Internal Communications

Some comments on the importance of Internal Communi­cations during turbulent trans­formation processes

By Egbert Deekeling

Companies and communi­cations depart­ments have rarely before been confronted with challenges on the current scale. Fundamentally re­aligning proven, success­ful business models with climate neutrality and sustainability is the greatest challenge of the century. At the same time, the Russian war of aggression and China’s increasingly aggressive, isolationist foreign policy are shattering the foundations of globalisation. As well as growth, strengthening resilience is becoming one of the key goals for corporations – regardless of whether the company’s focus is recon­figuring supply and value chains or battling against the climate crisis, or fighting inflation and recession. Even the digital trans­formation, the most important mega­trend of the past decade, pales in contrast. More­over, the next wave of digitali­sation will also force companies to come up with new answers, particularly with regard to AI, robotics and cyber security.

This is accompanied by an enormous pressure to act – to an extent that has never been seen before. For all their tactics of “playing it by ear”, companies must fundamentally re­determine their strategies and plan for the long term. In fact, ten-year periods are increasingly becoming the standard time­frame for strategy imple­mentation. At the same time, trans­formation processes are proving to be highly complex. Managing conflicting goals, particularly the balance between invest­ment and innovation on one hand and restructuring and cost efficiency on the other, is becoming more and more crucial for the success of corporate strategies and trans­formations.

Simultaneously, companies are becoming even more intensely occupied with the continuous reinvention of their identity and culture. The war for talents has catapulted employer branding from the status of “nice to have” to a strategic issue of utmost priority which has become critical to success. With changing life­styles and work cultures, and the shifting expectations of the younger generation associated with these changes, as well as the wide­spread proliferation of remote work as a result of the Covid pandemic, there is a growing need for new forms of co­operation and leader­ship. Employee bonding has become a hard business goal that holds the key to competitive­ness.

This is an impressive catalogue of widely varying challenges, which also affect the role and importance of Internal Communi­cations in the company. Against the back­ground of these new, highly complex requirements for strategy align­ment and transformation design, executive managers have raised their expectations with regard to the skills, influence and creative power of internal communi­cations specialists. CEOs, COOs, executives und manage­ment boards need the prudent advice and execution potential of a well-organised Internal Communi­cations department that not only acts on an equal footing with them, but is also perceived this way.

Newsroom and channel management: state of the art, yet inadequate

In these times, when confronted with the increasing demands of a dynamic, complex media land­scape, global corporations and companies have them­selves evolved into journalistic players. Global reputation manage­ment has become a necessary, integral part of risk manage­ment. The news­room model and journalistic practice determine the organisation of corporate communi­cations and the under­standing of its entire role. Here, the guiding principle is that external communi­cations equals internal communi­cations. The key credentials of external and internal communi­cations include digital content and channel manage­ment, as well as story­telling.

As a result, it is easy to under­estimate the impact of Internal Communi­cations when dealing with major trans­formation challenges. The principle of “external equals internal” has its necessity and it justifies those journalistic activities with a focus on reporting news. However, this principle proves in­adequate when it comes to shaping the trans­formation. This is because it distinctly neglects the exact tasks and skills that are needed for effective communi­cation of changes.

In the 2000s, this was not the case. Globali­sation, stake­holder value orientation and the first wave of digitali­sation were at the top of the change manage­ment agenda in every company. Until this time, internal communications roughly meant the staff newsletter. Faced with the new challenges of change manage­ment, communi­cations depart­ments developed a sophisticated approach to leadership communications and employee mobilisation. At the same time, they initiated new formats and comprehensive skill­sets. From this point on, the range of communi­cations tools expanded to include events, campaigns, leadership dialogues and work­shops. This allowed communi­cations teams to play a significant role in strategy align­ment and shaping trans­formation. By fostering under­standing and acceptance, communi­cations teams came to be in high demand as a pioneer of change, even ranking among the “inner circle” of trans­formation manage­ment.

The situation is strikingly different today. As previously discussed, the practice of internal communi­cations is once again characterised by an extremely journalistic under­standing of itself. Change management and leader­ship empower­ment are typically tasks that are left to HR. However, the decisive factors for shaping the trans­formation have been lost in this distribution of tasks, namely strategy align­ment and creation of content related to trans­formation based on dialogue. Although HR has the methodolo­gical tools for this, it usually lacks the content strategy for getting the message through. There is a fatal gap here.

Viewed from this perspective, the current self-conception of Internal Communi­cations, despite all its modernity, appears to be one of self-restraint almost to the point of taking a step back­wards. There­fore, the burning question for Internal Communi­cations is, whether to establish itself as a niche in the light of the turbulent circum­stances, or to fill the gap? The opportunities are there.

Back to the drawing board – an advanced setup for transformation tasks

To design the considerable trans­formation tasks, Internal Communi­cations must expand its under­standing of its own role and setup, beyond its tasks as a content and channel provider. There are four decisive factors here.

1. Interpretative sovereignty through sounding

For powerful, effective internal communi­cations, the first step must be to gain a thorough under­standing of the level of aware­ness within the company. In particular, this means knowing the extent to which the strategy has resonated, whether the organisation identifies with the trans­formation tasks and the associated perception of leader­ship. This insight grants Internal Communi­cations depart­ments a level of under­standing that empowers them to advise the manage­ment. Therefore, the results of careful sounding establish the necessary foundation for determining the strategic approach, contents and communi­cations measures. For this purpose, qualitative methods, such as explorative individual interviews, must take precedence. In contrast to HR surveys, which are mostly highly aggregated, these methods provide authentic voices from people in the company involved in day-to-day manage­ment and business.

2. Lead in executive communications

The align­ment of executive manage­ment is a pre­requisite for the acceptance, understanding and stead­fast­ness of the transformation. This depends on engagement, which Internal Communications must cultivate. As the “guardian” of strategic content and the trans­formation narrative, the communi­cations team needs authority in the appropriate formats to ensure articulacy and consistent messaging across all manage­ment levels. The team must be responsible for creating all content for communi­cations within the frame­work of manage­ment and executive communi­cations. Moreover, the creation of appropriate formats and documents cannot and must not be left solely to Group Develop­ment, the Executive Board or HR. The latter may be responsible for leader­ship develop­ment – but not for leader­ship communi­cations. Therefore, Internal Communi­cations must include the following responsibilities and expertise: synchronisation of the message settings in top manage­ment, preparation of presentations for the manage­ment board and supervisory board, creation of presentations and speeches for executive meetings and events, planning of content for events, and develop­ment of communications kits for executives.

3. Control through campaigns

One of the defining characteristics of communi­cations is thinking in terms of campaigns. In turbulent times, this becomes essential for success. The longer-term, more complex strategy and trans­formation processes in particular urgently need to be set out in terms of phases and combined with the appropriate content planning and agenda setting. The orchestration of measures and content should draw on the contributions of other areas and work streams, without interfering with their institutional authority. Internal Communi­cations thus takes responsibility for campaign manage­ment; it secures the necessary authority for managing the campaign, as well as the means for close net­working with other manage­ment functions. However, news flow manage­ment is only one aspect of the campaign, which must also include dialogue and instruction formats, events and mobilisation initiatives, cascading processes and bottom-up processes.

4. Creative ownership by means of organi­sational anchoring

The organisation of the communi­cations team should also reflect the extended setup of Internal Communi­cations and its increased importance. Newsroom, sounding, executive communi­cations, campaigns – this is the quartet that must define team agendas and task profiles. This facilitates the necessary plan of action for establishing and developing the appropriate resources, as well as allocating budgets. At the same time, there is a highly symbolic effect associated with this setup. By setting the agenda, Internal Communi­cations signals its ownership of the creative function – not only in relation to the management, but also in inter­action with other cross-functional teams.

In turbulent times of trans­formation, the wide-ranging creative power of Internal Communi­cations is needed across the board. A journalistic under­standing of communi­cations roles based on news­room practice is indispensable here. However, focussing on this function alone limits many opportunities for communi­cations to make an impact, precisely when this is needed most in order for the corporate trans­formation to succeed.

The article was published in German in the magazine "kommunikations­manager" in March 2023.