Who’s in control of internal comms?

Who’s in control of internal comms?

Employee engagement is a vital part of internal communications – but marketers and senior management must be ready to cede control of the brand narrative if it is to work at its best

In the past, organisations would broadcast product information and brand messaging to consumers through communications campaigns. Today, customers dictate what they expect through social media, in terms of service, and have higher expectations across the customer journey.

This ‘inversion’ is being mirrored internally within progressive organisations, whereby the workforce is having its say the company narrative, rather than being happy for that to be dictated from above. Marketers and senior management face a choice: attempt to maintain a top-down approach to internal comms and restrict unauthorised communications – or go with the flow and embrace it.

Changing the internal communications script

Internal communication is a key part of every business – and every organisation can plot the extent of its efforts in this regard on a continuum: from basic health and safety notices, to newsletters, through to corporate away days and employee brainstorming sessions.

Almost always, this is part of an approved strategy involving specific steps, with a specific end goal. The objectives can vary: from stimulating innovation through chance encounters, disseminating a brand message or company values, and ensuring employees feel involved in decision-making. Depending on the objective, the marketing team is normally central to these efforts, with a direct report to senior management.

The problem is that each employee (particularly more junior ones) is now the curator of their own communications portfolio, often involving Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat, operated from a mobile phone, through every hour of the day.

Passionate advocate or fierce critic?

Unless a specific corporate policy is put in place, it’s inevitable that employees will use these channels to air their views on the company from time to time – as a place to work and as a business. If these posts become an opportunity to vent frustrations, this can have a negative impact on customer perceptions of the brand, particularly if the post deliberately contradicts corporate messaging. Marketers and the HR team might want to establish ground-rules with employees, in terms of who can post, and the acceptable topics.

The flip-side of this is that happy, engaged employees can serve as powerful advocates for your products, services and brand. However, expecting your employees to act as ‘marketing nodes’ against their will is unlikely to be popular. Today, it’s far more important to be authentic, and allow positive posts, only if and when they are genuine.  

The quest for control

Conversations are increasingly taking place on private channels within the office, on social media, and also work messaging apps. Partly in response to this, apps like Slack have come to the fore, as communications platforms that propose to bring together messaging, time-management, and voice and video-calling. In theory, by corralling employee communication into one place, it legitimises it and brings a semblance of order to the chaotic ‘shadow-IT’ systems, that have grown up out of sight of the business.

Although some research has highlighted the productivity gains from platforms such as these, there have been unintended consequences. For example, it seems to encourage employees to gossip, and chat channels can easily become cliques, leading some to feel excluded and isolated. The fact that group chats are permanently accessible and searchable can turn fleeting, irreverent comments into lasting records.

Moreover, a mobile version of these types of app can effectively extend the working day into the evening, and often, through the weekend. Far from gaining more control over internal comms, marketing managers and HR teams keen to maintain oversight are likely to find this situation increasingly unmanageable.   

Striking the balance

Handing over communication tools to employees is a brave step that not every organisation is prepared to take. It’s unlikely that the internal comms function – especially in larger companies – could be totally replaced by a bottom-up employee-generated material. Some organisations have chosen to hand over a single channel to a single employee for a set period of time. For channels such as Instagram, this can be incredibly effective in terms of engaging colleagues, while generating useful social content. This is perhaps a sensible half-way house: harnessing the social media impulses of the workforce, while charging them with a specific responsibility. This is an innovative way of educating both sides, and building trust.

To maintain a central communications programme, while taking employee ideas into account, brainstorming sessions are a good idea; and the more honest they are, the better. Malicious comms generally arise as a consequence of frustration, and a lack of a perceived outlet for sharing issues. If the comms team prepares an internal newsletter or publication, it goes without saying that generating content from employees is a smart choice.

Flat, vertical or agile? 

The blend of internal comms solutions will be determined, to a large extent, by the structure and ethos of the organisation, and this can range from traditional corporate hierarchies to an open-source, horizontal, collegiate arrangement. Businesses that fit into the latter category are likely to find the transition to ‘distributed comms’ much more straightforward, because these organisations are likely to be already adopting innovation and possibly even agile working, through projects and client work.

Marketers are advised to consider the type of organisational structure they are working inside – and the sector. Businesses and agencies within the creative industries may feel that clients actually expect a bottom-up approach to internal comms, and that this could be a selling-point, serving to differentiate the firm from other, more staid corporate alternatives. It really depends on the market, and of course, the customer.

Solving the communications riddle

Thanks to the ingress of social media into the workplace, marketers and managers must accept that communications between employees will continue out of their sight, and their control, for the foreseeable future. To avoid unnecessary brand damage, it’s vital to establish sensible social media policies, working with the HR department, to make it clear to employees what is acceptable – and what isn’t.

That, however, doesn’t just mean writing a policy and standing back. It demands proper engagement, across an organisation – perhaps with ambassadors in every department helping with moderating and reporting, or through incentivising employee engagement. If it’s not about shared involvement and ownership, then it misses the point. Trust is at the core of these arrangements; and this is a street that runs both ways.

James Richards
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