Developing a Custom Internal Communication Strategy

What do employee engagement and your internal communication plan have in common? The answer is they are interdependent. If you want to maintain a high employee engagement level, you have to regularly and effectively communicate. For employees to pay attention to what is being communicated, they need to be engaged. Determining "regularly" is the easiest part of an internal communication strategy. The "effectively" part is the more difficult to achieve unless you can ensure all employees are included in messaging and feedback systems that use preferred communication channels.   

The internal communication strategy is essential to building the desired organizational culture, which is important to developing high-level employee engagement. The planning process must be thorough and reflect the changes that have taken place in the workplace. Too many communication plans are outdated now because leaders haven't taken the time to update them. This hurts employee engagement and the workplace culture and leaves the organization at risk on several levels, from effectively keeping employee engagement strong daily to efficiently managing a crisis to responding to a union organizing campaign. 

Beginning with a Definition of an Internal Communication Plan 

An internal communication plan is a roadmap that links your leaders to employees and employees to employees. The plan is a guide that begins with a communication assessment of where the organization stands now, where it wants to be, and the path to get there. 

Like any roadmap, there are various networked paths to reach different destinations. The internal communication strategy establishes the paths using a variety of communication platforms and tools to meet different organizational needs. The communication plan is crucial to achieving a high level of employee engagement and developing the desired organizational culture because it draws in everyone from the CEO to the frontline worker and keeps them engaged through in-person and digital communications.  

What are the Different Types of Internal Communication? 

Employees want a clear understanding of where the organization is headed, the strategies for getting there, and their role in helping the organization succeed. "Communication is the real work of leadership," said Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School (2010-2020). Communication is at the core of successful business operations, high employee engagement, meeting strategic goals, staying union-free, and fulfilling the organizational mission and achieving goals.  

There are various types of internal communication to keep in mind when developing an internal communication plan. Following are the basic types with a short description of each.  

Vertical communication from the executive level down  

Also called top-down communication, vertical communication refers to organizational leaders at all levels communicating with employees, but senior leadership communication is the organizational culture driver. Employees want to feel connected to the organization, and one way to meet that need is through purposeful senior leadership communication. The purpose and tactics of the executive-level communication were nicely summarized in a research project table. The following includes updates we added to expand the findings to a global or hybrid workforce through the use of newer technology tools. 

  • Casually connect with employees and maintain an open flow of communication – face-to-face leader rounding or walkabouts; random employee cafeteria visits, etc.  
  • Communicate with employee groups – round table discussions, Employee Advisory Groups, Employee Resource Groups, departments, units, etc. 
  • Connect with employees to share key messages and recognize workforce achievements – online videos or podcasts, live-streamed webcasts, etc. 
  • Provide an open, anonymous employee-focused forum for asking questions – web chat forum and question-and-answer website ("ask the CEO"), surveys, and questionnaires 
  • Update and inform employees of organizational values and progress towards goals – emails, employee intranet, meetings, organizational social media, and any other types of communication channels  

Bottom-up communication from employees 

Bottom-up communication is a strategy for expanding employee voice. This gives frontline employees a way to communicate with leadership, from their supervisor to the CEO. It is an inclusive type of communication and can eliminate communication silos which in turn promotes collaboration. Bottom-up communication enables employees to: 

  • Give and request feedback. 
  • Ask questions 
  • Present new ideas 
  • Address concerns about the workplace  

The variety of communication tools enabling bottom-up communication includes employee surveys, intranet social media, chat, employee Q&A website, employee polls, online and in-person meetings, virtual suggestion boxes, employee apps, and employee resource groups, to name a few.  

internal communications strategy

Information communication 

Your employees need a steady flow of relevant information that is also consistent. Two challenges organizations must overcome is conflicting information coming from multiple communication channels and information flows that overwhelm people. Conflicting information leads to unhappiness, and conflicting or overwhelming information leads to people ignoring the information (information overload). The information shared should be intentional and relevant to employees' needs to manage their work and relationships in the organization.  

The information that meets this criterion includes informing employees of what they need to do their jobs and connecting their efforts to the organizational mission, goals, and values. Information overload is counter-productive and increases worker stress. Overload refers to how much information employees need to process and how much time they have to process it. The information delivered through a communication system needs quality and relevance, influencing employee engagement, morale, and productivity. It should also be efficiently delivered because haphazard information deliveries are confusing.   

Important information communications include: 

  • General operational policies and Procedures 
  • Human Resources information 
  • Technology updates 
  • General operational guidance 
  • Employee training information 
  • Compliance information 
  • Business processes guidelines 

Communication to address unique situations like a crisis or an organizational change 

"The key to handling problems and conflict within an organization is to keep the channels of communication wide open," said Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, human rights activist, and environmental campaigner. 

Communicating change or during a crisis are unique situations requiring special handling. Both situations require leadership direction at all levels because both can negatively affect employee morale and engagement if not properly handled, making change initiatives more unlikely to succeed and a crisis situation worse. During times of change and crisis, employees feel insecure, and that's not good for the organization's people.   

Change initiatives vary in terms of intensity and breadth. For example, the change could involve a major event like opening a new plant or restructuring operations. However, a change initiative could be an office move or new regulatory compliance requirements. The internal communication plan will include a strategy that addresses the spectrum of change initiatives and how the change is addressed with employees.  

A crisis threatens business success. A crisis usually develops quickly, so your organization must always be ready to communicate with employees who can reduce risks as quickly as possible, followed by communication with the general workforce to reduce uncertainty or even fear. A crisis could be a natural disaster like a flood, a financial crisis, a social or environmental related issue, product recalls or products that caused consumers harm, and so on. Most businesses today are dealing with a disruption in their supply chain or logistics process, which threatens the ability to serve customers and make revenue goals. 

The internal communication strategy must include a multi-channel process for information flow. 

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Horizontal communications between coworkers or peers 

Peer-to-peer communication looks different today since most workforces are now hybrid. Horizontal communication is critical to business success because it includes employee networking and collaboration, which increases employee and organizational performance. Peer-to-peer communication could be about a specific project or task, sharing knowledge gained through experience, blogging, problem-solving, and simple chit-chat that supports positive interpersonal relationships. 

The internal communication plan will include communication channels, like Slack or Zoom or a company social media account, that all employees can access and more specific channels for activities like project management. These channels support performance and employee voice.  

There are other aspects to horizontal communication. An SHRM/Globoforce Survey of Human Resources leaders discusses the power of peer recognition to "spur employee growth and development," improve employee relationships (86 percent) and the employee experience (85 percent), develop the desired organizational culture (85 percent), and increase employee engagement (84 percent). 

Union organizing campaign communications  

Are you prepared to address the signs of union organizing? A union organizing campaign requires specific communication protocols and procedures to comply with labor laws, including the National Labor Relations Act. IRI Consultants discusses the communication strategy in the Effective Employee Communication During a Union Campaign article. In addition, union organizing has undergone many changes that will drive changes in your union organizing campaign communications. They include digital organizing and independent unions

Culture-focused communications 

Some internal communication is focused on strengthening the organizational culture by emphasizing the mission, shared purpose and values, and human-centered leadership. It also includes communication concerning onboarding, commitments, and initiatives around social and environmental challenges, community events, and employee recognition.  

Culture-focused communications have a direct impact on employee performance, happiness, retention, organizational advocacy, and innovation. An in-depth study discussed in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that a toxic corporate culture is 10.4 times more likely than compensation to predict an organization's retention rate. The study concluded that a toxic culture is a top driver of the Great Resignation.   

Employee engagement campaign communications 

One more type of internal communication is specifically for increasing employee engagement. In many ways, the engagement campaign is the sum of the parts, with the parts being the other types of internal communication. Think of this type of communication as a strategy to give employee morale and engagement a boost by increasing employee involvement. The communication should identify with diverse employees and employees in every work location. It can also demonstrate the company's commitment to people and values. For example, an employee engagement campaign is designed with employee activities that include storytelling from diverse perspectives. The communication channels can include communication tools like video or podcast recordings, social media, and employee blogs.  

What Should Be Included in an Internal Communication Plan? 

We just spent considerable time explaining the different types of internal communication, and clearly, it is a major undertaking to decide: 

  • What communication channels should be included 
  • What communication tools should be used 
  • What types of communication apply to your organization (probably all of them!) 
  • The most effective communication paths to meet employee needs 
  • How to streamline employee communications 
  • How to build a cohesive plan that doesn't get lost in the complexity and discourages your leaders and employees from utilizing the ideal paths 

There are so many options today for communication tools, and your internal plan can pick and choose the ones that are most effective for your workforce, culture, and organizational structure. They include but are not limited to: 

  • Emails (some people are already calling them old-fashion) 
  • Newsletters 
  • Meetings 
  • Employee pulse surveys and longer surveys 
  • Onboarding program 
  • Collaboration platform 
  • A website where employees can ask questions and get feedback 
  • Messaging apps like Slack and employee apps create a communication "headquarters." 
  • Chat rooms 
  • Intranet social media or social networking site 
  • Blogs 
  • Texts 
  • Videos (broadcasts) 
  • Video chats 
  • Podcasts 
  • Web conferencing  
  • Webinars 
  • Employee forums 
  • Team bonding tools like Donut 
  • Employee recognition platforms 
  • Employee Resource Groups or Employee Advisory Groups 

So many options. What communication tools should your organization use?  

communications consultant

Hiring an Outside Consultant to Create an Internal Communication Plan 

The basic approach is to develop an internal communication plan that includes a strategy for implementation is to do a communications assessment, identify gaps, lay out desired communication paths, and choose the best communication tools for leaders and employees. Once the plan is developed, you must invest in employee and leadership training. A plan should not collect dust – real or proverbial. 

Sounds simple, right? It's not because there are too many opportunities to unintentionally exclude employees, miss out on critical communication networks, and choose less-than-ideal tools.  

Internal communication covers a wide swath of purposes, but its focus is on more than sharing information between and with an organization's people. It's not just a matter of keeping employees informed. Effective internal communication truly creates a way to build a successful team, increase employee engagement and positive employee relations, and create a positive organizational culture. From this perspective, internal communication is a powerful tool for achieving numerous goals, including driving business success and creating a workplace environment where unions are unnecessary because employees are empowered through information and knowledge.  

Most organizations have undergone significant changes over the last five years, and the changes have a direct impact on internal communication.  

  • The workforce has at least four (some have five!) generations represented, each with its own set of values and ideas about work. 
  • The workforce is more diverse, which means it is composed of people who perceive the working environment in different ways based on their life experiences. 
  • Technology has developed new digital communication tools
  • The hybrid workforce model accelerated and is here to stay. 
  • Employees are empowered and expect to have a powerful employee voice in decision-making. 
  • Leaders are expected to communicate with empathy and compassion for employee lives, aka emotional intelligence
  • Change is nonstop, which adds complexity.  
  • The workplace is experiencing more drama for many reasons, i.e., post-COVID adjustments, the "I Quit" culturepolarization due to politics, increasing labor union pressures, uncertainties over the economy's direction, etc.  

An unknown source said, "Complexity is the enemy of communication." There is no question that doing business has gotten more complex, even when just looking internally at operations.  

It's more complex and dynamic, with change coming from all directions. For these reasons, many employers like you choose to employ the services of a corporate communications consultant. The consultant can assist with the communication assessment, the development of an internal communication plan, and the mapping out of a strategy for implementation.   

A Template for Creating a Solid Communication Strategy 

The basic steps in developing a successful communication plan include the following. 

  • Conduct a communication assessment which is like an internal communication audit 
  • Survey leaders and employees to identify communication gaps or needs. 
  • Establish goals and objectives for leader and employee communication.
  • Identify the relevant metrics to track whether the strategy is working. 
  • Determine the types of communication needed by talking to all internal key stakeholders, including heads of various functions like Human Resources, business units, finance, and technology. 
  • Identify the different audiences and the types of communication applicable to each. 
  • Identify the internal communication tools for the types of communication and the investment of resources needed to establish the channels and processes. 
  • Establish a process for regularly analyzing metrics and making changes as needed 
  • Develop a strategy to roll out changes triggered by the new communication plan 
  • Plan and implement leader training and employee training  

A solid communication strategy reaches all employees when they need to be reached wherever they are located. This includes onsite, remote, deskless, and field workers.   

More than Passing On Information to Employees 

Have you ever wondered about the cost of employee disengagement and the cost of poor internal communication? It's staggering. For example, Gallup recently reported that employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost $7.8 trillion in lost productivity. The cost of miscommunication is equally staggering. The Marlin company collected some statistics, saying that 1-out-of-3 projects fail due to miscommunication; large companies experience a $62.4 million loss annually, and small companies lose $420,000 annually; communication barriers cost an average of 40 minutes of lost productivity per employee daily and $26,000 in lost annual profits, and low employee engagement can lead to a 32.7 percent decline in annual income.  

A solid communication strategy is an employee engagement strategy with significant people and financial implications. Once implemented, it can build trust, enhance performance, develop the desired organizational culture, strengthen employee engagement, and lead to many other positive impacts. A strong custom communications strategy can also keep your organization ever-ready to manage change, crisis, and coming workforce changes requiring knowledge transfers, i.e., baby boomers retiring in greater numbers. 

IRI Consultants can help any size company implement effective communication strategies across the organization. Developing a strong and empowering custom communication strategy in today's work environment has become a number one priority for success. 

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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