Blurred Lines Are an Opportunity to Focus

The lines between internal and external communication continue to blur. That doesn’t mean communication professionals are out of focus. It means the opposite.

The first of five articles featured by the Centre for Strategic Communication deals with the future of the communication profession. “The Convergence of Marketing and Communication” notes that convergence is a dominant trend in marketing and communication, pointing out, “Today’s marketing and communication professionals are experts in some of the same disciplines.” We are seeing the convergence and integration of internal and external communication in the same ways.

One could argue that the lines have been blurring for a while. However, this convergence has been accelerated in the past decade. Social media, collaboration and a deeper understanding of audience behavior and relevance of the message has sharpened the focus in more ways than we could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. Nothing is driving integration more than big data, analytics and new tools, against a backdrop of “alternative facts” and fake news.

Where is internal communication heading? I have asked myself that question since I held my first internal communication executive role and created my first strategy over 20 years ago. Have I continued to change my thoughts on the direction of internal communication? Absolutely! However, I believe that internal communication is more critical for organizations now than ever before.

In the 1990s, internal communication was defining its role in employee satisfaction, taking control of channels, and developing new ways of communicating. During the next decade, internal communication aligned itself with organizations, providing context and delivering on engagement, while taking a quantum leap to embracing a new online world. Internal communication became a critical business function. During the latter years of the past decade, economic trends prevented business from investing in internal communication in ways that could springboard into new ways of communicating. Today, organizations continue to realign their thinking, focusing on purpose and the need for employees to have context and meaning driven by who they listen to, interact with and trust through channels and messages.

Knowing our audience

The lines have blurred between internal and external audiences, and we must adopt ways of understanding people at a much deeper level so that we can communicate in a more personal, relevant and targeted way. Taking a lesson from our marketing colleagues about how to use big data and analytics, internal communication professionals can understand where people go for information, how they consume it, who they are and what drives their behavior. Targeting the right message in the right way to the right audience is critical in a noisy communication world. 

Choosing our approach

In an environment in which the audience, not the organization, chooses the channel, our approach should be driven by audience insight and business need. What do we want people to know, feel and do? This critical question, overlaid with insights gained about the audience and aligned with what the business is trying to achieve, will drive the approach. The communication environment is omni-directional and includes multiple channels. Communication professionals make choices based on what we know, what’s available to us, and what’s available to the audience, and the new choices we and the audience make.

Getting strategic

Good strategy is the product of great research, analysis, and understanding of the current context and how that context shapes the future. We don’t all have to be strategists to take a strategic approach. We simply need to understand audience and organizational needs, and then facilitate a connection between the two in a purposeful way. Simply put, we must build better relationships and be the facilitators of communication within our organizations.

Dealing with the decline in trust

The 2017 EdelmanTrust Barometer didn’t paint a rosy picture when it revealed that “trust is in crisis around the world. The general population’s trust in all four key institutions—business, government, NGOs, and media—has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012.” This is worrying, yet not unexpected given the mass media world where anyone can say anything in any way to anyone and be believed. It’s bound to have an impact.

One out of every two countries surveyed had lost faith in the system. The credibility of both CEOs and government officials has been declining for several years and is now at an all-time low. It is also interesting to note that 64 percent of people trusted leaked information over 36 percent who trusted press releases. Trust in a peer remains on top and non-traditional media continues to rise as a more trusted channel, even though it is open to misinformation.

The influence factor of relationships is the glue that will hold society together as we venture into the next decade. The Edelman report has also put business on notice saying, “when the system is failing, companies must do more.” That includes treating employees well, offering high quality products and services, listening to customers, paying its fair share of taxes and engaging in ethical business practices. It is clear that internal communication will also need to act as an ethical filter.

Opportunities for internal communication

In a rapidly changing world, where a new channel is launched almost daily, we need to go where communication is happening instead of hoping that the audience will come to us. Internal communication has been doing this for years, so we are well positioned to show our external colleagues how it is done, aiming for a conversation with lots of listening rather than talking and spinning. We drive organizational communication by understanding audience and business needs, facilitating that alignment and purposely taking a strategic approach.

A huge opportunity has surfaced with the advent of fake news, “alternative facts” and the decline of trust in the system. There is an opportunity to do what internal communication does best—listen, be authentic and truthful, build relationships and advise the organization on ethical communication practices. Internal communication is positioned to lead rebuilding trust in the business community, while spin doctors and government advisers struggle with credibility.

3 key takeaways

  • The lines continue to blur between internal and external communication while marketing converges with communication as a practice.

  • Deeply understanding audiences, taking a strategic approach and dealing with diminishing trust, impacts the future role for internal communication.

  • Internal communication is faced with an opportunity to show how truthful, honest and authentic communication can rebuild trust and establish its role of facilitator and ethical adviser.

This article is an excerpt of the book Disrupting the Function of IC: A Global Perspective, available for download. 

Excerpt originally featured in CW Magazine

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