ANALYSIS: Internal comms gets a welcome makeover - Research published next week will confirm that the role of the in-house internal communicator has grown in significance in recent years. But there is still a credibility gap to fill, says Allison Giles

In-house internal comms roles, once thought of as the departure lounge for long-serving PR or personnel officers, where the main responsibility was to produce a quarterly newsletter, has undergone a facelift.

Research published next week by headhunters Watson Helsby, to which 37 US and UK internal comms heads contributed, indicates things are looking up for this erstwhile unappreciated and under-resourced group, responsible for advising companies' top managers on all aspects of how they communicate with staff.

Salaries, always a good indicator, are on the up, with rates now comparable with media relations heads. Although in-depth quantitative research will come with the PRWeek Salary Survey next month, Watson Helsby's assessment says the average salary for the top internal comms post in many firms is now between £50,000 and £60,000. Salaries in the £60,000-£80,000 bracket are increasingly common.

Another mark of in-house internal comms' growing pull is the fact it is attracting staff from other, traditionally more glamorous areas. And symbolically, the title head of internal communications is becoming increasingly common, the report found, with more than half of those participating being a 'head' or 'director'.

Key to the improved profile of the internal communicator is the perception of the job at board level. Most respondents in the Watson Helsby survey said internal comms was increasingly high on the leadership agenda, with 70 per cent saying they were now represented effectively at board level.

'The CEO is a strong believer in internal comms. He realises that it is key in business transformation,' one contributor says.

But a unanimous commitment to internal communication at board level was still said to be rare, although this was seen as much as a function of understanding as of cultural resistance.

CEOs were, on the whole, thought to believe that the external environment was more pressing and was perceived to have a greater impact on corporate reputation. 'He understands it, but his first love is external, and I don't get the impression that he really places the same emphasis on my discipline,' says another.

Despite this, the research showed an increasing number of practitioners did have access to CEOs. The internal customer was seen as increasingly important to the success of the corporate brand.

'Most organisations that "sell

either values, ethos, thought or advice are beginning to invest more time and money in internal comms, since it is now deemed to be business-critical factor,' says the report's author, Nick Helsby.

A good job too, says Sue Dewhurst, internal comms director (note the title) for NTL. If the CEO is not on board, she says, there is no prospect of success: 'The role is being taken more seriously. It's become more complex, but you need commitment from the top.'

The report offers several reasons why internal comms is taken more seriously.

The growth of the service-based economy means the human face of the brand is more important. The rash of M&A activity has brought change management to the fore. And globalisation means some employees have only a tenuous connection with the brand their company sells.

'The rise in internal comms has been driven by business need,' says Karren Harker, Cadbury Schweppes employee comms manager: 'Global projects, the acquisition of new businesses, pressure for growth and the need to retain employees all mean you have to take people with you, and you need someone to help you do that.'

Despite increased recognition from the board, however, the likelihood of an internal comms professional moving up to director level is still thought to be slim.

Respondents largely agreed that there was a ceiling: 'We have the same debates with the CEO as external comms had ten years ago. Then it was "Why do I have to speak to the press,"- now it is "Why do I have to speak to staff",' one says.

But some sector specialists lay the blame for this at the door of practitioners themselves. If the message that internal communication can improve business performance is not getting through, it is partly because the commercial awareness and dynamism of practitioners are not yet of a consistently high standard.

'To be a successful internal communication practitioner, you need to know what external is doing as well,' says consultant James Harkness.

'You need HR and marketing skills to make it work. The overall calibre of internal communication people has never been higher, but it's a tall order.'

The message is, if you want to be taken seriously as an internal communicator, the skills you need are legion. But you'll also need resources and time to show that what you do can improve business, and you'll have to work out some creative ways of measuring that improvement.

It will, the report's authors conclude, be up to individual practitioners to do their own trend-setting by developing skill-sets and looking for ways to add value. A perennial challenge.

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