by Arun Sudhaman

In the TV show ‘Undercover Boss’, heads of big corporations descend from the boardroom to the shop-floor, spending a week working incognito alongside rank-and-file employees.


Typically, the show demonstrates the massive disconnect between C-suite and ground-level, and episodes often end with a wiser company boss promising to rethink corporate strategies.

It is a vivid encapsulation of the difficulties inherent in internal communication, where employees can often feel marginalised by the companies that pay their wages. The scale of the challenge has prompted some to ask whether internal communication has become irrelevant, as illustrated by a robust discussion which recently took place on the Holmes Report’s LinkedIn page.


Leading the way was David Ferrabee, founder of employee engagement firm Able & How, who suggested that internal communication departments, in their current form, had largely outlived their use. In doing so, he lifted the lid on an area of PR that is seeing particularly rapid flux.


“I wonder quite honestly whether it should exist at all?” asks Ferrabee, taking aim at the “vanity publishing” that he says often characterises internal comms efforts. “It’s become synonymous with something that doesn’t really work.”


Style vs substance


Ferrabee points to the magazines, soft toys and puff pieces that often litter the internal comms landscape. In an era when companies are more aware than ever of the importance of authentic two-way dialogue, there are those who believe that internal comms people have been too slow to make this shift.


“What’s always given internal comms a bad name is the tendency to reduce it to newsletters and happy days,”  says Mark Schannon, who heads his own PR firm in Washington, DC. “People watch what one does, not what one says; to be effective, internal comms must work to make behaviour consistent with messages.”


That is easier said than done. “There is more communication not owned or controlled by internal comms departments,” says Charles Moseley, Sony Ericsson’s global head of internal comms. “They need to work as consultants and facilitators.”


Without a doubt, the impact of social media on traditional internal comms has been profound. In a world full of vocal online advocates and detractors, employees have the ability to shape perceptions of an organisation as never before.


For Moseley, this means that traditional top-down structures are being replaced by a “more decentralised model.” Sony Ericsson employees are now able to share a lot more through official digital channels. “There is much less use for news and more focus on strategy, business plans and change communications, driving engagement and enabling behaviour change.”


Understanding your people


One company that appears to have overcome one of the tougher internal comms challenges is Ford, which has dramatically revamped its business over the past two years. “I absolutely don’t think internal comms is dead,” says the automaker’s internal comms head, Sara Tatchio.


“When you talk about change, and delivering change, internal comms can very much be the people to do that.” To illustrate, Tatchio points to the work Ford has been doing during its turnaround. There are numerous surveys of employees, along with benchmarking of other internal comms programmes.


This has resulted in concrete measures to better motivate staff. Tatchio found that employees were most interested business issues, with product ranking second. Accordingly, EVP Mark Fields and CEO Alan Mulally took part in numerous Q&As. When it was discovered that employees were particularly interested in the state of competitors, the internal comms department created a specific page with this information on the internal website.


Employees are also surveyed around engagement with the company and its products, which Tatchio views as critical to her overall mission. “Engagement is absolutely part of the internal comms function.” But she is also careful not to dismiss the kinds of content that sometimes seem redolent of a different era. “There are some places where accomplishments and recognition motivate the workforce.”


Surprisingly, Tatchio admits that Ford’s internal efforts do not currently use social media much, and still “has a way to go on two-way” conversation. However, 76 per cent of Ford’s salaried workforce come to the company first for its information, and a large majority visit the intranet every day. And even if Tatchio has not fully embraced digital, she points out that the company uses a ‘word-of-mouth’ model so that information is cascaded through specific influencers and smaller team meetings.


Tatchio’s experience demonstrates the unique nature of each employee engagement challenge. Every company culture is unique; understanding and harnessing that can be the first step in a truly authentic marketing strategy. “Internal people should be helping the business succeed by getting people to do what the business needs them to do,” explains Ferrabee. “You cannot sell to your employees… and trying to make them happy is not a good enough objective.”


A tough audience


APCO senior counselor Barie Carmichael takes this argument further by pointing out that employees are among the toughest opinion influencers to engage. “As firsthand observers of the company’s successes and warts, employees are inherently skeptical of messaging that sounds slick or pre-packaged.”


For Carmichael, a successful employee engagement strategy has to first begin with management who are willing to understand their point of view. “Depending on the company, they may not want to hear it.” In addition, she notes, “employees also have their own internal network of third party opinion leaders within the company.”


“Often that internal dynamic is ignored rather than built into the communications plan,” explains Carmichael. “Add to that the extensive informal networking options in the wired world that connect the internal opinion influencers, and the challenge becomes even more complex.”


For Hill & Knowlton EMEA corporate head Stuart Smith, this means that companies should aim for a more emotional tone, rather than placing too much reliance on rational messages.

“Brands have learned to entertain their external publics with compelling content – and yet still companies are nervous of ‘entertaining’ their staff even when we all know it helps to deliver a message,” says Smith. “Getting the right answer to the question “why should I give my employer that extra 10 percent effort” is easier for the emotionally intelligent company – especially when top talent has choices even in these economically tough times.”


Smith points to the faux training videos that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made for Microsoft, sending up their roles in The Office to amusing effect. “Once convinced, employees can truly become evalgelists for the brand and are far less fickle than other endorsers,” adds Smith.


The Microsoft example also succeeds because it indicates a willingness to treat employees as adults. Tom Mattia, Yale University chief communications officer and former SVP at Coca-Cola, believes that this is the key if employees are to become true brand advocates.


“Your people need to know where you are going, and have reason to believe in your direction, before you tell the world outside,” says Mattia. “Your people need to know your organisational news ahead of all other constituencies with, hopefully, deeper, richer texture.”

“The time has long past when the less talented, less motivated communicators handle internal while the bright stars work external,” adds Mattia. “Today, there can be no shallow end to your talent pool. Some of your best talent needs to be working inside.”