IC past and IC future

About the author

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

Tis the season to reflect on a momentous year and to look ahead to 2021.

When Dr Heather Yaxley and I embarked on our history of internal communication back in 2013, it was evident that practice was coming of age after decades being treated as a second cousin in the communication world. Little did we appreciate that it would take a pandemic for it to be finally appreciated as a critical function.

It is widely thought that the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already in place, both in society and at work. Although it is hard to pin this down precisely, internal communication has increasingly been respected as a function that goes well beyond simply ‘sending out stuff’ (‘SOS’). As we now know, it has multiple direct benefits for organisations such as customer service, innovation, reputation, resilience, change management, employee engagement, experience and advocacy.

Covid-19 prompted frantic internal communication activity. This was to be expected, especially in the early stages of pandemic. But it also focused attention on internal communication in new ways.

Senior managers realised the importance of what they said and how they said it. There was a greater imperative to connect with employees on an emotional level. And to listen more closely to what they were thinking and feeling. Underlying this new approach is a growing understanding that internal communication is not marketing or media relations simply applied to employees. Nor is it internal journalism. And this is a trend that has been developing for some time now.

Although 2020 will long be remembered for being the year of Zoom and Teams, in a year of change some things stayed the same. Although this goes against the grain of digital wisdom, email briefings remained a highly valued source of information for employees this year. Many organisations swapped out planned face to face townhall events for online versions and rapid adoption of new platforms worked, on the whole, very well. And at the same time, they also served to remind employees of the value of face-to-face meetings.

The internal digital space has certainly matured in the past decade. A useful map of tools in a range of categories is provided by streamGO. In a busy and growing market, practitioners now have hundreds of choices for apps, messaging, video, intranets and virtual events. However, with the undoubted opportunities that these tools provide, there is always caution that the costs and integration challenges need to be carefully assessed. The record of internal digital platform adoption to date has been patchy at best.

Looking ahead to 2021, a range of predictions have already been expressed focusing on simplicity, employee-centricity, skill shift, human approach, employee activism, inclusivity, productivity, insights, alignment, empathy, purpose, authenticity, and belongingness. My instinct tells me that resilience will be an important theme.

A quick pulse survey with my current Internal Communication Diploma students suggests that listening to employees might also be high on the agenda next year. The latest Who’s Listening? survey closed recently and an initial review of the data indicates some surprising and really informative results. Look out for the free report when it is published in March.

Another educational trend is the growing body of academic research focused on internal communication as a distinct subject. A new text book, ‘Strategic Internal Communication’ by Susanne Dahlman and Mats Heide has just been published. In addition to this, ‘Current Trends and Issues in Internal Communication: Theory and Practice’ co-edited by Ana Tkalac Verčič and Rita Men is due for publication in the Spring. I am also joint guest editing, with Rita Men, a Journal of Communication Management Special Edition on ‘Internal Communication during the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Eleven papers are currently being peer-reviewed, covering topics such as ethical listening, employee support, co-worker communication, internal crisis communication and sensemaking.

Emerging academic research across the globe, an expanding eco-system and growing commitment to professional development are all strong indicators of internal communication maturing to a long-overdue parity with other communication management disciplines.

It is, no doubt, unfortunate that it took a pandemic to accelerate this trend. But if there is a small positive to what has been a dreadful year in so many ways, it is that communicating with employees instead of at them may become more business as usual in the future.