Are the lines between internal and external communication blurring?
The claim for some time has been that in a social media environment, there can be little distinction between what organisations tell their employees and what they say on traditional and social media channels.
However, many of the predictions about how social media would change the way that organisations are led and run have proved to be wrong. ‘Open leadership’ as set out by Charlene Li in her book ‘Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead’1 includes many fine principles, such as ‘develops a culture of sharing’. Unfortunately, in my conversations with students, this approach is often as distant now as it was when the book was written in 2010.
Blurring of lines incorporates an inherent suggestion that communication with employees is virtually synonymous with communication with journalists, bloggers and influencers. Of course, it is hard to ascertain precisely what organisations are doing in terms of how they treat these different stakeholder groups. There’s no academic or industry research that I know of that addresses this question directly. However, it’s worth testing the thinking that communication with employees should be synonymous with other stakeholder groups.
I would argue that employees deserve to be considered differently. This is because employees are usually much more invested in the organisation than any stakeholder. They spend a lot of their time there, they contribute directly to its success and their personal identity is often associated with who they work for.
Sharing information and giving employees a voice that is treated seriously is associated with employee engagement2 which in turn is associated with higher levels of well-being3. This approach requires a level of trust on both sides; senior managers trusting employees with information and employees trusting senior managers that it is a safe environment to express their views. This is about creating what Amy Edmondson calls ‘The Fearless Organisation’4. Of course, managers cannot share everything about the organisation and employees completely understand this. But they could often share a lot more. This, deeper level, communication would not always be appropriate for many other stakeholders.
The notion that internal and external lines are blurring is partly based on the suggestion that it is far easier for employees to share what is said at work on Facebook (or other social media platforms). How far employees are actually doing this is not known. Again, there’s no research that I could find to verify the situation. There’s no doubt it does happen, but the question is does it happen more now than in the past when company newspapers or magazines were sent to journalists?
If communication lines were blurring, you might expect to see more internal communication teams sitting in the public relations or corporate communication function now. However, the opposite is happening.
Last year VMAGroup reported a ‘growing trend of IC reporting into HR’ which ‘results from an overlap in remit between the functions’5. Instead of lines blurring between internal and external communication they are, perhaps, blurring with HR? In some ways this makes a lot of sense. The employee engagement agenda is not going away any time soon (despite some who still choose to ignore it) and internal communication is increasingly understood to incorporate employee voice, something that HR also sees as a responsibility.
The blurring issue is a bit of a red herring. Internal communication has always worked closely with external communication and will continue to do so. Alignment is important.
Whether lines are blurring misses the point that internal communication is a distinct (but related) communication discipline with its own challenges and opportunities. Instead of thinking about blurred lines we should be working to eradicate a blurred vision (in some senior management eyes) of the valuable contribution that good internal communication makes towards organisational success and employee well-being.
1 Li, C. 2010. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2 Ruck, K. 2016. Informed employee voice: the synthesis of internal corporate communication and employee voice and the associations with organisational engagement. PhD thesis. University of Central Lancashire.
3 Engage for Success. 2012. Nailing the Evidence. Available at: https://engageforsuccess.org/nailing-the-evidence
4 Edmondson, A. C. 2019. The Fearless Organisation. Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
5 VMAGroup. 2018. Inside Insight Report. Available at: https://www.vmagroup.com/blog/2018/04/inside-insight
Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and is the author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge.
Kevin leads the PR Academy CIPR Internal Communication Diploma.
“I think you tend to always get what you’ve always got if you always do what you’ve always done. So teaching and learning is about thinking differently in ways that can be applied to better practice. I also put a lot of emphasis on research, insights, measurement and evaluation. That’s why I did a PhD. It enabled me to understand how to do robust research that makes a difference to practice."