Blurred lines: internal vs external communication

Blurred lines: internal vs external communication

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In this guest post internal communication specialist Rachel Miller explains that there is no distinction between internal and external audiences, however bespoke content has a crucial role to play to engage internal audiences and build advocacy. By Rachel Miller

One of the noisiest topics in internal communication (IC) at the moment is the blurring of lines between internal and external communication and what this means for communication professionals.

There are a few truths that remain constant.

Internal and external messaging should align

It jars when organisations present themselves in certain ways externally, yet employees know the reality of their workplace and feel disconnected with the perception being generated. A quick glance though Glassdoor will highlight such examples.

Corporations are no longer in control of the message

Old distinctions between traditional communication audiences are becoming increasingly blurred and corporations are no longer in control of the message. If they ever were. Reputation is everything and can rise and fall in a single tweet.

There has been much discussion online recently about the term audiences and whether it should continue to be used, however, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to stick with it.

The smartest organisations are those who tailor content

Different organisations are at varying stages of this journey. What we’re seeing now is that everyone can be a potential public/audience for a company because everyone has a voice, but more importantly, they are becoming increasingly audible.

The diamond of influence identified by Edelman in their Trust Barometer (2013) highlights this.

Smart businesses are those that recognise there’s no difference between internal and external audiences, and appreciate that employees have the potential to be the most powerful advocates in helping to build reputation.

In 2014, CIPR Inside, the sector group for internal communicators, is focusing on how IC can better align with external communication colleagues to support organisation’s reputations.

Making sense of it all

Internal communicators will, I’m sure, be aware of Karl Weick’s sense-making ideas, which in a nutshell, are to literally make sense of what we see and hear.

This means providing a frame of reference for communications. So for example, employees are presented with information in a manner they recognise (framework), that makes sense based on their understanding (cues), which leads to effective communication (a connection).

Weick’s idea is that once people begin to act, they generate outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained and what should be done next. In short, a good story.

Sense-making is about plausibility, coherence and reasonableness. It’s well known that employees will only “take things in” if they have a cue/receptor.

Coupled with this, if employees are truly engaged, it’s an exciting and potentially business-changing combination.

Engage for Success defines engagement as: “A workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.”

What can you do?

It’s vital to create bespoke content to engage your employees, which in turn can build advocacy.

The distinction between audiences may be blurring, but the focus on quality two-way internal communication remains as essential as ever.

Bespoke content means translation too. Not just into relevant languages, but contextually. For example, one of my current clients is an oil company, they have super smart employees globally, and recognise the importance of shared understanding and meaning.

Their employee magazine includes a feature every edition that aims to break down potential barriers of confusion by clearly explaining how oil drills work for example or what geological terms and diagrams mean.

Many employees will know this information already, but there will be a vast number, particularly in functions like HR, IT, Comms and Finance who may not know the minutiae.

Creating bespoke content internally ensures employees are knowledgeable about the company and equipped to have informed conversations. This in turn can lead to employee advocacy.

But you need to be cautious around the use of language and aware of the mindset of your organisation, as not all employees take kindly to being viewed as assets or brand advocates. It needs careful handling.

Many companies trot out the line "our employees are our greatest assets," yet invest significantly less time, effort and money on tailored communication for them, instead ploughing it into external and reputational activities outside the company.

The distinctions between internal and external may be blurring but I’ve rarely come across organisations with a combined budget!

What have you seen work well? What impact do blurred lines of responsibility and audiences have in your company or for your clients?

About the Author

allthingsicRachel Miller, PG (Dip), MCIPR, is an Internal Communication and Social Media strategist who runs her own consultancy, All Things IC. She has contributed to a number of best-selling books on PR and social media and you can connect with Rachel via her blog or Twitter @AllthingsIC.

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