I’ve been talking with fellow communicators over the past few days about the role of internal and external communication and whether you can truly be purely internal or purely external.

It seems to me that as professional communicators you need to have an understanding and awareness of both fields so even if you choose to specialise in one, particularly within a corporate communication environment, you have insight into the other.

I think everything boils down to having a nose for news. Knowing what makes a good news story, either for your employees, the press or customers is vital.

So how do you do this?
There are lots of writing courses around and I do believe you can teach people to write effective stories, but I don’t think you can beat journalism.

I started my career aged 19 as a trainee journalist on my local newspaper and I quickly discovered what makes a story by learning from those around me, talking with the more experienced reporters and asking lots (and lots) of questions.

Sniffing out a story
Translating this experience into the corporate world, I think it is important that we equip our leaders and employees to raise their awareness of what makes a good news story through advising them and media training.

I’ve heard time and time again from employees “but I can’t write a story” or “I don’t know whether it would be interesting or not for other people to read about”. Isn’t that the role of the comms team? We need to coach and advise and explain why certain information is highlighted and why it ‘makes’ a story.

I don’t believe you need a journalistic background to learn that as through experience and practice you get an understanding of what works. Feedback will soon tell you if you’re getting it wrong (“I don’t read the employee magazine as there’s nothing in it worth reading”).

In my view, and I’ve certainly described internal communication in this way in the past, as well as being strategic advisers we are internal journalists – seeking out good stories, interviewing people, drawing the interesting points out of the facts and sharing success.

I’m more than happy for people to send me bullet points that I can work from or even better to interview them face-to-face to start crafting their story. If you solely rely on employees to create stories, you’re missing a trick and not being fair to them. I hope the Finance team wouldn’t expect me to create a fully functioning conditionally formatted spreadsheet to forecast my budget, but work alongside me, sharing their expertise and pointing me in the right direction.

Internal and external communication works in the same way. Being able to spot the news value in an internal story going externally and the ability to translate external news into internal stories is key.

Making decisions
I’m not currently recruiting, but have been approached by a number of recruitment agencies recently who have put forward candidates as being ‘either external or internal’, yet their experience suggests otherwise as they seem to have specialised in one or the other. So what’s the answer?

Do you think it is good to specialise in one field or should we all be working to increase our understanding of other areas such as marketing, advertising, sponsorship etc? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Published: November 2009.