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How to Tackle the Blurring Lines Between Internal and External Communication


Internal communication is dead. Or, if it isn’t, it will be soon. That was the message from two Walmart directors at a social media conference in March this year. Chad Mitchell, senior director of digital communications, and Dan Kneeshaw, senior director of global associate communications, told their audience: “Great content is great content. There isn’t internal or external anymore.” These two directors work together to create content that is neither internal nor external, but “eternal.”

This growing trend to eradicate the distinction between internal and external communication has been building for some time. In 2014, Gerry Corbett, chair and CEO of the communication consultancy Redphlag, wrote: “Maybe it’s time to let go of ‘internal’ and ’employee’ as modifiers of communications to employees??and simply designate the umbrella term of ‘communications.'”

Until now, “internal communication” or “employee communication” has been a distinct and specialist activity with its own industry bodies, qualifications and career path. Should the line between internal and external communication now blur or disappear completely?

Gerry Corbett’s convincing argument for the eradication of the division between internal and external partly lies in the nature of communication in the 21st century, which he describes as real-time, ubiquitous and instantaneous.

The influence of social media

There is no doubt that social media have made the walls of our organizations more porous. In the past, an employee magazine might have been left on the train or handed to a customer. Today, everyone can see your CEO’s tweet instantaneously. Indeed, organizations now use the permeable membrane between internal and external to their advantage, publishing the CEO’s message to employees on the web for the world to see. Type “CEO message to staff” into Google and 45 million results appear.

The convergence of internal and external communication is largely driven by the desire for greater transparency and authenticity in the way organizations interact with the world. Stakeholders—whether customers, employees, shareholders or suppliers—are increasingly likely to question the values and integrity of an organization and become disillusioned with what they find. The Edelman Trust Barometer has been tracking trust in institutions for 15 years. Its 2017 report concluded: “Trust is in crisis around the world.”

Some commentators say the antidote to declining levels of trust lies in “radical transparency.” Clive Thompson, journalist for Wired magazine, describes this as a “judo move”: “Your customers are going to poke around your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info—so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?”

In an era of radical transparency, the distinction between internal and external communication feels redundant. This “access all areas” approach means everyone has the same access to the same information at the same time.

Another driving force behind this blurring between communication disciplines is likely to be generational. Studies such as the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016 indicate that those aged between 18 and 34 care deeply about joining an organization propelled by a meaningful purpose. Deloitte’s study found almost nine in 10 millennials believe the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance. This is the central tenet of Simon Sinek’s best-selling book, Start With Why. Sinek writes: “I find it fascinating how people can be so obsessed with external while ignoring the internal. To be good at anything, in any company, you have to start from within.”

“Content hubs” that erase boundaries

This may explain why many organizations—from Adidas to Airbnb—are using employee stories to attract customers. This year Adidas launched Gameplan A, a content hub for both its internal and external audience. Frank Thomas, Adidas’s director of content strategy and content marketing, explains: “I strongly believe if we as content marketers make culture the driving force of strategy, we will be rewarded with longer-lasting relationships. The most efficient way of doing this is to connect our target audience to our organization’s culture.”

This video from the Gameplan A site invites employees to “tackle work life with an athlete’s heart”:

If marketers are comfortable creating content hubs for employees and customers alike, this suggests a radical shake-up of traditional audience segments—and perhaps no need for segmentation at all.

In recent years, the Post Office in the U.K. has taken a more integrated approach to communication. As its group communications, brand and corporate affairs director, Mark Davies led the launch of One. As the name suggests, this is one multimedia channel suite for the Post Office’s many diverse audiences. At the heart of One is the website where employees, postmasters, customers, suppliers and opinion influencers can read a variety of content about the organization’s strategy, people, products and services without a login or password.

But despite championing a closer alliance between the work of internal and external communicators, Davies admits his view on the complete merger of both disciplines has changed. “I’ve moved on from thinking it’s all about content and audience divisions don’t matter. The fundamentals of what we do across every area of communication are the same—we grab attention to inform and inspire. However, there is a unique set of skills needed for each discipline we must not overlook.”

Davies says his external media background meant he initially underestimated the challenge of employee communication: “This requires people willing to immerse themselves in the culture of an organization. People able to build a profoundly close working relationship with senior stakeholders. To do that successfully you need to be resilient. You also need a sophisticated understanding of the channel mix—how to harness the power of face-to-face; how to optimize both print and digital channels.”

Davies’s advice to professionals in their 20s or 30s is to gain experience in all areas of communication. The boundaries between internal and external have softened and this trend is set to continue—so learn from the best in each field.

Internal communication requires a different approach

Many believe employees have a unique perspective on our organization because unlike every other audience—such as customers, investors, analysts and the media—they see under the hood. This intimate, behind-the-scenes knowledge means they are almost impossible to fool or beguile. Communications to employees must be exceptionally honest and open. You cannot “market” your organization to your workforce as you might market it to customers or clients. Internal audiences require an altogether higher level of accuracy, integrity and applicability in their communications.

We hold the organizations that employ us to a higher standard than those we buy from—and rightly so. Employee communication must reflect this difference. So, far from being indistinguishable from other disciplines or a subset of something greater, employee communication can hold its head high. It provides the infrastructure on which all other communication is built.

While marketers, media relations professionals and internal communicators should celebrate a closer, more collaborative union—one that promotes shared skills and problem-solving—we must not underestimate the authority and knowledge of a specialist. Our audiences will thank us for maintaining a genuine and deep understanding of their distinct needs.


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