The Intersection of Internal & External Communication
Distinct Audiences. Integrated Approach. Strategic Alignment.
By Lise Michaud
Organizations are increasingly adopting an integrated approach to internal and external communication, but many practitioners insist on treating internal stakeholders as a distinct audience, which means external content alone is not enough to respond to their needs. These are some of the findings from The Intersection of Internal and External Communication, a report based on a two-part research project conducted by IC Kollectif that included a qualitative online survey open to all in-house practitioners and interviews with communication executives from 33 companies, reaching a total of one hundred respondents. The research addressed topics including how companies ensure internal and external communication are aligned, common practices, and the benefits of these practices to the company.
The online survey aimed to find out how communication professionals are dealing with the blurring lines between internal communication (IC) and external communication (EC) in their organization and how they ensure the needs of their internal audiences and constituencies are not overlooked.
Internal stakeholders as a distinct audience
Some 95 percent of respondents advocated the absolute need to consider internal stakeholders as a distinct audience. For some, there is even no such thing as blurred lines. Comments from anonymous respondents included:
“The lines aren't blurred because distinct audiences need and want different information. But we must collaborate so we align our messages and timing. Someone is responsible for internal, someone else for external, working alongside each other constantly.”
“The lines are definitely not blurred in the organization I work for. There is a clear and positive distinction between internal and external."
Many communication professionals who spoke to us on the record recognized internal stakeholders as a distinct audience with specific needs. “There’s a need to communicate to publics not only in the tone and language that will be most appreciated by them but also through the means that will have the most impact on influencing the kind of behavior that is wanted to impact. Thus, the argument for different approaches to internal and external communications,” argued Leslie Quinton, Vice-President, Global Corporate Communications, and Events, BRP, in Canada.
Integrated approach, strategic alignment
Some confirmed that the functions of internal and external communication were fully integrated while the majority said they used an integrated approach to strategize, plan and/or manage internal and external communication in their organization. In line with this, they mainly raised the following key interrelated factors: close collaboration between teams and functions is needed to ensure the strategic alignment and approach of IC and EC, which in turn helps build employee trust, and supports employee advocacy and employees as brand ambassadors. The research brief includes a snapshot into the integrated approach to internal and external communication used in 22 organizations.
Our research indicated that alignment is essential on many levels: driving business results, ensuring that internal and external teams have a clear vision of the key themes and business priorities, ensuring consistency between the image projected by a company and how it is perceived by its own employees, and ensuring consistency between what employees say about the company and its impact on the perception and reputation of the company by external audiences. As Rick Phillips, former Chief Communications Officer of Nationwide, put it: “Leaders generally don’t express interest in just one solution. They want to make sure that internal and external communications are tightly aligned on any given issue.”
Prevent a reputation gap and lack of trust
The consistency between the image projected by a company and how it is perceived by employees is fundamental. Respondents often outlined the importance of aligning external and internal communication, not only to best support organizational goals but also to ensure a positive perception and reputation of the enterprise both from the perspective of employees and of external audiences. Christine Szustaczek is the AVP, Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing at Sheridan College in Canada. She shared this: "I take every opportunity to remind my executives that internal and external communications are part of the same continuum. Internally, public relations and communications serve as the social conscience of the organization. Externally, our efforts serve to build and protect organizational reputation. Both social conscience and reputation are intangible assets that live in, or are shaped by, the hearts and minds of others. They are both relational constructs that are supported by our communication and relationship-building efforts and that are co-dependent. One can’t succeed without the other. For external audiences to believe what we say about our organization, our internal audiences must experience, believe and identify with the same. Failure to do so creates a reputation gap and undermines our authenticity and credibility as an organization. It breaks the trust of our people who are our most valuable asset. That is the reason why we must communicate equally, passionately and professionally with our internal and external audiences."
Empowering staff to become ambassadors
Trust is a key challenge for today’s organizations. Employees use social media an any of them can become an ambassador or anti-ambassador of the organization they work for and have a significant impact through their networks when it comes to the perception and reputation of the company. It is primordial to provide relevant and timely information and to empower employees to share the content relevant to them and their networks, thus enhancing trust in organizations.
“I make sure we arm our people with the right messages and guidance to talk about our organization confidently, even in difficult conversations,” said Caroline Chivers, Head of IC at Marie Curie in the UK. “Employees are the most powerful advocates any organization can have—they are trusted, respected, and have informal networks. If you empower them and give them the tools to talk about your organization, they can help you enable and develop deep, meaningful relationships.”
report The Next Level: The Business Value of Good Internal Communication. The report is supported by IABC, The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management and The Conference Board, and is available on the IC Kollectif website.
The original version of this article was published by The Conference Board.