At first glance, the differences between internal and external communications might be more striking than the similarities.
External communications focuses on getting your brand message across to people outside of your organization. That could be a big new announcement, day-to-day social communication or damage limitation following a product fault. In other words, customers and potential investors.
Internal communication, on the other hand, is the tool you use to keep your colleagues informed of key company developments. A good internal communications strategy is essential in giving your workforce the info they need to do their job effectively.
Because of this very visible difference, a lot of companies treat internal communications and external communications as separate entities.
One is PR, and it can affect revenues. The other is just a day-to-day necessity. It’s typically run by HR, rather than marketing – because it’s taken as given that employees are already firm believers in your brand and don’t need any encouragement in this area.
But ask your HR team, and they’ll know this is far from accurate.
The truth is, once you get over the internal and external thing (and a couple of mechanical differences like the channels used to communicate), they have a remarkable amount of similarities.
Ready to rethink how you do internal comms? Read on…
Similarities between internal and external communications
Internal and external communications share aims. Each requires in-depth strategic planning to be successful. The importance of this can’t be overstated.
Each should be based around fostering a sense of openness and transparency, whoever they’re targeted to. You should also consider:
Staff who like where they work offer much better customer service than those that don’t. Staff who love where they work offer the best customer service ever.
Whether you’re an HR professional, a C-suite executive, or a manager, your job is to build and maintain a workplace environment that allows this.
One essential step in doing this is to create an internal comms strategy that engages your colleagues with your company mission. Its values, what it exists to achieve, its code of ethics… everything that goes into the product or service that you offer.
When you think about your internal comms goals like this, they start to sound… well, they start to sound like the objectives your PR team might have.
You need employees to love your company before any external stakeholders will: so treat them like you would an external audience. Your main objectives for your internal communications strategy should be to engage your employees with your brand messaging and values.
There are a number of things employees need to feel engaged at work, including:
- An obvious path to career progression
- A strong social circle
- Work that challenges them
There are various ways to foster these – but none of it will matter if your employees don’t feel some sort of affinity with your organization does. To achieve this, focus some of your internal communications plan on:
- Making your senior execs accessible and accountable. Holding monthly Q&As is a great way to include your on-the-ground team with long-term strategy goals, and it’s easier to relate to an organization which has a visibly ‘human’ face (your execs) than a big, unknowable monolith.
- Highlighting how your company has made a difference in the world. This could sometimes be showing how your latest charity drive has changed lives for the better, but for the most part keep it focused on your company itself. Perhaps someone has written in to tell you how helpful your customer service reps were, or your software has helped make their dreams of being an entrepreneur a reality. Don’t save it for your external social media channels – show your employees how they’re making a difference!
- Featuring employee perspectives on your internal communications channels. Interview people from different departments and ask them what they do and what they like about their job. This helps people to build a ‘bigger picture’ of their workplace and understand how everything fits together.
The target audience
Your marketing team might hate you for thinking it, but it’s your customer service reps that dictate how your brand is perceived on a day-to-day basis. You know how much TripAdvisor or TrustPilot scores can make or break a business. Your customer-facing staff are the front line in keeping your online reviews.
It’s time to stop treating them as unskilled labor, and more like the on-the-ground external comms professionals they have the potential to be.
To realise this potential, they will need regular briefings, just like your external comms team. What campaigns are the marketing team running? Are they up-to-date on new products and promotions? What’s your line on that news article about your company on yesterday’s paper?
If you provide them with the right info, they can be as effective as a multi-million dollar ad campaign in generating public goodwill towards your company. If they work in conjunction with a well-planned marketing campaign, they can be your secret weapon.
Part of your internal communications plan should be a weekly brief for all customer-facing staff delivered by marketing/PR. To transform your customer service reps into a fleet of word-of-mouth marketers, make sure this includes:
- The communications plan
- Upcoming company announcements
- Any upcoming campaigns, their timelines and how they’re going to be delivered
Your PR or marketing team likely has an exquisitely-crafted external comms plan, containing overall objectives, campaign timetables, social media plans and the like.
Your internal comms plans should contain a similar amount of detail – and, most importantly, a similar level of regularity.
It’s all too tempting to fall into an ‘as and when’ approach to internal comms. This means that colleagues:
- Only receive company updates when something big happens.
- Are more likely to miss useful communications because they don’t expect them frequently.
- Feel less engaged with your organization and its values.
It also relegates internal comms to an afterthought – something routine and boring to sort out quickly after external comms have been planned.
Your internal communications strategy should be just as well-defined as your external comms strategy, and should be seen as just as important. Take the time to integrate the two.
The need for targeting
Like your customers, your employees won’t respond well if you overload them with information. At best, they’ll miss important announcements in the noise. At worst, they’ll deliberately ignore internal announcements because they assume they’re not relevant to them.
So, like your external comms plan, you should target your internal communications to those they’re most relevant to.
Of course, there will be some announcements. Changes to senior management, acquisitions or redundancies that are relevant company-wide. You should plan announcements around these so that the wider company finds out at the same time.
For other announcements, however, you’ll want to focus them in on the groups they matter most to. Your drivers don’t need in-depth updates about your IT systems upgrade, for example, and offsite workers don’t need to know that you’re resurfacing the parking lot, or changing the cafeteria menu.
Segment your employees like you would your customer email database. As everything you send will be relevant to them, it’ll be easier to grab their attention when the important stuff comes around.
Differences between internal and external communications
So… internal and external comms have a lot in common!
It’s definitely worth thinking about how you can integrate these two parts of your business more. Still, there are a couple of differences you should bear in mind:
Your communication tools
An obvious one perhaps, but you will use different channels to reach your employees than you use to reach your customers.
Social media is one example. Whilst a Twitter feed or Facebook group for internal announcements would be a great way to engage your employees, there are obviously major security flaws in doing so (even if you set your social feeds to ‘private’).
Generally, traditional internal comms methods include:
- Email newsletters
- Internal notice boards
- All-hands meetings
- Newsletters with payslips
Needless to say, you won’t be using any of these to engage with external audiences… and the downside is they don’t engage your workforce a lot either.
How technology can help
There’s a solution here.
Employee apps – which replace your employee intranet with a social media style feed – are a great way of consolidating your internal comms with instant messaging, key document storage and general HR self service functions, like shift swapping and leave requests.
These offer three key advantages:
- Employees can access a smartphone app 24/7, and can receive live updates from it wherever they are (assuming they have WiFi or 3G). This is better than a traditional intranet for your mobile and remote teams, as well as for workers who don’t have access to a computer 24/7.
- It’s structured as a social media feed – which is an interface most of your workforce engage with on a day-to-day basis.
- Having a lot of HR functions in one app encourages people to use it a lot! Your colleagues are much more likely to keep up with company announcements if they can use them to book vacation, check their schedules or chat with their coworkers
Who manages Internal Communications?
Typically, your external comms will be run by PR (if you have an internal team) or marketing. If you’re an enterprise company, you might rely on some agency involvement as well.
Internal comms really isn’t something you can outsource. You’ll need a dedicated Internal Comms Manager in-house, full time if you want to run internal comms well. They’ll need to be in regular touch with:
- Department heads
As to where they sit… well, that’s up to you. Depending on the structure of the organization, they tend to fall under HR or marketing (so they can sit with external comms or with your internal teams).
If your organization needs to pass on a lot of day-to-day operational information to employees every day, it might make more sense for your internal communications manager to sit with HR. If not, it’s up to you!
Whoever your internal communications manager reports to, make sure they’re in the know about all campaigns your marketing team are running and keep them in the loop about external company announcements. This makes it easier for them to engage your employees with external brand messaging, and to boost customer service as a result.
In a pleasingly symmetrical pattern, we’re finishing right back where we started.
Whilst internal communications and external communications certainly share some objectives, it’s important to acknowledge the areas in which these differ.
As well as the similarities we discussed above, there’s an operational aspect to internal communications which isn’t really needed for your customers or your investors. They get the headlines; your staff need more than that to make sure they can do their jobs correctly.
This means you’ll need to build in regular, every day updates on what people might term ‘the boring stuff’. This includes:
- Rota changes or shift swaps
- Scheduled maintenance of IT systems or key machinery
- Any health and safety issues (broken machinery etc)
- Any other issues that might impact people’s ability to do their jobs – areas of heavy traffic or road works for drivers, for example
- Regular reminders for everyday processes, like fire drills
- Easy access to documentation used every day like policy documents, how-to manuals,and more
- Announcements about social activities and clubs, e.g workplace choirs, Christmas parties, lunchtime volleyball.
- Reminders about any admin or training people need to complete
You’ll need to make these accessible for remote workers and non-office staff, so don’t just rely on email updates. An easy way to do this is to block time out of everyone’s diary for regular ‘stand ups’ – these are standing meetings which are kept short and sweet, and it’s easy enough for people to join remotely.
This is also where having an employee engagement app really comes into its own. Features like instant messaging and social media-style feeds are great for getting the word out about everyday stuff whilst being accessible to everybody – particularly when coupled with a handy push notification.