The Internal Communication function is changing dramatically, largely by necessity. And that’s a good thing. Much like peers in other communication disciplines (as well as more distant professionals cousins in marketing and advertising) IC pros are reinventing themselves in the face of tectonic shifts in technology, communications and consumer behavior.
The trends driving these changes are powerful and inexorable: pervasive social communications; ubiquitous mobility; popularity of digital (and immersive) content; 24/7 data analytics; and the growing influence of consumer advocates, citizen journalists and user-generated content, among others. With regard to the workplace itself, communicators face additional developments and challenges – including chronically low engagement, generational clashes and seemingly endless transformation and downsizing. Collectively these trends are causing deep soul-searching about the relevance and value of traditional HR strategies (i.e. performance management, reward and recognition, training programs.)
Given these dramatic changes, internal communicators need to play a very different role than a few years ago to remain relevant, credible and effective. Here are the key components of this new communication role…call it Internal Communications 2.0:
Integrator – By virtue of their unique position at the nexus of internal and external communications, leadership outreach and internal support functions (e.g. IT and HR), IC pros are in the best position to facilitate coordination across teams and regions to ensure goals, activities and messages are aligned and coordinated. This is particularly true with major cross-company programs like internal branding or M&A outreach that lack an obvious leader. This critical integration role is more than being an enabler – which is more passive – and assumes the IC pro will stretch beyond his/her functional mandate to fill a role that often isn’t well defined or staffed. Without this integration, however, most company programs will probably fail.
Data Analyst – It’s become a truism we are drowning in a sea of data. Big data. Small data. Consumer data. Even employee data. All communicators need to become educated, if not resident experts, in the gathering, analysis and communication of this information. This area is particularly ripe for leadership inside organizations, where many HR teams (traditionally the keepers of workforce data) lack the expertise of marketing/PR teams and are struggling just to update their surveying models. And relegating this role to IT teams, who often manage intranet and platform statistics, isn’t good enough, since those teams usually lack the skills the review the raw numbers for analysis and insights. IC pros should lead the process of collecting, aggregating, assessing and responding to the rich data available on their employees.
Content Curator – IC professionals use to be the primary authors of content in their companies. That role is still important, but it’s become even more important to act as curators of content, helping to blend and share news and information from leaders, external sources and the employees themselves. Some of the best stories and ideas come from employees, so IC pros must ensure there are channels to collect and post this content. There is still an important role to provide editorial guardrails to ensure all shared content is ‘brand safe’, but that’s where communicators need to be more curators than gatekeepers. There is also an important role to play in acting as interpreter for leaders, who are sometimes well intentioned but ineffective and reluctant communicators. Whatever the source of content, the emphasis on authentic, transparent and timely information has made the traditional one-way communication model irrelevant and ineffective.
Listener – One of the most valuable roles IC pros can play is simply to listen to their internal stakeholders; to uncover, understand and respond to the concerns and preferences of employees. Though many inside the typical organization are responsible in some way for listening and responding to employees – notably front-line managers – most usually focus on sporadic, face-to-face interactions and don’t strive to pull the input together into a coherent, actionable narrative. Internal Communication pros can and should play this role, and also steer the company’s response to the input (perhaps through new policies or programs.) This listening role can be formal (gathering data through internal surveys and audits), part of the daily role (community manager for internal social platforms) or mostly informal (lunch meetings with staff or local in-house reporters.) Whatever the approach the IC professional becomes the most accurate and current advocate for the employee community.
Innovator – In many companies no department has the formal responsibility to foster innovation inside the organization, save perhaps a small strategic planning function. Often, the marketing or PR function take on the mantle, but their efforts are usually narrow and may not consider issues like workplace technology and business or entertainment trends. Conversely, most HR and IT teams lack the desire and/or bandwidth to drive innovation inside their organizations. This innovation gap is an opportunity for IC professionals, who have visibility and impact across the organization. Even small innovations like new social platforms or communication content (interactive infographic) can send a strong message and spark more ambitious planning across departments. Two examples of how IC teams can drive innovation across the enterprise is through employee advocacy programs and virtual employee ‘jams’, which often spur the adoption of social technology across the company.
Expert Counselor – Many IC pros have garnered reputations inside their organizations as ‘go to’ experts on not just communication, but a range of related issues like employee engagement, corporate reputation and emerging technology. Given that IC staff frequently brief, interview and/or counsel leaders as part of their work, they are perfectly positioned to share their insights and counsel. The role of wise counselor is not easy to gain or keep, but it’s well worth the effort. Leaders today are looking for smart analysis and cogent guidance, particularly on emerging business trends, and those who provide that will gain in profile and credibility. A caveat: this counsel should be strategic, not just focused on tactical execution – a shortcoming which has eroded the credibility and standing of the IC function in the past.
Trainer – IC pros that gain expertise in new technology and current workplace trends can train leaders and peers to raise the acumen and strategic agility of the organization. Much of this work typically involves working with senior leaders to help them communicate and lead more effectively, but the mandate need not be so limited. Many leaders yearn for guidance in areas as disparate as blog writing, social interaction and cultural events – all areas where IC staff can lead. Companies with social platforms often rely on IC staff to facilitate the training on relevant policies and platform use. The training itself should be as contemporary and dynamic as the information (think e-learning and gamification rather than traditional face-to-face sessions or death by Webinar.)
Multi-Media Storyteller – It’s well documented that often the best way to share information is through a compelling, episodic narrative shared across media formats. Internal Communication teams are ideally positioned to drive this process internally, pulling together capabilities like writing, design, promotion, video, social technology and executive outreach. As noted previously, communication staff should be the ones who uncover, shape and help share the internal stories. IC teams also usually manage their company’s intranet, which can be a powerful multi-media delivery channel if used effectively – the Swiss Army knife of internal tools. Conversely, teams that stick to outdated communication channels (email) and styles (formal text) are missing an opportunity to break through the clutter and truly engage their audience.
Culture Ambassador – Though HR has historically taken the reins to promote culture inside organizations, IC pros are probably better positioned to help define, celebrate and promote a company’s distinctive culture. IC teams often have strong capabilities in marketing, messaging, social dialogue, digital content and even collateral – which together can pack a powerful, convincing punch. Furthermore, IC pros often take on the role of employee advocate inside their organizations, ensuring that the needs and aspirations of employees are heard and considered in decision-making. The purpose is not just altruistic, but an effort to ensure communication is relevant and credible. The emergence of employee advocacy, virtual meetings and crowd-sourcing programs only reinforces the role of internal communicators as keepers of the culture.
It’s true that taking on these new roles likely entails more work – or at minimum very different work – and certainly more risk and responsibility. And it assumes a great deal of research, networking, learning and adapting – and that never stops. But inertia is not really an option. Failure to proactively take on these critical roles – which too often go unfilled – will limit the function’s value inside an organization, and probably erode the team’s reputation and credibility. It’s taken years of effort for IC pros to get a place at the proverbial leadership table and gain the reputation of strategists, not just order-takers or tacticians. Now IC pros have the opportunity to not only secure their place at the decision-making table, but to expand their traditional role and enhance their reputation. It won’t be easy, but the effort is well worth it.