What is internal communication? If you’ve reached this article hoping to know the answer, you’re in luck.
If you are having conversations in your organisation about the role of internal communication, why it’s important and what you need to know as a professional communicator, you’ll find information in here for you too.
I’ve been blogging about internal communication, PR and social media on this blog since 2009 and have published 1600+ articles to help practitioners learn.
Whether you’ve been reading my blog for years or this is your first visit, thank you for stopping by.
I know you would like help with internal communication planning, strategy and measurement, you’ll find posts on these topics here too.
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What is internal communication?
Let’s start by defining what we mean:
- Internal communication = the overarching view of how a company communicates.
- Internal communications = the tools, tactics and channels.
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Before we dive in, there are a lot of myths around about internal communication. See the post I published yesterday: Eight internal communication myths to bust some of them.
In 2018 I wrote an article to share the truth about internal communicators:
What definitions do practitioners use?
I love internal communication. I started my career as a Journalist in 1999 and discovered the world of internal comms in 2003, spending a decade working in-house before creating All Things IC consultancy in 2013.
It’s a privilege to be exposed to the inner workings of organisations to help them improve. The aim of this article is to help you examine your own thinking about internal communication.
While researching this article, the search results kept sending me back to my own blog. Which was rather amusing, albeit not helpful as I wanted to read what other people know and think!
So I decided to ask. I’ve collated definitions used by practitioners, academics and industry experts to describe internal communication. You’re welcome to add yours by commenting below or Tweeting me @AllthingsIC.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Definition of internal communication
Depending where you look, you’ll discover different definitions of what internal communication is.
I ask everyone who attends one of my Internal Communication Masterclasses to define internal communication – framed as “What is internal communication?” I don’t specify profession or practice.
Every practitioner creates something different, and often what they write is the definition they use when describing internal communication to friends and family.
We have a group discussion and I share some thoughts and comms theory. Then a short while later I ask them to review what they’ve written and ask if they’d make any changes. Often people do, but it always strikes me how varied the answers are, although they follow common themes.
The themes are typically two-way channels, systematic approach, employee engagement and linking to company strategy.
In short, there’s not one answer to the definition of internal communication. Bearing in mind we exist to bring clarity and help an organisation achieve its objectives, we’re hardly helping ourselves!
What is internal communication?
How do you describe what internal communication is? You’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.
In its simplest form, I describe it as:
“The way a company interacts with its people and they interact with it.”
Note that doesn’t talk about a single person, function or activity being responsible for internal communication. I believe it is everyone’s role, and ours is to help coach and facilitate. I often couple that sentence with a description of the purpose:
I think the purpose of internal communication is not telling people what to do. It is to create a shared understanding and meaning. Only when this happens can employees work together towards a company’s goals.
Everything you do has to be aligned to the objectives, goals and purpose of the organisation. It’s why we exist.
The descriptions I use are deliberately relatable – regardless of your experience of internal communication, you can understand what I mean by them. (I’ve checked and will continue to do so).
Clients have said to me: “But Rachel I thought you’d say something longer than that.”
Nope. I think succinct is best because we then work together to determine what that interaction means for their organisation and what a shared understanding and meaning looks like for them.
I want to know whether the four drivers of employee engagement exist in their organisation for example – it gives me a starting point to determine whether interaction is happening and/or working.
Further reading: How to audit internal communication.
Further reading: How to give employees a voice.
Read about internal communication
Here are 31 books I recommend to learn about internal communication, PR, social media and personal branding:
Here’s my Summer 2018 recommended reading list.
What do others say?
Internal communications (IC) is the function responsible for effective communications among participants within an organisation. The scope of the function varies by organisation and practitioner, from producing and delivering messages and campaigns on behalf of management, to facilitating two-way dialogue and developing the communication skills of the organisation’s participants. – Wikipedia
Does that work for you? Let’s look at some comms theory and ideas…
(Internal communication is)…”The planned use of communication actions to systematically influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of current employees.” – Tench, R and Yeomans, L (2006). Exploring Public Relations, Pearson, Harlow (quoting Strauss and Hoffman).
If you have studied internal communication, chances are you have attended a CIPR course via PR Academy. Annique Simpson wrote for my blog a couple of days ago to reveal what it’s like to study internal communication..
This week I asked Ann Pilkington, Director at PR Academy for the definition she uses.
She told me:
“Internal communication is the communication discipline concerned with employees, enabling employee engagement and helping to deliver change” – Ann Pilkington, Director, PR Academy.
Ann’s fellow PR Academy Director Dr Kevin Ruck is the author of an excellent book, Exploring Internal Communication (Gower, 2015).
The book highlights various definitions of internal communication, with Dr Mary Welch detailing a definition encompassing four dimensions:
“The strategic management of interactions and relationships between stakeholders within organisations across a number of interrelated dimensions including, internal line manager communication, internal team peer communication, internal project peer communication and internal corporate communication.“ – Mary Welch and Paul R. Jackson. Rethinking internal communication: a stakeholder approach, 2007: 193)
Dr Welch adds: “The definition specifically refers to stakeholders since it was influenced by Scholes’ view of internal communication as: “The professional management of interactions between all those with an interest or “a stake” in a particular organisation.” – Scholes 1997: xviii.
What does Kevin himself use as a definition?
“Corporate information provided to employees that is also tailored to specific internal stakeholder groups (middle managers, line managers, functional and project teams, and peer groups) combined with the concurrent facilitation of employee voice that is treated seriously by all managers.” – Dr Kevin Ruck, Exploring Internal Communication, Gower, 2015.
Kevin’s point about employee voice being treated seriously is such an important one.
I wanted to know what definition practitioners use, so I asked people in my network. I was pleased to hear my glossary of internal communication is used regularly to help internal communicators explain what they do.
(I updated it recently when I refreshed my website a few months ago, so if you had the link saved, this is the new one to bookmark).
Here’s what friends and peers told me:
“Internal communication includes everything that gets said and shared inside an organisation. As a function its role is to curate, enable and advise on best practise for organisations to communicate effectively, efficiently and in an engaging way.” – Jenni Field, @mrsjennifield, Director, Redefining Communications, Chair of CIPR Inside and one of my fellow @theICcrowd co-founders.
Brittany Golob is Editor of Communicate Magazine. How does she describe internal communication?
“Internal communication is when businesses are talking to their internal audience. It is the way in which the relationship between the business and employees is facilitated.” – Brittany Golob, Editor of Communicate Magazine.
“IC is the facilitation, creation, operation and elevation of conversation and communication inside an organisation” – Chuck Gose, ICology podcast host.
I like the word elevation in that description.
I asked Alex Malouf, @alex_malouf, Corporate Communications & Reputation Manager for the Arabian Peninsula, Procter & Gamble, who is based in the Middle East. Alex sat in my #questionofcomms hot seat a few months ago.
He told me:
“For me, it’s all about being able to help foster dialogue between employees at all levels, which in turn helps everyone see the big picture. This helps drive productivity, loyalty, innovation, and belief in what the organisation is doing and everyone’s role in making success happen. Sounds easy in theory, but it’s much tougher in practice somewhere like the Middle East region, where IC is seen as a means for management to talk down to employees. We have to change this concept.” – Alex Malouf, Corporate Communications & Reputation Manager for the Arabian Peninsula, Procter & Gamble
That’s such an interesting point re: managers seeing IC as a means to “talk down” to employees. Do you experience that?
What about in-house communicators here in the UK? Keith Riley-Whittingham, @keithrileywhitt told me:
“We connect our People with our Purpose. We do this through telling stories about our service, culture and product, in line with our global strategy.” – Keith Riley-Whittingham, Communications and Media Executive, Travel Counsellors.
Here’s what Jack Adlam, @JackAdlam uses:
“Internal communications is the art of engaging and communicating with and for your internal stakeholders. It has to be a two-way function and be tailored to suit the intended audience (i.e one size doesn’t fit all).” – Jack Adlam, Deputy Head of Communications, London North West Healthcare NHS Trust.
You can read more of Jack’s thoughts in his recent article on my blog. He revealed how the NHS Trust is communicating their values: Putting patients at the HEART of everything we do.
What about the Government?
“Internal Communications’ function is to help leaders in your Department or Agency inform and engage employees, in a way which motivates staff to maximise their performance and deliver the business strategy most effectively. It is not about ‘sending out stuff’.” – Russell Grossman, Director of Communications, Office of Rail and Road and Government Communication Service Head of Profession for Internal Communications.
What about professional associations? Here’s what the Institute of Internal Communication @ioicnews says:
“Organisations need to communicate effectively with their employees. It sounds simple, but the reality is less so. And as organisations get bigger, this becomes a more complex challenge. At the most basic level, you have to communicate well at the right time so employees know what is expected of them and what is happening in the organisation. At a deeper level, for employees to feel engaged with their workplace and give their best, they have to believe their organisation cares about their views and understand how their role contributes towards overall business objectives.” – Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC).
Hmm so we’re seeing lots of similar words and phrases – two-way, relationships, stakeholders, ensuring you are tailoring content, company objectives, plus employee engagement.
I asked Alan Oram, @alanhasideas, from Alive With Ideas! for his definition of internal communication. He said:
‘The two-way exchange of information, opinion and ideas which creates understanding and shapes behaviours within an organisation in order to progress.’ – Alan Oram, Director, Alive with Ideas!
What definition do you use?
Do any of these work for you? You’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC with your thoughts.
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If you’d like to read more about internal communication, search my blog for hundreds of articles to help you discover who is doing what and how internal communication happens across the globe.
Here are some of my articles to get you started:
- How to write an internal communication strategy
- How to communicate your personal brand
- Glossary of internal communication.
- How to create map and keep stakeholder relationships
- New competency framework launches for IC pros
- How to measure internal communication
- How to teach internal communication
- Eight internal communication myths
- How to study internal communication
- How to structure your intranet
- Ideas to help you launch Yammer
- All you need to know about Facebook at Work (Workplace)
- What’s the true cost of your internal comms?
- All change for your IC career?
- How to explain what you do in 10 words or fewer
- How long does employee advocacy last for?
- Why you need to focus on The People Business
- How to do employee engagement badly
- Why you need to focus on employee experience
- How to create an internal communication strategy from scratch
- The latest employee engagement evidence
- A new model for engagement and wellbeing
- How to strengthen employee engagement through communication
- The role volunteering plays in engagement
- A focus on: All things employee engagement
- Is gamification a winner for employee engagement?
Give the gift of internal communication with an All Things IC gift voucher.
What it’s like to work in internal communication?
Want to know more about working in internal communication? Check out my #questionofcomms hot seat.
In-house practitioners, freelancers and agency communicators have sat in my hot seat and shared their experiences.
- A question of comms: Rachel Miller, Director, All Things IC
- A question of comms: Lou Robinson, Global Internal Comms Lead, Costa
- A question of comms: Sara Luker, EMEA Content Manager, eBay
- A question of comms: Gary Vyse, PR & Engagement Lead at Alternative Futures Group
- A question of comms: Helen Deverell, Director, Helen Deverell Communications
- A question of comms: Katy Gibbins, Head of Internal Communications and Engagement, Department for Culture Media and Sport
- A question of comms: Shona Sullivan, Communications and Engagement Executive, Capita BBC Audience Services
- A question of comms: Keith Lewis, UK Social Business and Channels Manager for Zurich Insurance
- A question of comms: Kerry Sheehan, Head of Communications at North East London NHS Foundation Trust
- A question of comms: Steven Murgatroyd, Communications and Engagement at River Island.
- A question of comms: Justine Stevenson, Group Head of Group Internal Communication at London Stock Exchange Group.
- A question of comms: John Kay, Group Internal Communications Manager at Oxford University Press
- A question of comms: Janice Fitzgerald, Group Communications Manager at The Clancy Group
- A question of comms: Gillian McGill, Global Head of Internal Communications at Aviva.
Want to share your views? Here are the questions you need.
In January 2018 I published a series of articles to mark All Things IC’s fifth birthday:
- How to be a Communication Consultant: getting started
- How to be a Communication Consultant: getting paid
- How to be a Communication Consultant: where to work
- How to work as a freelancer.
Find a new comms job
The page is updated constantly and ranges from internships to Global Communication Directors.
Here’s how to place your job advert if you’re looking to fill a comms role.
I’ve featured lots of articles about having a career in internal communication including:
- How communicators learn about comms
- Listen to the history of internal communication
- How to become a CEO
- Watch the history of internal communication
- The only way is ethics – how to communicate integrity
- How to enter comms awards.
Come and learn about internal communication with Rachel
Would you like to learn about Internal Comms? You’re welcome to join my All Things IC Masterclasses in London. I host sessions for professional communicators every month and offer a range of topics including Internal Communication, Strategic Internal Communication and Change Communication.
2020 update: These sessions are on pause due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, but my Online Masterclasses are available for you to enrol in and start today.
Thank you for stopping by, I hope you found this article useful.
Do let me know your definitions.
Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on the All Things IC blog 11 July 2017. Updated constantly.