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Internal communication consulting

17 Oct, 2021 Internal communication

Communication is at the core of every organization. In fact, members of the recent, mainly European-based, “Communication Constitutes Organization” (CCO) school of thought, believe that communication is the organization rather than an organization being the entity within which communication occurs (Schoeneborn, Kuhn & Karreman, 2019). Adopting this view means that all employees are responsible for communication, not just managers and communication professionals (Andersson, 2020, p. 78). This trend can be seen in the way employees can take responsibility for running internal social media activities, for example. They can also have informal roles as brand ambassadors and can be active in environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues. In view of this, professional communicators can potentially provide internal communication consulting services to business units.

Traditionally, the role of the communication function has been to shape the reputation and brand of the organization as well as to stimulate relationships with external and internal stakeholders. But communication is also essential in operational processes, such as influencing consumers, explaining strategic decisions, contributing to employee engagement, and so on. These activities are not only implemented by communicators, but also by all managers as well as by employees who are in contact with others as part of their job.

Internal communication consulting

CCO advocates believe that more organizations need to integrate communication responsibilities into the job description of all employees because the increasingly complex operating environment in this COVID era requires more flexibility and faster responses from organizations. One way proposed to lead to a more effective communication role for employees is for the professional communicators in an organization to adopt more of an internal communication consulting role.

To be able to meet this challenge requires professional communicators to move their professional focus from leading communication processes to developing internal communication skills at all levels (Hamrefors, 2009, p. 19, quoted in Zerfass & Franke, 2012).

The focus needs to be broadened and consciously linked to everyday interactions with suppliers, business partners, public departments, potential employees, or other internal and external stakeholder groups within the individual job execution…(Heide & Simonsson 2011, p. 212, quoted in quoted in Zerfass & Franke, 2012).)

The communicative organization

The communicative organization “requires timely information, knowledge and understanding of economic, social, environmental and legal developments, as well as of its stakeholders’ expectations. This [is] to promptly identify and deal with the opportunities and risks that can impact the organization’s direction, action and communication” (Stockholm Accords, 2010, developed at the World Public Relations Forum in Stockholm that year). “Therefore, everyone within the organization, and thus the whole organization itself, needs to be able to communicate effectively,” (quoted in Zerfass & Franke).

This requires the role of communication managers to be reset by moving the focal point from communication execution to communication consulting: “Hence, communication practitioners will have to take a role as internal consultants, coaches and trainers to a much greater extent than before” (Heide & Simonsson, 2011, p. 206). Based on their professional knowledge and expertise, they have to advise members of the organization on communication issues as well as enabling the whole organization to communicate adequately.

Therefore, communication managers need to cover a spectrum of enabling others on one hand as well as giving expert advice on the other hand.

Consulting includes “any form of providing help on the content, process or structure of a task or series of tasks, where the consultant is not actually responsible for doing the task itself but is helping those who are” (Steele, 1975, pp. 2-3, quoted in Zerfass & Franke, 2012). This underlines the fact that the consultant doesn’t have direct control or decision power (Kubr, 2002, pp. 3, 76, quoted in Zerfass & Franke). Internal consulting is different from in-house consulting because it is a stand-alone function with the main role of consulting. In contrast, functional departments are defined by a specific core activity that is complemented by consulting tasks.

When communication experts become responsible for focusing on communicative aspects of every employee’s role, the planning and implementation of training and skill development should be developed jointly with the HR department.

Image: Two consulting forms within the process of internal communication consulting.

The range of consulting provided by communication professionals may range from advising fellow members of the organization on how to communicate appropriately (expert consulting) as well as enabling others to master communicative challenges by themselves (process consulting) (refer the above image). This latter consulting role emphasizes that “[s]upporting the communication of others does not necessarily mean that communication professionals need to be directly involved in all communication processes, but rather be a director who stages and provides preconditions for fruitful communication” (Heide & Simonsson, 2011, p. 214).

In contrast to external consultants, internal consultants from function areas automatically develop specialized expertise through their original job responsibilities (Weiss, 2003, p. 3). For communication managers, this means that the communication knowledge and expertise they use and develop within their daily job build the basis for content-related input and advice. Not only do they need expertise to fulfill their role, but it is crucial for their expert qualities to be recognized and accepted widely within their organization.

Internal communication consulting framework

The framework in the image below shows four different components of the internal consultancy role; to:

  1. recommend communication activities and techniques
  2. provide and support communication competencies, structures, and processes
  3. integrate communicative insights into task-related decision making
  4. build and encourage awareness of the communicative aspects of any management activities or task-related decisions.

Since consulting is often closely linked to the implementation of planned actions, these resulting activities are captured in the framework as well. Communication professionals can support and implement core communication activities on behalf of the whole organization, specific members, or specific departments (eg, preparing CEO communication activities, running an employer branding campaign for human resources). However, they will usually not support or implement tasks for other functions (like defining corporate strategies, developing a remuneration system, conducting personnel searches).

A framework for internal communication consulting

Image: Consulting forms and consulting objectives of internal communication consulting.

Practical difficulties in internal communication consulting

The concept of internal communication consulting is appealing in the way it addresses the need for a response to the widening scope of communication within an organization. It could be implemented in large organizations in which the communication function is highly respected. However, in practical terms there are various drawbacks to implementation:

1. Communication professionals need to be highly respected

Responses to the COVID-19 emergency have helped internal communication (IC) pros to become more widely respected and even considered expert in some ways, but until recently, internal communication in many organizations has been considered a virtual backwater in which less-experienced communicators learn their craft.

For instance, the Gallagher State of the Sector 2021 report, which covered 800 respondents in 34 industries in 45 countries, found that only 47% of respondents said their IC function was part of their organization’s corporate communication/PR/corporate affairs function. The external operating environment is the major factor in influencing the internal environment, and so it creates various difficulties for the IC function not to be part of the overall corporate communication/PR/corporate affairs function. What’s more, around 24% of respondents said their IC group reported to the HR function, which further emphasizes the exclusively internal focus. And 13% said IC reported to the marketing function, which is an illogical role, if not completely dumb for an internal function. These facts mean IC is not in a position of strength or respect in too many organizations.

That’s not all: only 48% said they had an annual communication plan in place, and only 40% said they had a communication strategy in place covering more than one year.

2. Manager won’t admit they are poor communicators

In my experience, nearly all managers consider they are good communicators and know how best to communicate. But this means they are similar to many drivers: almost no one admits to being a bad driver – or a bad communicator. They get defensive if professional communicators enter their territory and want to get their staff to spend more time communicating. Quite political.

3. Communication is labor-intensive

Employees are likely to say they are flat out in their work, especially in this COVID-affected era. Therefore, they may be reluctant to accept more work as IC activities. And some managers may be reluctant to allow their direct reports to have a formal communication component added to their workload. This might even make the managers feel a little threatened by the fact of employees blurring the managers’ job description.

4. Communication results are often intangible

Communication outcomes or results are often difficult to measure. Therefore, in considering a potential role for internal communication consultants, the communication manager needs to carefully assess measurable objectives and results/outcomes that can be achieved. My article, “How to set PR goals and objectives to make your planning more effective,” can help you with this.

References

Hamrefors, S. (2009). The information officer’s role in leadership. Final report in the research project “Business Effective Communication”. Stockholm: The Swedish PR Association.

Heide, M., & Simonsson, C. (2011). Putting coworkers in the limelight: New challenges for communication professionals. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 5(4), 201220.

Further reading

Andersson, Rickard (2019). Employees as ambassadors: embracing new role expectations and coping with identity-tensions. Corporate Communications – An International Journal, 24(4):702–716. DOI:10.1108/CCIJ-04-2019-0038

Andersson, Rickard (2019). Employee Communication Responsibility: Its Antecedents and Implications for Strategic Communication Management. International Journal of Strategic Communication,Vol. 13, 2019 – Issue 1

Andersson, Rickard (2020). Being a ‘strategist’: Communication practitioners, strategic work, and power effects of the strategy discourse. Public Relations Inquiry, Vol. 9(3) 257–276. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2046147X20920819.

Leijerholt, Ulrika; Biedenbach, Galina & Hultén, Peter (2020): Internal brand management in the public sector: the effects of internal communication, organizational practices, and PSM on employees’ brand perceptions, Public Management Review, DOI:
10.1080/14719037.2020.1834607

Top image: Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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