Flaws and negative consequences of ‘internal marketing’

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

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Every so often internal marketing is floated as a way of communicating with employees. This article by Kevin Ruck and Martin Flegg outlines some of the limitations, flaws and potential negative consequences of this thinking.

An academic view from Dr Kevin Ruck

Let’s start by briefly summarising definitions of marketing, marketing communications, public relations and internal communication.

Marketing is described by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) as the 7 Ps: Product, Price, Place, Promotion, People, Process, and Physical Evidence[1]. Marketing communications is often defined as the practice of ‘using a combination of channels and tools to communicate with a desired market for the purpose of brand awareness, sales, advertising, or promotion’.[2] It is effectively the ‘Promotion’ P in the 7 Ps, focused on ‘the way a company communicates what it does and what it can offer customers’.[3] It is clear from these top-level overviews that marketing is customer-focused.

Public relations is defined by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) as ‘the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics’ where the term ‘publics’ explicitly includes employees.[4]

Importantly, CIPR states that ‘to be effective, an organisation needs to listen to the opinions of those with whom it deals and not solely provide information. Issuing a barrage of propaganda is not enough in today’s open society’.[5] This perspective emphasises listening and the limitations of propaganda.

An often-cited academic definition of internal communication is ‘The strategic management of interactions and relationships between stakeholders within organisations across a number of interrelated dimensions including, internal line manager communication, internal team peer communication, internal project peer communication and internal corporate communication’.[6] This wide-ranging perspective emphasises relationships and bases communication with employees on a CUBA model[7]:

C – Commitment to the organisation
U – Understanding of its evolving aims
B – Belonging, a sense of belonging to the organisation
A – Awareness of its changing environment

The definition takes an employee-centric perspective. It views employees as a knowledgeable and higher order stakeholder group.

The highly regarded Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC)’s profession map has ‘mutual understanding’ at its core and highlights ‘helping to create an environment where employee voice and collaboration is part of the fabric of the organisation and where the contribution to success is recognised’.[8]

Internal communication can, of course, include providing employees with key information about products and services that is important for them to do their job. However, this is not information that has to be sold to employees.

Viewing employees as ‘customers’ who need to be ‘sold’ organisational information is conceptually flawed.

Dr Kevin Ruck

As scholars have observed, ‘The lack of definition that the concept of internal marketing still presents flaws in the delineation of operational constructs to portray it’.[9]

Employees are not internal customers of an organisation’s purpose, strategy, plans and objectives. They are developers, constructors and enablers of it. You do not sell this information back to the creators of it. That is to misunderstand the dynamics of employee commitment and belongingness.

There is a wealth of research that shows that employees dislike internal ‘spin’ and simply want their managers to provide timely, accurate, factual information in a clear and transparent manner – ‘warts and all’.[10]

Research in 2021 found that as the proportion of employees who say that communications are too positive rises, their levels of advocacy concurrently fall.[11]

Further recent research in 2023 found that employees recommend their organisation as a good place to work if it has two-way conversations and has open and honest communication.[12] This is not sloganized internal marketing communications.

There is also a potential dark side to internal marketing. When communication becomes so biased that it only ever portrays a single, senior manager oriented, narrative it can mask negative consequences for employees. To put it bluntly, employees may be subject to propaganda that is not in their interests. An internal marketing approach can purposefully limit the opportunities for employees to call-out poor processes and behaviours – which is unethical communication.[13]

To summarise, an internal marketing and promotional perspective on communicating with employees is fundamentally flawed. There may be circumstances when promotional-like communication is appropriate. However, in general, internal communication requires an employee-centric approach that includes listening if levels of engagement are to be increased with the associated benefits of genuine employee advocacy.

A practice perspective from Martin Flegg Chart.PR FCIPR

How internal communication practice is perceived, and what it is ‘for’ in organisations can be very different.

Sometimes those differences can be stark, and in other ways quite subtle, with most activity and practice being a variable mix aligned to the value spaces of ‘Content Producer,’ ‘Behaviour Driver,’ ‘Supporter/Facilitator’ or ‘Asset Grower.’[14]

There can be many reasons for this, including the leadership style which drives and heavily influences how employee communication is practiced inside organisations. However, there are other influencers which are perhaps as equally important:

  • What function the internal communication activity is aligned to and governed by.
  • The lack of a comprehensive and universal view of the skills and competences required of the internal communication practitioner.
  • The multiplicity of definitions of internal communication in the academic, practice literature and lay commentary.

All of these create confusion about the purpose of internal communication and the role of the internal communicator, leaving both open to being ‘hijacked’ or badged as something else, including internal marketing.

The variability in functional alignment can be seen in the annual Gallagher State of the Sector Report[15]. In the most recent report, Corporate Communications, HR and Marketing are the most likely homes of the internal communications team in larger organisations with “40% of internal communicators stating that their collaboration with marketing, PR and corporate communication teams had increased over the past 12 months.”

The heavy influence of these often-well-resourced functions and their organisational agendas, can shift the focus of internal communication practice away from more research based academic definitions and professional practice frameworks. In some cases, towards a more marketing type approach.

There has been a trend over the past few years in increasing the prioritisation and use of concepts such as internal brand, employee experience and employee value propositions as devices for organisations to recruit and retain talent in an increasingly competitive recruitment environment.

Considering the interconnectedness and overlap of these concepts with their external manifestations of customer brand value, advocacy and corporate reputation, it is no wonder that some internal communication practitioners view themselves as de facto internal marketers with something to sell to employees. However, from a professional and ethical internal communication practice perspective, this thinking and alignment is flawed.

At the centre of the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC)’s profession map[16] is a belief that the role of internal communication is to “enable people at work to feel informed, connected and purposeful in order to drive organisational performance.” As a philosophy this role, and the skills and knowledge which underpin it within the six professional areas of the map, have little to do with the 7Ps of Marketing. For sure, there are some crossovers in skills such as planning, conducting research, understanding audiences and their attitudes, preferences and motivations, and measurement, but the respective outcomes we seek are very different.

In internal communication, whilst we also want to raise awareness and understanding, influence attitudes and ‘convert’ these into action which drives organisational performance (from the contributions of employees who are the developers, constructors and enablers of it), we do not seek to close a ‘sale’ or necessarily create brand loyalty to achieve that.

At the core of one of the more popular and easily understood academic definitions of internal communication (cited earlier), is its purpose to develop a deep and meaningful relationship between employees and the organisation they work for.

Of all the stakeholder relationships an organisation has, the one with employees is perhaps the deepest, most meaningful and enduring.

Martin Flegg

It is a pity that more organisations don’t recognise and fully appreciate this when they actively prioritise other groups such as customers, investors, shareholders, suppliers, regulators and the media, over employees.

Employees often work for organisations for years and decades and, when they are listened to and treated well in a genuine relationship, can have infinitely more loyalty than a transient customer. For many brands the current cost of living crisis should be demonstration enough of that, with customers actively trading down in the face of economic adversity. So much for brand value and customer loyalty.

The creation and maintenance of the relationship between employee and employer, to create trust and mutual respect, is one of the ethical responsibilities of the internal communicator and our practice and intentions should reflect that.

Internal communicators are effectively caught in the middle between the demands of leaders and management and the needs and interests of employees as stakeholders. The potential for conflicts of interest between these two groups are huge, and it often falls to us to find a way to do the right thing for both, guided by our ethical codes of practice. The ‘dark side’ of promoting only the management view of an issue and ‘selling this in’ to employees at their behest, is one such ethical dilemma which many internal communicators, including myself, have encountered in their careers.

The opening words of the CIPR Skills Guide – Ethics in Action for Internal Communicators[17] emphasises the different sort of relationship that exists between organisations and their employees. This is very different from the relationship which they have with their customers. These words highlight the inherent difference in the nature of communication practice in different communication-based professions, including marketing.

“Within internal communication, dealing with the unique contract employees have with their employers puts a different emphasis on communication and what is ethically appropriate. From the language we use, to the wider ethical frameworks within the organisations we work within, we should be acutely aware of the impact of our work and decisions.”

That ‘different emphasis on communication’ is the key reason why internal communication should not be regarded as being internal marketing.

Further reading

The following recommended text books are based on robust academic internal communication research conducted in the UK and US.

McCown, N., Men, L.R., Jiang, H., Shen, H. (Editors). 2023. Internal Communication and Employee Engagement: A Case Study Approach. Published by Routledge. Available here.

Men, L.J., Verčič, A.T. (Editors). 2021. Current Trends and Issues in Internal Communication: Theory and Practice. Published by Palgrave Macmillan. Available here.

Ruck, K. (Editor). 2020. Exploring Internal Communication. 4th Edition. Published by Routledge. Available here.

List of references

[1] Chartered Institute of Marketing. 2015. Marketing and the 7Ps: A brief summary of marketing and how it works.

[2] Pearson Pathways. ND. What is marketing and communications? Available at: https://www.pearson.com/pathways/areas-work-study/marketing-communications.html

[3] Chartered Institute of Marketing. 2015. Marketing and the 7Ps: A brief summary of marketing and how it works.

[4] Chartered Institute of Public Relations. ND. About PR. Available at: https://www.cipr.co.uk/CIPR/About_Us/About_PR.aspx

[5] Chartered Institute of Public Relations. ND. About PR. Available at: https://www.cipr.co.uk/CIPR/About_Us/About_PR.aspx

[6] Welch, M., Jackson, P.R. 2007. Rethinking internal communication: a stakeholder approach. Corporate Communications: An International Journal. Vol. 12 No. 2 pp. 177 – 198.

[7] Welch, M. 2020. Dimensions of internal communication and implications for employee engagement, in Ruck, K. (Ed), Exploring Internal Communication (4th Edition). London: Routledge.

[8] Institute of Internal Communication. 2022. Profession Map. Available at: https://www.ioic.org.uk/learn-develop/the-profession-map.html

[9] Tortosa, V., Moliner, M.A., and Sa´nchez, J. 2008. Internal market orientation and

its influence on organisational performance. European Journal of Marketing. 43(11/12), pp. 1435-1456.

[10] Ruck, K. 2020. Keeping employees informed and employee voice: Adopting an employee-centric perspective, in Ruck, K. (Ed), Exploring Internal Communication (4th Edition). London: Routledge.

[11] Karian and Box. 2021. IC UK 2021.The most comprehensive study of UK employees’ communication

and engagement preferences.

[12] IoIC Ipsos Karian and Box. 2023. IC 2023 Index. The voice of UK employees helping to inform strategic choices across internal communication.

[13] Ruck, K. 2022. Ethical internal communication, in Falkheimer, J. and Heide, M. (Eds), Research Handbook on Strategic Communication. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

[14] Fitzpatrick, L and Dewhurst, S. 2022 – ‘Successful Employee Communications – A practitioner’s guide to tools, models, and best practice for internal communication’ (2nd Edition). Kogan Page

[15] Gallagher. 2023. State of the Sector 2023: Internal Communication and Employee Experience Findings from the 2022/23 survey — Global Edition.

[16] Institute of Internal Communication. 2022. Profession Map. Available at: https://www.ioic.org.uk/learn-develop/the-profession-map.html

[17] Chartered Institute of Public Relations. CIPR Skills Guide – Ethics in Action for Internal Communicators. Available at: https://cipr.co.uk/CIPR/Network/Groups_/Inside_content/Resources_.aspx