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27 January 2014

The Blurred Lines between Internal and External Communications: event summary

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus might be perfectly happy blurring the lines of taste and decency but here at Sequel we’ve got far more pressing concerns. For example, is there still a distinction between internal and external communication? Has the digital and social media world made a separation of the two impossible? And importantly, if you eat 3 muffins by 11am have you had a late breakfast, an early lunch or just bought a one way ticket to a sugar coma?

Our latest Association for Strategic Practitioners in Internal Communications’ event was held last Friday morning, with a brilliant turnout of more than thirty communications professionals from a great mix of industries and levels of seniority.

This quarter’s event took a slightly different angle to previous Aspic events, and encouraged a greater level of interaction and debate from our attendees, with guidance on the topic and initial thoughts coming from our excellent speakers, Mairi Doyle, Director of Internal Comms at Bupa and Jenni Wheller, Internal Communications Manager for SSP. With a considerable amount of communications experience between them, Mairi and Jenni were perfectly placed to help us unpick our communications conundrum.

Where does internal communications stop and external start?

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For both Jenni and Mairi, the two are inextricably linked, regardless of where the teams sit or who they report in to. It’s essential to keep both audiences in mind when crafting your messages, even if you might alter your tone or focus, and you should never say something to one audience that you wouldn’t feel happy telling another.

At Bupa, Mairi and her external communications counterpart are helping to strengthen the relationships between internal and external by making sure that their objectives have an internal and external focus, even if their job titles don’t and lots of our attendees had similar stories to share from their own companies.

Jenni and Mairi also highlighted that it’s now harder than ever to define what actually constitutes internal and external communication. Gone are the days of simply sending out a press release to the media and sticking a message on the intranet for your staff. Nowadays everyone is looking for more engaging, interactive and creative content so it’s important for our teams to work together to produce content that satisfies everyone.

It also makes financial sense. With budgets increasingly squeezed, and CEOs under pressure to justify every spend, joining up your communications outputs gives you twice the return for half the spend, and what business isn’t going to like that approach? If we’re also going to be trusted advisors, we need to be thinking with a business head as well as communications one so working together is really important.

What about social media?

There’s no denying that social media has blurred the lines of our public and private lives so it’s no surprise that it’s also blurred our internal and external communications.  More and more businesses are using Enterprise Social Networks (or ‘social networking for businesses’) to engage and inform their staff and there’s hardly any companies left without a social media presence to keep in touch with their customers or stakeholders.

But if it’s being used so much, why is there still so much fear? Jenni highlighted that lots of senior leaders expect the worst and many of our attendees shared their experiences of when social media platforms have been rejected or questioned because of the fear of how people might use them or what people might say. While it’s true that things can sometimes go wrong (we all remember HMV’s official twitter account being hijacked by disgruntled staff who has been made redundant), but for both Jenni and Mairi, it’s a fear that’s largely unfounded with research showing that social media for businesses is actually very effective at self-regulating. Plus, is someone writing something on your social intranet really worse than slagging off the business at their desk?

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There’s also added benefits to using a traditionally external platform for internal audiences. You can reach people quickly, you can share messages with your staff in real time wherever they’re based in the world, and there’s very often a stronger culture of collaboration and conversation if people have the freedom to interact with their colleagues rather than simply receiving messages from the top.

It’s not suitable for everyone though and we were all in agreement that it’s better to think about it as part of your communications toolkit rather than your default communications platform. Great messaging is all about saying the right thing, to the right people at the right time, so think about your business, what you’re trying to say and how it might be received before your start giving every announcement a hashtag or Pintresting you’re performance figures.


Does collaboration between internal and external communication work?

Despite some grumblings about internal comms sometimes being seen as the dowdy cousin to the glitz and glamour of media relations and PR, our attendees were largely in agreement that collaboration between the two does work.

What isn’t always clear though, is how important both are seen within a company. For some businesses and CEOs, the lure of an interview with the national press can be greater than an interview for the staff magazine.

However it is our jobs as communicators to help our senior leaders and our team understand the value of communicating to all our audiences and avoid prioritising one above the other. It’s a challenge (the hair and make-up budget for the staff magazine is generally a lot less than a double page spread in Hello), but it’s one we should be striving to overcome. It’s also one that requires all our communicators to remember so that we can notify one another if messages need to line up and plan our comms delivery more effectively.

Should there be one team responsible for all communication?

When it comes to communication, the mechanics of how something gets delivered are less important that what gets delivered. Where you sit, who you report into and what part of the business you fall under are all academic and very often to do with issues of space and resourcing rather than strategy. What is important is the link between communication teams and teams within the business. For example, the blurred lines between internal comms and HR, or internal comms and business development.  There need to be dialogue, interaction, discussion and debate between communications and other areas of the wider business to make sure the right messages are getting out at the right time.

Mairi

Are the terms ‘internal communication’ and ‘external communication’ essentially redundant?

In typical blurred lines style, the answer isn’t that clear cut. Though Jenni did make the, widely agreed with, point that most people who aren’t in the industry don’t quite understand what internal communicators do, without the need for further explanation and clarification, unlike roles such as PR of which people are more familiar.

From Jenni and some of the attendees the merging internal and external communications risks losing the importance of both, with arguably specialist skills needed for some of the different activities that fall within each. For Mairi and our other attendees, the future looks like a place where the act and manner of communicating will become more important than who the messages are going to.

What we were all in agreement on however was that whatever your title, communicators can’t be everywhere and it’s the responsibility of everyone within a business to communicate clearly and in an engaging way. Empowering our leaders and our colleagues to be great communicators is just as important as delivering their messages for them.

 

Three hours, several almond croissants and a lot of debate later we were still discussing the issues – until time-restrains, and others needing to use the venue space, caused discussions to be wrapped up. The lines may remain blurred, and will continue to be so, but what is crystal clear is that both forms of communication have equal and great importance when taking businesses from strength to strength, and that the key thing is to have committed, engaging individuals dedicated to this overall aim.