortable.

How do internal communicators feel about convergence? Many are excited; others are concerned. Here are some comments from our survey:

  • “It excites me because it ultimately helps reduce the risk to reputation. It should help the say-do gap – if we’re sharing messages with employees that matches what we tell our customers, then that’s Utopia.”
  • “It’s about time we break down silos between internal and external comms – ultimately we’re dealing with audiences with different needs who are human beings.”
  • “I think it’s an opportunity to communicate with more immediacy to employees.”
  • “The dynamics of internal and external audiences – attitudes, stakes and interrelationships – are fundamentally different.”
  • “I worry about messages being even less personal and targeted. I also worry about diluting our insight and specialism.”
  • “The employee experience is distinct and IC provision should always reflect that.”

A special audience

So, where does this leave us? I believe we should welcome the convergence of internal and external communication. But I do not advocate complete conflation. Not all audiences are the same. Indeed, I would make a special argument for employees being a special audience.

Every day employees see under the hood of our organisations. Unlike other audiences – customers, investors, analysts and the media – they see the unvarnished truth. This unique perspective gives employees intimate, behind-the-scenes knowledge. As a result, they are almost impossible to fool or beguile.

For that reason, you cannot ‘market’ your organisation to your workforce as you might market it to customers or clients.

Higher standards

And quite simply, we hold the organisations that employ us to a higher standard than those we buy from – and rightly so.

The irony is despite the importance of the internal audience on the performance of an organisation, internal communicators often do not get the budget, air-time or resource handed to other communication disciplines. However, they are still in a privileged position. Internal communicators have an amazing amount of data at their fingertips about their audience. Not just demographic insight but, by simply walking down the corridor or picking up the phone, we can find out exactly what their audience thinks and feels. We need to get better at using this information to our advantage. Let us become hunter-gatherers of the very best stories about our organisations.

Internal inspiration

The marketing director at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, was recently brainstorming new ideas for a brand building campaign with his team. During the discussion, he noticed the company’s values written on the office wall. This was the inspiration they had been searching for and, soon after, murals started appearing on the sides of buildings in London. “Build the best product. Cause no unnecessary harm. Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Would your organisation pass the Patagonia test? Next time you develop an internal set of values or strategic vision – and even if it is only to be shared internally – ask yourself, what would it look like on a 96 sheet, 12 metre billboard?

For more insights from Katie see From Cascade to Conversation