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Internal Comms – It starts with the ‘do’ not the ‘know’

Too often, internal communications focuses on telling people stuff. But surely the point is to get people to do things. Starting from the actions you need from people and not the facts and data you are going to throw at them is a smarter way to work.

When I think about the internal or employee communications programmes I have seen, I am always struck by how few actually make any difference. That’s because the planning process starts with the question ‘what do we want people to know?’ And that’s a pretty risky place to begin.

As communicators we’re well aware that even the best publicised messages rarely reach even a fraction of their intended audiences. For decades, governments have tried to warn us off the perils of tobacco, employers constantly talk about safety or customer service and don’t even ask a school teacher about the frustration of trying to organise a classroom full of teenagers.

People just don’t hear things on the first or even the twentieth time of telling!

And even if our audiences do actually notice, there’s no guarantee that two people will reach the same conclusions about the facts.

I once worked with a CEO and a Finance Director on a video to explain a new strategy to staff. They chatted through, in a relaxed and simple way, the rationale for change and their plan for the year ahead. But when we checked to see if the messages had landed, a fair proportion had been struck by the fact that the bosses hadn’t been wearing neckties; in this very formal company, the big takeaway was that the dress code was changing!

I’ve worked with organisations in crisis laying off thousands of people and heard someone ask why the office kitchen areas didn’t have microwaves. In one organisation, after 18 months of updates about an impending change in government regulation, some staff were still shocked to discover that key online processes were no longer possible.

Which is possibly why a lot of organisations don’t pay for professional help to send out information. Why pay more to have someone operate a noticeboard, a Yammer account or draft all staff emails?

The real value comes when the communications professional starts by asking: “...and what do we need people to DO when they get this information?”

It’s a question which surprises an awful lot of colleagues who don’t understand that the communications function can be more than an internal announcement service. And it’s a question which can lead them to rethink a lot more than when the notice should go out or the right words to go in an email subject line.

That’s because when you realise that organisations need people to DO something, you have to take a lot more care with how you explain it. It raises the question of whether they can actually do what is asked of them or why they should even bother. That question puts the internal communicator in the position of being a business advisor rather than the person who hits ‘send’ on a keyboard. It elevates the conversation away from the perennially insulting “...can you just add some communications magic to make people read my email before the 150 others in their inbox...?”

Instead, the conversation can work backwards from the ‘DO’ question to what will motivate people to behave rightly or what emotions need to be stirred to encourage people to engage. And only then are we ready to think about what information is going to be helpful in prompting feelings and beliefs.

It’s a concept which is at the heart of the training programme which I run with the PRCA on internal and change communications. Listening to how different people and organisations tackle this challenge is one of the joys of leading these sessions when people from around the world debate their experiences and the strategies they have used to escape from the trap of being the ‘tell’ team to becoming the change champions in their organisations.


Liam FitzPatrick is a specialist in employee and change communications, working around the world with organisations trying to engage their people. He’s written and co-authored multiple books including the best selling ‘Successful Employee Communications’.