How internal communications teams can turn the public sector’s Great Resignation into a Great Retention

About the author

Craig Gundersen prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Photo by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash
Photo by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash
Craig Gundersen
Craig Gundersen

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, droves of people have left their jobs in what has been termed ‘The Great Resignation’. People are resigning at the highest rate since 2009 and, depending which survey you think is the most accurate, there could be as many as a quarter, a third or even nearly half of UK workers considering a new job during 2022.

A trend that started in the private sector is now seriously threatening public sector workforces. Although comparatively few public sector workers changed jobs in the first year of the pandemic, the resulting burnout, low salaries and a rethink of priorities is now leading to a torrent of resignations.

Public sector organisations are finding it difficult to retain their staff and, in some areas, to fill existing vacancies.

A survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in October 2021 revealed that public sector workers are ‘seriously disillusioned’, and as many as one in five are ‘actively considering’ changing jobs. TUC General secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Too many key workers in the public sector are at breaking point because of a toxic mix of low pay, excessive workloads and a serious lack of recognition.’

While internal communicators can’t directly increase their colleagues’ pay, they can mitigate low pay by addressing the other factors that cause public sector employees to consider changing jobs.

It should be a strategic priority for public sector organisations to turn the Great Resignation into the Great Retention.

Organisations need to change their narrative and be better at engaging their staff, but they can only do this by investing in, and empowering, their internal communications team.

Sadly, recent years have shown that internal communications functions have been underfunded and many PR teams lack specific internal communications expertise.

Only 26% of respondents to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ (CIPR) 2020 State of the Profession report said that they possessed internal communication skills and experience, which was much lower than copywriting, media relations and PR campaigns. Conversely, 61% of people said that they undertook some internal communication activities during the previous year, which suggests that there is a substantial gap in the skills of the people who are carrying out internal communications work.

During the pandemic, internal communications was one of the PR activities that saw the biggest increase in demand. It has now become one of the most performed PR activities, but it remains under-resourced and under-appreciated.

The CIPR’s ‘PR in a Pandemic’ report said that internal communications activity increased by 7% during 2020/2021, making it the second most common activity performed by PR teams, behind crisis management. A separate survey by the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) paints a similar picture, with 71% of internal communications professionals saying their workload significantly increased during the pandemic. This increase was most pronounced in public sector organisations.

In the coming years, PR practitioners expect to spend more time on internal communications than other activities, such as crisis management, copywriting and marketing, and this is even more the case in the public sector.

Despite this, many public sector organisations are late to the party in recognising the value of internal communications. They have failed to invest in the function, instead preferring to prioritise other areas of their PR and marketing teams. Social media is seen as the most glamorous area of PR, and people are often more excited by media coverage and major announcements. The Future of Corporate Communications report by Edelman acknowledges that employee communications has had a ‘slower trajectory’ than external communications and that organisations haven’t prioritised employee communications as much as they should have.

Many leaders fail to see the immense value that the internal communications function brings to their organisation and the key role it plays in helping them to retain their staff. When Robert Finlayson, the President of Impact Marketing and Communications, outlined the ideal model for a communications team in the 21st century, internal communications wasn’t even mentioned.

Thankfully some leaders are now starting to see the true worth of internal communications, and, according to the IoIC, 66% of internal communicators say that leaders are looking to internal communications specialists for more guidance as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

So now is the time for the public sector to properly fund and resource their internal communications teams.

Organisations that are best at retaining their talent are the ones that focus on feedback from their staff and are proactive in providing a good employee experience, a fact that has recently been confirmed by The Gallagher State of the Sector 2022 report, which surveyed 1,300 internal communications professionals from all over the world.

Many public sector organisations are currently facing significant challenges, whether it is balancing their budget, rebuilding their reputation or implementing large scale change programmes. These short-term difficulties might cause people to instinctively jump ship, but good internal communications can provide context to the challenges, reassure beleaguered employees and make them more likely to stick around and ride out the storm.

Listening to employees and giving them a voice is essential for their satisfaction.

Internal communicators are the conduits to enable leaders to listen to staff, capture their feedback, identify and address issues and ultimately provide them with a good experience at work.

Public sector organisations are unique in the fact that they exist to serve the public, which in itself is a rewarding endeavour, but that is easily forgotten. Internal communication channels can remind staff of the meaningful impact that their work has on the residents, patients, members or customers they work for.

Good internal communications messages give employees a shared sense of purpose, which ties them more closely to their organisation by engaging them in its vision.

Organisational culture is a complex beast, but it has a major bearing on how happy staff feel and how they perceive their employer. Internal communications can help to shape this culture by embedding the organisation’s values, making its leaders more visible, communicating the vision and strategy, showcasing the diversity of the workforce and giving recognition to staff. All these activities combine to create a positive culture and make staff feel more valued, therefore thinking twice before deciding to leave.

Public sector organisations, particularly local authorities, often employ thousands of staff who live in the local area. These employees are ambassadors and play an important role in amplifying external communication activity when talking to their friends and family or using social media. It is vital to get internal communications right so that staff feel positively about the organisation and advocate for it both inside and outside of the work environment.

Burnout is regularly cited as a prominent cause of the public sector’s Great Resignation. Internal communications teams are crucial for providing wellbeing messages to help employees avoid physical or mental fatigue. Organisations that communicate wellbeing advice, guidance and opportunities are more likely to prevent their employees from burning out and subsequently leaving their roles.

Closely linked to wellbeing, an enduring consequence of Covid-19 is a permanent change to the way many previously office-based staff conduct their work. A full-time return to the office is unlikely and many public sector employees are now being asked to work in a hybrid way, with a blend of home and office working. This new approach can be daunting for some people and cause them to feel isolated, but if an internal communications team has suitable capacity, it can ensure that all staff are kept informed and engaged, managers are supported to manage remotely and the ‘one organisation’ feeling is maintained.

The pandemic has also shown that internal communications become a key priority at a time of crisis. In this fast-moving environment, information needs to be rapidly digested and repurposed so that employees can be informed about what things mean for them and the organisation as a whole. It is hard to know when the next crisis might emerge, so organisations need a well-resourced internal communications team in place, with the specialist expertise ready to deal with it whenever it happens.

Effectively communicating with employees can even help to prevent future crises from arising. Organisations need to communicate their priorities and performance expectations, provide recognition and give regular wellbeing messaging to their employees in order stop a crisis from developing in the first place.

Although the public sector has been slow to recognise the value of internal communications, there has never been a more important time to properly invest in the function. Your staff deserve it and your organisation needs it.

With a well-resourced internal communications team, you’ll be better placed than most to turn the Great Resignation into a Great Retention.