The thin line between internal and external communications

by Derek Logan, communications advisor

Ask enough professional communicators the difference between internal and external communications and most will tell you there isn’t one. Many say internal and external communications are two sides of the same coin, and that most internal messaging eventually becomes external.

A boundary between an organization and the public is porous. Employees have daily conversations with families and friends, information leaks out accidentally or intentionally, and traditional and social media can pick up even the most innocuous item and amplify it. Likewise, employees are influenced by the people they speak with, the media they see or hear and the experiences they have, and they bring this accumulated communication baggage with them into work.

Aligning the message, inside and out

Because of this, many experts recommend professional communicators should always anticipate effects on the flip side of a communications plan. Ensuring a message aligns both internally and externally is crucial to quality communications planning. Keeping internal and external information in silos can potentially create undesired consequences in communications planning.

Internet giant Yahoo experienced discord in 2013 when it attempted to silo a change in the workplace to internal communications. Yahoo planned to eliminate a work-at-home perk to bolster productivity, even though it was highly valued by Yahoo employees. In fact, a memo to employees notifying them of the change failed to acknowledge people outside the organization – such as family members or dependents – that could be affected by the change. Many professional communicators panned this oversight, as well as other errors in the message delivery, after angered employees leaked the memo through social media.

Despite online chatter and news media coverage generated by the leak, company management maintained it was an “internal matter” until ongoing external pressure motivated Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer to talk  “about the elephant in the room” at an industry event and properly explain the company’s position to the public.

Arguably, some if not all of the communication issues could have been avoided had a cross-section of employees been consulted before the memo was distributed. Consulting with them would have caught many errors in the message, anticipated reactions inside and outside the company, and made sure both internal and external communications were aligned.

Sometimes decisiveness is needed, as extensive stakeholder consultation can sometimes be costly, inefficient and time-consuming (After all, Yahoo had appointed Marissa Mayer to resolve major productivity and management issues in a short period of time). However, in this case, the move affected not just employees, but family and other dependents close to the employees. The company’s decision had ramifications beyond the employees yet somehow this was missed during the planning stage. Employee consultation would have caught the error early before the memo had moved beyond first draft. The message would have been more empathetic and likely included an adjustment period for the benefit of employees that had dependents also affected by the decision.

Alignment is always critical. Communications must not separate internal and external into silos but have parallel plans worked out. These extra considerations can only strengthen organizations.

Tips

  • Always assume information will get out, one way or the other. Check your list of external stakeholders to see who may be affected by your message.
  • Your internal audience can be the best champions of your message, or its worst detractors. Involve a cross-section of them early in your planning process and look for opportunities where they can help form the message.
  • Always inform the internal audience first, even when the message is intended primarily for external audiences.
  • Have an external communications plan on stand-by to the internal communications plan, and vice-versa.
  • Privacy for individuals is important but an organization is public by nature. Being open, transparent and accountable can reduce negative reactions to messaging.
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