Get the Message: The Importance of Internal and External Communications

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Peppercom recently interviewed 12 heads of communications at Fortune 500 companies, intent on uncovering the answers to two fundamental questions. Did they see themselves as a leader in helping to allay employees’ fears with, as well as ensuring, transparent communications? And, did they feel empowered to suggest new and even revolutionary marketing strategies when budgets were being slashed to the bone?

How did they respond?

With confusion, calamity and concern being the watchwords of the day, only one in 12 top communicators stressed the need for internal communications to connect the dots for workers. This individual stressed that “…when senior management says employees are its most important asset one week and then turns around and closes facilities, announces layoffs, and freezes salaries and benefits the next, the communications department needs to connect the dots.”

The respondent, who was also the only one to have had direct sales experience and, therefore, a broader business perspective than the others, said communicators need to bring an external perspective to internal communications. By this, he meant that communications must explain the actions and reactions of senior management from a big picture standpoint. Why were certain actions taken? What will they mean in terms of improved cash flow, competitive advantage and, most importantly, job security? Internal communications, said this executive, has to provide context and relevance in order to be accepted and acted upon by employees.

Who should lead?
None of the communications executives interviewed responded to the part of one question which asked about being a “leader’ in calming employee fears. All saw open and honest communications from the top being fundamental, though. Several felt the CEO must be totally candid and consistent in employee communications. One made sure his CEO communicated a recent downsizing internally before holding a press conference. That said, though, no one appeared to be personally taking the lead in calming internal angst.

Several respondents varied widely on the type and frequency of employee communications they use. Some hold monthly all-employee meetings, while others wait to do it on a quarterly basis. One hosts a monthly online chat in which employees can engage directly with senior management. One respondent stood out when he said he provided internal communications messages that “empowered and enabled” employees to act on the information provided. Most seem to see themselves more as facilitators or implementers of communications, rather than leveraging their position as a “bully pulpit” with which to educate and arm a worried workforce. So, how involved should CMOs and corporate communications executives be?

While all 12 respondents emphasized open, honest and transparent communications to employees, one railed at what she saw as a growing dependence on company intranets and other forms of mass communications. This respondent said easy and low cost technologies may seem smart and look good to the organization’s bean counters, but they actually do the workplace a huge disservice. Technology, she said, “….negates face-to-face discussion which remain the most credible and effective means of moving the needle in times of cultural change, crisis or other key moments.”

While using e-mail is one of the best ways to quickly disseminate information, it shouldn’t stand alone. It needs to be coupled with some type of in-person communications – whether it’s a town hall meeting with the CEO or a manager relaying the CEO’s messages directly to his staff or a combination thereof. And, the CMO, CCO or head of corporate communications should be perceived as leading the dialogue by employees and C-suite executives alike.

Is it sales, social media, or some strategic mix of the two?
Turning their focus to external communications, our top 12 marketers and corporate communications executives seemed in lock step when it came to social media. Most pinpointed social media as the way in which they were identifying untraditional sales and marketing strategies. Some were engaging with key bloggers. Others were interacting with customers and prospects in new and meaningful ways through social media. Still others thought social media was the most cost effective way to go when traditional advertising and public relations budgets were being hacked to pieces.

While social media seemed to be a smart means to an end, respondents seemed to be approaching it in a conventional way and may not be properly leveraging Web 2.0. One said simply, “Budgets are being cut for most of our marcom activities. However, we are recommending and developing materials to assist in customer communications via the Web. We are also stepping up our trade media outreach.” It appears as if this marketer, and most of the others, are taking a very safe route and not seeing the economic downturn as a possible opportunity to demonstrate out-of-the-box leadership in external communications.

What are some of the initiatives they could be implementing? Communicators can develop a thought leadership podcast that can include prospects and, thus, be introduced to new companies via this vehicle. Or, they can develop podcasts that include their clients as guests which, in turn, deepens existing relationships. They can also help to uncover new pain points for the sales force to sell against. In addition, communications executives can develop a Webinar with an academic partner or nonprofit organization and demonstrate leadership on emerging trends. Some of these external tools can be leveraged with employees to boost morale and show how the corporation is being proactive and acting as an industry leader.

Consider yourself a leader
There was one notable exception to the “Follow the Rule” rule. And, again, it was the only respondent who had direct sales experience. He believes there has never been a better time for marketing and public relations to “team up” and drive what he called “consideration” of a product or service. Consideration, he said, is the key stage of the sales process between awareness and purchase. Advertising can create initial awareness. Public relations can enhance credibility through third party editorial endorsement. But, the “crown jewel” occurs when consumers are extolling the virtues of your product or service to one another. And, that, he says is where the rubber too often doesn’t meet the road. Sure, most organizations are migrating to lower-cost social media as the backbone of their revamped marketing campaign. But, how many senior marketers are taking the time and effort to understand the customer voice? How many are sitting in on customer sales calls in a “fly-on-the-wall’ stealth mode in order to understand pain points, needs and wants?

Without first-hand customer knowledge, how can even the savviest CMO or corporate communications executive uncover new marketing strategies and “sell” senior management on his or her ideas?

Perhaps our sales-savvy marketer is a lone voice in the wilderness. Perhaps many others will agree with the one communicator who sighed, “We’re a staff function and don’t provide revenue or profits. Everyone’s an expert in our field and we all constantly watch our backs. It comes down to the relationship with the CEO. If we have one, then our counsel is valued. If not, we shut up and continue to crank out those product publicity and new officer press releases.”

The ball is in your court
So, which type of chief marketer or corporate communications executive will you be in the midst of this hellacious economic downturn? The one who feels empowered only because she has an empathetic CEO in place? Or the one who roles up his sleeves, connects the dots on employee communications, tags along on sales calls, listens to the customer pain points, and develops new marketing and revenue strategies for the organization? Thomas Paine might have been speaking about this particular marketing communications conundrum when he wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Steve Cody is managing partner and co-founder of Peppercom and Deborah Brown is a partner and managing director.

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