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In the most wide-reaching study in its decade-long history, communications agency Gatehouse’s State of the Sector survey reveals IC professionals have work to do to convince leaders of their value.

State of the Sector 2019, the IoIC-supported census of the internal communication industry, shows there has been little improvement in long-term planning and measurement practices, and suggests line manager communication remains a concern.

With the IoIC supporting this year’s survey in the UK, Gatehouse’s 11th edition of the report has had the biggest global response ever, with almost half the respondents coming from outside of the UK.  

While little has changed over the course of 12 months, it is perhaps the lack of progress that is the biggest cause of concern. Senior leaders still haven’t completely been won over by IC; digital hasn’t provided any groundbreaking developments – if anything, it’s making our jobs tougher – and businesses are not investing enough money in IC.

On the latter point, the average spend on internal comms per employee is alarming. The smallest companies, with fewer than 500 employees, spend around £16 a month per person; at the other end of the scale, organisations with more than 50,000 employees spend just 93p.

“That’s fascinating,” says Gatehouse director Simon Wright. “They are investing about the price of a chocolate bar a month to communicate with each employee, when we know the average price of replacing a disengaged colleague is about £35,000. That’s damning. We talk about our people being more than commodities, and the lifeblood of businesses, but there’s little evidence businesses really think like this.”
 

Lack of trust from leaders

While many leaders understand the need for good communication, the stats are not wholly encouraging. Only 72 per cent of respondents think leaders see IC as a key driver in engagement – down on 2018’s figure of 75 per cent – and only 68 per cent think internal communicators are seen as trusted advisers.

“At best, two thirds of IC teams are in tune with leadership,” says Simon. “That feels poor when you look at the stats around our purpose as a function. The highest rated purpose (89 per cent) for IC practitioners is to communicate the strategy, vision and values of the organisation, while more than a quarter (78 per cent) believe making leaders more accessible and visible to employees is a key part of their role.

“This suggests there is a play-off between what leaders are expecting and what we are expecting of ourselves.”

To bridge the gap, Simon suggests internal communicators need to more clearly articulate the purpose of IC.

“It sounds obvious, but one thing we take for granted is that we know what we’re here to do – but how often do we ask leaders about their priorities, what keeps them awake? Often, we communicate activities in a reactive way, rather than proactively talking to leaders about their challenges for 2020, 2021 and beyond. What do our leaders want us to do?

“We have a clear and connected presence with the people, but there’s a blockage in getting that insight and knowledge banks to leaders.”
 

Invest time in overcoming challenges

Lack of communication skills in line managers continues to be a major barrier to effective internal comms, particularly in the UK, where it remains the number one challenge.

“Line managers are effectively being left to their own devices,” says Simon, “but they got into their role because they were skilled in their area of expertise, not because they were effective leaders or communicators.

“Communicators need to remember that keeping teams informed and motivated, and feeding information up and down the line, does not come naturally to everyone, and so they need to invest more in supporting line managers.”

However, globally the survey revealed a new threat – cutting through the noise.

“This year, the biggest challenge facing IC practitioners globally is an excessive volume of communications – 50 per cent of respondents said there’s so much information being shared within organisations that communicators are finding it really hard to make themselves heard and understood,” says Simon.

“We have noticed that there’s been a decrease in usage of many channels this year, which may indicate that communicators are trying to streamline communications, but ultimately there’s likely more still that needs to be done on this front.”

Indeed, the channel mix is changing, perhaps also an effect of the current period of uncertainty. The power of face-to-face comms remains strong, with conferences and large-scale events going back up the agenda as employees demand to hear the future direction of the company from senior leaders.

Employee print magazines continue to decline, though the evidence suggests where they are used well, they are effective.

 

A changing digital and social landscape

Digital usage continues to evolve. There are no shocks in the most-used channels, with email leading the pack as always, and intranets in the runner-up slot – but this year they are only ranked fourth and seventh for effectiveness.

The top three most effective digital channels might surprise you.

Coming out on top is a new entrant: mobile messaging, with SMS notifications appealing to the Twitter and WhatsApp generation. In second place is video, and third is chatbots. “Not many people are using chatbots,” says Simon, “but those that do think it’s great.”

The results suggest a changing digital landscape, moving from trialling complex channels – podcasts were the least-effective digital channel of 12 options – back to simple tech.

“There’s always a new digital tool,” says Simon, “but the reality is people are consuming more but tiny amounts of information.

“We’ve found once again this year that social channels are not really delivering on promises for many, with more people saying they are ‘terrible’ and should be killed off than say they do an amazing job.

“Just 43 per cent consider them an integral part of the channel framework in their organisation, down from 56 per cent last year.”


Greater need for proactive planning

Planning is a problem. Just over one-third of internal communicators have any form of comms strategy covering more than a year.

“If I went to a marketing team, or HR or IT, and asked for a plan, I’d get one,” says Simon. “In internal communication, it’s as if it’s optional. The strategy is reactive, knee-jerk and here-and-now. People are still relying on general engagement surveys, rather than dedicated IC surveys. Only 11 per cent have had an independent agency do a comms audit. That’s incredible. We don’t seem to have the voice and capability to command our own insights and data.

“If you haven’t got a clear strategy or plan and you’re not engaging with the leadership team, it’s no wonder you’re not being invited to the table.”

Perhaps the underlying reason for a reactive – rather than proactive – approach to internal comms is a lack of clarity around budget.

Nearly two in five don’t know their IC budget, which Simon says is disappointing.

“That demonstrates that IC teams are not always taken seriously as a value-adding function. This, again, is an area where we really feel additional measurement and long-term planning would help, so communicators can get the results they – and their leaders – want, with the limited resources they have.”


State of the Sector: 2019 highlights


828

Number of respondents from 48 countries.

50%

Respondents who say cutting through the noise is their biggest challenge.

47%

IC professionals who say line managers’ lack of communication skills is a barrier to IC success.

39%

Respondents who say they’re involved in providing communication training and/or support to any audience group, and 66 per cent say line managers are the management group they are least likely to prioritise.

43%

Internal communicators who consider social channels integral (down from 56% last year).

76%

Respondents who say there is an alignment between internal and external comms – up from 63%.

 

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