Internal Communications: Fundamentals for a Strategic Framework - Bonfyre

Internal Communications: Fundamentals For A Strategic Framework

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Matt Stolpe
Editor
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Heather Vaughn
Former Editor
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Internal communication is evolving.

In enterprises all over the world, C-Suite executives now view the internal communications function as the most critical asset in their communications portfolios and “tightly linked with core business objectives.” As the full strategic potential of the function comes into focus, internal communicators must rise to the occasion and fulfill it. Communicators today must be strategic, sophisticated, resilient, and resourceful to demonstrate the wide-ranging impact internal messaging has on the company.

We’re here to help.

Internal Communications: Fundamentals For A Strategic Framework explores the competencies internal communicators need to be successful. This resource provides an educational overview of everything from strategic goal-setting to bottom line outcome measurement. Along the way, we’ll address questions like “Why do communications need to be strategic in the first place?” and “Which types of communications channels do I need to use?”

We strongly encourage you to use this resource at your own pace. If you have the endurance, gumption, and spare time to consume it all in one go, then more power to you. But we’ve broken it down into five easy-to-read chapters for your convenience.

Authors


Matt Stolpe
Editor
More by Matt

Heather Vaughn
Former Editor
More by Heather

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Chapter 1

Why Does Internal Communications Need to Be Strategic?

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This quote, popularly attributed to The Little Prince author, predates the formation of the internal communications function by a significant margin. Still, it succinctly encapsulates its current day predicament.

The modern enterprise has no room for functions and departments that cannot deliver on strategic goals. Today, organizations are pursuing strategic company-wide transformations and competing for top talent with international rivals to stay relevant in a cutthroat global marketplace.

Every function of the company must play its part to not only push the organization to achieve its goals but also demonstrate how they were accomplished. And today, the modern enterprise is so complex that it would only be natural to expect every organization to have a plan for managing internal communications.

Surprisingly, that is not the case. Many organizations today still operate without a formal internal messaging strategy in place. As research shows, the consequences of poorly planned internal communications materialize in employees’ work.

31%

of organizations have no formal communications strategy in place.

(VMA Group)

38%

of internal communicators feel employees understand their individual contributions to organizational strategy.

(Gatehouse)

10 hours

is how long it takes employees to gather and seek out information each week.

(Inc)

What’s significant (and surprising) about this revelation is that it comes at a critical moment for internal communicators. Historically, perceptions of internal communications have been short-sighted. It was not uncommon for internal communications departments to be seen as only useful for pushing out one-way, top-down corporate information to employees. 

In other words, they viewed messaging only as something to be dictated from up on high, perpetuating a precise corporate narrative. Little care was given to what employees had to think or say about it. The internal communications function’s full strategic potential remained just out of focus at many an organization.

Finally, that is now changing.

At the largest organizations around the world, C-Suite executives are starting to view the internal communications function in a new light. Internal communicators, much like their partners in HR, are now seen as strategic partners in organizational success, with a demonstrable impact on outcomes like employee engagement, productivity, morale, and revenue.

Reflecting these shifting attitudes, a VMA Group survey shows that only 9% of communicators believe that senior leaders in their organization do not understand the importance of communications.

A separate report shows CEOs view internal communications as the most critical asset across their entire communications portfolios–and that’s accounting for public-facing functions like marketing and PR. Above all other functions, the report highlights internal communications as “tightly linked to core business objectives.”

Perceptions are shifting, in part, because the full strategic capabilities of internal communications are now clearer than ever. Internal communicators have always been measuring communications, but a noticeable shift has occurred in what they measure.

The ability to demonstrate impact on bottom line outcomes was difficult in the past but not impossible, as communicators like Angela Sinickas have shown. Due to the limited data communications channels could collect, and the limited resources communicators had to make up for this data deficit, many resorted to measuring their own messaging output (e.g. number of direct mail letters sent per quarter).

And while many communicators are still strapped for time and resources (an issue that will likely never change), new technology is leveling the data playing field for communications channels. Now, the intangible elements of communication–things like employee sentiment, perception, and elements of content consumption–are quickly becoming tangible as new channels make data and feedback collection, reporting, and analysis easier than ever.

Communicators have never before been equipped with so much information to demonstrate the ways internal communication supports the company.

1.1

1.1 In what contexts should internal communications be strategic?

All contexts. Mark Cullen, Director of Brand, Marketing & Communications for Ernst & Young, summarizes why planning strategic internal messaging in advance is essential:

“A well thought through strategy is a must. Without it, you’re driving a car with a set of broken headlights in the dead of night. That could be a fatal combination.”

“Fatal combination” is no exaggeration. The absence of a formal internal communications strategy makes the company become more vulnerable to risk, inefficiencies, and misalignment. As you might imagine, this is all translates to a less than desirable financial outcome.

Organizations neither big nor small can afford the costs of miscommunications. One report shows mismanaged communications have a significant impact on lost revenue.

With no strategy, communicators must go to the drawing board any time there’s need for internal messaging. And there is always a need to communicate with employees.

Stability

In times of stability, internal communications aligns employees around the company’s strategic vision, mission, values, and core objectives. A healthy strategy secures this alignment and empowers everyone across the organization to realize their greatest potential.

“Everything you do has to be aligned to the objectives, goals and purpose of the organisation. It’s why we exist,” writes Rachel Miller, Director of All Things IC. 

“I think the purpose of internal communication is not telling people what to do. It is to create shared understanding and meaning. Only when this happens can employees work together towards a company’s goals.”



But without a strategy in place, meaning, purpose, and clarity get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes, they’re not even communicated at all because it’s assumed employees know them already. Word to the wise: if a subject has not been covered in your internal communications strategy, now or in the past, employees most likely do not know enough about it.

Project-oriented

Project-oriented internal communications will drive employee motivation and productivity, and communicate clarity on what’s needed to accomplish key departmental goals. In this role, communicators must manage the flow of internal communications throughout the business.

Erin Hosilyk, the creator of the internal communications function at LinkedIn and the organization’s former Director of Corporate Communications, notes part of the department’s strategic value comes from connecting different departments and teams to deliver better work.

“It’s a very unique position to be in because it’s one of the only jobs where you have to know what’s going on at the company at all times in every pocket of the organization,” Hosilyk said at a KCP 12-200 Meet Up Series event.

Hear more of Erin Hosilyk’s take on connecting coworkers at LinkedIn

“If you don’t know, you need to know who to know and be able to connect the dots in a strategic, thoughtful way, and move the business forward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve connected the dots for people who were doing the exact same thing in different parts of the organization and needed to be talking to each other.”

Change and crisis communications

Enduring change is now a reality all organizations must face. Where once widescale organizational change may have been necessary every 10 years or so, today’s globally competitive marketplace demands change come quicker and quicker. Change in organizations is now constant, from the digital transformations of work process to the complete structural reorganization that comes from mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures.

As Roger D’Aprix, industry thought leader and head of the communications consultancy D’Aprix & Co. LLC, describes, change “severs the comfortable connections we all need to explain the meaning of our existence, and in the workplace.”

It is the responsibility of communicators, D’Aprix notes, to create an internal communication strategy that reconnects the dots for employees. It does so by delivering the crucial context necessary for employees to understand, navigate, and ultimately survive the organizational change.

That grounding force is also necessary in times of organizational crisis. Here, internal communications creates a necessary understanding and alignment around the state of affairs and code of conduct. During a crisis, all employees—not just leadership—will be seen as company ambassadors to varying degrees. Internal communications becomes a key strategic asset for mitigating risk. Strong internal messaging informs an equally potent outward representation from employees.

“Healthy internal communications can reduce damaging leaks and assist the external communications team by extending brand messaging on a grassroots level,” says Josh Ong, Director of Marketing and Communications at Cheetah Mobile. “It’s better for the firm as a whole to remain open with its employees rather than limit the flow of information – otherwise when called upon to defend their company, they might not have an appropriate response.”

1.2

1.2 What do internal audiences expect strategic communications to do?

It’s one thing to say you’re going to develop a strategic approach to internal communications. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it. Crafting an internal communications strategy can at times feel like you’re being pulled in several different directions.

The internal communications function generally drives alignment, purpose, and engagement for all parties in an organization. However, in serving this role, communicators invariably come across the question of what audiences “want” when it comes to communications. Internal audiences large and small are by no means homogenous when it comes to this issue.

Executives, of course, want to understand the way that communications drive progress towards organizational goals. They care less about how many clicks an intranet article receives (although that’s important too!) than how the awareness and consumption of that content led to behavioral changes that achieved company goals. Strategic impact—not just an articulation of organizational direction—is what matters to them.

Get the checklist: 3 Tools to Increase Communications Impact

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This itself is another challenge for communicators—and not because the connection between communications and outcomes like productivity and employee engagement doesn’t exist. Metrics and measurement models require rigorous definition and refinement, and often must meld quantitative and qualitative data to point to the outcomes.

In pursuit of those outcomes, it can be tempting to go all out with internal messaging. Every bit of information, no matter how complex, becomes something employees need to know and is distributed across every communication channel. But as Alison Davis, founder and CEO of the employee communications firm Davis & Co, notes, employees want communications to be less complicated.

After surveying 19,000 employees across multiple companies about the one thing they’d change for communications, she summarized her conclusions for the IC Kollectif. “They want IC to manage leaders and subject matter experts who feel the need to explain everything in painful detail,” Davis writes. “And employees want you to be much more of a curator than an aggregator—instead of tossing everything at employees, select which information is important.“

As for employees, the question they have for communicators is a simple one: "How does this affect me?"

It behooves internal communicators to cater to that simplicity. Employees want internal communications to address what they need to know in the least intrusive manner possible so they can get work done. Communications that are convenient, streamlined, and entertaining (not raw information dumps) are big wants from employee audiences.

A core dilemma for internal communicators emerges from this game of tug of war between the two parties whose respective interests neither directly conflict nor perfectly align:

How do I craft a communications experience that keeps employees informed—but not overwhelmed—while delivering results that demonstrate progress toward company goals?

Enter, once again, the need for a formal internal communications strategy. Communicators that focus foremost on audience wants will be forced to place strategy second as they walk a delicate tightrope of ever-changing whims.

Communicators focused on strategy first will instead home in on audience needs. They will take the necessary time to plan each stage of their approach before actual messaging occurs. And the first step before embarking on any mission is to identify the goals you wish to accomplish.

Chapter 2

Setting Strategic Communications Goals

Internal communications can’t be strategic unless you take the time to plan. Before messaging ever occurs it’s critical that you establish your goals, standards for success, and tactical approach in a formal, written document.

Your documented strategy will help leaders understand your messaging goals. It will illustrate the connection for them between communications and business outcomes. Your document will also serve as a roadmap, articulating reference points for the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of your messaging.

There are many ways to write an internal communications strategy but your formal document should do the following:

  • Identify business goals you plan to target
  • Specify your communications objectives
  • Define your target audience and measurement criteria
  • Highlight key messages you plan to communicate
  • Detail the communications channels you intend to use

There are plenty more areas your strategy can, and should, address but it all depends on how long you want to make your formal strategic document. We’ll talk more about that below.

2.1

2.1 Identifying and aligning your strategy with organizational goals

Your communications strategy must, above all else, align with a business issue or drive the organization closer to accomplishing its goals. Thus, the first step in crafting your strategy is to identify the business goals you plan to target.

This is both easier and harder than it may initially seem. After all a business is always trying to achieve something, no matter the context it is operating in. Examples of business issues a communicator can target could be “increase awareness of the company’s cultural principles,” or “drive adoption of desired organizational change behaviors.”

Communicators can determine these goals from afar, but this process can benefit from collaboration. The internal communications function, by default, is concerned with employees across all disciplines in the company. This is because often the business issues targeted by a strategy’s goals will require communicators to drive a necessary behavioral change in employees.

Your communications strategy must, above all else, align with a business issue or drive the organization closer to accomplishing its goals.

Communicators can improve the effectiveness of their strategies by taking the time to understand their internal audiences. This can be accomplished through interviews (or conversations, if that’s more appropriate) with leaders, department heads, and managers to understand their messaging needs with respect to business goals. You can also go straight to the source and use surveys and focus groups to get feedback from your standard employee populations.

Regardless of whom you’re getting feedback from, in these early stages of strategic thinking you should take the opportunity to learn about how each function operates. For each function in your internal audience, get to know the nature of their work, their team dynamics, and identify any deficits in the communications they currently receive.

Your strategic acumen will grow as the information you collect in this phase will enable you to set goals more salient to specific business issues.

2.2

2.2 Setting your communications objectives

With your organizational goals documented, it’s time to identify your communication objectives.

There is a key difference between a goal and an objective, although the terms are often mistakenly used as synonyms of one another. As Mikal E. Belicove writes for Forbes, goals are broad, desired outcomes while objectives are measurable steps you take to achieve the goal of your strategy.

Put another way, think of your goal as a destination, it’s where you want to be. Your objective is a marker that says how you know you got there, and is often expressed as a quantifiable result.

So when you think through communications objectives, you’re looking at what you–as a communicator–can do with strategic messaging to pursue your organizational mission. We’ve seen several seasoned communicators recommend following the SMART methodology:

Specific Tell in exact terms what your communications strategy aims to do.

Measurable Define how you will measure success for your strategy.

Attainable Set objectives that can be realistically achieved for the scope of the campaign and resources at your disposal.

Relevant Make sure your objectives are pursuing outcomes with a clear connection to business interests.

Timely Accomplish your messaging goals in a timeframe that will make the biggest impact on the business.

It is critical that the standards you set promise results within the scope of what you can reasonably deliver. Take inventory of your communications tools and resources and set realistic benchmarks accordingly.

Now, there are two more things you need to do.

The first is to identify your strategy’s primary internal audience. Sometimes your messages might pertain to just a department or two, or even a cross-section of employees in specific demographic groups. Other times, your audience will involve every employee in the company. By identifying who exactly you’ll be communicating with, you’ll be able to create stronger messaging tailored directly to your audience’s needs.



The second is that you must define your terms for strategic success before internal messaging occurs. That’s right, even if you’re not following the SMART methodology, you can’t ignore that M for Measurable. Why? Because measurement is imperative to the value proposition of internal communications.

Defining success at the beginning keeps your strategic objectives top-of-mind. While it’s true you won’t have all of your communications data until your messaging campaign has ended, every component of measurement will be easier if you plan for it at the start of your strategy. For more, click here to skip to our chapter on internal communications metrics and measurement.

Identify your key messages

Now, it’s time to distill the key points you want to communicate throughout your campaign. Ask yourself what your audience needs to know when all is said and done. In the planning phase, these should be simple concepts. As William Shakespeare once said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Three to five bullets should be all you need. The time to get more nuanced and detailed comes when you actually have to craft the content of your messages. For more on this subject, click here jump to our chapter on internal communications content creation.

Choose your communications channels

A communications channel refers to any medium used to relay communications content. Communications channels are an indispensable part of any internal communications strategy. Your channels are how you’re able to reach employees in the first place. Without channels to communicate your messages, it would be impossible to execute your strategic goals.

For your formal internal communications strategy, document the specific channels you’ll use to reach your internal audience. List out each channel, and briefly describe the role it will play in your strategy. For more on the different types of communications channels, click here to jump to the next chapter–Communications Channels: The Tools of the Trade.

2.3

2.3 Filling in the finer details

It’s time to take inventory. Your targeted business goals and communications objectives provide the true north for your strategy, telling you where you need to go and how you’ll know you got there. Your distilled key messages cement what you’re going to say. Your communications channels are what you’ll use to say it.

So what else is left?

Plenty, but it might not always be so obvious. Since so many internal communicators have a love for language, we’re going to throwback to some writing composition 101. You can fill in the finer details of your strategy by addressing the lingering Who, What, When, Where, and Why of your messaging.

Below we have some questions that will help you brainstorm what else to include in your documented strategy. Since every internal communications function has different operating procedures, not every question below will be relevant to every communicator. Address only those that serve the purposes for your use, and any other stakeholder that might review your documented strategy.

You can fill in the finer details of your strategy by addressing the lingering Who, What, When, Where, and Why of your messaging.

Who?

The Who defines the scope of your internal communications strategy. The most important Who is the one we’ve already discussed: your target audience. But in all likelihood, the implementation of your internal communications strategy will involve several more. Here are just a few examples:

  • Who are your internal stakeholders? Which parties outside of the company’s communications function are invested in the success of your strategy? Take a moment to consider their expectations for your messaging and any key areas your content must address to meet them.

  • Who are your messaging partners? Internal communications seldom comes exclusively from the mouths of internal communicators. CEOs, executive leaders, line managers, and even other employees can all play their part in a messaging strategy. Identify as many of the people who need to be “in-the-know” as early as possible, and arm them with accurate knowledge ahead of time.

  • Who will proofread and pre-screen your content? Even seasoned communicators are prone to errors and missteps. Content production takes up a significant portion of internal communicators’ work. It’s important that the messaging you produce is clear, concise, and error-free. When possible, screen your work with a proofreader to ensure accuracy and clarity. If you want to go the extra mile, pre-screen your content with a group of reliable employees for feedback on how your broader internal audience will react to your communications.

  • Who needs to approve your messaging? Does your content strategy include information that must be reviewed by other people or departments? Take a moment to identify these individuals and set the expectations for the review process early. There may be some overlap between your reviewers and your internal stakeholders.

  • Who are the influencers and gatekeepers in your company? Get to know the non-executive personnel in your company who have leverage you need. Gatekeepers can open doors for you, and make messaging easier when you need it most. Influencers are personnel your internal audience trusts who can help spread accurate and reliable information through the company. Consider ways in which your strategy can leverage both.

What?

Arguably, most of your strategy thus far has the biggest Whats already covered. Your goals address what business issue you’re tackling. Your communications objectives address what success for your communications will look like. Your key messages address what you’re going to say and your channels are what you’ll use to say it. Here are some other Whats to consider:

  • What is your budget? Consider the financial cost of the channels you plan to leverage and start crunching numbers to make sure you’re not working outside your means.

  • What micro-behaviors do you need to drive? In other words, think through: What is your audience doing today? What do they need to be doing tomorrow? What do they need to be doing two weeks from now?

  • What demographic considerations (racial, gender-based, geographical) does your messaging need to accommodate?

When?

The biggest When your strategy must address calls back to the Timely portion of SMART objective setting. It is critical that your strategy delivers both messaging and results when they will be the most impactful to the company. But there are much smaller Whens along the way to keep in mind. Here are just a few:

  • When are any key dates occurring for your company? Think holidays, enrollment periods, project and report deadlines, and more. Note these dates ahead of time to ensure clarity, consistency, and punctuality in your messaging.

  • When are any specific deadlines where employees must take action? When do employees need to be alerted of those moments to have enough time to prepare?

  • When do you plan on collecting feedback from your audience? When do you need to stop so you can assess your data?

Where?

In internal communications, the Where matters in both literal and abstract terms. Abstract because your internal communications strategy should naturally move the company from “where you are” to “where you want to be.” Literal because, as we discuss in the next chapter, it behooves internal communicators to serve messaging in spaces where their audience is–not where they want them to be. Take a moment to consider:

  • Where are the physical spaces your internal audience occupies? Where do they do their work? Are there communal spaces where you can reach a significant cross-section of your audience?

  • Where are the virtual spaces your audience occupies? Do employees make use of internal social media tools or the social functions of your intranet? These can be valuable resources for getting your communications distributed exactly where they need to be.

  • Where are the spaces you should avoid? You don’t need to list these areas in your document, but you should have an idea of where not to distribute company messaging.

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss the “where” without thinking about the communications channels you will use to reach these spaces. A healthy mix of channels will fulfill informative, educational, and social roles across both physical and digital spaces. For more, click here to jump to our chapter on internal communications channels.

Good communication means answering why–specifically how your communications will impact employees and what it means for them down the road.

Why?

The Why may be last, but it most certainly is not least. In fact, this is perhaps the most important question that communicators need to answer. You need to have a firm grasp on why your messages matter to your audience. When we interviewed Shawn Shuckar, Chairman and President of Ameren Transmission for our Around the Bonfyre series, he emphasized good communication means answering why–specifically how your communications will impact employees and what it means for them down the road.

The Why adds context and meaning to work. Roger D’Aprix notes that part of this means leveraging your internal communication strategy to contextualize the business marketplace factors and conditions–not in every message, but as part of an ongoing conversation. Doing so helps employees understand their daily work in “big picture” terms and process organizational change when the time (inevitably) comes.

Need help drilling down to the Why? Consider the following questions. If you find you can’t produce satisfying answers, it may be necessary to consider a different messaging angle:

  • What is the most pressing or urgent component of your message?

  • How will the message affect your audience’s work?

  • Why does your audience benefit from these communications?

  • What will happen if your audience doesn’t receive this messaging?

Get the checklist: Apply these 5 questions to your strategy

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Chapter 3

Communications Channels: The Tools of the Trade

A communications channel refers to any medium used to relay communications content. Communications channels are an indispensable part of any internal communications strategy. Without channels to communicate your messages, it would be impossible to execute your strategic goals.

This definition is intentionally broad. The terms of what constitutes a communications channel have greatly expanded over time, particularly in the past 20 years as new technology has entered the workplace with increasing rapidity.

Communications channels can be a physical medium like a print magazine or flyer; a digital tool, like an intranet or enterprise social media software; or they can even be a conversation held between leaders in-the-know and employees out-of-the-know.

3.1

3.1 Categorizing your communications channels

In the article The Evolution of Corporate Communications, Chris Dornfeld, Chief Operating Officer at Maritz Motivation Solutions, wrote about the different categories of communications channels. According to Dornfeld, communications in the enterprise falls into three major categories: company to people, systems to people, and people to people.

Venn diagram of organizational systems and how they interact
Company to People

The first category, company to people, involves channels leveraged to push out corporate communications, company updates and news, and any other important information employees need to know. Company to people channels fit into the traditional model of internal messaging. These are channels that push out one-way, top-down communications designed to create a company narrative and orient employees to the organization’s goals.

Examples of company to people channels

  • Company newsletters
  • Manager-led meetings
  • Phone calls and SMS alerts
  • Press releases 
  • Print/digital signage
  • Company magazines
  • Podcasts
  • Culture books
Systems to People

The second category, systems to people, involves channels that leverage communications around processes and work. In recent years, many of these tools have evolved to become more social, but their primary purpose is efficient communication around specific documents, systems, or work processes. In short, tools that facilitate the conversations and provide the resources that help employees get work done.

Examples of systems to people channels

  • Intranets and other digital resource libraries
  • Training modules and guides (written, video, in-person)
  • Employee handbooks
  • Process-oriented productivity software
People to People

The final category of channel, people to people (a.k.a. peer to peer), is the most social in nature. These channels can enable communication between individual workers across departments, and facilitate larger conversations between diverse employee groups and teams, like in an enterprise social platform.

Examples of people to people channels

  • Email
  • Enterprise social network
  • Employee communications platforms
  • External social media presences (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Employee engagement and feedback surveys
  • Pulse survey tools (for quick feedback)
  • Town hall meetings (in-person and digital)
  • Focus groups 
  • One-on-one feedback sessions
  • Instant messaging productivity tools

What’s unique about people to people tools is the flattening effect they have on messaging hierarchy. The flow of communications that occurs over these is omni-directional. While leaders can use these channels for traditional, top-down messaging, employees can just as easily leverage these same tools to communicate with leaders with a degree of ease and agency that did not exist 20 years ago.

For this reason, people to people is perhaps the most impactful channel type. The tools that fall into this category support a wide berth of conversations that don’t just revolve around work, but also engagement, culture, team-building, and personal connections that humanize leadership and teams alike. Digital tools in this channel category can collect data that provide a new level of intelligence about the organization.

It is critical that your internal communications strategy has a generous mix of channels across all of these categories. Each category plays a critical role in creating an informed, aligned, and engaged workforce.

The divisions between these categories are not always rigid. In some cases it may even be better to think of them instead as permeable boundaries. Many of the communications tools introduced into the workplace in the past 20 years has blurred these lines. Now it’s possible for a communications medium to occupy two, if not all three, categories at the same time.

Take the medium of email for example. In its primary use, this channel functions as a people-to-people platform. Email connects employees and facilitates critical point-to-point conversations that create alignment on work objectives and company goals.

However, the channel can also be leveraged for messages like corporate newsletters or announcements from executives; communications that go in one direction (top-down) and are intended to inform, but offer limited opportunities for response or engagement from the internal audience.

The pliability of communications mediums like this is a good thing. The increased versatility presents internal communicators with no shortage of opportunities to inform, educate, and promote important conversations with internal audiences.

3.2

3.2 But wait, aren’t some of these channels “dead?”

Every year, you’ll see a rash of articles boldly declaring any number of the above communications channels “dead.” Their utility apparently vanished overnight in our ever-evolving work climate.

Email may be a preferred tool for 97% of internal communicators according to the Employee Communications Section of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), but by the word of dozens of provocative editorials, it has actually been deceased for years. Maybe the PRSA just wasn’t invited to the funeral service? 

Likewise, despite the fact that many internal communicators make regular use of intranets and print to reach their audience, the public conversation around them would have you believe they were shepherded across the River Styx long ago.

So why are people so eager to point to proven channels and proclaim they’re pushing up daisies? Part of it stems from anxiety over keeping up with the times. The pace at which technology is evolving puts a constant pressure on communicators to adopt tools with the latest bells and whistles.

To an extent, that is how things should be. Workplaces were once slow to adopt newer technology and channels. With the cycles of change picking up pace, employees now expect messaging that reflects how they communicate outside of work. However, new communications tools do not erase the intrinsic value of old ones.

For example, right now mobile and video technology are gaining prominence in internal communications, and with good reason. The move to making communications accessible on mobile makes sense considering 95% of Americans own a cell phone, and 77% own smartphones. Video, meanwhile, is a highly effective channel for message retention–95% of viewers retain messages communicated over the medium. 

77%

of Americans own a smartphone.

(Pew Research Center)

95%

of viewers retain messages communicated over video.

(Pop Video)

In wake of the obvious benefits of these newer channels, many were quick to declare print, a more costly and time-intensive medium, dead. But while these tools certainly help communicators overcome the pain points of producing for print, they do not change the unique impact the medium can have. As noted by Ragan Communications, print is still a useful channel for getting in front of internal audiences with limited internet access at work and provides a sense of permanence that more effervescent digital mediums do not. 

The question then is no longer, “Is this channel dead?” but rather, “Are the time and resources spent leveraging this channel worth the impact on my internal audience?” Continuing with our example, the answer for many communicators may very well be “No.” But every internal audience is different. For those audiences served well served by a medium like print, arbitrarily removing that resource in favor of a shiny new channel may do more harm than good.

3.3

3.3 But how do I use them?

Several concerns arise when it comes to tactically leveraging internal communications channels. Chief among communicators’ minds are questions like:

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. Reach is a pervasive issue that’s been present since the inception of the internal communications function. Even today in our digital age large swaths of non-desk employee populations operate just out of arm’s length for communicators. 

A significant portion of non-desk populations are also non-wired, meaning they have no access to digital communications. According to one study, 83% of deskless employees don’t even have a corporate email address.

As the channel options available expand and become more robust, decision paralysis becomes a factor, too. Communicators want channels that cut through the noise of work and capture employees’ attention. But figuring out which channel is right to use, and when is the right moment to use it, is difficult without a strategic methodology for this decision-making.

Then comes concerns of generational differences. In a confluence of social, political, and economic factors, five generations now work side-by-side in the global labor force. The age gap between the oldest and youngest working generations is about 70 years. Naturally, each generational cohort has adopted widely different communications preferences over the course of their diverse upbringings. 

But guiding your communications strategy by rigid generational stereotypes is a dangerous game. For as many Boomers you have at your organization ready to tell you they’re technologically inept, you’ll find just as many who are eager to prove themselves the exception to the rule. Likewise with millennials and social media and so on and so forth.

These factors, and many more, tangle and intertwine to create a conundrum out of channel selection. But despite all the changes and complications that have arisen, one kernel of wisdom has only become more relevant with time:

You must serve internal communications where your audience is–not where you want them to be.

In other words, communicators must do everything possible to get internal messaging content in front of the eyes of employees, not the other way around. The more streamlined and hassle-free you can make your communications experience, the easier it will be for employees to consume, understand, and fully engage with your content.

But what about the aforementioned issues of reach, channel selection, and generational differences? Our Internal Communications Survival Guide discusses tactics to address these issues, and more, in detail. Click here to download a copy and arm yourself with the knowledge to overcome these tactical roadblocks.

Get the checklist: 3 Ways to Use Different Channels to Improve Reach and Retention

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Chapter 4

How to Produce Compelling Communications Content

“Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.”

Leo Burnett

Once you have your internal communications strategy mapped out, it’s time to create the internal communications content and campaigns that will achieve your objectives. 

As you think about producing content, consider creating a campaign for your internal employees similar to one a marketing team would create for external audiences. 

4.1

4.1 Think like a marketer

Common wisdom says to consider your audience. However, feedback is an integral part of communications, so think of employees as half of an engaged conversation, rather than simply an audience. The goal is to create compelling content they will read, remember, respond to, and share with others.

No two people are exactly alike, and workplaces are melting pots of personalities. When thinking about your employees, consider developing employee personas to guide your communications. Catering to every individual is an impossible task, but by creating employee personas, you can create like-minded groups for customized content delivery.

Employee personas encourage you to place yourself in your audience’s shoes to see how they would respond to the content you are sharing. Remember most employees want to know “What’s in it for me?” When creating content, think about what the answer to that question would be for each of your employee personas. As much as possible, try to answer those concerns right from the start as you develop your content plan.

When considering customization, remember remote and manufacturing workers have different communication needs than a manager with an office in the corporate headquarters. Before developing specific content, survey employees to learn their communications preferences. 

Use this data to build employee personas based on similarities. Employee personas will help you understand the communications challenges each employee group faces and how to overcome them. 

You must also consider how much time they can give to consuming internal communications. A 2015 study showed that the average attention span is now 9 seconds. Advertisers are cutting TV and mobile spots to a mere 6 seconds, and getting some surprising results. 

Combine these trends with the fact that some employee groups are non-wired or deskless, and it’s no surprise that your three-page email newsletter isn’t being fully read by most employees. It’s important to take all these aspects into consideration when determining what types of content you need to create to ensure employees hear your messages in our noisy and distracting world.

Break through the noise with bite-sized or snackable content. Snackable content is content designed to be easy to consume and share. Employees who receive internal communications at limited intervals during the day may only have a few minutes to read or watch a video. Providing a consistent diet of snackable communications can create a predictability that employees appreciate. 

In addition to making sure the content is snackable, it’s critical to make sure your content is understood by all. Ask your HR department for the average education level of your employees and develop your content with this in mind. Run your written communications through a readability test before you share it to ensure the readability score of your message aligns with the education level of your employees. 

4.2

4.2 Arm yourself with science

Once you understand how your employees access and consume internal communications, it’s time to turn your attention to how to craft a memorable message. Understanding the science and psychology of how people communicate will help you to craft a message that sticks for employees.

Entertaining stories are more memorable than facts and figures. When we hear or read a story, we engage multiple areas of the brain beyond the language-processing areas as we draw on our memories and personal experiences evoked by the elements in the story. While facts and figures are often important parts of internal communications, you can creatively incorporate data with narratives that will help increase retention of the message. To increase the retention of the facts associated with the story, find an employee or team who can share real-life examples to illustrate the data points being shared.

Vision trumps all other senses. Our brains are wired to remember things we see more than things we hear.

According to John Medina’s book, BrainRules, when you hear a piece of information, three days later you'll only remember 10% of it. Add a picture and retention skyrockets to 65%.

Incorporating visual communications into your strategy can take on many forms—digital signage, infographics, event posters, photos, illustrations, videos, and more. The key is to keep the message simple and on target. Be sure the visuals align with the strategy and purpose of the communication so they support, rather than distract from, the key elements of the message.

Face-to-face interactions, one of the oldest forms of visual communication, remain a consistent and powerful tool. Face-to-face is more memorable because it engages all of our senses, allowing us to write memories across multiple areas of our brain.

When developing content, it’s important to include opportunities for face-to-face communications, whether it’s in person or digital. One way to incorporate face-to-face is to include a script or talking points for managers to use when following up with employees to ensure the key points of a message were understood by all.

4.3

4.3 Amplify your message

Now it’s time to consider how to amplify your internal communications for the biggest impact.

Ask yourself if everyone actually needs to hear every message. Message overload is a real issue in today’s world, so think about which parts of each message apply to each team or employee group. Only send the messages that are most relevant to each group. You may need to create multiple versions of an email or video for an internal communications campaign, and that’s okay.

For example, when sending out change communications, it’s okay to customize one email to shift workers with information that is specific to how the change will affect them, and a separate email to corporate office staff that addresses their concerns.

Don’t be afraid to be repetitive, either. At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive to avoiding message overload. However, repetition is the most powerful way to ensure employees remember your messages. The key is to be selective and purposeful in the elements that you repeat.

When using repetition, vary the message slightly to make the most of each channel or medium you use. For example, if one of your internal communications goals is to increase safety in the workplace, repeating messages across multiple channels is a great way to help your employees remember the importance of wearing safety gear.

Another way to amplify your message is to get your leaders and managers to participate. When leaders demonstrate authenticity and transparency to employees, it humanizes them and builds trust. When we say “leaders,” we’re referring to more than just the C-suite, don’t forget that anyone who is a manager or team lead is also a leader. It’s important each leader understands the importance of participating in internal communications and the impact it has on employees, culture, and engagement.

content calendar is a valuable tool for guiding your content strategy. It not only ensures you are talking about the right issues at the right time, but also creates a predictable schedule of communications that demonstrate transparency with employees.

Start by marking out the most important and expected communications, like open enrollment, company anniversaries, quarterly meetings, etc. Determine the intervals for your expected internal communications, whether it’s monthly, weekly or even daily. Then fill in the rest of your calendar with communications that support your business goals.

Download: Internal Communications Planning Kit

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There are a variety of internal communications subjects that can supplement your editorial calendar. Topics and business objectives like employee recognition, knowledge sharing, and relationship building are all fair game.

Use a variety of types of content across your channels to encourage employees who are typically consumers to become more active with internal communications. Some content tactics will elicit more interaction than others. For instance, most employees won’t reply to the monthly newsletter with their thoughts, but they may share family or vacation photos on a digital platform if you encourage them to do so.

The goal of internal communications is to create content that sticks with employees and encourages behaviors that support your business objectives.

To cut through the noise, you must think like a marketer, arm yourself with science, and amplify your messages.

Even though you’ve thought through the details of content creation, it’s still not quite time to execute your new internal communications strategy. There’s one more hurdle to jump in your formal internal communications strategy: measurement.

Chapter 5

Measuring the Impact of Your Internal Communications

You’ve developed an internal communications strategy and a plan to create compelling content. Next, you’ll need to learn how to effectively measure your communications so you’ll know if you’re meeting your goals, or if adjustments are needed.

41%

of communicators have no way of tracking how employees are consuming content.

(Hollinger | Scott)

51%

of communicators reported they do not measure email effectiveness.

(PoliteMail)

56%

say they can’t pull meaningful data from their intranet.

(PoliteMail)

How will you know if you are achieving your goals if you can’t find meaningful measurements to demonstrate your results? Measurement is imperative to internal communications’ value proposition. It’s the language business leaders understand, one every communicator should become fluent in.

5.1

5.1 Types of metrics

Measuring the effectiveness of internal communications is a challenge for most communicators. The Institute for Public Relations commissioned a study administered by internal communications experts who proposed definitions for campaign measurement standards. However, even after a set of industry standards are defined, there will still be a need for personalized metrics for each company to ensure their communications are achieving the desired outcomes.

The IPR proposed standards suggest metrics that cover three categories—outtakes, outcomes, and organizational impact. The IPR shared their conceptual definitions:

Outtakes: whether employees received, paid attention to, comprehended or retained particular messaging

Outcomes: evidence of changes to or reinforcement of opinions, attitudes, or behaviors

Organizational Impact: if and how internal communications has influenced organizational performance

The goal of internal communications is always to have organizational impact. Metrics associated with outtakes and outcomes of communication provide the foundation to create that impact.

To gauge the effectiveness of your communications, you must focus on driving behaviors that lead to substantive business results. When setting your key performance indicators (KPIs) for internal communications, you must define “What are you trying to accomplish with your internal communications?” The challenge is then finding metrics that relate to and support those KPIs. The key is to clearly define your goals, so you can tell if and when you hit your mark.

Internal communications goals should be aligned with business goals, so there’s a need for measurements to incorporate both qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative data may include anecdotal evidence from a focus group or internal survey of employees. Quantitative data may include measures such as turnover rates, productivity rates, or a reduction in safety incidents. Not all data measurement falls exclusively under the purview of the internal communications function, either. Communicators may need to collaborate with partners in HR, IT, and other departments to identify quantitative data.

Remember, having a baseline standard of each metric you intend to use before you begin a new internal communications campaign is critical to understanding the efficacy of your methods. Without a baseline, you won’t know if your strategy is having an impact. You must know where you started, so you can gauge if your efforts are successful. 

5.2

5.2 How to measure your internal communications

Start with the quantitative data for outtakes that you can measure. Trying to measure how often a break room poster is viewed by employees is a difficult task, but you can track data from intranets, emails, and other digital platforms.

Open, click through, and bounce rates only tell the beginning of the internal communications journey. While they are a good place to start, especially if you have no current measurements, they don’t tell the entire story.

These metrics only tell you whether employees received your messaging; they can’t show if it was comprehended or retained.

Awareness alone is not a sufficient goal, but it is part of the path to meeting your objectives.

Next, you will want to find quantitative or qualitative data points that align with your desired outcomes. The desired outcomes are often based on more subjective qualities, such as attitude, trust, and transparency that are difficult, but not impossible, to measure.

Before your new strategy goes into effect, use survey tools and focus groups to ask employees how they perceive subjective outcomes, like trust and transparency to establish baseline metrics. Then repeat these measurements after you’ve implemented your IC strategy and campaigns.

Once you’ve established some metrics for measuring outcomes, it’s time to move on to the final metrics piece, organizational impact. This is where you must align your KPIs with quantitative data that demonstrates how well you’re driving behaviors that will change or improve your business goals. As mentioned earlier, often times this stage requires collaboration with other departments to retrieve the quantitative data that will track progress toward your goals and objectives.

5.3

5.3 An internal communications illustration

Ready to put it all together? In our example campaign, you're leading a new communications initiative to reinforce safety protocols. You've likely been working with your Health and Safety department already to understand which protocols need reinforcement and why. Use the current statistics on usage and safety incidents as your baseline to measure against.

You'll also want to survey employees before your campaign begins to get a baseline on their current awareness of these protocols. Once the communications initiative is implemented, survey your audience again to see if they are consuming and retaining the safety messages. After your IC campaign has been running a while, review updated usage and incident data from the safety department to measure the impact your communications had on changing behaviors and ultimately reducing the number of safety incidents.

KPI:

Increase adoption of safety gear to reduce safety incidents

Strategy:
  • Increase awareness through digital signage in break areas
  • Share articles & videos on the importance of safety gear on intranet
  • Add column on safety to quarterly newsletter
  • Increase manager follow-up through one-on-ones & team meetings
  • Encourage micro-recognition for employees who lead by example
Content required:
  • Digital signage about safety gear for monitors in break room
  • Outside articles on safety to distribute on intranet
  • Videos from employees on how gear saved them from accident
  • Talking points for managers on importance of safety gear
  • Content for quarterly newsletter safety column
  • Suggestions/role-playing for managers and team leads on how to use micro-recognition to reinforce desired behaviors
Metrics

Pre-campaign metrics:

  • Determine benchmark qualitative data. Use focus groups & pulse surveys to determine current level of awareness and challenges related to safety gear. 
  • Determine benchmark quantitative data for intranet & newsletter metrics for awareness. Also work with Health & Safety department to gather quantitative data on current safety metrics that can be used to measure efficacy of campaign (eye safety incidents, foot injuries, etc.) 

Mid & post-campaign metrics:

  • Repeat focus group & pulse survey at 30, 60, and 90 days after campaign launch
  • Repeat Health & Safety metrics at 30, 60, and 90 days after launch

5.4

5.4 Things to remember

You may need to be flexible in how you measure the results of each internal communications campaign to help you achieve your business goals. Some goals, like safety, may have clear data to prove effectiveness. Other goals may be more subjective and difficult to define, however that doesn’t mean that you should avoid measurement entirely.

Just because the data doesn’t exist today, doesn’t mean it can’t ever be measured. Don’t be afraid to ask other internal departments if they have access to information that can help guide your internal communications. The data may be available, but it may not be a report that is regularly run for your company.

Other times you may have to filter the information in a different way or combine a few data points to find metrics for that align with your KPIs.

In most cases, some data is better than no data at all. Even with limited data, you can begin to spot trends and see if your internal communications are nudging the needle in the desired direction.

Establishing KPIs is not a one-time event, but rather a fluid, ongoing process. Your organization’s needs will develop and change over time. Naturally, the metrics you’ll use to measure your specific business goals will need to adjust accordingly.

Reporting must also become a regular part of your internal communications routine. Much like marketing and sales, the internal communications function has a significant impact on business development. Your team needs to review its goals in the same way those teams do. Establish a regular schedule for reviewing your metrics, KPIs, and goals at weekly or monthly intervals. Some goals will take longer to achieve than others. So when it comes time to share your report outside your function, remember to set expectations ahead of time.

Download: Internal Communications Survival Guide

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Internal communications is the glue that holds an organization together. But keeping that binding tight means a communicator’s work is never truly done.

In this resource, we’ve outlined the fundamentals for a successful strategic internal communications framework. But as time marches forward, the industry will evolve and present new problems for communicators to solve.

To stay successful, an internal communicator must be constantly learning new strategic and tactical methods to evolve with the times. And we’ve got your back when you’re hungry for more knowledge:

Think Bonfyre’s workplace culture platform can help you master your communications strategy? Let’s talk

Want to widen the impact of your strategy? Try 3 Tools to Make Internal Communications More Impact

For help setting your strategic communications goals, check out 5 Questions Every Internal Communications Strategy Should Answer

Need assistance reaching your internal audience? Consider these 3 Ways to Upgrade Your Internal Communications Strategy

Ready to start plotting out your employee messages? Use our Internal Communications Content Planning Kit

Need tactical advice for your biggest communications challenges? Grab our Internal Communications Survival Guide

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