AB Thinks  →  19th October 2022

Keeping up with comms: How the internal communications industry has evolved

It’s been eight series, a quarter of a million listens, 1,300 days and a global pandemic since AB launched The Internal Comms Podcast.

“Call it a shift, call it a revolution,” host Katie Macaulay says in the trailer, released in January 2019. “Whatever name you give it, it’s clear internal communications is no longer the poor cousin in the media family tree.”

Back then, internal communications was on the up, moving out of the broom cupboard and into the boardroom. So now, four years on, how has the industry changed?

Channel-first thinking is a thing of the past
As technology progresses, it’s clear that a company’s competitive advantage lies not in glossy features, benefits or even the latest tech, but in the ideas of the workforce, its intellectual capital.

Today internal communicators have a vital role to play in retaining their company’s competitive advantage. To stay ahead we must understand the wider business strategy, know what direction it’s headed and understand “what role colleagues play in the equation of the business’ success.”

“In the 80s the biggest strategic decision a client would ask was whether to print A4 or A5,” says Katie. We’ve come a long way since then. Now we’re supporting success – not merely reporting on it.

Internal communicators are influencers
Listeners will know Katie’s keen interest in hostage negotiation. (She spoke with former negotiator Chris Voss in episode 37 and wrote about it in her book From Cascade to Conversation).

Katie says there’s a lot to learn from them and from situations where the stakes couldn’t be higher. Hostage negotiators don’t impose a set of values on anyone – they simply listen

“They’re listening out for a person’s values, what’s driving their behaviour, their set of beliefs,” Katie says. “As soon as they’ve understood what’s driving their behaviour, negotiators can use that to influence what they do.”

Through the COM-B model (capability, opportunity, motivation – behaviour), internal communicators have an opportunity to play that influencing role. Start listening and you’ll learn how to genuinely inspire, encourage, and embolden people to behave differently.

Hybrid working is here to stay. But we don’t understand it yet
How do we use office space to create moments of collaboration, connection and community, when we’re spread out, working most of the time from home? Internal communicators have an important role to play.

“We haven’t worked any of it out yet,” says Katie. “I actually think it’s a big problem. It will come down to job design, not just environment design.”

We’ve witnessed a preoccupation with values
We know today’s consumers want their brands to reflect their values. In the past few years our favourite brands have responded – think Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad or Patagonia’s founder giving away the company.

There’s something similar going on internally, with colleagues increasingly looking to their employer to reflect their values, define their purpose, and take a stand politically. But, Katie says, in the past few years many efforts to define a company’s values have lacked differentiation, individualism or any tangible meaning for employees.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see quite a bit of ‘purpose washing’,” she says. “I think a lot of organisations are going to struggle to come up with that beautifully defined authentic, meaningful purpose.”

A lesson from the past eight seasons? “Build the values from the room,” she says. Values are more likely to be genuine, tangible and competitively unique if you don’t impose them, but allow them to grow organically.

Blur the line between internal/external – to a point
In 2019 you’d barely make it through the morning without someone asking about the blur between internal and external communications.

It was an IC industry buzz-phrase, predicated in part by the idea that internal messaging could be used externally to help sell the business to the public.

But the debate has matured. We’re not simply externalising our internal messaging (though there’s obvious strength in this, and at least one of AB’s clients wants to ensure 50% of all their internal content can go externally) but witnessing a ‘blur’ in the way we create the work in the first place.

“Now when internal communicators talk about designing campaigns they use tools that marketing has been using for years – the development of personas, campaigns driven by audience insight,” says Katie. It’s certainly leading us to more effective communications, a two-way street between employees and employer where the needs of both are understood and reflected.

But still, Katie says, you simply can’t treat your people as if they’re your customers or investors. “They see under the bonnet, behind the curtain, and they just cannot be marketed to.”

The line between internal and external exists for a reason. It’s worth defending.

Listen to episode 68, Host in the hot seat: Reflections on 250,000 plays