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Content and channels in internal communication

I’m currently researching internal communication needs from the perspective of the organisation and employees.

There’s lots of good stuff on how internal communication benefits the organisation in different situations. Bill Quirke’s book, Making the Connections is packed with practical advice and good mini case studies. His emphasis on focusing on the “why” as well as the “what” in change communication and putting everything into context stands out. John Smythe’s focus on leaders and their role as “guides” not “gods” in his book, CEO: Chief Engagement Officer, is memorable. Roger D’Aprix’s model of the employee questions line managers must answer also helps to shift the focus to the “what’s in it for me” as an employee.

Despite all of this, I wonder how far we, as practitioners, are delivering on employee communication needs? If you have studied public relations, you’ll know all about the academics, Grunig and Hunt. In their 1984 book there is the following quote about internal communication; “A great deal of money is spent on achieving a degree of journalistic slick which does little in communicating to employees but does much to satisfy the egos of communications technicians”.

Surely, we’ve moved beyond this now? Not according to Morris and Goldsworthy who suggest in their book PR – A Persuasive Industry? that internal communication is “the branch of the modern PR industry that best realises the propagandist’s dream”. An overstatement I think, though it might be true that internal communication is one aspect of corporate communication where practitioners still retain control of most of the formal channels and the information that is pumped out. Internal social media will change that as it has done in the external communication world.

In the internal communication academic research world, it’s quite revealing how little attention is given to the needs of the employee. I’ve found many journal articles that explore internal communication and indicate the way forward for practice in ways that benefit organisations.. This is great as those benefits are also probably good for employees – though this question is seldom asked. There is also plenty of research into what channels employees like to use for communication, with a focus on process. However, there is much less research on the topics that employees would like organisations to communicate about. We tend to assume that employees are interested in all the corporate stories that are produced, though often there is a reluctance to share some information and this leads some employees to think of newsletters as corporate internal propaganda.

Interestingly, critical theorists have not said much about this so far, unlike in the wider PR academic sphere. Unless we know what employees feel about the content of internal communication it is not really worth looking at the channels. We seem to have got the focus out of skew with lots of understanding on channels and much less on content. Of course, it could be that employees are getting all the information they need about all the organisational topics they are interested in. At the moment it’s simply hard to say this with any certainty.

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