LPS Committee Member Kerry Sheehan reports


Public sector organisations need to put as much emphasis and urgency into internal communications as they do for external communications.

We often hear it is harder than ever for PR professionals to ‘manage the message’ as organisations are under pressure to become more transparent and engaged staff want to be able to talk honestly about their work and experiences on social media – but is it?

This was the theme explored at the lively CIPRInside panel event in London, attended by around 30 communications and PR professionals from a range of sectors.

The event provided an opportunity for a frank discussion on how external and internal communications experts can work together to deliver credible messaging – closing the communications gap, which exists in many organisations, particularly in the public sector. This is because despite the move to more generalist roles in public sector organisations, as funding cut backs require communications team members to be a ‘jack of all trades’, there still seems, in the main, to be a visible split between internal and external communications.

The event panel

  • Dr Kevin Ruck, Co-founder, PR Academy
  • Stephen Murgatroyd, Change Manager – Communication & Engagement, River Island
  • Alex Singleton, Head of Communications and Marketing, Circle Health
  • Jenni Field, Chair, CIPR Inside and Director @RedefiningCommunications as event moderator

Some of the key take homes from the panel

  • Organisations need to wake up to the power of employee advocacy and make employees their number one ‘trusted’ priority through high profile internal communications
  • Internal communications needs to be given the same priority and, more importantly, urgency by organisations as external communications
  • Nothing is just internal anymore. IC has the ability to go external in about four seconds (due to social media)
  • Organisations need to get real about fear of staff using social media. It doesn’t create staff leaks it just gives them a channel. If leaks happen, it’s a culture issue which needs to be addressed
  • Measurement for IC needs to improve dramatically, with it being a regular feature on Board reports
  • Fake news could become an issue for internal communications and organisations
  • Internal Communications (IC) should look to sit with HR at Board level.

80 per cent of IC time should be talking to employees

Kevin sitting in front of a table for the panel discussionDr Kevin Ruck, Co-Founder of the PR Academy, said: “Our focus as internal communicators should be on what will make employees, all employees, speak well of the organisation.

“I’ve been banging on about this for decades. People who should be trusted are your staff. Trust is dependent on what people think and feel of the organisation. Senior managers have to be open and honest at all times, so staff feel engaged and that in turn makes them good organisational ambassadors.”

He added: “About 80 per cent of the internal communicator’s time should be talking to employees as that makes for engaged employees. They are then your ambassadors externally and the time and effort you put in to this is then paid back in heaps.”

internal messages should be timely

“But, to do this effectively, internal communications starts with being open and transparent with employees. Tell staff how it is. No spin, no avoidance and no dragging your heals – all messages, internal and external should be timely.

“We need to be authentic too with IC otherwise staff see through the organisational messages and IC as a profession is then diluted.”

Dr Ruck added: “Thinking staff are only interested in pay checks and parking is at least 40 years out of date. Staff want to know their CEO and senior managers, where they are, have them talking to them about the values and company performance. It’s not about the name of the organisation. It’s about the culture – internal communications is often where we are losing employees as we are not engaging with them enough.

“Richard Branson at Virgin is one of the few who get this.”

Dr Ruck said: “Staff want to see if their CEO and leaders with their own eyes to see if they are authentic.”

He added: “Being a complex organisation over many sites is not an excuse. This is the CEO’s job. If the staff are not performing because they do not feel engaged because they are not happy or do not feel trusted, then the company is not performing. Doing this over email, webinars, bulletins or Skype will not gain the results you want over time.”

Dr Ruck summarised: “The trend has been for external communications to get things signed off quicker and get investment for campaigns. Whereas with IC, there is often a heal dragging tendency to putting things out to staff and campaigns are often on a limited or zero budget. In reality, we need the same emphasis and urgency put into both disciplines and for organisations to really understand the power of trusting staff, which in turn creates your biggest ambassadors.”

Internal comms deserves urgency and resources

Alex Singleton, Head of Communications at Circle Housing and previous Telegraph journalist, said he believed ‘external communications should run internal communications so the two are given the same urgency and, importantly, resources.’

He said: “There is a lot of talk about investing in internal communications and whilst it’s good there is movement on this at many organisations, it’s lost if we have to wait too long for messages/narrative to be signed off or senior management think for too long about the narrative we have put together and it falls by the way side as it’s too late to go out.

“Internal communications needs to be given the same urgency by organisations as external communications is, particularly media functions.

“This way it removes the chances of staff hearing about the bad news, and sometimes good news, from outside sources first.”

Alex Singleton added that there needs to be a drive to employ more senior communications/PR professionals within the internal communications sector as ‘it’s an area which needs to be taken seriously and with more rigour.’

Warning – all internal comms can end up externally

Stephen Murgatroyd, head of change communications at family-owned and run clothing chain River Island, added: “Nothing is internal anymore, whatever organisation you work at. All IC has the ability to go external in about four seconds. All of your IC messages should be fine with going external.

“CEOs and senior managers can no longer avoid telling staff good and bad news. You have to be real and tell it to your staff how it is. If they hear news first from external sources, you’ve lost them.

Staff information leaks can often signal cultural issues. “This often happens as a result of culture issues at organisations but it is up to the communications professionals to really influence the powers that staff need to be told it honestly and openly and in a timely manner, usually just before or at the same time as news goes external. We need to show our added value to organisations through doing this. It’s shocking just how many don’t.”

Stephen also spoke about the ‘fear of staff using social media’ at many organisations. “The fear about social media channels by organisations has to get real – social media did not create a way to leak info, it just gives staff another channel. Albeit a quicker channel, but it’s not the reason staff leak internal information.

“It’s crazy just how many organisations don’t live by this rule. We’re seeing high profile international organisations still getting it wrong. Look at United Airlines recently!

“Organisations assume staff will do the wrong thing with internal messaging/updates and that when these do go external and the senior management and Board don’t like it, it’s IC’s fault. It’s not – this is called an organisational cultural issue.”

Call for internal comms on board room agenda

Stephen Murgatroyd highlighted that internal communicators, particularly those in the public sector. need to set the measurement rates and make sure that IC is a regularly featured at Board meetings. “We often see shiny Board reports on external campaigns, website visits, social marketing campaigns resulting in X per cent of people showing an intention to change behaviour etc,” he said. “But we rarely see internal communications and engagement mentioned at Board levels.

“CEOs trust customers/clients/patients, but not so much staff. So, to echo Dr Ruck’s point, until organisations trust staff we won’t see transparency in internal communications like we tend to do with external communications. We really do need to start treating staff like customers and grabbing their attention.”

The audience discussed where IC should sit at organisations. “IC should sit with HR on the board,” was the view of Stephen Murgatroyd.

More learning points from the event

  •  Fake news becoming an issue for internal communications and organisations
  • “People don’t trust the news now,” said Dr Kevin Ruck. “You can’t counteract this by putting out more news updates to your staff if the original news does not come from the organisation first. So, it comes back to ensuring your employees are always your ambassadors and tell your organisation’s story.”
  • IC measurement needs to improve greatly and be measured at Board level – we’re not talking about just email/staff newsletter click rates.

What is your view on these topics which came up for discussion?

  • employees want to see CEO and senior managers face-to-face
  • social media can never replicate face-to-face
  • email and intranet is ok for key updates, but face-to-face will win every time

LPS call for case studies

Does internal and external communications join up in your organisation; do you report on IC in your communications updates to your boards?

If you have any good examples of these, or any other thoughts on closing the gap between internal and external communications, please do contact the CIPR LPS group to help us share good practice.

Blog by Kerry Sheehan MCIPR

Further reading on IC

CIPR Inside group

Resources on IC are available on the CIPR’s website available to members on its Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme. Find out how to join the CIPR’s CPD scheme

The CIPR runs Strategic Internal Communications courses and IC Diplomas.



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