Guest Blog & Interview | Rachana Panda:  Internal is Now The New External

Excited to share the next edition (the 7th) of Intraskope’s Spotlight on Internal Communication Series featuring Rachana Panda of GE. She reflects on the influence of employees on the brand, how internal communicators curate the culture and putting employees at the heart of communication.

In a career spanning about 20 years Rachana has worked in multiple geographies and with organizations such as Alcatel, UTStarcom and Alstom leading strategic communication, media relations, leadership engagements, internal communication, brand building and crisis communication. Do read the blog and interview below and share your thoughts.

Guest Blog

Reputation is No More Restricted to External Communication Anymore

I was doing a rushed bit of reading before a busy Wednesday morning kicked off (is there any other kind of morning?) when I came across a particularly interesting article on the recent diversity communication at Google and the action taken by the company. This got me thinking about the impact employees and their sentiments could have on a brand. Closer home we have had other brands like Mahindra which have had employee concerns (and was handled very well by the leader). Reputation is no more restricted to only external. A very sobering thought! This means as communicators, it’s time we look at the broader role of ours, much deeper than just employee engagement. Today internal communications is turning out to be a very specialized, professional and in-depth function by itself. And the best news is that we are part of this evolution.

Internal is now the new external 

It’s interesting to see how a decade ago most of us never considered internal communications as a full time role but today I think every progressive company understands the role of a strong internal communicator (pls read as culture communicator). There is a single word that sums up what a person sees when they look deep inside our businesses: they see our culture. At one time, our internal culture was just that: internal. Now, there’s no such thing as ‘internal culture’ anymore. The culture of an organization is out there, larger than life and totally visible. It is a crucial part of the brand. An organization’s culture never really stands still. Like a growing child, it morphs and evolves in sync with the happenings inside the company. A company’s brand is primarily the story of its cultural journey —it’s birth, evolution, transformation, beliefs and most importantly its stakeholder perception, most critical of them being the employees. More so in the digital era, wherein everyone is a reporter or a storyteller. How we empower and leverage our employees will decide the outcome. There is no perfect way but definitely worth trying a few new ideas.

It’s all about pull strategy (push does not work anymore!)

No one lives our company culture more than our employees do, so getting them engaged is vital. At GE, we use opinion surveys & polls to understand our employees’ expectations and interests. It is seen that during transformation employees are much more likely to listen and help innovate if they feel valued and engaged. Listening is the best form of communication here. It’s not always about leader driven communications, employees are the new heroes! Research has shown how peer views is more trusted these days. While no one is contesting the value of leader communication, there are aspects when peer voice becomes more credible. One of our most interesting campaigns has been the #balancetheequation social campaign where our employees became the celebrities and leaders the followers.

Internal & external should play like a symphony

Use of digital media for internal audience is becoming more & more seamless. For most conglomerates like GE, we know that we have to constantly deal with information overload through multiple channels. At GE, Eddie (an agile internal news sharing platform named after Edison, the founder of GE) is a platform that was recently developed to develop and share content easier and simpler. Eddie is a cool, smart innovator and he facilitates every employee to become a storyteller externally as well.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Communication is all about creating an alignment between the big-picture goals, plans, and strategies from the top of the organization and the employee on the front line. We need special skills to drive a very thought through strategy. These are experts who are domain specialists adept in recognizing behavioral shifts, in information consumption while assessing the wisdom of using of multiple channels, have the ability to ask relevant questions to the leaders, to be able to simplify and translate the strategy for employees. And most importantly someone who can measure and analyses the data on what’s working. Now that is by no means a child’s play. In my case, I thoroughly rely on my internal communications leader and deeply value her depth of understanding of employee pulse and culture.

Internal communication is ultimately the responsibility of the CEO

With leaders realizing the importance of their relationships with their employees, it is imperative that the initiative comes from the top. The CEO has to make the time for connecting directly with his people, listen and value the inputs provided by the experts, be open to feedback and demand for more engagement. I have had the opportunity to work with the such leaders at GE, who understand this well and in fact push for innovative ways to connect with the employees be it millennials, commercial teams, diverse talent or manufacturing talent. And each of these are very different in terms of messaging and platforms. GE has developed some very interesting real time content on this over time such as the doodle seriesour newest Molly ad, and “My mom works at GE”.

This is indeed an ideal time to highlight and grow the internal communications function. “Employees are our most important resource” is a phrase that has been done to death. If we really and truly stand by and commit to that sentiment, then now is the time to recommit treating them that way with a robust communication function that has the skills and resources to meet their unique and important communication needs.

Interview

  1. As a head of the function, what percentage of your time do you assign to internal communications?The importance of internal communications is very high and in these times of transformation it becomes paramount. The scale and focus of course, depends on the stage the company is in. Normally I would put it as 40 percent of my time. This becomes critical during leadership change or during transformation of the company where it has a renewed need to be strengthened. I always believe in going internal first.
  2. What would you suggest internal communicators to focus on in these evolving times?

“Strong grasp on the company strategy” and “understanding of the audience” is what I think is most needed. Most internal communicators end up spending their time in tactics and employee engagement activities. While these are important, the real value of a communicator is to drive the company culture to be able to deliver the strategy. It has to ultimately add to the business outcomes.

  1. Is internal communications as critical as external these days?

I would say internal communications is something new and companies are realizing its importance and potential. Those who are not, eventually will do. But internal communications means different things to different organizations. As communicators, we need to counsel and encourage our leaders to look at two way communication within organizations. Adding employee voice to the strategy and seeking opinions on outcomes are critical. To me, with growing pressures on external communications budgets, we need to look at innovative ways to involve our employees to tell the company story. That’s where internal meets external.

  1. Internal communication in many organizations sits with HR or marketing. What do you think about that?

I don’t really think that matters a lot. Ultimately it has to be driven from the top and executed by experts. I have seen and studied a number of cases where HR teams execute employee engagement activities (due to lack of resources). While it is no rocket science, but internal communications does need experts and a well thought through strategy. I would dare to say that most agencies can do a good job on external communication but internal communication is best delivered by specialized & dedicated communicators who understand the strategy and the pulse of the organization. There is always a general way and then there is a specialized way of doing things. The best always comes out, when you have the right skills and right focus at the right place. That’s as true in internal communications as an aspect.

If you are an internal communication practitioner working in a firm or a not-for-profit and have an internal communication case study, campaign, research insight or a guest blog post to share please contact me on intraskope@yahoo.com

Internal communication outlook in India – 2009 and beyond

With 2008 posing numerous challenges and highlighting enormous opportunities for internal communication in India, I believe 2009 will be a year to introspect and rationalize. The years ahead will serve to consolidate and revitalize. The impact of the downturn will be visible more this year – job and salary cuts, reversal of benefits, cost management initiatives, greater expectations from employers to deliver more with lesser perks, investment and consolidation of internal telecommunication assets, improved processes and in-sourcing of communication needs.

 

Stretch of tree-lined highway between Bangalore to Mangalore
Stretch of tree-lined highway between Bangalore and Mangalore

I would think the trends will pan out on two levels – strategic and tactical.

 

On the strategic level, we will probably witness the following:

 

a) Rationalization of communication means – leveraging invested channels of communication, a move to social media avenues. There is a belief that internal communication can achieve more with less at this juncture.

 

b) Emphasis on messaging: What is being said will drive more that how things are being shared. The message will involve employees more; engage them through social media tools, focus groups, internal bulletins and forums. Frills like take-aways, freebies, fancy town halls at external venues and celebrities at employee recognition events will drop off for simpler, more austere means of communication.

 

c) Leadership expectation on change management: Leadership will turn to internal communication professionals to deliver more value with employee engagement and change communication – planning, design, timing and measurement.

 

d) India will be central to decisions: I expect to see improved focus on India due to it being among the most important destinations for outsourcing and business. Not withstanding the recent terror attacks and the war rhetoric in the sub-continent. India will be for most MNCs the largest geography and a strategic node in their global delivery system. For example, Accenture and IBM have over 37000 and 50000 employees respectively in India. I recently met up with an American professional who runs a marketing communication boutique.  She was doing the ground work in Bangalore and Mumbai to set up an office to be closer to MNC branches – some of them were her clients already.

 

e) Helping others get better at communicating: I foresee more emphasis by internal communicators in developing self-help models, modules and resources for internal teams to help them get better at communicating downstream. Most research points to managers as the key players in driving internal communication. Internal communicators will be forced to relook at team structures and design for planning, strategy, execution and coaching.

 

f) Social media and stringent monitoring of employee behavior: While organizations in India struggle to understand the impact of social media, there will be risk management and marketing efforts to tap the presence of employees’ behavior both online and offline. That would mean providing messages to share with peer groups, presence on social networking sites, monitoring ‘blog speak’ and forum dialogue. Some organizations have proactively included employee blogs to project the right brand message for recruitment marketing while others have provided employees with suitable disclaimers to use to avoid legal implications.

 

g) Localization of messages: To gain the cost advantage, most companies will move to smaller cities and towns in rural India. This will lead to efforts to localize communication messages to ensure employees are on the same page.

 

On a tactical level, I believe we will see important changes too.

 

a)  Multi-tasking: Internal communicators will be called on to play multiple roles – role of internal communication will extend to defining crisis communication, business continuity planning and training. Cases in point are around the economic slowdown, terror attacks at Mumbai, sharing the ‘not so good’ news on job and salary cuts, withdrawal of incentives and benefits.

 

b) Leadership communication will come under even greater scrutiny: Employees will be expecting to seeing, reading and watching more of their leaders though it may not be enough for them to avoid the critical viewpoints of their staff. Satyam’s decisions raised the wrath of shareholders while their employees are seeking jobs outside in droves – leading to erosion of brand value. Leaders will need to invest for deeper connection with employees who will demand a seat at the table on company decisions.

 

c) Collaborate and improve: That will be the mantra for internal communicators when it comes to discovering their strengths and learning from recent episodes. 2009 will draw the community closer with collaboration among peers in the industry on best practices. I am already seeing improved interactions with communicators sharing notes on optimizing team structures and policy construction.

 

d) Converting market dynamics for internal communication: Internal communication professionals will be valued as advisors based on their ability to convert market dynamics into potential opportunities for communication. Public relation, marketing and internal communication professionals will join hands even more to deliver consistent messages. For example, some organizations channelized employees’ energies and anger from the recent Mumbai attacks to constructive opportunities to share their talent, funds and viewpoints.

 

e) Quality and efficacy for ROI: Internal communication will no more be about the ‘number of mailers that went out’ or ‘total pages views for the benefits site’ or ‘number of posters printed and pasted on notice boards’. The focus will be on getting employees to adopt, change, manage and overcome resistance while assimilating messages. Regular feedback will help dwell on expectations of communication vs understanding and outtakes. Internal communicators will be expected to innovate more to help employees assimilate messages.

 

Have a viewpoint on potential trends for internal communication in India? Love to hear from you.