Review: Exploring Internal Communication
About the author
Dr Liz Yeomans is a visiting research fellow at Leeds Beckett University and co-author of the first four editions of Exploring Public Relations.
Exploring Internal Communication: Towards Informed Employee Voice
Routledge 2020, 4th edition, 223 pages
When I first wrote about internal communication (IC) for undergraduate public relations (PR) students in the mid-noughties, I faced a problem. Internal communication was a growing function in organisations yet the complexity of this practice was rarely reflected in the available texts. Typically, PR book chapters on IC focused on practical techniques – creating newsletters, displays and videos – useful up to a point but context was missing. Around the same time, a few consultants in the burgeoning ‘employee engagement’ field took a more strategic approach that linked internal communication to business goals. This was helpful, especially to practitioners, but still a far cry from a body of research and theory that would provide students with frameworks to understand practice.
While a comprehensive, research-based text for students was yet to emerge, the body of IC knowledge expanded over the next decade as scholars across the USA and Europe published findings from PhDs and funded projects.
Internal communication research was linked to organisational change, employee engagement, leadership communication, and crisis management – to name a few.
It was around 2010 that Kevin Ruck, a practitioner and doctoral student in the UK, came to light as the first author to bring together organisation and communication theories to conceptualise the changing practice landscape, including the arrival of internal digital media. As welcome additions to the IC canon, Ruck’s second (2010) and third editions (2015) of Exploring Internal Communication found their way on to university and professional reading lists.
This fourth, fully revised edition is the author’s most comprehensive to date. Written for internal communication practitioners and students, the book is divided into five parts – 1. internal communication leadership 2. good practice 3. strategic planning process 4. content and channel management and 5. the digital workplace.
Part 1 introduces the reader to IC’s associations with leadership, organisational purpose, culture and strategy – starting points that address the organisational context. The second chapter introduces the positioning of IC within different theoretical perspectives and themes found in PR and human resource management literature, as well as practice. For students working on research projects, it is important to select the ideas that inform their topic – e.g. excellence theory, critical theory, employee voice. Academic tutors will welcome the brief theoretical overviews, while appreciating the research gaps in relation to IC, and continued industry debate about where the IC function should sit in organisations.
Part 2 contains four chapters on good practice. Here, the author is careful to distinguish ‘good practice’ from ‘best practice’ and so, while case studies illustrate aspects of organisational communication, the author’s key concern is in seeking a purposeful, ethical role for IC. This role goes beyond the practice of ‘informing employees’ to actively listening to employees and their opinions, known as ‘employee voice’. The tensions between ‘employee voice’, IC professionalism and propaganda are neatly captured in a diagram that traces these ever-shifting forces from 19th century paternalism to 21st century ‘participation’ where employees have their say on corporate matters, facilitated by internal social media. Following two in-depth chapters which discuss Ruck’s key themes of employee engagement and employee voice, the final chapter goes on to present the author’s research-based framework for good IC practice, known as AVID (alignment-voice-identification-dialogue).
Part 3 moves on to strategic planning. Four chapters cover: a planning model, project management, communicating change, and measurement. While much of this content is included in the third edition, what’s novel here is the introduction to project management (PM). The focus on PM methodology is especially useful to the reader who’s unfamiliar with the discipline and the specialised language of business projects, widely accepted as fundamental to successful change management.
Part 4 is a fairly weighty segment starting with medium theory (channels and content) through to selected communication and psychological theories, of relevance to IC. In discussing channel usage, Ruck draws widely on research, including his own findings, concerning employee preferences. If contemporary employees find email and team meetings most helpful, then the predicted shift to ‘impersonal’ digital channels (p. 141), including virtual meetings and wearable technology, challenges the reader to think seriously about the interplay between medium and message. The need for many office workers to work remotely during the current coronavirus pandemic, may well accelerate that communication shift.
An overview of communication and psychological theories largely draws on the persuasion literature on attitudes and behaviour, as well as framing and nudge theories. This chapter is more of a toolkit for thinking about IC in different ways, than application. However, a surprising omission is employee motivation and theories that offer insights into the factors that drive human effort, considered as important to shaping the internal message.
The remaining two chapters on storytelling, and language and tone, focus on the message itself. The compelling argument for storytelling in organisations is that people remember stories and their emotional content rather than data and facts: the author of this section makes the case for devising strong narratives that engage employees in an organisation’s vision. A more critical approach to this topic – e.g. when do ‘stories’ become management propaganda? – would have balanced the author’s clear mission to do away with management ‘jargon and buzzwords’ (p. 163). The final chapter on language and tone is based on a set of principles: the ‘six keys to effective communication’. Although this chapter comprises many bullet points which hinder the flow somewhat, these principles will already be familiar to communication practitioners, and should prove useful to the novice reader.
Part 5, the final portion of the book, deals with the digital workplace. The three chapters covering internal digital platforms, social technology, and automation and artificial intelligence (AI), demonstrate how IC is being reinvented and what it might look like in the future, albeit speculatively and based on ‘research into other functions’ (p. 211). Nevertheless, it’s a space to watch for future editions. Ruck has championed the digital IC workplace from earlier editions and it is clear from the chapters in this part of the book that he regards digital tools as potentially emancipatory in facilitating employee voice. Some might regard this view as utopian in an era where technology-enabled employee monitoring poses a threat to privacy rights. As Madsen and Verhoeven (2016) found in study of a Danish bank, workers weighed up the perceived risks of expressing themselves freely on internal social media and self-censorship strategies included posting only positive content. Given Ruck’s concern with ‘employee-centric’ communication, the issue of trust and IC’s ethical role is therefore a crucially important discussion in the AI chapter.
Overall, Ruck’s contribution to the IC literature is impressive. Much of the book is based on original, detailed research findings, analyses and conceptual work, supported by diagrams, tables, case studies and reflective questions.
A team of co-authors complement Ruck’s solo efforts, creating a good mix of academic and practice-orientated chapters. As I’ve already indicated, I would like to have seen a firmer editorial hand in some chapters. But despite some unevenness, the book’s subtitle: ‘towards informed employee voice’ has a clear purpose and is an authoritative source that will appeal to a wide readership.
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