Expert analysis from Dr. Martina Byrne, CEO of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA). This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.
Clear, factual communication has been front and centre in the approach taken by the public and private sectors as the Irish economy entered and exited the COVID-19 ‘lock-down’. This is to the credit of public relations and communication professionals such as the members of the PRII and PRCA. We do not have to look too far to see how dangerous, and even deadly, incoherent and mis-managed communication can be to a population during a pandemic.
The Critical Importance of Internal Communication
When directors and senior managers think of public relations and communication they tend to think of outward-facing messages directed at external stakeholders. Board members will think of communication related to financial and governance issues. CEOs will be familiar with conversations around strategic communication, trust indices, lobbying, and reputation management. Chief Financial Officers and Company Secretaries will think of media and investor relations around AGMs, share price, mergers, and acquisitions. Sales Directors will be regularly engaged with brand public relations. Health and Safety Managers will be aware of the role of communication in crisis management.
Outside of crises or industrial unrest, internal communication is often regarded as a priority only for Human Resources' directors. Yet, internal communication is an increasingly sophisticated aspect of public relations and no less business critical than corporate communication. No matter how carefully crafted an organisation’s strategy and policies are, if employees are not informed and engaged, ultimately that strategy or policy will falter and may even fail. And if there is dissonance between what the internal audience say about the organisation and the messaging in external communications, those on the inside, the employees, will be regarded as more credible, by the media and wider public.
Thankfully, organisations are increasingly aware of this and investing in internal communication either by building their own in-house teams or outsourcing to public relations agencies. A PRII study of the sector last year found that 52% of PR professionals work in-house within organisations: 25% in the public sector and 27% in the private sector. Internal communication is also a growth area in the service offering of public relations agencies. The PRII Census 2019, carried out by Amárach Research is available here.
COVID-19 and the Rise of Internal Communications
Directors and senior management have had no option but to turn their attention to internal communication since CO-19 locked-down Ireland. A PRII poll in June found 49% of members were doing more work in internal communication for their employers and clients than pre-COVID. Members of the PRII can see the results of the full COVID-19 poll on the PRII website. With Government advice that COVID-19 will remain part of our daily lives for the foreseeable future, that higher level of engagement with staff is unlikely to change.
At a recent PRII roundtable for leaders in internal communication, those working in the public and private sector agreed that the crisis had indeed ‘built the stock’ of internal communication within senior management teams and that the evaluation of Internal Communication has shifted from necessary function to critical organisational priority.
The Digitisation of Internal Communications
In addition to helping organisations furlough staff, continue to work remotely, or work under radically new restrictions, internal communication teams have had to move to entirely online channels of communication with all the inherent access, data protection and interactivity issues.
Internal communication managers speak of having to deliver large volumes of information rapidly and clearly while also explaining to employees how to access that information via online channels.
With the inherent isolation and stresses of lock-down, they were tasked not only to inform and train, but advise on new welfare supports, onboard new employees remotely, offer supports to those in distress or suffering from low morale, and even to entertain. And, of course, there is the ever-present danger of a ‘family row’ breaking out from an organisation’s owned digital and social media channels into the public domain.
The intersection of Internal and External Communication
Internal communication is a dialogue. It is about listening to employees and understanding how they are feeling and operating and providing the content that reflects and respects different needs and wants for information and context. Employees are not an homogeneous group. They consist of sub-groups and networks. Understanding employee information habits, concerns, interests, and perceptions is important to ensuring wide-ranging relevance and meaning. This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication with empathy and respect.
Employees are a critical stakeholder group. Internal Communication must be viewed as a critical component of a company’s management model.
Invest in internal communication professionals and resource them to communicate the messages of your organisation consistently and respectfully and the results will be significant. And external stakeholders will also take note.