When I started my career many years ago, the best example of internal communications was the CEO calling everyone on the floor for an impromptu meeting or a status conversation on client billing. The notice board at the reception area allowed all staff to get updates while strolling past it. It also helped we had just a handful of team members to communicate to and meeting people in person served well. Those days, making calls meant using the fixed-line rather than a hand-held device, which were highly priced. Connecting to staff on the move meant ‘paging’ them and waiting for them to call you back!
After I moved to the client side, I realized that organizations struggled with getting staff on the same page due to locational, time zone and generational differences. Cascading the CEO’s message meant having a group of travelling executives to connect in person when they visited far flung sales and customer facing offices. Packaging the content on a compact disc (for those who know what it looks like!) and hoping it played right when the leaders finally descended at the sites left a lot to chance. The thought of having a central intranet and a newsletter in print meant identifying site champions who doubled up say extended communications resources to solicit local content and the eyes and ears on the ground. The intranet was slowing getting more mainstream at companies which had many employees to reach and share common resources and harness knowledge. In one of my earlier organizations a person was hired to focus on knowledge management and make the portal a way of life. The function was gaining visibility as an important role and due to the paucity of talent in the market professionals from advertising, public relations, media and event management firms contributed to the initial batches to enter the corporate communications teams. The hope was that they would learn ‘on the job’ and figure out things. Leading multinational companies planted their key leaders to hand hold and guide teams as they evolved.
Investing in growing skills and competencies
The lack of core skills meant that investment in training and development in teaming, writing, presentation etc got attention. With the rise in competition among organizations hiring top talent created opportunities for employer branding experts who straddled the worlds of human capital and employee engagement. The media department got an impetus with funding and headcount. Integration was talked about in passing although there were few examples to demonstrate holistic communications with stakeholders. Employee events were mostly viewed as fun stuff for keeping the morale of staff and little thinking existed on connecting the dots with experience and measurement. Employee annual surveys were away to gauge the pulse in the organization.
As organizations matured, engagement with stakeholders increased and technology communications got more integrated, the risks in terms of information security, social media mishaps and briberies soared, more investment on governance and standards appeared. Which also meant having specialists in risk, legal and information security mattered to avoid reputational damage to the brand. Academic institutions began engaging with industry professionals on guest lectures and creating much needed courses to churn out freshly minted communications professionals with understanding of events, media relations, engagement and digital media.
Tackling newer challenges
About this time is when start-ups began out-performing the market with salaries that were envious to those in the media organizations attracting communicators in hordes. To gain speed and implement time to market strategies organizations looked to creative and boutique agencies to turn around solutions that internal teams were unable to comprehend. At some point when the account manager in the agency gained sufficient experience and expertise the person moved in-house to integrate with the team.
With videos and social media getting hotter the skills needed to create effective content became the need of the hour. Issues that organizations faced were attrition and oversized ambitions. CEOs and leaders realized the importance of engaging staff and connecting them to the purpose rather than just throwing benefits and perks.
The future for the function and for communicators
From active listening and interventions to using AI to detect unrest and message dissonance before they become full blown crises; from tapping analytics to coach managers and leaders on personalized communication practices to seamlessly integrating internal and external communications, there are many opportunities ahead for the team. The role of communication will be at the intersection of technology, marketing, company culture and engagement. The communicator will evolve to be a prolific connector (if not already), community facilitator, conscience keeper, advocacy champion and culture curator.