Young co-workers gather round a work table

What is Internal Communication in Public Relations?

So let’s talk about internal communications and how it fits into public relations. British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson once said, ‘clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of the clients.’

This may go against everything you were ever taught about putting the ‘customer first’. But his advice is spot on. Think about it. Your employees are on the front line, interacting with customers and representing your brand. If they’re not happy, your customers won’t be happy. Neither will your bottom line.

So, how do you make your workforce happy? Pay and conditions are important. But making them feel valued, informed and listened to is key. And this is where internal comms PR comes in.

Internal communication in public relations

Internal communications is a branch of public relations that deals with communication within a business or organisation. It’s a form of PR that happens internally. And it’s used to inform, engage and motivate employees and ensure everyone in the organisation is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.

Internal communications PR should be part of your overall PR strategy and should reflect your brand promise, values and business goals in exactly the same way as your external communications. Just like your external PR strategy, the consistency of your message, the frequency of your message and the channel you use are key to your success.

Unfortunately, too many businesses or organisations spend time and money trying to educate and excite consumers about their brand and forget to do the same with their own workforce. This is a mistake. If your own people don’t know what’s going on and aren’t motivated about it, how can you expect your customers to get on board?

Which is why internal communications in public relations is so important.

The benefits of an internal communications PR strategy

So what are the key benefits of an internal communications PR strategy? Employee engagement, a reduction in staff churn, creating a team of brand ambassadors who can boost sales, and having a structure in place to manage any type of crisis.

Let’s look at employee engagement, crisis management and creating brand ambassadors in more detail.

Employee engagement

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A well thought through internal comms PR programme keeps employees engaged and committed to the business in the long-term.  A quick turnover of talent is a drain on companies, both financially and creatively. How often do employees join a company, quickly feel unheard and undervalued and leave within two years? And that’s especially true of Millennials.

When employees are informed, they’re more productive, provide better customer service, come up with more ideas and are more likely to want to stay working for the business. Every disengaged employee, on the other hand, can cost an organisation more than £5,000 in annual profits according to Aon Hewitt who produce an annual Trends in Global Employee Engagement study which demonstrates the links between employee engagement and successful organisations. Interestingly, a 1% increase in a company’s employee engagement translates into an almost 1% increase in sales.

Five ways to ensure your employees are engaged.

1. Give ownership

Getting employees involved in creating your marketing comms can go a long way to increasing engagement. Take ITV for example. As part of the launch of its channel, ITVBe, the organisation invited employees to create their own ‘idents’ (the station logos that appear between programmes). Staff submitted their idents and ITV chose their favourites for live broadcast. The winning idents were unveiled at the product launch.

This was a great internal comms initiative, as it made ITV staff the stars of the show. By letting their teams get involved, ITV demonstrated a commitment to the employee experience. The campaign paid off handsomely too. 93% of staff said the activity brought the brand to life, and one person said launch day was the best day they’d had at the company.

2. Change the environment

An impactful way to encourage employee engagement is to re-think the workspace and surround your team with tangible representations of the company culture you’d like to create. For example, if your company is forward-thinking and rooted in innovation and creativity, the space your staff work in should reflect that. A company that epitomises this is technology giant, Google.

Rather than traditional conference rooms, Google’s London base has a series of themed breakout areas and a roof garden with allotments that staff can use for meetings. The unique environment was cultivated as a direct result of feedback from staff, and as such, is a place that fosters creativity and innovative thinking.

Google takes staff happiness seriously. The brand is as famous for its working environment, with its pool tables, bowling alleys, free food and gym memberships, as it is for its technology. There’s even a Chief Happiness Officer whose job it is to keep employees happy and maintain productivity.

3. Promote wellness

The health of your employees is paramount to their happiness at work. Every job comes with a level of stress, and as we all know, too much stress can have a negative effect on productivity, morale and engagement. The good news is there are lots of things you can do to promote a healthy and happy working culture. Here are a few ideas:

  • Provide workers with free healthy snacks and drinks
  • Hold pampering days, where staff can enjoy massages, manicures, or even haircuts
  • Run weekly group exercise classes, such as yoga or meditation
  • Offer discounted gym memberships

4. Reward innovative thinking

Show that you value creative thinking by rewarding employees who engage in it. Set up a system of rewards, such as gift vouchers or an extra day’s holiday, for employees who come up with ideas that increase sales or target new customers. Rewards can be powerful motivators and will show them you’re serious about creative thinking.

5. Take staff out of the office

Show your staff you value them by treating them to days out of the office every now and then. Whether you have a corporate team building day or a trip to an overseas office, it’s a great opportunity for you to show your team how much they mean to you, while encouraging team bonding. Taking staff out of their everyday environment can also facilitate creative thinking. Take advantage of this by combining a fun day out with your next company conference.

Managing a crisis

When a business faces a crisis, whether that’s a takeover, impending redundancies, financial mismanagement, a product recall or bad boss behaviour, an established internal communications PR system really comes into its own.

No employee should hear bad company news from an external source. And nothing is more stressful for staff than hearing rumours and gossip circulating the office. It can quickly lead to misunderstandings and confusion. The internal comms team needs to ensure that critical company information reaches employees before anyone else and that the message is clear and consistent. Remember the KFC chicken shortage crisis? The management team used internal comms PR to keep franchises updated daily, who in turn kept customers informed.

Failure to engage results in low morale and a lack of trust. Be transparent about what’s happened, what’s happening next, and what’s been said or is going to be said to the media.

Your internal communication needs to be on point. Here are five tips to put into practice next time you have to be the bearer of bad news.

1. Prepare for the conversation

It might seem obvious, but this is one of the biggest mistakes people make when delivering bad news. Don’t believe you can just walk in, improvise, and deliver negative news on the fly. The chances are, you’ll say something inappropriate. Make sure you walk into the meeting with clarity on the facts of the situation and how you and the company are going to handle it.

The key is preparation. You need to prepare what you’re going to say and prepare for the reaction. It’s your job to be prepared to handle any reaction professionally. If you get it wrong, it could damage your working relationship, credibility and reputation.

2. Be direct but compassionate

You don’t want to sugarcoat bad news. But you also don’t want to be cold or robotic in delivering it. To get the balance right, think about how doctors deliver bad news to patients. They use clear, direct language and stick to the facts, but deliver it with compassion and empathy. They’ll often open the conversation with, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this’, or ‘I know this is upsetting, I wish I had better news’. This is key, as empathy is an extremely powerful emotion. Then give patients time to digest the news and ask questions. Communicate like a doctor and you’re more likely to get the outcome you want. Pay attention to your employee’s reaction and let them guide your response.

3. Get to the point

No leader enjoys delivering bad news. Even the most experienced can panic and ramble. However, this will make the situation worse. It’ll generate confusion and increase the likelihood of an aggressive reaction. If you’re making redundancies, for example, say so right away, then explain how and why. An awkward build-up to the ‘message’ will be painful for both of you. So get to the point, and when in doubt say less than you feel is necessary.

4. Allow time for feedback

Once you’ve delivered the news, you need to give the individual or team some time to digest it and respond. No matter how uncomfortable you feel, your employees deserve the opportunity to have their say. So this is the time to listen. Allow them to shout, cry or go silent, and once the initial shock has passed, ask if they have any questions. You don’t want to get into an argument or debate, so keep your answers short, speak calmly, and stick to the facts.

If an employee demands further explanation, repeat variants of your message, but don’t add any new information. You’ll risk drifting away from your core message and losing control of the conversation. Similarly, resist the impulse to spin the bad news into a positive. Many people do this under pressure, but all it does is dilute the message and offer false hope.

5. Watch your body language

One of the biggest factors in whether an employee will listen to and accept bad news is how it’s delivered. Don’t underestimate the importance of your body language. Slumping your shoulders, avoiding eye contact, or fidgeting will send the wrong message. You’ll come across as aloof and uninterested.

A good rule of thumb is to sit opposite the person so you can maintain regular eye contact and lean forwards when you’re speaking. This body positioning demonstrates authority and empathy.

Creating brand ambassadors

Workers having a stand up meeting

When your employees are informed, engaged and know what’s going on in the company, they become an enthusiastic sales force. When people feel valued and proud of the company they work for they quickly become brand ambassadors, happy to share company news or product information on their social networks. What company is doing this well? Software giant Adobe. Their Employee Advocacy programme has proved highly successful.

But this has to happen organically through genuine employee engagement and good internal communications. You cannot instruct an employee to share a news release via their personal Facebook page or tell them what to write in a tweet from a personal account. True brand ambassadors are happy to share on social without being asked because they actually believe in the product or service and in the company’s values.

Types of internal comms

Communication should be a part of your daily or weekly routine, not something you save for your annual conference. So establish regular communication processes, such as weekly conference calls, monthly online newsletters, quarterly employee reviews, or invest in a company intranet.

One of the best things you can do is lead by example. If you want your employees to communicate, make sure you do the same. If you expect your team to share information openly, you need to do so too.

Here are nine ways to communicate successfully with your internal teams.

1. Intranet

A company’s intranet is a private, secured network where employees can communicate, collaborate and manage tasks. Think of it as an online staff canteen, a digital central hub of the organisation. And because all team members have access to the intranet, it’s the perfect internal public relations tool.

Use the company intranet for sharing important information about the business, including changes at board level, product launches, marketing campaigns or new policies.

But it shouldn’t be one-way information. The company intranet should also be used by employees to give feedback and ask questions, whether that’s technical, procedural or general queries about company policies. Which companies have a well-designed intranet? Find out the 2020 winners here.

2. Enewsletter

Who doesn’t love a company enewsletter dropping into their inbox? Turns out, we all do. Because email is still one of the easiest and most successful internal comms tools around.

But no-one wants to read something bland and boring and stuffed with corporate speak. No. Your internal enewsletter should be fun, exciting and informative. In fact, it should be just like any other email campaign you send out. Don’t scrimp on the effort just because it’s going to staff.

  • Start with an eye-catching open-me subject line. Don’t assume your teams will engage with your newsletter out of a sense of obligation. Share information about staff: introduce new hires, profile existing staff members and their achievements or do an in-depth interview with a member of staff about their role in the company. This is useful for fostering inter-departmental understanding.
  • Share stories about company successes including awards, latest advertising campaigns, charity work in the community or efforts around sustainability.
  • Create conversations by asking specific questions and give your team an opportunity to reply.
  • Be creative with images, videos or even memes.
  • Include links to external sites or the company website for further reading, such as industry white papers, press releases, news coverage or the latest advertising campaign.

3. But reduce internal email overall

Email is probably the most used comms tool in the world today. This is especially true in business, where it’s all too easy to fire off a quick email rather than pick up the phone. A good first step to improving internal comms is to acknowledge an over-reliance on email. It might even be useful to log how many emails are sent out in the name of ‘internal comms’ over a period of weeks. You’ll be surprised.

Emails are often sent in those companies where it’s just as easy to pick up the phone or walk over to someone’s desk. A personal touch can do wonders in many situations.

If emails are absolutely necessary, try to send less of them. Don’t cc everyone in the department and include a searchable archive on the Intranet.

4. Events

Employee events cover all kinds of activities. But ultimately, they all have the same goal: to engage employees, to show people they’re valued, to instil the company’s culture and to retain talent. So what kind of events are we talking about?

  • Team building events like Tough Mudder Or something altogether less muddy like an Escape Room.
  • New product pop-up stalls in a reception area or canteen where staff can get their hands on new product samples before the product hits the stores.
  • Informal breakfast briefings where companies share important updates and ideas with staff (instead of after-hour events which some people won’t be able to attend).
  • Awards ceremonies for recognising and rewarding the hard work of teams and individuals.

In fact, it’s been shown that recognition and reward programmes can have the greatest impact on employee engagement. Which companies are doing this well? Online retailer Shop Direct, won first place in the Employee Recognition and Reward category of the UK Employee Experience Awards in 2018 after they increased the number of awards they hand out annually from 8 to 1,000. During the same period, they saw a 17% increase in employee engagement.

5. Focus groups

Focus groups, comprising six to 12 employees, are a good way to keep employees informed and to get immediate feedback. And you get a broad range of opinions when team members are chosen from different departments and different job roles. In other words, not just members of the management team but people from the shop floor too. Focus groups are especially useful around change management such as the introduction of flexible working or a merger with another office or company.

Employing a neutral moderator to run the focus group is recommend so management members don’t takeover or thwart the discussion. They can prepare a post meeting report too, which outlines the findings.

6. Surveys

Another way to get quick employee feedback is through surveys. Something like a pulse survey with just a couple of questions gives you an immediate snapshot of your employee’s views on a particular topic or the mood of the company as a whole.

The best thing about internal communications is you have a captive audience to poll, question and survey at any given moment. Whether it’s a formal companywide survey or an informal lunch discussion, you have a built-in focus group to monitor morale and sentiment.

7. Suggestion box

Not quite a box and a slip of paper, although that would work well too, but something online where employees can make suggestions. These can be made anonymously, or staff can put their name to them. Who’s doing this well? Grocery store Waitrose did this by creating a section of the Waitrose website for employees to submit ideas. These suggestions were then liked and commented on by other team members from across the business. One of the suggestions around till roll use led to a saving of £160k.

8. Open-door policy

Good internal communication is about listening as well as talking. Encourage an open-door policy for all managers so team members feel able to approach them. Or consider having everyone in senior positions sitting in an open plan environment and use offices for meetings only.

An open-door policy reduces barriers, office politics and helps employees realise that their opinions and thoughts matter.

9. Stand up meetings

Sometimes there’s no substitute for a face-to-face conversation. However, to make sure your internal communications are effective as possible, only arrange meetings as and when necessary, and only involve relevant individuals. Also, meetings needn’t take on the form of a traditional boardroom exchange. Instead think outside the box and try a walking or standing meeting. It’ll keep employees on their toes (literally) and ensure the meeting doesn’t last any longer than it needs to.

But no-one wants to read something bland and boring and stuffed with corporate speak. No. Your internal enewsletter should be fun, exciting and informative. In fact, it should be just like any other email campaign you send out. Don’t scrimp on the effort just because it’s going to staff.

  • Start with an eye-catching open-me subject line. Don’t assume your teams will engage with your newsletter out of a sense of obligation.
  • Share information about staff: introduce new hires, profile existing staff members and their achievements or do an in-depth interview with a member of staff and their role in the company. This is useful for fostering inter-departmental understanding.
  • Share stories about company successes including awards, latest advertising campaigns, charity work in the community or efforts around sustainability.
  • Create conversations by asking specific questions and give your team an opportunity to reply.
  • Be creative with images, videos or even memes.
  • Include links to external sites or the company website for further reading, such as industry white papers, press releases, news coverage or the latest advertising campaign

The steps towards better internal communication in public relations

Internal communications PR shouldn’t be an afterthought. It needs to be an integral part of your overall PR strategy. So:

1. Take a stock of where you are now

Is internal comms happening? If so, is it effective? What tools are being used? Is information coming from the top downwards? Or is it a two-way communication? Before any new internal comms systems are introduced, consult your employees and ask them what they’d like to see. What information do they need? How often?

2. Think about measurable outcomes

What’s the aim of your internal comms PR activity? To keep staff up-to-date so they’ll share more on social? Staff retention? Greater productivity? Business growth? Or an overall improvement in staff morale? Be clear on the end goal and the ways in which success will be measured.

3. Who’s going to oversee the activity?

Any internal comms PR activity will usually be carried out by an internal comms team. If a newsletter is being sent to a customer, it makes sense for the same team to send a newsletter to all the staff too. So this is an activity that may sit in the PR or marketing department. Or perhaps it may sit more happily in the HR department. And if a new intranet system is being put into place, the IT department will certainly be involved although content will come from the comms teams.

Decide who’s managing your internal comms PR but note that any internal comms activity needs a buy-in from management at the highest level. Open-door policies and asking for (and acting on) feedback are all activities that need to be supported by senior team members.

4. Understand the tools available

If you’re not using an intranet system already, find out what’s available. Or if you already have one, does it offer the features, functionality and the user experience you want? How about enewsletters? What are you using? Is it the best option for sending out internal newsletters?

5. Ensure it’s inclusive

Your communications have to reach everybody in the company, whether they’re remote workers, people on the shop floor or someone sitting at a desk 9-5. And that’s important when you think about the channels you use. Do staff members working in a retail unit or a warehouse have as much access to a computer screen as other people? Probably not. Text messages or actual old-school printed newsletters for coffee room pinboards are all alternative options.

6. Make sure everything is two-way

The most important element of PR in internal communications is that it’s a two-way street. Systems must be in place which encourage feedback on a regular basis whether that’s monthly, weekly or even daily information gatherings. And it must be easy to do too, from surveys to suggestion boxes. Even something as simple as an open-door policy shows employees that their opinions matter and are welcome, and it fosters a sense of trust in the workplace.

And it’s vital that staff understand that sharing their opinions in a constructive way will not affect their standing in the business or organisation.

Internal comms is an integral part of public relations activity

Internal comms is already happening in your business from ‘water cooler’ moments, to office gossip to private WhatsApp groups.

But a structured and clear internal comms PR effort will reduce misinformation and duplication, it will ensure staff members get behind the organisation, and it will give you a productive, engaged and happy workforce.

And that means any external PR activity is much more likely to succeed too.

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