What is internal communication?
How does internal comms work?
Who is responsible for internal communication inside an organisation?
If you’re looking for advice and guidance on these topics, you’re in the right place.
I’ve tackled these questions via a brand new episode of my Candid Comms podcast.
Episode one of season four is: What is internal communication?
About Candid Comms
The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.
Do let me know what you think of this episode and don’t forget to rate, review and follow, so other Comms pros can benefit too.
Resources I’ve referenced in this episode
- 31 books to help you learn about IC
- How to be an internal communicator Online Masterclass
- Institute of Internal Communication website
- All Things IC Pinterest boards
- All Things IC Masterclasses
- Podcast: How to start out in internal communication.
Transcript of this week’s episode
You’re listening to the Candid Comms podcast with Rachel Miller. Tune in for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related.
Hello, and welcome to this show. What is internal communication? That’s the focus of today’s episode. Through our conversation today you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about when it comes to the wonderful world of internal communication. Are you ready? Let’s get started.
I wonder why you’re listening to this episode. Maybe you’ve just discovered internal communication and you’re not quite sure what it is, or perhaps you’ve been working in the world of PR and comms for many years, perhaps you are a marketing professional or a PR professional who suddenly has inherited a whole team of internal communication professionals and you’re not quite sure what they do. Or maybe you’re a student and you are thinking about exploring a new world of work and perhaps becoming an internal communicator. Whatever the reason, you are very welcome here.
Let’s turn our attention to what we need to know. When you are thinking about internal communication, I think what we need to know is we need to define it. So what is internal communication? I started my career in 1999 as a journalist, I spent four years working as a journalist on newspapers, and then I discovered the world of internal communication in 2003. I spent 10 years working in house in a corporate communications career for various organisations, and then in 2013 I established All Things IC, which is my own consultancy.
Now when I made this shift from journalism to internal communication, that was quite a shift, particularly because I’d never heard of internal communication before, and neither had my friends or family. So it was quite difficult for people to really get their heads around, and I remember having conversations, particularly with my parents, who are both now retired teachers, they were talking to me saying, “Well, what is this thing that you are doing? Is it not journalism anymore?” And I said, “Well, I’m still doing all the things that I love doing, I’m writing, I’m researching, I’m meeting people, I’m writing stories, but instead of doing it for a newspaper, I’m doing it for an organisation,” and in that case it was for Visteon, which is an automotive company that spun off from Ford.
And that was our frame of reference, that was how I helped it make sense for my friends and family, I describe myself as an internal journalist. Now I wouldn’t say that today if I was describing the role of an internal communicator, but for my friends and family, that’s what made sense, because that’s what we knew. We knew journalism, and I was trying to apply how my skills and my knowledge and my experience were going to translate into this new role, into this new world.
Now being completely candid with you, I had actually experienced internal communication, I just didn’t know it or recognise it as such. I remember while I was a journalist, we used to have this publication that came round. I can’t remember how frequent it was, it was possibly monthly, maybe less than that, maybe quarterly. But I distinctly remember there would be this publication that appeared in the newsroom, and we used to be really confused by it and look at it and go, where does this come from? And it was from our parent newspaper group, and they used to use it to showcase stories of what are the different news teams doing? What are the different titles and publications doing? What are the people stories, if you like, behind the brand. And we used to get really confused by it and not know who wrote it. Now in hindsight, comm’s friends, clearly there was an internal communicator or internal comms team at the parent newspaper group that we were unaware of.
So today, when I’m thinking about defining what internal communication is, I think it’s really important that you have a consistent approach.
I wouldn’t now say that I’m an internal journalist, because that’s half of the story. There’s so much more that we do as internal communicators, we’re definitely listening to employees, we’re drawing out their stories, we’re amplifying their voices, we’re helping our leaders to communicate well, we’re doing so much more than just writing.
I believe the purpose of internal communication isn’t telling people what to do, it is to create a shared understanding and a shared meaning, only then can our employees align themselves with an organisation’s goals and purpose. So that shared understanding and shared meaning manifests itself through various ways, it’s by having a consistent corporate narrative or story about the organisation, where you’ve come from and where you are going. It’s having consistency when it comes to your tone of voice.
So how do you communicate? Whether you’re a very formal organisation, perhaps you are a very hierarchical organisation and you have a very corporate or formal tone of voice, that’s part of your shared understanding and meaning, it’s who you are and how you communicate. Or perhaps the opposite is true, you’re very informal, a very flattened structure when it comes to hierarchy in your organisation, and you talk as you write, or you write as you talk, therefore it’s very informal, quite colloquial, maybe a bit quirky, and that’s how you communicate, because you’re reflecting the culture, the way you do things, through the way you communicate.
Now if you’re brand new to internal communication and you are trying to understand what it is, I encourage you to think about defining it. Now if you’re an internal communicator, and if you have been to any of my in person masterclasses at the All Things IC training hub in London, then you will know this is an exercise that I love doing with internal communicators.
So right at the start of the day, particularly in my Effective Internal Communication Masterclass, we do an exercise where we grab a notebook, or grab a postcard, and we write, “Internal communication is…” And I ask the people in the room to write me a sentence. I say, “Imagine you’re having a conversation with friends, or family, or a neighbour and they say to you, ‘Oh, what are you doing for a job?’ And you say, ‘Internal communication,’ and they say, ‘What’s that?’ What do you say?”
I encourage you to do that today. Make a note, if you’re making notes as you’re listening to this episode, this is something I want you to know is how you define internal communication. Maybe pause this episode now, or come back to it, write down internal communication is…, and then write that sentence. I believe that’s important because you need to know how you define internal communication, that’s important for us as practitioners, or if you’re wanting to move into internal communication, you’re looking for jobs and you’re thinking about what is internal communication, or you’re about to be responsible for a team, having that clarity is really helpful.
I also do that exercise with teams as well. When I’m helping organisations think about internal communication, perhaps I’m working with a board, or leaders, or maybe HR, and they’re thinking of creating an internal communication function or role for the first time, when I get called into situations like that one of the first conversations I have with them is how do you view internal communication?
What is internal communication from your perspective for your organisation?
And I get them to do that same exercise, internal communication is, because I want to check for understanding.
When I describe the purpose of internal communication the very first thing I say is internal communication is not telling people what to do. You’d have heard me just say that when I defined it a moment ago. And the reason I think that’s important, because very often there is a perception that internal communication is telling people what to do. I mean, it’s part of it, comm’s friends, if I’m being really candid with you, there is a part of thinking about an organisation and how it communicates and how it needs to be, there is part of it that is telling people what to do, and that normally manifests itself through policies, procedures, advice, and guidance, so there will always need to be a balance.
Dr. Heather Yaxley from PR Academy here in the UK has a really helpful model, which is tell and sell versus engage and consult. You need both. If you just do tell and sell, so this is very much about broadcast mechanisms, this is policies, procedures, advice, and guidance, one way fixed broadcast style communication, then it doesn’t leave room for engage and consult, which is co-created content much more reflective of 21st century communication, so it’s things like two way conversations, you’re moving from monologue to dialogue, from one way to two way communication. And this is what we need inside our organisations, you need a mix of tell and sell and engage and consult.
Now I look for this through my work as a comms consultant and my team’s work as comms consultants, we regularly have conversations about what’s the mix inside organisations of one way and two way, of monologue dialogue inside an organisation. If you are currently working in a company, take a moment to just be clear on that. So think about, what’s our mix of one way versus two way? So one way is your broadcast, people communicating at you. So it might be emails, it might be stories on an intranet without the comments turned on, for example. This is fixed one-way, broadcast communication. Two -way is much more about inviting discussion and conversation and listening.
So you’re inviting comments, so you might have a story on an intranet, which is your internal website, and then underneath the comments are turned on. That is shifting your channel, and I’m going to do lots of jargon busting today, because this is our what is internal communication episode, so I’m not going to assume that you know what these things are, a channel is a method, a mechanism of communicating inside an organisation. If channels are new to you then do check out episode eight in season one of the Candid Comms podcast where I looked at channels in much more detail.
But if you’re thinking about your channels, then think about that mix, think about what is the mix between our one way and two way communication channels. So your channel is your method, your way of communicating. So that’s what we need to know, we need to know how we define internal communication. Internal communication is what?
I also do this exercise with teams because I want to have a consistent approach inside organisations. When I’m working with comms teams, and I have the utter privilege of doing that, I do lots of team days, and my team hosts lots of team days, where we get together in person or remotely to work with in house internal communicators. So just to bust that jargon, in house means that people are working and employed by a company.
So I mentioned Visteon at the start, I used to work in house at Visteon, therefore I was a Visteon employee who focused on internal communication. Now there are other various options available to us, you have consultants, you have agency employees, you may have people who come in on an interim basis. But the majority of conversations for this podcast are focused on you if you are an in-house internal communicator, so somebody who lives and breathes internal communication day in, day out, for your organisation, you’re focused on one organisation.
So if you have a team of internal communicators, I think it’s really important that when you inevitably have conversations inside your organisation with your stakeholders, who are interested people within an organisation, they could be leaders, they could be managers, they could be your frontline workers, then the question normally comes up in terms of, “I’m from the internal communication team, this is what we’re doing, these are what our plans are,” and if you get that challenge from somebody who perhaps has never experienced internal communication inside an organisation before and they say, “What is internal communication?” I love for internal comms teams to have a consistent answer. It doesn’t matter if you are a team of one, a team of 3, 5, 10, 30, however many internal communicators there are inside an organisation, you all need to have the same answer so you are able to define and communicate what internal communication is. So this is what we need to know, we need to know how to define what is internal communication.
We’re going to take a short break, and when we come back we’re going to be focusing on what we need to do and what we need to think about. See you in a moment.
Welcome back, we are going to be focusing on what we need to do. I encourage you, if you are new to the world of internal communication, to do some research. You are spoiled for choice when it comes to learning about internal communication, particularly online. There’s so much out there to choose from, in particular there are blogs, there are books, there are podcasts, there are courses, there are awards, there are conferences, an absolute array of different things available to you. I’m going to highlight some things with you today.
The number one thing I encourage you to do if you’re thinking about what internal communication is and you want to learn more about it is understand what other people are doing inside organisations, and one of the very best ways of doing that is by doing some research and doing some reading. I’ve been writing my blog since 2009, and there are 1,600, at last count, articles that are available to you for free. Now this is the website I wish existed back when I was brand new to internal communication in 2003. I really struggled to get my head around what it was, how it worked, what other people were doing, and for six years I was working in house as an internal communicator before I then decided to study internal communication.
I did a postgraduate diploma with the Institute of Internal Communication, which is a professional membership body, IOIC. While I was doing that studying I decided to launch my blog to work out loud and share my thinking, because I did so much research that I thought, there must be other people around the globe who would find this as interesting as I’m finding it, I was researching how to use social media for internal communication back in 2008-9, and then I launched the All Things IC blog in March 2009, and over the last 13 years or so, what I’ve been doing is highlighting stories. So I’ve been sharing things that I’ve learnt, I’ve been sharing recommendations of books, or good people to talk to, or good people to listen to, and I’ve also featured hundreds and hundreds of internal communicators who have shared their stories.
So there’s a whole series of conversations featured on the All Things IC blog. At the moment we’re running a regular feature called candid conversation, and Dan Holden in my team is overseeing this for us here at All Things IC, and we invite internal communicators to come and share their stories. I’ll include a link in the show notes, if you fancy being featured on the All Things IC blog, and sharing your insights into the world of internal communication to help us learn as a global connected community of practitioners, then I encourage you to come and share your story. I’ll include that information in the show notes at AllThingsIC.com/podcast under the show notes for this episode. But I find creating a network of internal communicators incredibly important, whatever stage you’re at in your internal communication career I strongly encourage you to listen and network with other internal communicators, it’s one of the very, very best ways to learn.
So the All Things IC blog is packed with information to help you for free, you’ll find advice and guidance, you’ll find case studies, you’ll find internal communicators sharing their stories, you’ll find plans, you’ll find, oh my goodness, all sorts. We regularly have a conversation in my team where we joke quite often we have a blog post on most topics, and it’s become quite a thing where we’ll be talking about something, maybe change communication, and I’ll say, “Oh, we did a blog post on that,” or we’ll be talking about leadership communication and I’ll say, “Oh, there’s definitely a blog post on that.” So if you’re stuck, if you are trying to research internal communication, do head over to AllThingsIC.com/blog and fill your boots. There’s a heck of a lot of articles there which are designed to help you.
Within the blog I’ve also recommended various things over the years, particularly podcasts. So I’ve got a whole list of internal comms podcasts that I recommend, so I’ll include a link to that in the show notes, and there’s also lots of books that I recommend. I have the privilege of contributing to a number of internal comms books, most years I’ve written chapters of internal comms books, so I’ll include a link to those as well in the show notes. And we are spoiled for choice, there are so many books on the market about internal communication, and they’re published fairly frequently, so I’ll include some links to those too.
- What podcasts exist for Comms and PR pros?
- 31 books to help you learn about internal communication
- Press page – books Rachel has contributed to
- Pinterest boards on internal communication.
Award entries are also a really good way of discovering how internal communication happens inside organisations. So look for awards like the Institute of Internal Communication Awards, IoIC, or CIPR, Chartered Institute of Public Relations, or perhaps IABC, International Association of Business Communicators, or perhaps PRSA, Public Relations Society of America. There are so many different comms bodies out there designed to help internal communicators learn about the profession and to celebrate their successful campaigns.
I find award entries endlessly fascinating. I judge a lot of industry awards each year, and part of that is for my own professional development. If you’re working in internal communication, it’s a good idea, I find, to absorb yourself with examples and inspirational ideas and practical advice of what other people are doing. It’s a great way to learn. If you’re curious about internal communication, read through award entries. Very often these sorts of organisations that I’ve just mentioned publish highlights, or create stories on people who have won their awards, so that’s a really good thing to do, because you get a real glimpse into this is an award winning case study, or an award winning initiative or piece of work.
What made it so good? What did they do? How did they plan? What were their key messages? What was their budget even? That sort of information is normally highlighted in award entry books of the nights, or showcased on their platforms for those different industry bodies. So do check that out, if you’ve never done that before I encourage you to do so.
There’s also areas to learn which you may not perhaps think of like Pinterest. I’m a visual thinker, and I love seeing images inside organisations to help them communicate. So if you head over to pinterest.com/allthingsIC, I’ve got various boards on there, from visual timelines in offices, to examples of employee printed publications, to a whole board on internal communication, and also a board for social media as well. So do have a look. If you are also a visual communicator, you really like looking at using visuals for communication, then have a look on Pinterest, you may be surprised at what you might find.
Another way to learn is through teaching and training. I mentioned online masterclasses a moment ago, I have a whole range to help you. If you are new to internal communication, then the course you need is how to be an internal communicator, where we literally break it right down in terms of what does an internal communicator do day to day? What does a typical day or week or month look like? What are the skills that you need to have? What are the sort of conversations that you would have inside an organisation? For example. So I encourage you to do your research, I hope there’s lots of things there that have sparked some thoughts for you. I’ll include links to everything I’ve talked about in the show notes, so AllThingsIC.com/podcast in the show notes for this what is internal communication episode.
Their final thing for us to focus on in today’s episode is what we need to think about. And what I want you to think about is what are the business problems that internal communication could solve? Now if you’re already working inside an organisation, think about your own company. What’s the role of internal communication? If you’re not working inside an organisation already, or you’re thinking about joining a company, or perhaps setting up an internal communication function for the same time, I’m going to ask you the same question. So imagine if you are in an organisation where there isn’t internal communication, what would that look like? What would it feel like? What would it sound like?
I can tell you from experience, I’ve audited numerous organisations over the years, and one particular company invited me to come and audit them, the HR director invited me in, because they didn’t have an internal communicator or an internal comms function in place and they’d got to the point where they felt like it would probably be a good thing to do. But they didn’t know what to do, and importantly, they didn’t know what the business problems were that they were trying to solve by creating this particular function, this particular role. And this is a really good question to ask ourselves, whether you’ve been in internal comms for two weeks, or 20 years, look at an organisation, your organisation, and look at what are the business problems that need to be solved through internal communication?
Now in that organisation I found there was a real lack of clarity because nobody had a source of truth to say, this is who we are, this is how we work as a company, this is what’s important to us, these are our business priorities and goals, here is our strategy, and therefore here is our vision for the way we need to operate as a company, here’s how you fit in, here are our values, it was very, very fragmented and very, very disjointed. Internal communication is very often the glue inside an organisation. Sometimes it’s described as a golden thread where you are weaving an organisation into itself, and I quite like that as an analogy.
So if you think about that, then the business problems that internal communication can solve is creating sources of truth, it’s creating consistency, clarity, and certainty in terms of who we are, how we show up, what our position is within the wonderful world of work, and thinking about, for us as individuals, how we fit in. Internal communication can do those things if you do it thoughtfully and you do it well. It also is important that you amplify the voices of your colleagues.
So often I find in organisations the business problems that we’re trying to solve through internal communication is we’re trying to amplify employees’ voices so it’s much more two way, as we talked about earlier, shifting from monologue, fixed broadcast one way communication, CEOs just telling people what to do, or leaders telling people what to do, to much more co-created conversational communication. And that’s important for a myriad of reasons, not least for people to have a sense of belonging inside an organisation, for them to have a sense of fairness, where it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’re doing, what type of position you’re doing, how long you’ve been there, everybody has an equal share of voice and an equal say. That’s super important.
So that’s what I encourage you to think about, think about what are the business problems that internal communication could solve inside your organisation, and then are they doing it? Or are we just focusing on creating content and pushing out channels, rather than creating that source of truth or consistency, clarity, and certainty, who we are, how we show up, what’s important to us, listening to our people, listening to their stories.
I hope you found that episode useful to help you think about what internal communication is, and also what it isn’t as well. Part of that exercise, for the last one, thinking about the business problems that you are trying to solve, do spend some time thinking about that, and also, if you’re doing the internal communication is exercise, why not flip it on its head and do internal communication isn’t? It’s quite cathartic to do the exercise, I find.
Best of luck, do let me know how you get on. I love hearing from you, you can find me online @AllThingsIC on Twitter, you can look me up on Instagram, @RachelAllThingsIC, or why not send me a message, AllThingsIC.com/contact. And remember, what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.
Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on the All Things IC blog 20 September 2022.
Photo credits: Becky Rui.