Internal comms can greatly impact external perceptions

Internal communications remains one of the most difficult areas of PR to cover for the business press, in spite of its critical importance to companies.

Internal communications remains one of the most difficult areas of PR to cover for the business press, in spite of its critical importance to companies.

Case studies of great internal PR programs typically revolve around labor relations or rebranding, rather than the turgid, ongoing, and necessary realities upon which companies and employees truly depend, such as employee benefits, health and safety, and human resources.

Communications to internal stakeholders goes beyond employees, of course, as we were reminded last week when Hewlett-Packard's efforts to root out the source of leaks to the media from its own board of directors were exposed. While boards have a culture all their own, there is nonetheless a common denominator when it comes to "us," meaning the company as a whole, and "them," meaning external stakeholders like customers, media, and government.

In truth, it is a delicate balance for companies, one that does not lend itself to scrutiny well. Any communication by a company, any decision it makes, is logically seen through the prism of self-interest by the corporation. "We got our employees to work harder and make better products" or "We do more for less than any competitor" are messages that can potentially provoke negative reactions among staff, even as they gladden the heart of consumers and Wall Street.

I understand that companies don't want to share the gory details of how they have, for example, introduced a new health insurance program. For one, there are issues of privacy. For another, much of this work is discretely unveiled, apparent in its effort only to the executive team putting it together. Like it or not, it would not necessarily do anything for employees to know just how agonizing it is to make sure that these very sensitive and personal issues are communicated in the most effective and least upsetting way.

But I struggle to understand why we are not hearing more stories of true and passionate employee engagement. For everyone from the board to the shop floor, effective communications play out in a day-to-day connection to the spirit and focus of the company, a buying-in of its principles and objectives.

This kind of engagement does not happen by accident, nor is it simply a cynical corporate construct. It is the marriage of policy and rhetoric, of transparency internally, as well as externally, and of living brand values at every level of a company.

In reading the coverage of HP's folly, I am struck by its leadership's efforts to root out the "how" rather than the "why" in the way information was delivered to the media. Particularly as HP had ostensibly left its Carly Fiorina days behind it, it seems absurd that the need to determine the source was more vital than identifying the factors that made going to the media a compelling option. Whether you're on the board or in the factory, loyalty and confidence in a company is built from within. Rather than focus on the past, HP would do well to move forward with a new commitment to ensuring the temptation would never again arise.

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