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Internal communications — Why do they want to kill it?

Internal communications are increasingly often called into question.

« There’s no longer any justification for distinguishing between internal and external communications, » scream its denigrators, while its supporters whisper that executives have ears only for the one and are tightening their purse-strings for the other.

Their argument is threefold :

  1. With the development of social media, interactions between internal and external occur increasingly often.
  2. « Employees are stakeholders like any other… » in the words of a CAC 40 communications director.
  3. Employees have multiple identities: they are not just employees but also consumers and citizens.

It is a huge mistake to confuse “interaction” with “equivalence”.

It is obvious that there is more porosity between inside and outside.

Companies need their employees to construct their reputation (advocacy). Some companies encourage them to leave the company and undertake responsible initiatives that illustrate their purpose. Auchan offers its employees opportunities to become “militants of the healthy, good and local” and Danone “activists in the food revolution.” The internal/external dialectic has always existed (advertisements idealising the company made it possible for the corps social to change; the SNCF, for example, was a master in this area), but it has developed strongly since the company “no longer wants to be the problem, but the solution” of sustainable progress; it creates – its employees with it – increasingly numerous links with its publics utiles.

Other factors contribute to the development of interactions: the voluntary or enforced questioning of the integration of resources with the increasing use of freelancers, self-employed workers and start-ups… as well as the pace of innovation, which turns conversation and co-creation associating employees and users into the alpha and omega of the design of products and services.

So interaction? Yes.

But is there equivalence between internal and external? These three questions will provide the answer:

  1. Are employees really just one stakeholder among others?
  2. Can you give them generic information?
  3. Is there any need for senior management and the internal audience (hierarchical, functional or geographical distances)?

If the answer to these three questions is no, internal communications will have a specific role for  « the production of information about… the internal environment (you could say the internal stakeholder) and for the creation of interfaces ».

Are employees really just one stakeholder among others?

The idea whereby companies have stakeholders has now become a commonplace in managerial literature, both academic and professional. Nonetheless, « there is today no real consensus on the definition of the concept of stakeholder and, by extension, on the meaning of the term “stake” ».

Conceptions seem to oscillate between a broad definition emphasising impact…

  • Freeman (1984) : « A stakeholder in an organisation is [by definition] any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation’s objectives. »

… and more narrow definitions based on risk or support.

  • Clarkson (1995) : « Voluntary stakeholders bear some risk as a result of having invested some form of human or financial capital in a firm. »

 

  • Freeman and Reed (1983) : « Stakeholders are constituted by any group or any person on which the organisation depends to ensure its survival.»

 

  • Standford Research Institute (1963) : « A stakeholder is a person or a group of people without whose support the company would cease to exist.»

But whichever definition you prefer, it is clear that employees rank the highest among stakeholders. This is quickly confirmed when you try to rank stakeholders to define a policy targeting the most useful of them. The criteria on which there is unanimity are their levels of interdependence with the company, their power and/or influence and their legitimacy.

It is hard to imagine not placing employees on the right and near the top.

As all senior executives know : « The first reason for which it doesn’t work is a lack of commitment. » 72% of them state that « increasing attention will be given to employees » in future years for the sake of the success of their company. All in all, employees are not just one stakeholder among others. They can be compared, perhaps, to shareholders who, incidentally, receive very good and very specific information. [Fig. ]

[Fig. ]

 Can you give employees generic information?

Although they have priority, can you “avoid” giving them specific information? By specific information, we are talking about information delivered by internal communications, i.e. information that makes it possible to connect disconnected activities and improve understanding of an overall logic extending beyond silos. No one would contest the role of informant played by managers, trade unions and peers. Rather that played by the company.

In our view, there are three reasons for developing specific, high quality internal information.

Major transformations experienced by companies affect all employees and all units.

The Why, What and How are impacted by common challenges: digital technology and platforms, relocation, automation and artificial intelligence, the growing importance of public opinion, changes in working practices, etc. There are hardly any problems that are not shared by most people.

This is probably the reason that explains the current trend for companies to adopt the “One” concept: they define a purpose and a strategic framework, a space where players can experience a common language, coordination and collaboration, from which the project can be built. This confers meaning, engages as many people as possible and provides a focus for investments of all types.

Undifferentiated content shows a clear lack of consideration with regard to the recipient.

Defining the community you are addressing probably amounts to constituting it. At least to recognising it.

Recipients never receive a message simply emitted for themselves.

They select it on the basis of filters, which are all the more rigorous as the volume of information to which they are subjected is now considerably greater than their attentional resources. One of these filters is their interests: a message is acknowledged if recipients consider that it is related to their interests. If the message heralds good news (or bad news) for them, they pay attention.

The 26000 standard is quite right to define transparency as an obligation to ensure that information “should be timely and factual and be presented in a clear and objective manner so as to enable stakeholders to accurately assess the impact that the organization’s decisions and activities have on their respective interests.”

The interests of employees do not coincide with those of other stakeholders. They can converge, particularly when employees are shareholders or when their evaluations take account of CSR indicators. Nevertheless, they are specific.

Consider the criteria defined by Glassdoor to evaluate the interest of joining a company: work-life balance; culture and values; career opportunities; compensation and benefits; quality of leadership. Are these the evaluation criteria that a customer uses to choose a product, or a shareholder an investment?

It goes without saying that today all stakeholders are concerned about the well-being of employees. But that certainly doesn’t imply that their interests are aligned…

So all in all, it is difficult to eliminate internal information, to neglect the pedagogy of corporate transformations and their crossover with the questions (and the interests) of employees.

Is there any need for specific interfaces that allow dialogue between the company’s senior management and the internal audience (hierarchical, functional or geographical distances)?

More and more often, when we are briefed to put in place internal communications systems or tools, we see a desire to strengthen the direct circuit with internal audiences. [Fig. ]

[Fig. ]

Probably to offset the “CSR effect” and the bonus it gives to the hierarchical circuit (which certainly makes the message easier to adapt but carries a potential risk of inequality and egotism) and to the “affinity circuit” (which facilitates horizontal exchanges, but tends to re-create silos).

These demands often lead to the creation of living interfaces which connect information and relationship, heralding a company which dialogues and co-constructs. Implementing them requires engineering that can be quite heavy (in terms of manpower and cost).

Firstly because you have to speak the language of the recipients, which calls for a complex process of popularisation. Next, because it is essential to construct explicit procedures for feedback and dialogue. And finally because it is necessary to adopt a stance of listening to and knowledge of one’s target or targets. How? By frequently asking employees about their expectations; giving them the opportunity to ask questions about the company and its project without going through intermediaries; defining personas other than by using socio-demographic criteria (even if rarely) or statutory criteria (often).

Thanks to this work it will be easier to understand the project in both senses of the word: it has become intelligible and employees can show their agreement (“OK, I get it!”), which as a rule implies having been involved in its design, at least in the definition of actions and the agenda that stem from it (hence the explicit procedures for feedback and dialogue mentioned above!). This is perhaps how they may accept to “act for”, get out of their comfort zone, make changes to their behaviour.

When Danone developed a programme called “One person, one share, one voice”, all of this came into play: the senior executives defined a strategic framework on the basis of the purpose; all the employees will be trained in its expectations and its structure and will then – all – be invited to discuss it on a dedicated platform and to express an opinion on the action plans. For Danone, this is not a one-shot, but a change in the model of governance, which is a prerequisite for any request for sustainable engagement.

To give a full answer to the question “Do we need specific interfaces?”, the reply seems clear: if the problem is to co-design the project and the action plan, it is hard to imagine employees feeling free under the eyes of other stakeholders. We can probably extend the conversation with stakeholders upstream and downstream of the co-development phase; we can also prescribe moments when employees and other stakeholders can listen to each other and have discussions to feed co-development, but the “vote” is primarily open only to citizens.

At the end of the day, it is hard to understand the movement against internal communications, but there are two possible explanations. The first is financial. In a recent edition of its journal, the French association for internal communications, AFCI, suggests that the need for cost reductions is the real reason for the removal of frontiers between internal and external. The second concerns intention. Perhaps internal communications do not seem useful enough to senior executives because its mission is too vague: developing “an exchange of meaning,” “the quality of internal relations,” “development of cooperation,” etc.

Another choice would be to assume its instrumental dimension: internal communications, coordinated with external communications and HR, should enable the majority of employees to support the corporate project, all the more easily if they have co-constructed it.

If it can prove itself able to inform, then explain, then generate action in support of the company”, internal communications will once again become indispensable and will be given the means to carry out its mission.

These developments owe a lot to Bernard Emsellem’s Communication : pourquoi le message ne passe plus (Communication: Why the Message is No Longer Getting Through). Paris: Éditions François Bourin, 2016.