How to create an internal comms strategy from scratch

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How to create an internal comms strategy from scratch

What’s the best way of creating an internal communications strategy where one has never existed?

I originally published this article back in 2009 when I wrote a paper for Melcrum on how to to do exactly this as I was setting up a comms function as Head of Comms at LOROL.

ICstrategyUpdate April 2014: I’ve just published a new article that outlines what an internal comms strategy looks like, how to write an internal communication strategy, what to include, top tips from other IC pros and the steps to take to create your own. You can read it here.

Here’s the original article I republished last year…

Over the past few weeks this topic of conversation has cropped up a number of times within my network, with professional communicators asking my advice on what to think about when creating a strategy.

So I thought I’d dig through my archives and highlight what I wrote in order to help internal comms pros who are currently going through the process.

This article examines seven key areas to take into consideration when devising a plan for a business that is introducing internal communication for the first time, and recommends research and books to help you.

If you are looking for lists of books to read, people to follow and groups to join, see my Rachel’s Resources or Free Stuff pages.

How to create an internal comms strategy from scratch

Imagine you are entering a company that doesn’t have an internal communication strategy. Where do you begin?

These seven areas are a good starting point and once you build up a picture of your company using this checklist, it will help you create the strategy that’s the most appropriate for your organisation.

Here are seven starting points:

  • Structure
  • Culture
  • Management style
  • Power sources
  • Change
  • Sensemaking
  • Individual differences

Structure
What is the structure of the company? Organisational charts can help provide an overview and give you clues. A key source of research to investigate structures and help you identify what your company is can be found in Professor Henry Mintzberg’s research which defines organisations into categories.

Why is this important?
The structure of a company impacts internal communication as it determines whether the company is best suited for formalised and hierarchical communication or whether it has an open atmosphere.

Rachel’s Tip
: You can gain insight into structure by reviewing employee survey results to see whether employees think different departments communicate well with each other.

Communication strategy expert Bill Quirke thinks that internal communication should be “close to the heart of the business in order to deliver value”. In terms of structure this implies reporting lines from the communication team to the executive team. Where does your communications function sit in the organisation?

Culture
What is the culture of your organisation? Culture is defined by Bower as “the way we do things around here”. In order to write an effective strategy, it’s important to know how things are done – what are the shared beliefs, values and patterns of behaviour?

Rachel’s Tip: The vision and values of a company show how the company defines itself and are a good starting point to defining your corporate culture.

Author and philosopher Charles Handy says there are four types of cultural ideologies: role, power, task and person culture. Read more in his book Understanding Organisations to help you identify the category your organisation falls into.

Why is this important?
The culture of an organisation can help drive your communication channel choices. For example if you realise there’s a prolific grapevine and informal network, you can plan to tap into it or if your organisation displays Handy’s role culture, face-to-face cascades may be appropriate.

Management style
What management style do the leaders in your company have? Are they concerned about results or people? Blake and Mouton’s management model will help you plot where your company is.

Rachel’s Tip: Employee survey results around whether managers respect people in their team, if they are perceived to be open and honest or if they trust employees to do their jobs properly will help you categorise your leaders.

Quirke says it’s important to use middle managers to communicate and that their role is to coach, advise and provide context (often the first casualty of communication).

If communication professionals understand the management style in their company this will help them ensure their internal communications strategy is mindful of the varying styles that exist and include consideration to equip middle managers.

Power sources
Who holds the power in your company? French and Raven’s work, which was published in 1959, is as true today as it was then.

It defines five different types of power: coercive, legitimate, reward, expert and referent.

Look these up and see where your company fits.

Do your senior managers use their power, charisma and fame to get employees to buy into their way of thinking?

Rachel’s Tip: What do your employee survey results, trade union reps and employee groups say about trust in your Executive team/senior managers?

Knowing whether an organisation has expert power can be beneficial to create an internal communications strategy. For example if you employ people with distinct knowledge or expertise (e.g. engineers, nurses), it could be beneficial to recognise this source of power through communication by asking these experts to provide comment and help shape the information you produce. Quoting frontline employees in your magazine rather than senior managers so that they can demonstrate their knowledge to the whole company is one way of doing this.

Change
Within your company do you know what changes have taken place over the past week, month, year or even five years? Are employees still working their way through the Kubler-Ross change curve – potentially still in a state of denial and not ready to be excited by what you want to communicate?

Bill Quirke says that the speed of organisational change is hindered when companies fail to have clear and simple communication.

Being aware of the changes your organisation is going through is crucial for your long and short-term internal communications strategy because you can ensure you pitch your stories in the right way and address what employees are concerned about.

Further reading on change on the All Things IC blog:
Communicating change at the BBC
How to communicate change – a look at the Washington Post
How to change behaviour for better business
How Westminster City Council communicated change
Strategy in action – how Vodafone communicates change
How Tfl is communicating 24hr Tube changes internally

Sensemaking
How do employees in your organisation make sense of what is communicated (sensemaking)?

Rachel’s Tip: Read Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl Weick.

Internal communication professionals need to be aware of the impact of sensemaking and ensure messages they send are tailored for their audience, to minimise interpretation.

Some people will translate the same information in different ways to others so one way to check for understanding is to build feedback mechanisms into your strategy.

Individual differences
Being aware of your target audience is vital to help decide which communication channels to implement as part of your strategy.

Questions to ask include: what is their average reading age? What is the percentage of blue-collar and white-collar employees? What are their working hours? What is the most popular language(s)? What is the male/female split? HR data is a good place to start to help build up a picture of who your target audience are.

So you’ve worked your way through these starting points. Now what?

Bill Quirke has published a model of how to develop an internal communications strategy.

In it he lists five clear stages:

  • Strategy and purpose
  • What’s needed from employees
  • Where employees are now
  • Key jobs for internal communication
  • Communication activities.

Having worked through the seven points suggested in this article means you will be in a clearer position to begin looking at Quirke’s stages and start to create the most appropriate strategy for your organisation.

Have your say
Many of you will already have an internal communication strategy in place, but has this guide made you think about revising it? How have you defined your culture and what kind of feedback mechanisms do you have in place?

Do you think there are any crucial elements missing from this guide?

Bearing in mind I wrote it in 2009, has anything changed within the world of comms which you would now include? As ever, I welcome your feedback and input so feel free to comment below.

References –recommended reading material – all mentioned in this article

• Blake, Robert and Mouton, Jane (1968). Corporate Excellence Through  Grid Organization Development. Gulf publishing.
• Bower , M (1966). The Will To Manage. New York: McGraw-Hill in Deal, T and Kennedy, A (1988) Corporate Cultures, Penguin Books.
• French J and Raven, Bertram H. (1959). The Bases of Social Power in D.Cartwright Ed. Studies of Social Power. Republished online at changingminds.org
• Handy, Charles (1993), Understanding Organizations, fourth edition. Penguin Books.
• Kubler-Ross , Elisabeth (1997). On Death and Dying. Scribner Classics, part of Simon and Schuster.
• Mintzberg, Professor Henry (1979) (and March 1980), Management Science 26,3: ABI/INFORM Global pg 322 and Mintzberg (1975) Harvard Business Review (July-August 1975).
• Quirke, Bill (2008), Making the connections, 2nd edition, Gower.
• Weick, Karl E (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. Sage Publications.

Further reading
Want to read more about internal communication? See the books page plus recommended reads for comms pros.

Post author: Rachel Miller.

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First published on All Things IC blog September 2012.

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7  responses on How to create an internal comms strategy from scratch

Great post Rach – thanks for sharing. I have just been discussing this internally myself with a couple of colleagues so I am going to ensure that they all take a look at this now.

  • Kevin Roussel

  • 25 September 2012 at 1:15 am

Great post! I would add technology as one of the starting points. The level of accessibility to technology has a big impact on internal communication strategies and the points you mentioned in your post.

Good luck Paul, hope it’s all going well, glad you’ve found my article useful.

Thanks for your comment Kevin, I agree you can add technology into this mix and it plays a key part in some of the decisions you make. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Rachel

  • Ajita

  • 13 March 2013 at 6:45 am

Great post Rachel, and good learning to take away from it as well! Thanks!

Thank you Ajita, I’m glad you like it, Rachel

Hi Rachel,

Really useful steps and things to consider here. Creating an internal comms strategy for an entire organisation is one of those things that is in practically every single senior iC job description – yet I haven’t actually seen very many organisations that actually have a strategy.

If I may be so bold as to add another to your list – Purpose. What exactly is the organisation trying to achieve in teh short, medium and long term – and in what places can iC support those aims. A company may be eactly the same in all the areas that you outline above – but if it going for a strategy of aggressive aquisition of market share, your approach will be different to if it’s looking to build on customer loyalty.

I think that adding this step speak to what’s changed since 2009. Organisations are looking for commercial business partners nowadays, as opposed to just delivery of messages. Aligning your strategy to not just the business, but the business objectives is now much more important.

  • Sarah Hodges

  • 27 March 2013 at 3:58 pm

Dan I totally agree with your point about being a business partner rather than just delivering messages – although I think IC has come a long way and in most organisations this is the case now anyway. I think therefore when you first work on a comms strategy it is important to explain to your key stakeholders the real value that IC can add if we have a seat at the table.

In my organisation IC professionals report to the Head of Global and EMEIA Communications but there is also an invisible dotted line to the leaders of the service lines or functions that we support. As a result, there is the expectation I think that we know their business and take the time to actively engage with what’s going on – both internally and externally out in the market.

I think doing some background research into the market trends and continually doing your homework to understand the external forces impacting your organisation is critical to having a successful strategy.

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