With the social, economic, and technological transformations sweeping the globe, companies and their leaders are challenged to harness disruption and innovation in a rapidly changing environment. In the midst of complexity and chaos, determining how to attract, retain, motivate, and engage talent has become a pressing issue for global business leaders. Workplace dynamics and culture today have shifted, particularly with the entry of millennials and Gen Z in the workplace. Technological advancements have blurred the line between internal and external. The voices of internal stakeholders can be easily amplified and travel across borders in real time. Thus, how to leverage employee ambassadorship and brand advocacy, capitalize on the power of emerging technologies, and mitigate potentially damaging issues has become a new differentiator for internal communication professionals.
As the evolving environment, new trends, issues, and audiences reshape the communication landscape in the workplace, communication models and practices need to evolve to cope with the fast pace of change. New opportunities and challenges at the macro- and micro-levels require internal communication leaders to update their knowledge base and equip themselves with data-backed strategies, insights, and toolkits to create an impact, deliver business results, and shape organizational competitive advantage.
Effective internal communication requires a thorough understanding of organizational context, infrastructure, power dynamics, employee psychologies, and communication processes. Communication does not succeed in isolation. Multiple forces, such as leadership, culture, structure, and technology, interplay to influence how communication works. With the changing business environment and media landscape, the goal of internal communication has gone beyond keeping employees informed, generating conversations, or shaping perceptions; instead, it is to create a holistic positive employee experience (physically and psychologically), manifested by trust, engagement, and loyalty, which can be translated into a strong internal brand and culture that can be leveraged in the company’s external communication efforts. Internal communication can motivate and inspire employees to work with a higher purpose and genuine passion and strive for a unified vision. It is to engage employees in behavior change. As an art and a science, internal communication is welcoming its best era.
Research and practice go hand in hand. Internal communication practice informs and is informed by research in this arena. In 2012, the Institute for Public Relations launched the Organizational Communication Research Center (OCRC), under the leadership and vision of former OCRC Chief Research Editor, Dr. Bruce Berger, who is professor emeritus at University of Alabama and a pioneer in internal communication research. The mission of IPR-OCRC is to develop an agenda “as knowledge aggregator, model innovator and thought leader in the area of employee communication and engagement.” I joined the Center in 2013 and have served on the editorial leadership team ever since. To date, we have summarized over 250 influential studies related to internal communication issues across various disciplines, each in 300-400 words with implications for practitioners. These studies were placed under 12 categories, including culture and values, employee trust, alignment, employee engagement, change communication and management, leadership and supervisory communications, mentoring, employee communication behaviors, organizational systems, communications, and channels, and best practices. Over 30 thought leaders from nine countries (i.e., US, Argentina, Canada, China [Hong Kong], India, Italy, UK, Slovenia, Peru) have contributed over 120 blogs to the Center, sharing cutting-edge research, deep professional insights, experience and observations in the field of internal communication. Today, research editors Patrick Thelen, April Yue, and myself along with Director, Gary Grates, and our 15 contributing editors continue working to make this interactive and expanding database THE resource center for internal communication academics and professionals. If you are looking to energize your employee communications and enhance your management communication skills by following updated research insights, theories, and cases and examples of best practices, the OCRC is the place to go.
In reviewing the current trends and issues reflected in the OCRC’s recent research summaries and blogs contributed by industry leaders, I’ve summarized the following topics that I think may deserve more research and conversations from internal communication academics and professionals.
1. Measurement and evaluation
How do we demonstrate the value of internal communication programs and campaigns for the organization’s bottom line? How can we incorporate new research and measurement techniques such as big data analytics in measuring the outcomes and impact of internal communications?
2. Strategic alignment
How should corporate leaders communicate to align managers and employees with organizational vision, mission and strategy, and enhance employee trust? A recent article of Harvard Business Review “Why Visionary Leadership Fails” discussed a study that showed visionary leadership was a positive force only when managers were aligned with the company strategy.
3. Emerging technologies
While there has been much discussion about enterprise social media, how can other new technologies such as artificial intelligence (e.g., chatbots), virtual/augmented reality, and blockchain be applied in the workplace to enhance employee communications, engagement, and experience?
4. Executive leadership communication
In an era when the role of CEOs as “chief engagement officers” has become more evident than ever before, how should CEOs communicate with internal and external publics, online and offline, to establish credibility and trust and enhance the corporate image they represent?
5. Emotions and culture
How to leverage the power of communication to build a healthy and effective workplace culture? How to build a culture where people’s emotions are understood, genuinely respected, and cared for? How to establish culture of positive emotions, such as joy, companionate love, pride, and gratitude among employees?
6. Internal crisis communication
How can the well-established crisis communication and issue management theories be applied to the internal context? When a crisis happens, what, how, and when should organizations communicate to their No.1 stakeholder, employees? How to harness the power of employee communication and advocacy in crisis management?
7. Purposeful organizations
How does strategic communications help build a purpose-driven organization? What are the roles of leadership communication in this process? Does corporate purpose transfer to employee outcomes, such as trust, satisfaction, engagement, retention, or even performance?
8. Employee advocacy
What is employee advocacy? Is it the same thing as employee word-of-mouth, employee branding, ambassadorship, or citizenship behavior? What drives employee advocacy? With the power of employee advocacy amplified in the social media era, how can corporate and leadership communication help create employee advocacy? (Note: OCRC research editor and PR doctoral student at the University of Florida, Patrick Thelen, took an initial step in addressing this issue in his dissertation.)
9. Strategic change communication
In the face of disruptive forces and increasing complexity and chaos in today’s business environment, how does strategic communication at various levels (i.e., corporate, team, peers) facilitate change implementation? What, how, and to whom should top leaders communicate about change? How does social media work in change communication?
10. Engaging frontline workers
“Engage your frontline to increase your bottom line.” The question is “how.” How can companies keep frontline employees informed, connected, and engaged? What are the most effective venues to listen to these best informants of your companies? How to build a sense of belonging and organizational identification among the non-desk workers, so that they are not left out in this age of digital communication?
11. Employee activism
With employee activism on the rise and becoming change agents, is it a good or bad thing for organizations? How can companies and leaders engage in dialogue with employee activists to address their needs and concerns, and achieve a win-win solution? How can companies strike a balance among their legal, ethical, and business responsibilities?
12. Employee well-being
While the linkage between employee well-being and employee engagement/performance has been well established, the question remains: In what ways does internal communication contribute to employee well-being? In addition to HR initiatives such as employee wellness programs, flexible work schedules, career coaching, mindfulness training, etc., how can strategic corporate and leadership communication efforts contribute to employee mental and emotional wellness?
The list can go on. I believe this is a far-from-exhaustive list of long-standing, current or emerging issues in internal communication that deserve more empirical research and discussions. I don’t intend to imply any sort of answers to the above-mentioned questions, although some of the topics have been addressed in our recent OCRC research summaries and blogs. Instead, I invite you all to join me in thinking about these issues, sharing your insights and wisdom, brainstorming solutions and ideas, and conducting collaborative research in these areas. If you’re interested in research partnership, or sharing your thoughts, experience or cases, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Through research, sharing, and learning, together, we get closer to best practices!
Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at the University of Florida and the chief research editor for the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter @RitaMen_UF.