Internal communications is an essential tool of modern business, not 'nice to have'
Published on 21st August 2012 by Gareth Evans
Cathy Bussey of HR Magazine discusses the importance of internal communication within HR functions
Thanks to technology, there are more ways than ever before to connect with your employees. Formally worded letters have given way to emails, text messages, newsletters, magazines, intranets, social networks and online ‘meeting hubs’.
Should they so desire, HR directors could communicate with staff through a different medium every day of the week.
The range of available options means that internal communications are faster and easier to distribute. This can be a double-edged sword, as Tina Vale, HR manager at franking machine firm, Neopost, found out when she set about revolutionising the company's internal messaging.
"There was no central control over internal comms and different parts of the business would communicate in different ways and at different times," she says. "Nobody was checking the messages going out." The result was disengaged staff bombarded with a scattergun approach to messaging, with no uniformity or quality control. "People didn't understand the strategy of the business," Vale says. "They turned up and did a good job, but they didn't understand why they were doing what they were doing and how it all fit together. I started seeing themes coming through that meant internal comms just were not working."
Having identified the need for central control, Vale took responsibility for it and overhauled the company's strategy.
Vale's experience demonstrates that for HR directors and their counterparts in the PR or corporate communications department, the question is no longer, 'Should we communicate with staff?' Internal communications are not 'nice to have'; they are essential to the success of a business. The question instead has become: 'How do we engage with staff?'
Filling inboxes with one email full of corporate jargon after another is not going to grab any staff member's attention. But the nature of HR comms means a degree of formality is required sometimes, so the challenge is to strike a balance.
When it comes to deciding how to communicate, "a lot of common sense is needed," says Sara Edwards, VP HR at luxury tourism firm, Orient Express. "What is the importance of the message? At what speed does it need to be communicated?" These two factors can often help ascertain the best method. An announcement on employee salaries or benefits is not necessarily ideal fodder for a company Twitter feed and best communicated by letter - but speed may be of the essence, so in this case an email might be the right solution. An announcement about dress-down Friday, on the other hand, is perfect for a light-hearted intranet update or social feed, and sending it through the post to employees or cluttering over-stuffed inboxes with reminders to leave the business attire at home is unlikely to strike the right tone.
There is certainly no shortage of options for HR and communications directors. Vale says Neopost has embraced a range of tools, including newsletters, magazines and 'e-shots' - sent out over email, but limited to four a week and sent after 5pm. "These are colour-coded - news, for example, is blue," she says. This means when the email appears in staff inboxes, they immediately know to what it will relate.
The question of who has control over internal comms can be problematic for firms, as there is more than one natural home for the discipline. HR directors, as guardians of the staff within the firm, have a compelling case with which to lay claim to internal comms, but corporate communications or the PR department can have an equally strong case to take ownership.
For organisations with both an HR and a PR department, the load is often shared between the two. "Corporate communications are professional specialists," points out David Gillies, HR director at electricity and gas market regulator, Ofgem. "But if you look at the messaging from HR, it can often be quite formal and sensitive stuff that is being communicated." The obvious answer is for both departments to work together, with an understanding of each other's strengths and areas of expertise. This means harnessing the creative expertise of the communications department when it comes to deciding through which method to communicate.
Where responsibility is shared between the departments, HR can often end up as the 'angel of death', only communicating serious or negative messaging. "Our messaging does tend to be about formal things, and take a formal tone, so there is a risk," admits Gillies. "The problem we have is that if that is how HR is seen, it is not engaging with the audience very well."
Edwards suggests messaging that could be taken as negative - restructures and redundancies - should be communicated face to face to the members of staff affected first. "General communications cover the outcome at the end of the process, and there is always a reason why a decision has been taken," she says. "People need to be kept informed throughout, so when a restructure or similar is happening, the messaging is confirmation, rather than them hearing about it for the first time.
"That approach is very important. If we do have bad news to deliver, that happens face-to-face with the people affected."
But internal communications do not always have to come from HR or corporate comms. Scott Bowers, director of communications at the Jockey Club, says while primary responsibility for internal comms falls into his department, with strong support from HR, the nature of the organisation means that employees are scattered in different locations, some PC-based but many non-PC based.
"We often use senior executives or elect peer 'champions' within the group to be the mouthpiece," he says. "Firing off missives from head office isn't the way forward." Using localised spokespeople means that internal comms can be more relevant to staff, who may simply switch off at yet another email from central headquarters.
"Internal communications should not become a functional silo in its own right," advises Sheila Parry, MD of internal communications agency, theblueballroom. "In a practical sense, you need HR and PR around the table to explore the different nuances and needs of internal and external stakeholders on any given communications issue or event.
"But it shouldn't stop there. Internal communications need to network with all functions and take into account operations, finance and strategy perspectives and views as well."
Wherever the communications come from, however, quality and consistency have to be maintained - think back to Vale and her challenge at Neopost and the bombardment of messaging from all quarters. A shared 'voice' is essential. In this case, organisations may invest in a PR agency to help handle their internal comms and put a framework in place that they can then stick to.
Vale says: "I wouldn't have thought about, for example, language. I would have looked at a piece of communication and said, 'yes that's written well'. But I wouldn't have thought about whether we should be saying 'you' or 'we' within our communications. It can make all the difference."
Source: HR Magazine