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Internal communication – tackling some perennial questions

A familiar question to start: in the future, will internal communication (IC):


A) become more distinct as a profession?

B) increasingly merge with other professions?

C) cease to exist entirely?

Taking one of those viewpoints and arguing it is a perennial source of conference speeches and blog posts in the IC world. And yes, I realise that is exactly what I am about to do. Some might say this type of question is the kind of naval-gazing we need to resist. But my view is that it gets to the root of what we are as a profession… and that we will struggle to achieve our potential unless we resolve it to some degree. So this is my perspective, in two parts.

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1) Internal communication is a distinct profession (that has relationships with other professions).

'Blurring boundaries' is a phrase often applied to the relationship between IC and its adjacent professions (by which I principally mean corporate communication/PR and HR). Sometimes IC is positioned as a sub-category or extension of one of those professions. The two thoughts that seem to be behind this are:

• communication forms one part of the overall employee experience – and coordination of all activity that shapes the employee experience is preferable
• employees are one of a number of audiences an organisation communicates with – and coordination of all communication activity is preferable.

Both of those thoughts have been around for a while. But there are reasons why they may have risen in volume over recent years.

• In this time the idea of 'employee experience' has gained considerable momentum. It's an attractive idea: that all aspects of someone's interaction with their organisation can be managed in an intentional and joined-up way to best support the organisation's people goals (retention, attraction, productivity, advocacy, compliance etc.). How an organisation communicates with its employees is one aspect of the experience, but it's clearly not the whole of it. If the idea of giving responsibility for employee engagement to IC teams was questionable on the basis that IC people only have some of the skills and levers to promote higher engagement, then the idea of giving us the whole employee experience is even more so. If HR teams are the ones most often taking ownership of the employee experience in its totality (and they usually are – I'll leave it to others to debate whether this is desirable) then IC being within HR's domain makes sense.

• The increasing levels of transparency being forced upon organisations (and it is forced - whether they are receiving it with enthusiasm or reluctance) through regulatory change and the impact of social media among other factors means that you can no longer neatly segment audiences and feed each one the messages you want them to get. They all have access to all the messages. Internal conflicts can be around the globe in seconds. Dissatisfied customers can broadcast their annoyance direct to your staff through Twitter and Facebook. In this kind of world, we need communication to be thoroughly integrated. That was always a good idea, but now it's pretty vital. From this perspective, it makes sense to look at IC as a specialism within corporate communication/PR.


I agree with both of the statements I bulleted at the start of this section. And it's because I agree with both of them that I also believe that IC is not best seen as a part of either the corporate communication/PR or HR professions. IC people need to have a foot in both worlds, delivering on both an integrated employee experience AND an integrated body of communication. That demands knowledge areas imported from both HR (the psychological contract or change management for instance) and corporate communication/PR (channel management and messaging for instance). The combination of those things creates a profession that, in my opinion, must be an effective partner to our peers in both corporate communication/PR and HR - but that remains fundamentally distinct from both.

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2) Internal communication as a distinct profession will remain necessary for the foreseeable future.

I think that every profession agonises to a degree about whether it has a future. Not least, we all want a continued supply of employment. It's easy to bristle at the idea of IC becoming obsolete, but there are some justified challenges that lead people to raise the question:
• internal communication should be everyone's responsibility – not one team's
• internal communication trends are towards user-generation/curation/conversation and away from origination/broadcast
• it is increasingly possible to automate some of the functions of internal communication.

I think all of the statements above are true to a degree. But only to a degree.

On the first, there are lots of things that should be everyone's responsibility – compliance, efficiency and customer service for example. But these things also require some coordinated thinking and action. If you don't have someone collecting customer insights and feeding them out to relevant people in the organisation, how do you expect to improve customer service on any scale? Similarly, if you want communication within an organisation to be effective, resulting in clarity, mutual understanding and better cooperation, this needs to be designed on some level. So obviously IC teams do not do all of the communicating. Instead, they create an environment within which better communication can happen. Everyone in the orchestra gets heard, but only because the conductor creates the conditions for it.

On the second point, I'll start by taking issue with the idea that IC has been about broadcast rather than exchange. For as long as I've been in the profession (and I suspect a long time before) good practitioners have been looking to establish conversations within their organisations (they may have used terms like 'bottom-up', 'lateral' or 'voice' depending what was on-trend at the time). It is true though that there are more channels now for the exchange of information, ideas and opinions. But here's the thing: just because somebody has the power to make and share content, it doesn't mean that they can reliably create content that will be understood by others, nor that they can objectively weigh the importance of their content against everything else happening in the organisation. Those two points are key for me. There remains an advantage to having an expert whose job is to create communications that are clear, relevant to the audience and outcome-focused (especially where the outcome is vital to the organisation's performance). It still needs to be someone's job to make sure the truly important stuff reaches people. The presence of user-generated content within an organisation does not supplant the professional communicator. More often than not, a professional will improve the chances of communication (in any direction) resulting in understanding and action.

It's the third point where I think we have more unknowns. Could the jobs I've described above – promoting conditions for good communication between employees, creating understandable content designed to result in action, and prioritising the most important content/conversations – be done without human involvement? Possibly. I mean, think hard enough about it and it's difficult to imagine many things that absolutely could not be automated. But there are two factors that lead me to suspect this will not be a rapid process. The first is the mixed nature of the role. IC is generally about breadth rather than depth of knowledge and skill (I outlined some of what I mean by this at the end of section 1). As some parts of the role become more easily automated (content curation for example) others may experience increasing demand (planning and delivering change communication for example). The diverse nature of the role, sometimes a cause of concern among practitioners, may actually be to the profession's benefit here. The second factor is the sheer amount of human interaction currently inherent in the role. Ask an IC professional to add up the time they spend meeting, interviewing, questioning and listening to other people and you may find it accounts for the majority of their time. Because gaining understanding to share understanding is at the heart of the job. How much of this could be easily automated? Honest answer is I don't know, but I think progress towards this will be tempered by the levels of empathy, interaction and visibility involved.

In short, I don't think any of the three statements above are reason enough to call time on the profession. I do believe that all of them have a bearing on where we should place the emphasis of our work in future. But that's a process of learning, growth and evolution - not extinction.

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In sharing the viewpoints above, I'm stating some of the reasons why I chose to develop a career in IC and why I chose to become involved in the IoIC (the only professional body dedicated to internal communication in the UK). The breadth of skills and knowledge required, the proximity to the audience, the relationship to both the body of communication and the employee experience - all of these help to give IC a unique appeal as a career as far as I am concerned. So, I accompany this with an acknowledgement that I tend to look at new information through the lens of these existing opinions. Like all of us, I have my biases. But I think there are enough reasons to believe in the distinct role of the internal communicator to move us on from debates about whether we should be part of something else or dissolved entirely. In my view, our focus should instead be on how best to deliver on that distinct role for the good of our organisations.

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