The rise and rise of internal communication

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.

Last week I discovered that internal communication is not quite as young a profession as I thought it was – it can actually be traced back to 1840.

Heather Yaxley and I are currently working on a paper called “Tracking the rise and rise of internal communication since the 1980s” for the History of PR Conference in Bournemouth in June.

We spent a day at the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) last week looking at archives going back to the 1940s. Interestingly, we found out that the institute was originally called the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) which reflects the emphasis on internal newsletters which is the foundation of practice.

Heather has also collected some great books on PR. In one published in the US in 1948, there is evidence of internal newspapers – developed and written by employees, not journalists – dating back to the 1840s. This is the earliest documented evidence of internal communication that I have seen, unless you know differently?

In 2012 CIPR Inside produced a potted recent history of internal communication which can be viewed here. As I dig deeper into our history, two “moments of truth” are emerging. Firstly, in the 1940s, the remit of internal communication in the US clearly includes “bottom-to-top” communication, with employees providing information that helps policy makers in decision making. This is “employee voice” by another name. My question is why did this not feature more prominently as part of internal communication as subsequently practised by Industrial Editors from the 1950s onwards until it became recognised again as part of employee engagement which emerged in the 1990s?

This leads to a second issue about editorial freedom. From the IoIC archives there is evidence of some internal wrangling in the 1970s over the extent of editorial freedom that Industrial Editors should have inside organisations. The Coal Board at the time made it clear to the editor of its internal newspaper that he had full freedom to write stories. However, this seems to be a rare exception. Heather and I are speculating that a desire for professional recognition and to be part of management may have led Industrial Editors to focus almost exclusively on stories reflecting dominant management positions. This effectively left employees without a channel for their views for decades; even today employee voice is not really embedded into management thinking.

Our initial thinking is that there are three broad phases in the evolution of internal communication:

  • Publication – 1840s to 1970s, practice is dominated by Industrial Editors publishing internal newspapers and magazines that tell management led stories, reflecting a command and control management mind-set
  • Process and Persuasion – 1980s to 1990s, the scope of practice widens considerably as more channels become available, planning and measurement emerge, and there is more focus on persuasion during times of industrial unrest and change (e.g. privatisation in the UK)
  • Participation and Professionalism – 2000 onwards, the scope of practice continues to widen with the impact of social media, there is more focus on involving employees by giving them a voice and education becomes more established through specialist qualifications

Heather and I would be interested to test this thinking by looking at more evidence from archives. If you know of organisations that may have kept internal publications dating back before the 1990s, please do let me know. I can be contacted at