THE BUSINESS VALUE OF STRATEGIC INTERNAL COMMUNICATION
THE REALITY ON THE GROUND
What does strategic internal communication look like inside organizations? This is one of the aspects examined in the global report The Next Level: The Business Value of Good Internal Communication. We interviewed 33 in-house communication professionals from 25 countries and representing 20 industries, and asked them 5 questions. The original version of the following interview was published in The Next Level.
Interview with Rick Phillips | Nationwide
Rick Phillips retired in 2018 as Chief Communications Officer for Nationwide, a Fortune 100 company, where he was responsible for C-suite communications, media relations and issues management, internal communications, editorial functions of the intranet, executive positioning and company brand communications. Nationwide has 33,000 employees and operates in the USA.
What are the main challenges and opportunities facing your team at your company?
As a Fortune 100 company with 33,000 employees, Nationwide is a complex organization that is constantly changing. Until 2014, the company consisted of 15 separate brands in various businesses in the insurance and financial services industries. In 2014, we merged those into one brand (Nationwide), and although steadily improving, the company still has moments where it occasionally thinks or acts in silos. That sometimes causes internal communications confusion.
In addition, our primary businesses are in very competitive industries. Not only are we dealing with intense competition, but expense pressures are causing the team to prioritize who we serve, how we serve them, and force ongoing prioritization. When combined with other distribution and technological challenges, we end up juggling many significant issues and communications needs all in an accelerated environment. My communications team needs to be agile to successfully support the enterprise.
How does your organization ensures internal and external communications are aligned together?
We are aligned as one corporate communications group at Nationwide and embrace internal/external communications as integrated entities. I’ve never had a leader express interest in just one solution. They want to make sure that internal and external communications are tightly aligned on any given issue. I structure my team like an agency. Our internal and external teams have “beats” and serve specific business and staff areas. That way, in an issues management scenario, I have internal and external communicators that can deliver aligned results in both areas in minimal time.
We also recognize that there is no such thing as an “internal only” message, and on occasion, we’ve had internal messaging in hands of reporters in minutes. That doesn’t mean that we don’t prioritize audiences. We always share messaging with internal audiences first, unless there is simply no alternative, in which case we will aim for simultaneous timing. But, by and large, our employees remain the top priority for messaging.
What are some of the key mindsets, behaviours, and practices helping your organization to be effective at internal communication?
I’ve always believed that there are key skill sets and behaviors necessary to be a good communicator.
First, writing is key. My belief is that if you can’t write and present yourself in a certain way, you can’t think. It’s a harsh statement, but in my experience, it’s always been accurate. Organizing your thoughts in a logical and intuitive manner is foundational for being a good communicator.
Second, in many business areas, indeed in many businesses themselves, entire organizations see only what they’re working on or what their team is doing without connecting it to a higher framework. In an organization the size of ours, communicators must show employees how all parts of the business connect. So being “dot connectors” is a critical skill. This also means that communicators must understand the world around them and how that connects to our business. I’ve also found that curiosity is a critical attribute for a communicator. The ability to look at things and issues in different ways than others allows us to sometimes see opportunities that others might miss.
Finally, honesty is a critical component for a good communicator. The ability to deliver difficult counsel, even while others are in “yes” mode, is a critical skillset which helps build credibility and trust. Without trust, we offer very limited value to our leaders and the business.
Which proven strategies do you and your team use to help business leaders understand the value of internal communication?
We use a variety of methods to keep our leaders up-to-speed on the value of strategic communications. Like many organizations, we have a quarterly scorecard that tracks a host of key metrics important to the business and important to show our value. While a number of these show trends such as readership, click-throughs, and the like, we strive to show how our associates are understanding key messaging and applying it to their daily work.
One of our advantages is that our company has a long history of supporting internal communications. In fact, while my team supports many of the corporate and strategic communications elements of the business, local communicators, individuals we call embedded communicators, are sprinkled around the enterprise and collectively larger in size than my team. As a result, we’ve created a Communicators Community, where we gather multiple times a year for training, sharing strategic information, and we have a conference where we learn from external speakers and each other once a year.
How do you demonstrate the impact of internal communication on organizational goals to business leaders?
Wherever possible, we attempt to track outcomes, not just activity. Some activity is worth tracking and we do our share of it in communications scorecards. Where we’re able to track and show behavioral change is where communicators truly earn their salary. Do strategic words and phrases start working their way into common language and presentation decks? Do we see discussion on internal chat boards by individuals who are motivated to discuss these issues? Can we trace employee engagement score increases, and increased open rates and click-throughs of key messages on some of our internal tools? These are a few ways we attempt to help leaders understand our impact.