Busybusyverybusy - why PR pros need to take internal comms and employee engagement seriously

"The internal comms strategist is busybusyverybusy - despite their whole job seemingly being about organising people's birthday cakes." So read a (tongue-in-cheek) Cosmopolitan article recently, which irked many a practitioner of a discipline that PR pros of all stripes need to sit up and pay attention to.

Internal comms specialist Rachel Miller says that while probably meant in jest, the article was "horrendous" and "beyond unhelpful". Plenty of fellow practitioners of internal comms and employee engagement - the terms are used with varying degrees of interchangeability - agreed.

But they needn't have felt insecure. These disciplines command increasing levels of attention and respect from major employers and business leaders, as attested to in a CBI survey last year.

Consequently, they are an ever greater focus for PR firms' efforts: from FTI Consulting's £1m acquisition of a 15-strong employee engagement practice last year, to senior appointments in internal comms at Brunswick, Good Relations, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and others. The number of internal comms jobs advertised on PRWeek Jobs this year is 12 per cent higher than in the same period last year.

In addition, new internal comms specialists are springing up, with two notable recent examples both coming, coincidentally, from ex-Weber Shandwick directors; Lisa Pantelli's start-up agency Become Communications and Coolr, launched by Adam Clyne, who suggests internal comms can offer PR the route into the boardroom it has long craved.

PRWeek asked several internal comms and engagement experts to shed light on an area which, Cosmo-based jokes aside, is growing in relevance and subject to increasing competition in agencyland.

Integrating

Stephen Duncan, who is Weber Shandwick’s EMEA head of employee engagement and change management, says it is "one of the fastest growing practice areas" across Weber’s global business, with ever more consumer and brand briefs incorporating his discipline.

"Even when they’re looking to engage consumers and other stakeholders, clients are realising that to involve their employees as an afterthought really dilutes the impact of their campaigns," explains Duncan, who says he has five employee engagement specialists working for him in London.

Nicole Linger is head of the UK employee engagement team at Edelman in London, which alongside herself includes another dedicated consultant and five others who work across employee engagement and other integrated projects.

Like Duncan, Linger sees an increasing integration of comms briefs. She adds that in the age of digital communication and social media, internal campaigns should always include consideration of what an external audience might think. Linger says: "Any time we send something out internally, we think 'let's just assume that's going out externally'."

She points to Edelman's Trust Barometer as showing that "employees are a company’s most credible spokespeople", a trend developing hand in hand with ever declining trust in institutions themselves.

Linger says Edelman's employee engagement briefs can have five broad aims: driving employee advocacy, providing engaging content to employees, developing employer brand and employer value proposition (aiding talent attraction and retention), change management and improving the articulation of a company's purpose.

Of driving employee advocacy, Linger says: "I always add the word 'willing' - we want willing employee advocacy, people telling their friends, neighbours and of course customers how proud they are of where they work."

A question of purpose

The issue of purpose is a hot topic among internal comms pros, just as it is in external relations and marketing. "Staff are more likely to advocate for a company if it's involved in social issues - that's especially true of millennials, but it's true of everyone," says Linger.

"People want to know their goals, understand the plans for getting there, and be confident about the value they're bringing to the business, which is especially true for millennials and Gen Z, who rely heavily on feedback and interaction," says Suzanne Peck, president of the Institute of Internal Communication and MD of internal comms specialist Sequel Group.

Peck's word 'especially' reminds us that employee engagement does not just mean 'millennial engagement', even if that oft-studied demographic appears particularly challenging. Duncan suggests that as working life extends and the workforce contains broader generational diversity, employers will need to segment their staff in order to effectively engage different internal demographics.

Comms and controversy

Two recent high-profile cases have seen corporate values and internal comms linked inextricably with external reputation – Google's sacking of engineer James Damore, who expressed views on gender roles far out of step with Silicon Valley’s liberal mindset, and the decision by the CEO of drug giant Merck to withdraw from Donald Trump’s manufacturing council over POTUS' response to racial tensions in Charlottesville.

In a polarised world, companies must be careful not to alienate internal audiences. Huw Morgan, Good Relations' new head of internal comms, was working in-house during last year’s EU referendum. His CEO went on record as pro-'Remain', but the business knew it had to tread carefully. Staff focus groups told Morgan that employees "would expect the company to communicate its political stances and explain the rationale", but did not want their employer to try to influence their vote.

"One of the ways I've built a relationship with a CEO is going to employees and finding out about what people feel strongly about and feeding that back," explains Morgan. He says this has helped bring comms practitioners closer to that holy grail of having the ear of the top brass, and a more strategic role.

HR or PR?

Many an internal comms project might on the surface appear to sit more naturally with an HR than a PR practice. Morgan says he has had "broadly positive experiences" of reporting into both, commenting: "Wherever you sit, if you want to be an effective team you need buy-in from across the business."

That said, Peck argues that internal comms "increasingly sits with external affairs and marketing rather than HR, reflecting the trend in aligning employer brand and employee brand". She argues that this reflects its role becoming less transactional, and more strategic.

That may be so, but she also notes the finding of internal comms agency Gatehouse's 2017 State of the Sector – that 23 per cent of global internal comms practitioners expect their budgets to be cut in 2017, a figure two percentage points higher than those expecting it to grow. Internal comms may represent a growth opportunity, but agencies will surely find that growth is just as hard earned as in any other comms discipline.


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