Share what makes internal communication different from external PR. That was the request made by a professor at the University of Colorado who asked me to speak to his PR class earlier this week.
That (I dared not say out loud) would require me to actually think about it.
So I did. Thank you, dear professor, for shaking me out of my complacency. Here are just three of the things that make internal communication different:
A defined audience. Internal communicators know exactly who and where their audience is. This is no exaggeration: If an internal communication leader asked for a list of every single leader or employee in the organization (along with demographics, job categories, locations and a host of other data), he could likely get it if the business need was articulated reasonably well.
While having this sort of identifiable, delimited audience presents nothing but opportunity, it is frequently overlooked, underappreciated and underused by internal communicators. Getting versed in your audience’s understanding, mindset, opinions and needs is only as far away as those cubicles across the hallway. Hold some meetings, make some phone calls, do a survey, monitor internal social media, walk around and talk to people—but, for gosh sakes, don’t fritter away the opportunity to learn what you can about your audience and their experiences.
I daresay this is one area where internal communicators are the envy of others; PR and advertising professionals would kill for this sort of ready, direct access to the members of their target audiences.
A high-stakes, complex relationship. Few if any external audiences will ever devote the mind-space to your organization that an employee does. That employee spends one-third of her week on the job. At lunch, she’s talking with her coworkers about a project or that meeting she just had with the boss. At the family dinner table, she’s sharing the highs and lows of her day. Before she hits the sheets, she checks her email one last time.
That’s a huge investment of time, energy and emotion. And, if all is right with the world, the company reciprocates with an investment of its own—offering meaningful work, the opportunity to learn and grow, an appealing work environment and fair compensation.
There’s a lot at stake. An employee’s identity, sense of meaning and social support system are frequently inextricably enmeshed with her place of work—as is her livelihood. And an organization’s success, its very ability to operate, lies in the hands of its people. It’s rarely easy for either to walk away from the other.
The complexities and nuances of this relationship can be a challenge for internal communicators: Why are things never as straightforward or rational as they should be?
But with the messiness comes opportunity too. There are plenty of places where the company’s interests intersect with those of its employees. By identifying them, illuminating them and nurturing them, we strengthen alignment and the connection between the organization and its people.
Touch points to the Nth degree. Social media, in particular, has expanded the number of encounters that businesses and brands are able to have with their external audiences.
Now, take that up an exponential notch. Every instant of every workday, an employee is forming an impression of the business through his moment-to-moment experiences: interactions with colleagues, customer feedback, leadership behaviors, formal and informal communication, policies established, decisions made.
Internal communicators must be especially sensitive to this virtually limitless number of touch points, and work like the dickens to make sure the intended message is consistently delivered (verbally and otherwise). If so, you’ve got yourself one aligned and focused powerhouse of an organization. If not, you’ve got confusion, disenchantment, wasted effort and poor business results.
Perhaps it’s these unique conditions and realities that make the field of internal communication such a fulfilling career for so many. What’s your experience? What important differences do you see between internal and external communication efforts? What should internal communicators pay special attention to?