This blog is presented by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
What Practitioners Can Learn from Scholarship to Enhance Internal Communication Strategy
Occasionally, academic research has been criticized for being behind what is actually practiced in the workplace. This often occurs because of the technological advancements and changes that happen so quickly. However, when it comes to understanding internal communication strategy, some would argue that the research may in fact be ahead of practice.
For many years, scholars have called for employee-centric communication practices (e.g. Ruck & Welch, 2012), recognizing the value in developing strategic communication for internal audiences as it leads to stronger employee engagement (Verčič & Vokic, 2017). However, the question remains, how many organizations and practitioners are actually implementing these research-driven, best practices?
In a recent case study of a government contractor that included 21 interviews and 7 focus groups with employees, I found that the organization’s approach to internal communication resembled the childhood game of telephone. The idea is that the executives would communicate a message to upper management, who would then take the message to middle management, who would then communicate the message to frontline supervisors, who would take it to their subordinates and so on. The expectation was that the message would make it through several organizational levels and come out to the end receiver as the exact same message. Well, if anyone has ever played telephone, even with five people, we know that the message is never the same when it reaches the last receiver. Therefore, it is no surprise that this particular organization has many internal communication issues, including employees feeling uniformed. I am sure many other examples exist of organizations not taking a strategic approach in communicating to internal audiences, an assumed audience, which begs the question, what can practitioners learn from scholarship to enhance internal communication strategy? The following suggestions emerged from this case study.
- Internal audiences need to be researched and understood.
In this case, the internal audiences were lumped into binary categories, management and non-management employees. However, many unique ways to segment internal audiences exist, instead of assuming them to be one or two groups. This requires practitioners to investigate the needs of internal audiences and then, creatively segment based on the research.
- Content and sources should be meaningful.
Using the research on internal audiences, meaningful content can be crafted and then disseminated using the most appropriate channel, which should be based on employee preferences, not on management’s assumptions. For example, new employees compared to long-term, career employees may require different types of information and prefer alternative formats.
- Feedback is essential to internal communication strategies.
In this case, when communication is disseminated via organizational hierarchy, level by level, upward feedback follows the same process. Therefore, feedback rarely makes it to top management, and if it does, the end message is distorted, leaving employees feeling unheard and undervalued. Feedback channels need to be available to all employees, and original messages need to reach top management to demonstrate that employee feedback is valuable.
Using the game of telephone to communicate important company messages that impact employees’ roles and responsibilities is not a strategic approach. Such processes lead to miscommunication and lack of information, which could impact employee engagement. Therefore, practitioners should take a strategic approach by conducting research to understand internal audiences, including what channels and content are most meaningful. In addition, feedback outlets also need to be part of the approach. In doing so, internal communication practices become more employee-centric, which aligns with the managerial implications suggested by previous scholars.
Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ruck, K., & Welch, M. (2012). Valuing internal communication; management and employee perspectives. Public Relations Review, 38(2), 294-302. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.12.016.
Verčič, A. T., & Vokic, N. P. (2017). Engaging employees through internal communication. Public Relations Review, 43, 885-893. doi:10.4135/9781452204536.n9