PUBLIC RELATIONS: Emerging use of internal communications

“If you don't give people information, they'll make up something to fill the void.” – Carla O'Dell, President, American Productivity & Quality Center

Since the last decade, the area of internal communications has expanded and is now recognised as integral not only to effective public relations practice but also to organisational success. Internal communications, specifically employee communication, has been credited as being integral to internal brand-building and integrated communication. While public relations is still viewed by many as a predominantly externally oriented practice, it now requires an understanding of internal audiences as a basis for developing effective external communication strategies.
The internal publics
Communication activities and processes undertaken within an organisational context may be defined as 'internal communications'. Other references to this field may include the more general 'organisational communication', 'corporate communication', 'internal public relations' or the more specific 'employee communication'. While the proponents of each term may argue why one is more appropriate than the other, they all agree that the concept involves strategic communication activities geared towards an organisation's internal audiences and stakeholders.
Kennan and Hazleton (2006), in proposing a theory of internal public relations, explore the value of employees to an organisation's development of social capital, defining social capital as the “ability that organisations have of creating, maintaining, and using relationships to achieve desirable organisational goals”. However they view 'internal public relations' as a means of improving the understanding between those who fill management roles and those who are defined as employees or workers.
Effect on returns
But internal communications is not only regarded as an indicator of 'soft' measures. Watson Wyatt's third Communication ROI study (2007/2008) revealed that effective employee communication is a “leading indicator of financial performance”. While the study does not suggest that effective communication causes better performance, their results indicate that investment in employee communication is likely to “higher financial returns”.
Due to the fact that internal communications is a relatively young practice, particularly within the context of public relations, its scope is still evolving, and as such is prone to various interpretations depending on who is attempting to define the field. Organisational communication scholars argue that organisations are created through conversation, while marketing scholars refer to employee communication within the context of building the internal brand and customer service. The scope of activities under the rubric of internal communications will largely depend on the perspective and ideas of the CEO or the most senior communication executive in the organisation. This will again depend on their experience and vision about communication's value to the business.
Diversity in workplace
Regardless, internal communications will include traditional public relations activities such as research, construction of messages, selection of media channels and evaluation for internal stakeholders, as well as the more contemporary involvement in organisational processes, such as culture change and values development.
The advancement in new media technology, globalisation and an increasingly diverse workforce are major factors in organisational change and the increased interest in internal communication. Employees from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds as well as different generational groups populate the contemporary businesses. Cultural and generational diversity in the workplace are seen as key issues for workplaces around the world. As a response, public relations practitioners are starting to develop programs addressing diversity (Ford, 2006 ; Hunter, 2007).
Converting employees to ambassadors
In traditional mechanistic organisations, employees are seen as automatons performing a part of the process. Classical organisational theorists Frederick Taylor, Henri Fayol and Max Weber studied organisations for efficiently, hierarchies and bureaucracies, and developed what are also collectively known as the tenets of scientific management, many of which are still applied in today's organisations.
Organisational scholars such as Argyris (1982) noted that the difference in need of organisations and of individual employees often led to conflicts. Organisations focused on productivity while individuals were interested in a pleasant and satisfying workplace. As a result, organisations adopted the human relations and human resources models (Miller, 1999), where employees' welfare became an important issue for the organisation. As employee satisfaction and organisational commitment were found to relate to organisational productivity, organisations also adopted what Conrad and Poole (2002) refer to as 'relational strategies' of organising. Included within this rubric is the area of participative decision-making (PDM), which is appreciated by employees not because it gives them power, but because it keeps them abreast of what is going on in the organisation.
Eventually, communication practitioners found the untapped value of employees as purveyors of the organisation's reputation by being its ambassadors. Employees are natural 'ambassadors' because not only are they exposed to the organisational culture and practices, but also because, by choosing to work in their organisations, they demonstrate their affinity and interest in the organisation. Of course, their familiarity with the nitty gritty of day-to-day organisational practice can also become an area of risk and scandal. If an ambassador becomes disgruntled or bitter, they can easily turn into a whistleblower within minutes or seconds with the aid of the internet. Employees who take pride in their organisations are more likely to promote and defend the reputation of their employing organisations.
A recent International Association of Business Communication (IABC) study on internal communications practices in small businesses confirmed that “direct face-to-face employee communication practices are most valuable for building employee engagement and increasing productivity”. The study also reported that the “power of positive productive relationships in the workplace” and “trust built from a foundation of effective communication practices” are essential to productivity and business success.
Employee engagement
Practitioner definitions focus on employees 'going the extra mile' as a feature of employee engagement. Shaffer (2007) defines engagement as “a condition that exists when people are willing to go the extra mile to make their organisation successful because, in part, they passionately believe in the values and purpose of the organisation”.
Perrin (2008) regards employees as engaged when the employee is willing to go the extra mile to help their companies succeed. However employee engagement is defined, it is vital to acknowledge that employees want to be included and to participate in organisational processes if they are expected to become advocates or ambassadors for their respective organisations.
The rethinking of the role and function of employees extends their traditional 'internal' role to also simultaneously become external stakeholders as investors and consumers. And by thinking about employees as both internal and external stakeholders, organisations potentially have a ready pool of ambassadors who can help them achieve their organisational goals.
New approaches in IC
From the time when it has been recognised that employees need to make sense and find meaning in the world around them, many organisations have approached internal communications using an old tool - storytelling. More recently, storytelling has been used to generate commitment to change, to provide a context to organisational values, products and services and the overall culture (McLellan, 2006), or as a tool for organisational leaders to inspire their employees and their external stakeholders.
Storytelling can be used as a useful motivational tool, but it is important that stories are balanced. While storytelling has been a technique encouraged for organisational leaders, it can also be used by other organisational employees.
Rapidly changing new media technology, along with the geographical dispersion of global employees, has encouraged the development of new internal communications channels. While in-person or face-to-face communication is still the most preferred approach to employee communication (Ward, 2008), this may not always be possible or may not be the most appropriate for the kind of information or message.
While traditional communication media such as company magazines/newsletters, company meetings, notice boards, corporate videos and events are still used by many organisations, these are now supplemented or adapted to include internet-based technology. However, a 2006 Edelman/People Metrics-sponsored study reported that, while awareness of new media technologies is quite high, not many organisations used new media for internal communications purposes because many communicators were still confused about their implementation.
Another study by the UK-based IRS Employment Review found that team meetings, attitude surveys and focus groups were the most popular ways of encouraging employee involvement. The study also found that three of the four respondents had staff feedback mechanisms in their workplaces, which ranged from intranet forums to executive time on the floor, a confidential email address, an open-door policy, pizza clinics and breakfast banter. Ward (2008) supports this, noting that the conference roundtable has not been superseded by the increased uptake of virtual meetings over face-to-face communication. If communication practitioners are clear about the purpose and context of their messages, then they will realise that the best practice may involve a combination of interpersonal and new media channels.
Ending words…
Internal communications is a fast growing major department in organisations. As Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y employees populate our workforce, many organisations are seeking a work-life balance. In response, they should increasingly adapt time and space boundaries. New media technology is providing a faster and more flexible means of gathering, sharing and communicating information between individuals, groups and communities. However, while technology may assist and extend social networks, employees still value relationships that are nurtured face-to-face where people can connect in real time over a cup of coffee. These are facets which organisations should definitely consider while designing strategies for internal communications campaigns