Natalie Benjamin, head of communications at performance consultancy Lane4, looks at the crucial role of internal communications in what is set to be another difficult year.
Internal communications has evolved enormously over the last decade, yet its reputation as the soft touch of the communications family is difficult to shake. In times of continued economic turbulence, as forecast for 2012, functions that neglect the importance of strong internal communications do so at their peril.
Natalie Benjamin, head of communications, Lane4.
Once seen as an off-shoot of employee relations, with a remit to “package and push” information, internal communications has become part of the strategic scaffolding of organisations, hand in hand with a more sophisticated understanding of employee engagement. It has undergone its own shake-up, with communicators recruited not just because they can “craft and draft”, but because they have a deep understanding of the behaviour and people agenda during organisational change.
However, although internal communications has undoubtedly matured as a function, some continue to question its value. At the heart of this debate is performance – the performance of employees; internal communicators and their output; leaders as communicators and ultimately the organisation. With functions under pressure to demonstrate true business impact in 2012, internal communicators must demonstrate their effectiveness in a tangible way.
Critical success factors
There are a number of critical success factors for doing this. It goes beyond the management of communication output towards a strategic function, facilitating two-way conversation, creating real meaning for employees with organisational goals and supporting leaders to communicate with authenticity and impact.
The communications landscape has changed. As we head into 2012, the entire concept of “internal” communication will be under scrutiny. Total message containment is a thing of the past. The way we all access, receive and participate in society’s conversations is progressing at pace. An email from a CEO can become “external” moments after it has been sent. A proliferation of new channels, many of them under the social media banner, has muddied the distinction between external and internal communication.
Notwithstanding technological advances and the imperative for communicators to get under their skin, the leader’s role as communicator must not be overlooked. With the uncertain economic situation likely to perpetuate into the new year, leaders will be called upon to deliver difficult organisational messages. Face-to-face communication affords the biggest opportunity to engage employees on an emotional level, which allows for deeper understanding and behavioural change. No amount of technological sophistication can replace an honest and meaningful conversation with your manager. HR and internal communications must join forces to ensure that leaders are able to engage employees through their communication, ensuring employees fully understand the key messages. Water-cooler conversations, where people talk and make sense of things they’ve heard, will happen in any company; but for the organisational message to be truly understood, leaders should get involved with these conversations and listen to what people are thinking and feeling.
Impact on performance
Knowing that your communication activities have an impact on performance must be more than “nice to have”. In the world of elite sport, measurement ensures that athletes focus on the things that are really going to make them perform to the highest standard. Communicators must ensure that they’re measuring the right things too. It’s one thing to know that team meetings are taking place but it’s another to know that people are acting on what they have heard. Satisfaction with team meetings happening is akin to satisfaction that an athlete turns up for training without giving due consideration to how well they trained or if their times and distances are improving as a result. Understanding what to measure, and therefore what can be improved, will ensure that both time and people resource are placed in the most cost-effective way.
These things combined – the loss of total message containment, the importance of clear, effective leadership messages and the growing importance of internal communications measurement – will help businesses perform in 2012.