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Podcast: How to be a strategic internal communicator

What does it mean to be a strategic internal communicator?

What does it look like? How can you work in a strategic way?

This topic kicks off season two of my Candid Comms podcast.

How to be a strategic internal communicator

The episode has just been published and covers:

  • What working strategically means
  • How to know if you’re working in a strategic way
  • Skills map from the Institute of Internal Communication
  • Thoughts on being a trusted adviser
  • Job titles.

Thank you to my Producer, Debbie West of Seren Creative.

Further reading: Eight professional communication trends.

What is the podcast?

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the latest advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.

You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean.

Previous episodes:

Here are the resources mentioned in this week’s episode:

Here’s the transcript…

You’re listening to the Candid Comms podcast with Rachel Miller. Join me every week for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related.

Welcome to the show. In today’s episode, you and I are going to be thinking about being a strategic internal communicator. Sounds great. Doesn’t it? But what does it actually mean? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like to be a strategic internal communicator? That’s the focus of our discussion today.

And as ever, you will leave with one thing to know one thing to do and one thing to think about. Are you ready? Let’s get started.

What do we need to know about being a strategic internal communicator? Well, we need to bust the jargon to start with what on earth does it mean to be a strategic internal communicator?

This is a phrase that I am sure is familiar to you. Comms friends. I’m sure that you’ve seen it on job adverts. I’m sure you’ve seen people describe themselves as working strategically, but let’s just bust it wide open. What on earth do we mean when I talk about working strategically?

I like to replace the word strategic or strategy with thinking. We need to be able to show what our thinking is when you are working strategically. It means being able to clearly articulate the thinking behind the doing. So strategy for me is about being proactive, doing the thinking. And then tactics is about being reactive during the doing.

Working strategically, to think about it succinctly, is the thinking that we put behind it. Now, when you’re working inside an organisation, typically within a Comms team, if you are more than a team of one person, you will have people who are the thinkers and you have people who are the doers and that we may separate a team out where the doers are.

Channel managers, the content creators, and the thinkers are people working strategically. So we are setting standards. For example, we are looking at policies, procedures, advice, and guidance, leadership communication. We’re doing much more of the deep thinking.

Now that’s not to say that people who are working with channels and content, aren’t doing the thinking, but it’s normally we’re following instructions from somebody else. Somebody else within the Comms team has been setting the standards and it’s pulled through into our own work and initiatives.

Working as a strategic internal communicator for me is evidenced through a variety of things. It’s being brought into conversations early. So when there are discussions going on inside an organization where the thinking is being done. So let’s give an example. Let’s think about change communication. What does it mean to work strategically during change communication? To me, it means being present in the room where decisions and discussions are taking place.

You’re helping shape the thinking of the organisation. An organisation is made up of its people.

You're helping shape the thinking of the organisation. An organisation is made up of its people.

Therefore we need to be present when those conversations are happening. We’re helping people think through decisions. We’re helping them come to conclusions. And therefore we are creating clarity around our internal communication.

Working strategically is often used to talk about leadership communication, where we are seen as trusted advisers. We love that phrase Comms friends within the world of internal communication. We love being described as trusted advisers. And I really liked this phrase.

The important bit for me is the trusted bit. Anybody could be an adviser. Everybody can give advice and they often do whether it’s solicited or not being a trusted adviser is about building relationships inside the organisation, building relationships with your stakeholders. So you become the go-to person. Evidence for that, for me, includes conversations like “I don’t know if you need to know this but…” and then you get told something or “I’ve become aware of this happening over here in the organisation and I thought I would make you aware.”

Great. When you’re working strategically, you are gathering insights and evidence. You are absorbing them like a sponge, ready to do something with them immediately, or parking them, storing them away for future work. So this is what we need to know.

We need to know what it actually means to be strategic. I remember a conversation when I was working in house with my manager, who said to me, we were having a one-to-one and she said, Rachel, I’ve got some feedback for you. And I said, okay, great. Hoping it was good. And she said, I feel like you need to work more strategically with your stakeholders. And I remember nodding and smiling and going. Okay. Right. Okay. Yeah. Yup. Okay. I’ll take that away. And I remember we finished the meeting and I reflected on it and I thought, I don’t know what she means.

I don’t know what that comment means. What does it mean to work more strategically? So I asked her, I went back to her and we had another conversation where I said, I’ve been thinking about your comment about me working strategically. I don’t actually understand what you mean by that. Can you tell me what you mean? Can you help me understand it?

Then we had a really good conversation where she said, I need you to be able to prioritise the work that you’re doing. You understand what the business priorities are. And now I need you to show me through the way you’re prioritising your work. I need you to show me through all the different conversations that you’re having with your stakeholders and the recommendations that you’ll bring it back to me and to the team that you are doing the thinking around it. It’s the strategy, the big picture, the thinking which then pulls through into workstreams and it pulls through, into the doing.

Now with this didn’t just magically happen overnight. I had to really work at it. And one of the things that I did then, and the I do now with my Comms friends and clients is spot the gaps. So in order for me to work strategically in that particular organisation, I realised I needed better relationships with my stakeholders. I needed to understand what was top of mind for my leaders and what was top of mind for my employees. I needed to be able to gather that evidence and insight and turn it into action. I needed to craft meaningful pictures from the data around me, order that thinking and translate it into the doing as professional communicators. It is our business to know our business. And that includes knowing our leaders brilliantly and listening to our employees and knowing them.

As professional Communicators, it's our business to know our business.

I wonder what you think of that? How do you describe being strategic? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to the people around you and how does it translate into action day to day for you as an internal communicator? We’re not going to focus on what we need to do. When working as a strategic internal communicator, there are two things I’m going to share with you. And in this part of this episode, the first one is the profession map from the Institute of Internal Communication.

If you’ve listened to season one, you’ll have heard me mention this a number of times, the profession map from the IoIC, the Institute of Internal Communication is extremely valuable because on a page, it looks at what it means to be an internal communicator. It looks at the core skills, the core areas of expertise and the behaviours that we need to display.

 

Now, coupled with the professional map is a really useful PDF. And the particularly useful bit for me is the levels that it talks about. I use the profession map when I’m working with my Comms friends and clients and helping them to organise Communication teams.

I use it to help me reorganise communication teams, to look at the work and the deliverables that the team are focused on helps me map the outputs and the outcomes of the internal communication team. And it helps me make decisions. In particular, the profession map is broken down in four levels.

  • Level One is delivering
  • Level two is managing
  • Level three is strategically advising. There are those words. We’ve already heard the strategic and advising.
  • Level four is leading.

When you work as a strategic internal communicator, is it important that we have clarity around the language we talked about already.

However, how does this manifest itself through the work that you do? Level three within the IoIC profession map is the strategically advising bit. If you really look at that properly and break it down, it talks about things like having an evaluation process in place or measurement structures in place inside your communication function.

It also talks about things like developing a channel’s infrastructure and working within your internal communication strategy. Whereas level four is much more about setting the standards, leading the function, leading the team, helping the rest of the organisation, upskill themselves, where you are setting those standards. You’re helping stakeholders, employees, leaders understand what brilliant internal communication looks like.

Now, if we focus on level three here on this strategically advising, I encourage you to look up the profession map. Have a look at all the wording that you’ll find at level three, if you’ve been challenged to work more strategically, or if you would already describe yourself as working as a strategic internal communicator, maybe you’re operating at a senior internal communications manager level, or perhaps an internal comms lead level.

Now let’s just pause here because we don’t have consistency in the wonderful world of internal communication. When it comes to jobs titles. I mentioned this back in season one.

A brilliant new blog post has just been published by an internal communicator here in the UK Martin Flegg.

Further reading: Meaningless labels, by Martin Flegg.

Meaningless labels

He’s unpicked this and he’s looked at all the different job titles. So that we have so clarity through our conversation today, when we’re talking about strategically advising or being a leader of internal communication, we’re talking about typically people who have the most amount of experience within a team or organisation.

What I want you to do is look at the IoIC profession map and map your own job against it. Dig out your job description, if you can find it. And if you’ve been challenged to say, you need to work more strategically, where are the gaps?

What are you currently doing? And what are therefore those stretch targets. When you look at level three or even level four of that profession map, if this is the industry standard that helps us understand what it means to be a brilliant internal communicator, use it as evidence to apply within your own job. Or maybe if you’ve had conversations with managers like I had, where you’re challenged to be working in a more strategic way again, use it to spot your gaps.

I hope you find that useful. The second one, the thing that we need to do when thinking about how to work strategically is to be mindful of our personal brand. Now this sounds like something a Kardashian would have, and they certainly do. However, Comms friends. I’m here to tell you that everybody has a personal brand, whether you realize it or not. I describe it as your reputation and promise it’s who you are and what you’re known for the founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos famously described your personal brand as what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

"Your personal brand is your reputation and promise. It's who you are and what you're known for."

What do they say? Do they describe you as working strategically? Do they describe you as a trusted adviser? And if not, why not? If they do, why is that? What evidence do they have? Why does this matter?

I have a lot of conversations with clients and Comms friends around personal brand. It’s a topic that I’m interested in. I started researching it back in 2017 and I’ve blogged about it a number of times at All Things IC to help internal communicators think it through.

If your personal brand is your reputation and promise, that not only applies to us as individuals, but also collectively as a communication function. So being aware of it, what people will say about you when you’re not in the room, being mindful of your reputation and promise is important because if you want to be working strategically, you have to break it down, using things like the IoIC professional map, to understand where your gaps are.

Then put it into practice, to turn it into action. I have a personal branding checklist, which again, I’ll include at the show notes. This is looking at who you are and what you’re known for and what people say about you. It’s words people use to describe you.

Personal branding checklist Rachel Miller

Some other sections focus on people who know you the best. This might be your friends. It might be your family. It might be a partner. And then there’s a section for your stakeholders, for the people around you, the people that you work with. Now, what we’re looking for here Comms friends, if we’re trying to work more strategically, where is our evidence in terms of the way that we’re currently working? What are people saying about the way we’re working? How is it showing up in those descriptions?

Are people describing us as a safe pair of hands, a trusted adviser, somebody who understands the business and therefore knows what we need to prioritise or do they say where the comms police, we’re people who always have our red pen out and we’re correcting everybody’s work. What are we known for? So that’s something I want you to be able to do as a result of listening to this episode, do that exercise for yourself.

Take some time to really focus on you, your personal brand, your reputation, and your promise. When I do this with Comms teams I often expand it out. And then we talk about Comms principles. So we create a team charter or a team profile, or a vision for internal communication for them as a team. And it’s focused and rooted within personal branding.

I believe you own your personal brand and you rent it to the company you’re currently working for.

I believe that you own your personal brand and you rent it to the company that you're currently working for.

We’re going to take a short break. And when we come back, we’re going to close today’s episode by focusing on what we need to think about. See you in a moment.

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In the final part of today’s episode, we are going to dive a little deeper into the IoIC profession map. And in particular, I’ve chosen a section which focuses on the skills and expertise we need to have to be internal communicators. That’s called strategy planning and business acumen, because these phrases are used so often when people are describing what it means to work strategically and internal comms. So we’re going to unpick those together in the final part of this episode.

So this is what we need to think about. As I mentioned, there are four levels of the profession map. So let’s unpick it a little bit. If you are working at level one, for example, the overarching narrative of this particular strategy planning and business acumen from IoIC says, we need to be able to combine strong business acumen with an understanding of people in order to develop and implement communication strategies, plans, and campaigns that benefit the organisation.

Levels_IoICmap

Are people working at all levels within it? What, what if you’re working at level one, how much influence can you have when you’re brand new into internal communication? Look at the map in detail and looking at these levels in details. It talks about the need for us to execute tactical delivery of plans, ensuring alignment with communication strategies, policies, plans, and our calendars, raising any discrepancies with appropriate colleagues. It also talks about making sure that delivery of all plans and activities are compliant with ethical and legal requirements and that you raise any discrepancies or concerns with appropriate colleagues. So that’s level one.

That is how to work in a strategic way. If you’re brand new into internal communication, you can do this.

Moving up to level two includes examples like managing plans and campaigns to support communications strategies and that aligned with the communication calendar. Most Comms teams have some kind of planning process in place. They might have an editorial calendar or a year planner of events. So it gives you as Bill Quirke describes in his book, Making the Connections, a “helicopter view” of the organisation.

The third level, and this is the strategically advising level that we talked about earlier. The third level of the IoIC profession map, when it comes to strategy planning and business acumen includes information like identifying strategic challenges, developing local communications strategies as required using analytical approach to include diagnosis of needs and current state as quite a wordy way. I think of saying it is our business to know our business. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to tailor our approach with gathering in our insight, gathering in our evidence and we’re making recommendations.

I have a model that I’ve talked about back in season one of this podcast was just my global local me model. And this is it personified. It’s looking at how do we translate content ideas from a global level into a local level, down to a me level. What’s in it for me, for our employees.

Global-Local-Me-RachelMiller

Me-Local-Global-RachelMiller

So we’re looking at what are our strategic challenges as an organisation? What is the big thinking? What’s our big plans? What are our aspirations? What’s our purpose, what’s our goals? What are we here to do? What difference are we trying to make in the world? Why does our company exist? Whether we’re curing patients, selling widgets, transporting people, how does that then translate into local plans and into really personalised plans for our people?

Another part of level three is making sure that we’re developing comms strategies to support local change and transformation activities. Again, bringing that down global local me, you’re analysing, you’re filtering. You’re helping content makes sense. You’re applying everything that you know about the business in terms of how your people work in terms of how they communicate through channels and you’re making recommendations.

The final part is level four. At this level you should be able to do everything that I’ve mentioned already. This is the most senior level in internal communication. This is the leading level. You need to be able to build relationships with other strategic functions, making sure that organisational level strategies are aligned. So you’re looking at including external communication strategies, other people’s strategies.

So we’re not just working in isolation and internal communication. The purpose of internal communication isn’t telling people what to do, it’s to create a shared understanding and a shared meaning, so our employees can align their efforts with the company’s goals and purpose. That alignment also includes everything I’ve just listed there. It’s making sure that we’re not working in a silo, that we are working in collaboration with our colleagues in people or HR or external or public affairs.

The purpose of internal communication isn't telling people what to do, it's to create a shared understanding and a shared meaning, so our employees can align their efforts with the company's goals and purpose.

Another thing I wanted to point out from this model is the need at level four, to set and monitor overall communication standards and ensure compliance to ethical and legal requirements. When you’re working at a very senior level in internal communication, it is our responsibility to set the standards. And I’ve mentioned that quite a few times in today’s episode and that’s things like toolkits, templates, advice, and guidance, branding documents, tone of voice guidelines, and all sorts – the list is endless. There are so many standards that you can set.

The key thing for me when thinking about standards is I want to see consistency. I want to be able to look at the output from an internal communication team, and it is gold standard internal communication. So we’ve got newsletters that are on brand. We’re using the right colours, we’re using the right the language, and we’re so mindful of how the organisation needs to communicate or want to communicate.

That shows up in everything that we produce. Setting the standards also means helping other people to communicate, to get to a really strategic or thinking. A cerebral level of internal communication for me is about role modelling what brilliant internal communication looks like.

So it’s not just about having toolkits templates, advice, and guidance. It’s helping employees to understand how to use these things. So it’s having things like one page guides to writing stories.

I’ve seen a shift for internal communicators, moving from content creators to content curators. And part of that for us is setting the standards where we help employees know how to write content.

We give them a one page guide of five things to know when creating a video, 10 things to include in a story. We’re not going to write everything. We’re not going to create everything we’re going to curate it.

There was a lot in there. I hope you found that really useful to help you start thinking about working strategically in internal communication. The final thing I want to leave you with today is to encourage you to look at job adverts, look at senior level internal communication roles. How are they being described? What does it mean for different companies to work strategically? How does that show up for them?

Look at the differences. Look at the nuances of language. It gives you an indication of their culture, the way things done around here in terms of how they describe it.

Sometimes the most senior level role in an organisation, when I look at the job spec actually shows to me a level of immaturity in terms of understanding from the organisation, when it comes to internal comms. It’s very often very senior roles. I see this in startups, for example, when they’re recruiting for their first internal communicator, that person needs to be all things to all people. And actually what they’re asking for is a really heavy dose of tactics coupled with strategy.

I hope you found this episode useful. As ever, you can find me online and I’d love to hear from you. What are you going to do as a result of listening to this episode of the Candid Comms podcast? Do get in touch.

You can find me on Twitter @AllThingsIC. Find me on Instagram, @rachelallthingsic. Look me up on LinkedIn, Rachel Miller, or you can send me a message via allthingsic.com.  For the final time this season listeners, remember what happens inside is reflected outside.

See you again soon.

Post author: Rachel Miller.

First published on the All Things IC blog 6 June 2021.

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