Internal communications is public relations. The words ‘internal’ and ‘public’ are contradictory, but the concept is true. Employee communications is no longer a function of human resources or people teams. Why? We live in a culture centered around information leaks. What’s communicated internally is shared publicly, sometimes within a matter of minutes. Internal comms is external comms. At the same time, external comms is internal comms.
Both functions (internal and external comms) shifted tremendously over the last decade. The breaking news we read about the world’s largest organizations comes from leaked internal all-hands meetings, existing employees, and forwarded company emails. One of the best examples of this is when journalists covered a Meta all-hands before it actually took place and coverage continued publishing while it was still in progress. Press discussed return to office policies at some of the world’s most powerful financial institutions before leadership actually finalized their plans. Employees in the modern workplace frequently look at what is said about the company externally with the same expectation of truth as internal communications.
What this looks like in practice
Internal and external communications existing separately today seems like a time capsule to a different time given today’s hyper-connected world. Uniting internal and external communications can be much more uncomfortable in practice than in theory. It requires a new level of transparency and proactivity. Stripe’s recent layoff announcement is a perfect example. Stripe published the internal email from the CEO outlining the challenging decisions to reduce the company’s workforce, transitional support for those impacted, and a plan ahead for those still employed. In articles covering the news, Stripe’s CEO is described as humane, employees impacted are empathetic, and some even credited the challenging economic climate. From a communications perspective, that is likely the best possible outcome given the situation.
Making the case
Separating internal and external communicators no longer serves anyone. Here are three core reasons why internal comms and external comms work best in unison:
- PR teams are trained to calculate risk and plan for it.
Understanding employee perspectives is core to effective internal communications. You need to anticipate what employees need to know, questions that might arise, and how they are most likely to retain the information. One of the biggest risks associated with internal comms is a leak or, more specifically, a disgruntled employee airing grievances externally. What if the worst happens? Then what? Anticipating risks internally only gets you so far. Comms in a crisis requires understanding varied perspectives, whether that be among press, target audiences, or employees, and when or how to respond–all areas that external comms teams live in.
- External comms requires a contextual understanding of impact.
PR leaders are responsible for understanding who is saying what and how many people are reading it (among other things). In a crisis, you can only determine if or how to respond if you know the scope and impact of the crisis. There’s a common phrase, “don’t listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Understanding the views of the loudest voices in the room is critical, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate a required response. Understanding the impact of the loudest voices in the room prompts action. External communicators understand broader context, market influences, and impact through data.
- Building a brand is a recruiting and retention function.
Studies show that people consider a brand’s reputation before they consider employment. Exactly 50% of candidates say they wouldn’t work for a company with a bad reputation, even for a pay increase. A whopping 92% of people would consider changing jobs if offered a role with a company with an excellent corporate reputation. The way that comms teams handle internal and external news (positive or negative) reflects directly on the employer brand. Building a brand requires consistency across internal and external channels. If done well, it becomes your company’s most effective recruiting and retention tool.
Internal and external communications teams are transforming. Today’s workforce and media landscape require a new level of transparency and proactivity. To be truly effective, you need to acknowledge that internal is evolving into PR. Comms leaders are responsible for understanding who is saying what and how many people are reading it. The only way to manage risk, understand context and impact, and build a brand effectively, is to start with data. Decisions about your brand are only as wise as the data behind them.