Internal communication: at a crossroads or on a roundabout?

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.

Photo by AhmadArdity on Pixabay
Photo by AhmadArdity on Pixabay

I’ve been following the evolution of internal communication (IC) for more than 25 years now, both as a practitioner and educator. And, as is customary at this time of year, it’s worth considering where we are and where we’re heading.

At various points over the past decade, along with many other commentators, I’ve outlined what might happen to internal communication in the year ahead. The phrase “IC is at a crossroads” often crops up in these pieces. This is usually associated with discussions about becoming more respected, valued and strategic. Given that this point seems to repeat itself, it leads me to wonder if IC is not at actually at a crossroads but on a perpetual roundabout with significant new turnings (or opportunities) opening up that are not always taken.

When Heather Yaxley and I did our research into the history of IC, we noted that practice should not necessarily be described as being on a “progressive” trajectory. This is not to say that it is not changing. It is, in many ways. However, some things such as a broadcast and content gatekeeping mindset have been slow to change.

One theme that emerged from our historic analysis is the greater “professionalisation” of IC through a wider range of training and education programmes linked to more strategic approaches that meet employee expectations.

This trend continues; there are now many more academic journal articles on IC that have the potential to inform and shape good practice. Indeed, the special issue of the Journal of Communication Management on IC that I guest co-edited with Rita Men in 2021 highlights a number of contemporary points, including:

  • What does “excellence” look like in internal communication?
  • How can internal communication help employees cope with negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear and harness the power of positive emotions in the workplace, such as companionate love, joy, pride and gratitude?
  • Traditional internal communication practice focuses more on corporate speak rather than listening. As a result, dialogue and two-way conversations are often missing.
  • Socially responsive organisations put their customers, employees, and the community first. This raises important questions about propaganda, spin and ethical IC.

The full list of potential research issues can be found here.

The “professionalism” road off the roundabout is one that is taken up by a growing number of practitioners who are devoting their career to IC. However, not everyone values scholarly work. Which remains a curiosity. I cannot think of another credible management discipline that does not appreciate academic research in some way. Although there are always, of course, good debates to be had about applicability.

Other turning off points have popped up during the recent evolution of practice. These include the associations with organisational engagement, employee advocacy (and its importance for corporate reputation), the availability of increasingly sophisticated internal digital platforms and employee apps, the digital workplace, and data analysis and measurement (which can be used to demonstrate the impact of IC).

All of these have brought about significant changes in a number of organisations, but wholesale take-up of opportunities to fundamentally develop practice across the discipline remains patchy. New internal digital platforms and the use of Teams can simply be bolted on to existing broadcast channels, contributing to employee complaints of information overload. Data analysis is challenging, especially if linked to outcomes and impact.

Of all the opportunities, the pandemic and the consequential high profile of IC provides the greatest opportunity of all for fundamental change.

It has brought the role of IC to the fore and forced many senior managers to treat it more seriously. The question is, will IC managers make the most of this opportunity? To answer this, it is helpful to explore why previous opportunities have not always been taken. There are a number of possible reasons:

  • The demand from senior operational managers sometimes lacks informed knowledge of good practice as management education and development often marginalises IC
  • IC managers are overloaded with day-to-day broadcast requests and teams are too under-resourced to be able to step back and change their approach
  • IC managers are not assertive enough – they sometimes find it hard to push back on overly simplistic demands
  • Changes may require further training or moving out of a comfort zone

This is not an exhaustive list, but it reflects many of the conversations I have had with my IC Diploma students.

They are all completely understandable points. IC managers are good, capable, people doing complex work. They have risen to the challenge incredibly well during the pandemic and many are exhausted through the relentless pressures that the role involves. In this scenario, it is entirely reasonable for IC managers to take a breather where they can in 2022. But it would be a retrograde step to go back to the past. The opportunity here is to hold the gains from the pandemic, in terms of access to senior managers and coaching them on good and ethical practice that includes empathy, gratitude and listening. That alone would represent a step change in practice.