Kate Isichei is a global collaboration and internal communications consultant and host of the Engagement Express podcast. She has over 20 years of experience working with multinationals on technology implementations, transformation projects, and leadership visibility. In this post, she shares her expertise on how to structure a high-performing internal comms function.
With the increased visibility of internal communication professionals during the pandemic, one might assume that this would translate to bigger budgets and more resources.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t necessarily been the case.
The reality is that internal communication teams are still quite lean in comparison to those in Public Relations and Marketing.
Why might this be?
It primarily comes down to the perception of internal communication versus PR and external communications. In the past, internal communications simply didn't get enough credit and attention for helping businesses achieve results. The impact of IC activities was hard to measure, whereas business take the impact of PR and external communications for granted.
Having said that, the pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of internal communications and its role in creating engagement. I feel that many internal communication leaders are now getting a seat at the decision-making table.
Having spoken with a number of clients and agencies, internal communications seems to be receiving newfound value.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before internal communications catches up with our external communication cousins.
What's the current state of the internal comms function in large and small organizations?
Over the past 15 years, I've worked in various Director and Head of Internal Communication roles. And I have seen very different approaches to team structure. When there is a well-built internal communications function, teams are successful and have a demonstrable impact on business. But if the internal comms function in an organization is lacks resources or structure, teams struggle to influence business priorities.
You may believe that larger organizations would have a better IC function given the number of employees they communicate with, the various business units they have to coordinate between, and the resources that are available to invest in internal communications.
Unfortunately, I've found that some larger businesses still maintain a very small internal communications team; some members of whom wear many hats — making it even more challenging.
This can stretch the team in ways that reduce the focus on priority projects, which isn't ideal for the business. It can often lead to the perception that teams are less than effective. This creates a vicious cycle of undervaluing internal communications because of reduced impact on business objectives. Ultimately, this leads to fewer resources, reinforcing the original obstacles to their success.
Thankfully, not all organizations treat the internal comms function this way.
On the flip side, there are much smaller companies and institutions that have a bigger internal communications presence with an impressive structure and roles to cover the spectrum of internal communication tasks, which are usually quite broad.
These teams are set up for success because they are well resourced, thoughtfully planned, and can therefore easily impact business results and demonstrate their successes.
To that end, the size of your organization does play a role in how large your IC team should be and perhaps influences how many of each role you need. But there isn't currently a standard, direct correlation between the size of the organization and the maturity of their internal communications function.
What does the ideal internal comms function or team look like?
What the ideal internal communications function looks like in your organization really depends on the size of the business. More importantly, it's up to how seriously it takes the commitment to communicate internally with its people.
To determine what roles and scope your internal communications team needs to maximize its impact on business goals, it’s helpful to first review what kinds of tasks are usually given to internal communications teams.
Common tasks and responsibilities of an internal communications team
In my experience, here are just some of the most common areas of focus for the internal comms function:
1. Managing internal communication channels
Managing these channels could include creating, scheduling and posting content, reviewing and reporting on engagement metrics, maintaining editorial calendars, researching and developing stories, shooting videos, and otherwise contributing to IC efforts.
2. Supporting external campaigns with an internal spin
The role of internal communications in supporting external campaigns shouldn't be overlooked. Employees are drivers of culture and can be powerful advocates for your brand and products.
Getting employees on board with external campaigns can increase alignment with your company objectives, help employees feel connected and involved, and ensure employees are supported in their roles to drive business results.
3. Creating plans for new technology implementation
Developing a technology implementation strategy can be one of the more complex roles of the internal communications function. This may include auditing existing internal communication technology and channels, vetting prospective technology vendors, coordinating and collaborating with IT and legal departments to get approval, presenting and making a case for new technologies to leadership and the C-Suite. And that’s all before the technology is even purchased.
After the purchase of new technology, the internal comms function is often responsible for coordinating with IT for technical setup, communicating with the entire organization about the new technology, onboarding employees, developing a strategy for engagement and adoption, and then reporting on the success of the new technology, or building a case for keeping said technology when it’s time to renew.
4. Supporting and guiding executive communications
Internal communications is often tasked with helping to craft the messaging, agendas, speaker selection, and logistics of company-wide meetings and events.
In some cases, their influence on leadership communications may (and should) extend beyond company-wide meetings to other company communications. You internal comms function often works with leadership to guide and advise leaders on the best ways to communicate with employees, and how they should focus their communications for maximum impact.
Over the pandemic, we’ve also seen the rise of internal communications as the conscience of organizations. The function has helped leaders to navigate challenging issues like furloughs, layoffs, and health and safety issues, as well as a breadth of other crisis communications that are vulnerable to external leaks.
As you can see, the reach of internal communications can be quite extensive. So, depending on the needs of your business, you may need more (or fewer) roles to create the ideal IC function.
The roles needed for an ideal internal comms function
With those dependencies in mind, as a minimum, I would recommend building a team that features most, if not all, of the following roles:
Internal Communications Head / Director
This role takes a helicopter view of how internal communications can align itself at a strategic level with the organization’s mission, vision, purpose, and values.
Typically, this role requires 10+ years of experience — as well as experience in managing teams.
Internal Communications Business Partner(s)
These roles partner with specific parts of the business.
Quite often, these business units will already have resources in place to manage internal communication. In this case, it’s important to work alongside them (not from a hierarchical perspective). Ideally, they will be connected to the overall communication coming from the center of the organization.
These roles are pivotal to the success of internal communications and therefore quite senior. In line with an internal communication manager role, 7–10 years of experience would be ideal.
Internal Communications Channels Coordinator
This role helps shape the approach to using existing channels and assessing which new ones, if any, are required.
This person will also be a great support for stakeholders who are unsure of the channels, how they work, and what they do.
Coordinators need a good level of understanding and knowledge of the most common communication channels both internally and externally. Being an avid user of new and emerging external platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse is also very useful.
Internal Communications Multimedia Executive
A well-resourced internal communications function will also include a graphic designer and or multimedia specialist. This person would feed into all campaigns and business as usual communication channels and activities.
Design skills and a creative eye all help bring this role to life. Many years of experience would not necessarily be a prerequisite. But extensive experience in creating graphics and working with multiple media formats will help a team to create innovative and engaging campaigns.
How to build and scale your internal comms function
As stated before, being part of a large organization does not guarantee that you'll have a larger, more mature team.
We, as internal communication professionals, can provide counsel for leaders to make informed decisions regarding the structure, size, remit, and reach of the IC function.
The pandemic has shown that effective internal communications can be a game-changer for organizations in times of crisis. But if we are to build on the momentum, the business case for increasing IC team size deserves serious consideration.
My suggestion would be to set aside some time with decision-makers. Discuss how internal communications have added value to the business — both before the pandemic and during it. Make a simple business case to share with them, but don’t be too pushy or demanding.
Plant the seeds in their minds and revisit them at a later date. They'll feel differently once they’ve had an opportunity to reflect on the benefits IC that they've for themselves.
For more professional IC advice from Kate Isichei, visit the Where to Look Communications website and listen to her fantastic podcast Engagement Express (featured in our post The Best Internal Communications Podcasts). You can also follow Kate on LinkedIn and Twitter.