Internal and external communications: the terrible twins

By Adam Kirtley

I’ve been a journalist a very long time, and a communications consultant many years too!I am surprised at this weird gulf that seems to exist between internal and external communications, and I’m sharing my thoughts on the ISOC Knowledge Centre.  

So why am I bemused? The answer is simple. In my experience in covering stories, internal and external comms are inextricably linked and depend on each other.

We journalists don’t differentiate. To us they are twins, not identical, but twins! And when the internal twin misbehaves or malfunctions, the poor external twin often has to pick up the pieces!

The Twins need to talk

We live in an Instagram, Twitter, Facebook digital world of complete citizen empowerment. Moods, reflections, opinions and prejudices are flung into cyberspace like confetti at a wedding, before you can say PR! That is as true of employees as anyone else. Good internal communications can help ensure that its twin brother in external communications is happy with where the confetti has landed!

When it goes right

Last summer I did a piece of work with a lovely client who does data analytics. They are very fast growing and acquiring companies all over the world, with different languages, cultures, ways of doing things etc. The company was very forward thinking put a lot of resources into making its new employees see themselves as part of the brand, and to feel VALUED and IMPORTANT. That way they would become ambassadors and advocates of the company, reducing the risk of bad press coverage. Simple stuff, but vital.

I worked with the company’s external PR agency and its excellent internal communications team. That synergy was absolutely right. No barriers, no silos.

When it goes wrong

We journalists LOVE it when we get news about a company or organisation from the INSIDE! Examples are aplenty. Take the disgruntled worker that only found out he’d lost his job on the news! I have interviewed several over the years, and boy can they embarrass their employer!

Or the whistle-blower that goes to the media saying her organisation is unsafe and morale is at rock bottom. NHS 111 is a recent example of that. (For those of you outside the UK, NHS 111 is a call centre for worried patients). If you don’t believe me Google it!

Journalists usually get these stories because the person feels, dis-empowered, and that management is not listening and doesn’t care. Employees have often told me that they don’t know what is going on within their company.

Ten years ago, at a radio station in the UK, the Editor sent an internal email around saying that the station HAD to go for a younger audience due to falling ratings, and that old people shouldn’t be allowed on air! This memo was leaked to the press, presumably by a disgruntled “staffer” and made the national papers.  Here’s just one example of the coverage.

Very bad internal communications here, leaving the twin dealing with the outside world with a PR nightmare. It’s also proof that today’s news is no longer tomorrow’s fish and chip paper! That article is ten years old!

For balance the same station excelled itself recently and a decade on things couldn’t be more different. This story was about a lonely 95 year old listener who rang in. Internally, the team worked together and decided to get him a taxi into the studios. What followed got huge coverage.

A fantastic story and a complete external twin dream! I hope he or she bought their internal comms colleague a drink!

Like me, Martin Alderton from Clarity is an ISOC trainer, and he specialises in dealing with stress and trauma for companies when disaster strikes. I work with him on crisis media and press conference training. He told me this: “When staff are affected by potentially distressing events, like a workplace accident or organisational change, goodwill is better preserved when internal communications clearly show: care and concern for those affected; that the effect on staff is being taken seriously; and that help, support and information will be provided as much as it reasonably can.”

I couldn’t agree more, and it makes whistle-blowing far less likely, and by liaising closely with external communications, you can better manage the media. Moreover external communications can brief any spokespeople to remember that their own staff might be watching them on the news, and to tailor key messages accordingly to reassure or console them. More proof that they are both twin brothers of the same family.

Happy on the inside, happy on the outside

I love this quote from Sybil F. Stershic who is an internal communications consultant in the US. “The way your employees feel is the way your customers will feel. And if your employees don’t feel valued, neither will your customers.”

Making a meal of it

I find this analogy useful. Take a bustling restaurant. There are two parts, the front of house bit, and the kitchens. Now it can be the poshest, most sumptuous restaurant in town, with attentive waiting staff, BUT, if the food is bad, late or cold; the customer will have a bad experience. Conversely even if the food is absolutely fabulous and served on time, if the cutlery is dirty and the staff surly, the customer may never return and won’t recommend the restaurant to anyone else.

Internal communications is the kitchen. The customer rarely sees it but it has to run like clockwork. The chefs all need to know what each other are doing, working as a team to get the orders out on time. Kitchen communication is everything. If that goes wrong you’ve lost it out the front! External communications is the restaurant itself. Customer orders have to be taken accurately for the kitchen, processed speedily and delivered beautifully once the meal is ready. This is the customer facing pointy end!

Silos are very yesterday. Those twins need to talk!

Perhaps the best way forward is to make it all open plan!

Find out more

This article draws on the knowledge base from ISOC courses on Internal CommunicationSocial MediaCrisis Communication and Media Relations.