A journalist’s view on internal vs external comms

What do journalists think of the perceived divide between internal and external communication? Is there really a gap any more?

This topic is discussed constantly by my peers, I blogged recently to ask whether comms pros have the right skills to do their jobs as a result.

Adam KirtleyI’d like to introduce you to Adam Kirtley, who is today’s guest writer. He’s a radio broadcaster and journalist who is also known as “The Message Man”, which is his boutique communications consultancy.

Adam has media and message trained company executives all over the world, including Africa, Europe and the Middle East. I hired him while working in-house seven years ago to media train my Exec team.

He regularly broadcasts on BBC radio, mostly on business and finance, and has reported from many countries, including Greece at last year’s historic elections.

He’s written about internal versus external communication from his perspective. (As a mum of one-year-old twin boys, I can’t help reading his article in another light). I’d love to know your thoughts, you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

Internal versus external communications – The terrible twins!

7As a journalist, and as someone who spends a lot of his time media and message training folk, I am surprised at this weird gulf that seems to exist between internal and external communications.

Why am I bemused?

The answer is simple. In my experience in covering stories the two are inextricably linked and depend on each other. They are twins, not identical, but twins. And when the internal twin misbehaves or malfunctions, the poor external twin often has to pick up the pieces.

The Twins need to talk

In my opinion you can’t separate the two sides as you may have once been able to do. We live in an Instagram, Twitter, Facebook digital world of complete citizen empowerment. Moods, reflections, opinions and prejudices are flung into cyberspace like confetti at a wedding, before you can say PR!

That is as true of employees as anyone else.

Good internal communications can help ensure that its twin brother in external communications is happy with where the confetti has landed!

When it goes right

AdamLast summer I did a piece of work with a client who does data analytics. They are very fast growing and acquiring companies all over the world. They all have different languages, cultures, ways of doing things etc.

The company was very forward thinking and decided to put a lot of resources into making its new employees see themselves as part of the brand, and to feel valued and important. That way they would become ambassadors and advocates of the company. This could lead to good press coverage, and attract new talent.

Simple stuff, but vital.

My role was putting the written materials into plain and engaging language, and to do presentation training for regional managers that were going to “sell” the new company to the troops. I worked with the company’s external PR agency and its excellent internal communications team. That synergy was absolutely right. No barriers, no silos.

This article by Cameron Craig, a communications professional himself, puts it very well. PR Career Rule number one: Thou shalt not do internal PR!

When it goes wrong

We journalists LOVE it when we get news about a company or organisation from the INSIDE! Examples are aplenty, for example, the disgruntled worker that only found out he’d lost his job on the news! I have interviewed several over the years.

Or the whistle-blower that goes to the media saying her organisation is unsafe and morale is at rock bottom. NHS 111 is a recent example of that. (For those of you outside the UK, NHS 111 is a call centre for worried patients). If you don’t believe me, Google it.

Journalists usually get these stories because the person feels, dis-empowered and not listened to. They think management doesn’t care and they don’t know what is going on in their company.  

Let’s face it if you hear of your redundancy via the news, you’re not going to feel loved or informed are you?  So you go to the media to make your voice heard and vent your spleen.

Ten years ago, at a radio station far far away, the Editor sent an internal email around saying that the station HAD to go for a younger audience due to falling ratings. This memo was leaked to the press, presumably by a disgruntled “staffer” and made the national papers.  Here’s just one example of the coverage.

External twin nightmare, and proof that today’s news is no longer tomorrow’s fish and chip paper!

OK an extreme example perhaps, but these things can play havoc with a company’s reputation and at worst can cost billions in a falling share price if the company is listed.

For balance the same station excelled itself recently and ten years on things couldn’t be more different. This story was about a lonely 95-year-old listener (oldies obviously allowed back on again!) who rang in. Internally, the team worked together  and decided to get him a taxi into the studios.  What followed got huge coverage.

A fantastic story and a complete external twin dream!

Martin Alderton from Clarity specialises in dealing with stress and trauma for companies when disaster strikes.  I do crisis media training for some of his clients.

He told me this: “When staff are affected by potentially distressing events, like a workplace accident or organisational change, goodwill is better preserved when internal communications clearly show: care and concern for those affected; that the effect on staff is being taken seriously; and that help, support and information will be provided as much as it reasonably can.”8

I couldn’t agree more, and it makes whistle-blowing far less  likely.  Also liaising closely with external communications can help better manage the media.  Moreover external communications can brief any spokespeople to remember that their own staff might be watching them on the news, and to tailor key messages accordingly to reassure or console them. More proof that they are both twin brothers of the same family.

Happy on the inside, happy on the outside

I love this quote from Sybil F. Stershic who is an internal communications consultant in the US.

“The way your employees feel is the way your customers will feel. And if your employees don’t feel valued, neither will your customers.”

Making a meal of it

To sum up my thoughts, perhaps this analogy is useful. Take a bustling restaurant. There are two parts, the front of house bit, and the kitchens.  However sumptuous the restaurant, and attentive the waiting staff, if the food is bad, late or cold; the customer will have an unpleasant experience.

Adam quoteConversely even if the food is absolutely fabulous and served on time, if the cutlery is dirty and the staff surly, the customer may never return or recommend the restaurant to anyone else.

Internal communications is the kitchen. The customer never sees it but it has to run like clockwork. The chefs all need to know what each other are doing, working as a team to get the orders out on time. Kitchen communication is everything. If that goes wrong you’ve lost it out the front!

External communications is the restaurant. Orders have to be taken accurately for the kitchen, processed speedily and delivered beautifully once the meal is ready. This is the customer facing pointy end!

Those twins need to talk.

Post author: Adam Kirtley. You can find Adam on Twitter @messagemanadam.

Found this article useful? Why not share it on.

First published on the All Things IC blog 1 March 2016.

Pictures via Adam.


  1. StephanieRobC says:

    Twins definitely need to talk – I’m working in an organisation where the teams are closely aligned, and while it’s not always perfect it’s way better than not having them talking at all.

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