Recently, a PR colleague asked me whether I had ever written an article about the integration of internal and external comms, adding that there doesn’t seem to be much literature out there about this topic.
Unfortunately, I haven’t. Yet, at least I was able to pull out a couple of slides I’ve once created for a pitch. And given the abovementioned lack of literature, why not at least distill this information into a blog post?
So, here’s a couple of thoughts on how internal and external corporate communication relate to each other, and how to create an organization that reflects those interactions.
Two sides of a coin
Internal and external communication are interlinked with each other. What sounds obvious, is not always reflected in the way both areas are managed, with often a PR function (maybe located inside the marketing department) focused on pushing out the shiny good news, and somebody inside HR fumbling with an internal newsletter announcing new travel guidelines.
Instead, both areas must be seen as complementary forces that build (or endanger) a corporate reputation. In fact, there’s probably very little internal information that stays completely internal – while the major part may end up being discussed among families and friends, at sports bars, and among more formal stakeholders like e.g union representatives or even journalists. Bad news, in particular, carries the risk of being leaked to the outside world on purpose, where it will start to function as “external communication”.
Vice versa, all external communication has an influence on the internal water cooler talk. An article in the local newspaper has a stronger credibility among the workforce than any internal announcement. External debates trigger internal discussion and perceptions, and steer emotions (pride, shame, rage…).
Social media are further eroding the barriers between internal and external communication, enabling practically any employee to share internal views with the outside world (be it officially supported by the company, or not).
Given this interconnectivity, it is paramount that internal and external communication be managed holistically, within a consistent strategic framework that, of course, allows for the use of different tools, and varying priorities. Let me outline some key aspects to be considered.
External and internal comms must pay into the same, overarching strategic objectives. The ambitioned corporate positioning and image must be identical internally and externally, while tactical execution, priorities, and KPIs may differ.
It is almost impossible to divide between “internal” and “external” discussions and assume each of them will stay within their own sphere. External coverage leads to internal debate, and internal topics become external at some point. Therefore, thematic planning must be aligned between internal and external communication. The external fallout of an internal announcement needs to be anticipated, just as well as the internal perception of a press release that’s issued externally. Related actions, materials etc. must be prepared accordingly, which of course may vary in terms of terminology, level of detail, or priorities.
The requirements just described call for a coordinated approach, which ideally sits under one managerial responsibility. Internal and external communication each serve different “internal clients”, respecting different priorities, but ensuring a consistent strategic and tactical planning.
In addition to managing the top-down information flow, both functions also have a responsibility of getting their respective stakeholders’ perceptions reflected in the managerial decision-making process. The C-Suite needs to understand how a specific decision will be perceived by those internal and external stakeholders – as a crucial argument in debating whether that decision may be right or wrong.
The Primacy of Internal Communication
Last not least, among all the complex questions of strategy and tactics, one simple claim can be made: Employees must never learn news about their company through external sources. There’s really nothing worse than a worker hearing about downsizing plans for the factory he works at on the radio in the morning . I call this the “Primacy of Internal Communication”. Yes, it sometimes takes quite an effort to live up to it, but, in my view, it is never debatable.