Around the Bonfyre: Karin Bonev on Internal Communication Strategy

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Around the Bonfyre: Karin Bonev on Internal Communication Strategy

7 min

Communicating through times of organizational change is Karin Bonev’s specialty.

Across her 14-year tenure at the communications and public relations firm Dix & Eaton, Bonev has helped clients improve internal communications through transitions, mergers & acquisitions, and other periods of significant change. Bonev leads Dix & Eaton’s internal communications practice as one of the firm’s vice presidents, working hand-in-hand with client leadership to build an internal communication strategy that successfully guides employees through organizational change and establish a strong messaging framework for the future.

For this installment of Around the Bonfyre, we sat down with Bonev to discuss the nuances of guiding employees through the “change curve,” how to reach deskless employee populations, and the unique challenges of producing an internal communication strategy from an outsourced role.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being an internal communicator during times of organizational change?

There are two different things to think about. When leadership is at the point where they’re announcing the change to their audiences, they’ve already gone over the change curve. They’ve wondered why they had to make the change, they’ve questioned it, and ultimately they’re on board and ready to move forward. But at the point where they announce the change to employees, those employees are just starting their journey along the change curve. It takes time for employees to move through that curve—to understand why it’s happening, to question it, and ultimately accept it. Because leadership is already over the curve, the need for that change is so apparent and they’re already on board, so it can be frustrating for them that employees aren’t immediately embracing it. The other big point for consideration is that you can’t always leverage your traditional communications methods. The greater the change, and the more employees need to change what they’re doing, the broader your comms arsenal needs to be. The general email from the CEO is good to build education and awareness about change, but if you need employees to do something differently, then you’re looking at managers communicating with employees, face-to-face communications, and other new channels to support that initiative.

Related: Why it's Important to Maintain Culture in Times of Change

How diverse does your channel strategy need to be to communicate what is expected in change?

It requires really understanding your existing employee structure. How many employees do you have across how many locations? Are they in front of their computers most of the time, are they out and about on the plant floor, or are they out on the road meeting with customers? You have to use the channels that are going to work best to get in front of them–and that’s different for every organization. That said, everyone has a mobile phone. That’s one way to get in front of your employees at the same time, regardless of their physical location. Through mobile, they all have access to communications information at the same time, as opposed to email or intranet, which everyone might not have access to depending on how your organization is structured.

Lately there’s been an explosion of internal communications solutions as far as mobile devices are concerned. Do you feel mobile technology has been a force for good in internal communications?

As organizations look to communicate with their employees, they’re finding a couple of different struggles. One, internal resources continue to be tight, both in terms of money and staff. Two, intranets can be great, but if not everyone has access to it, then that information isn’t getting through. Other folks have intranets that don’t work well, and others don’t have them at all. I think the great thing about mobile apps is that they have additional functionality that enables employees to connect in other ways, to share information and feel connected to a larger group in ways that other platforms don’t allow.

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Earlier you mentioned using plant employees as an example. I know reaching plant employees and other deskless populations has always been a struggle for internal communicators. Does mobile technology make it any easier to connect with this population today, or is it just as hard to reach them as in the past?

Mobile apps offer a definite advantage in connecting with that group. In the past they’ve been very connected with their manager and their supervisor. But at shift start and shift close meetings, those folks don’t have a lot of time to talk about corporate information and even day-to-day job information. Some supervisors may not even be armed to share corporate information. But that doesn’t mean that those employees don’t want or need to know about it.

“If plant employees understand the larger picture, they better understand how their role fits into it. If they’re more connected with business strategy, the organization’s mission, and what customers are doing, then they can understand why quality and safety are important.”

Mobile platforms enable organizations to share information more directly with those employees than they have in the past.That’s not to say that the manager connection isn’t important—it still is because it’s a way to get in front of employees face-to-face—but you no longer have to rely on that method to share information.

Your bio on the Dix & Eaton site mentions you’ve worked in an outsourced employee communications function. I’m curious about that because most communicators are in-house hires, working alongside their audience. What’s different building an internal communication strategy in an outsourced function?

When we work with our clients it’s often been because they are getting that function up and running. One of our clients had significant change and resulting turnover. They ended up not having a communications function for a couple of months. It can be challenging because you are the day-to-day person who needs to be ready at a moment’s notice to help respond to things that are happening within the organization, as well as being the proactive person who shepherds messages forward. There are a couple of things that are really important in an outsourced function. You need to have open lines of communication with people who need to get the word out, like the CEO, the head of HR, technology and legal personnel. Often times you need to get communications reviewed, approved, and disseminated fairly quickly, so you need to be an integrated part of their daily activity.

Does your employee audience know the communications are coming from an outsourced function?

In the instance I mentioned, employees did not know because most of the communications were coming from the CEO or head of HR, not an internal communications leader. It was more about keeping the day-to-day of the organization up and running versus being the spokesperson for that organization internally. But building trust was nonetheless important because you were working with a number of different people who needed to know they could rely on you. They needed to know that you could execute quickly. You needed to learn the nuances of their culture and organization. Things that might not matter in one organization could be a big deal for another. In one instance, we had an employee pass away, someone who had been with the organization for a significant amount of time. It was very sudden. It was important to understand the role that person played in the organization and why folks might need help moving through that particular change.

So there’s a culture shock element to it then, where you’re trying to gather a sense of the state of the culture you’re working in.

Yes. When you’re working with a client, you get to know their culture fairly well, but when you’re an outsourced arm, you need to know it really well. If you’re developing communications, you need to know who has to review and approve them. What are certain phrases and words that will become issues for people that the organization might react strongly to? You need a deeper understanding of that organization and its culture.

And at the same time you’re trying to establish a communications framework that will sustain the organization moving forward.

Right. When you initially get in, you’re helping out from day to day, putting out the fires as needed. You’re also trying to establish a long-term vision for internal communications until they are at a point where they can execute it themselves. In the case of one client, they were undergoing significant change, so we wanted to increase the presence the CEO had with employees. We started doing regular town halls, with regular communications from the CEO, to help employees understand the strategy of the organization as well as the changes that were occurring. With another client, it was more about taking their existing channels and leveraging them more effectively. With their manufacturing location, it was about how they could use their screen technology and bulletin board system better, as well as establishing ongoing CEO communications. This transparency ensured people understood what was happening with the organization as opposed to guessing. When people are left to guess, that black hole can really hurt an organization.

How do those black holes of guesswork form?

When internal communications is taken for granted. When leaders think “Oh, they’ve heard about this,” or “Oh, they understand what’s happening.” They’re not sensing that employees really don’t know what’s happening.

“The employees are left to guess what’s going on. When they have to guess, they come up with their own ideas and assumptions about what’s happening and why.”

In one particular case with a client, there was an employee who for whatever reason was actively disengaged, spreading false information and causing tension within the workforce. Leadership had to come in and be that much more proactive to help dispel some of the information being spread.

That corroborates an IC Kollectif white paper I recently read, discussing how in organizations information spreads through informal communications networks—like employee conversations—faster than formal ones. So when you have an employee who has inaccurate, or in this case deliberately misleading information, it can spread like wildfire.

Especially when there’s a lack of information—no corporate communications to compare against what they’re being told. That’s why it’s so important for organizations to be transparent about what they’re doing and why. 

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