When we think about “strategic communications,” we often focus on an organization’s external messaging and audience engagement. However, it is really the internal audience that is the most critical to an organization’s success because, without employees, there obviously would be no organization.
Leaders must understand that their people are their company’s "key public.” Employee opinions, perceptions, attitudes, and buy-in are even more important than those of customers and clients because employees are deemed to be highly credible sources of “inside” information and, as such, they can either make or break a company’s image and reputation. Employees can be influential brand ambassadors – or they can be harsh and detrimental critics. It is the leader's responsibility to create an organizational culture, climate, and internal communication system that fosters the proliferation of positive employee perceptions.
Internal communication (also called employee relations, employee communications, and downward communication) plays a vital role in the development and promotion of an organization’s culture and climate.
“Climate is defined as the subjective perceptions that employees form based on their workplace experiences. Culture refers to the organizational ideologies that often form the basis for these perceptions. An organization's mission, vision, and values are the foundation of the culture, whereas the employees' interpretations of these create the organizational climate” (Davenport, 2016).
The model below provides a more detailed overview of these concepts and how they function in an organizational setting.
Fig. 1 Multi-level model of organizational culture and climate. Ostroff, C., Kinicki, A.J., and Muhammad, R.S. (2003, pg. 566).
Invernizzi, Biraghi, and Romenti (2012) state in this article, “Strategic communication deals with concerns essential to the success of organizations; in other words, with generating their competitive advantage [and] organizational survival.” The authors go on to explain that “the strategic contribution of communication to the organization comprises 4 roles/dimensions that can be defined as its Aligning, Energizing, Visioning, and Constituting activities.”
Aligning includes “environmental scanning and engagement activities” (pg. 151).
Energizing is communication’s role in stimulating “innovation and collaboration” (pg. 152).
Visioning is the process of promoting a “shared vision” (pg. 152) among stakeholders, most especially employees.
Constituting refers to the processes of “sense-making, activating, building, re-inventing, and decision-making.” It also encompasses the design and implementation of “strategic objectives” (pg.152).
Internal communication is essentially a leadership function; it is the leader who sets the tone, frequency, transparency, and content of the organization’s messaging. With that said, the senior strategic communications practitioner should work closely with the leader to determine how to best formulate, frame, and disseminate internal communications to achieve the most positive results (these being audience acceptance, understanding, and compliance).
Students from my PR classes will recall that public relations is essentially an “education” function; therefore, internal PR/stratcom efforts should focus on informing and educating employees about changes and developments in the organization. As I like to say, “An informed employee is a happy and productive employee.” Certainly, nothing will destroy employee trust and morale faster than boardroom secrecy and subterfuge. Employees need to know that they can expect open, transparent communication from their leaders at all times. As the ethical compass of the organization, PR practitioners can ensure that all communications (both internal and external) are truthful, accurate, and timely.
Communications that must be filtered and dissected across multiple management layers often become distorted and forgotten. This creates a tremendous amount of waste, both from a monetary and human resources perspective. That is why many companies are moving from multi-level hierarchies to flat, minimalist models that foster better communication, efficiency, and employee engagement. Flat structures reduce the amount of costly and time-consuming upward / downward communication. Strategic communicators can be instrumental in helping senior leaders develop streamlined communication channels that promote enhanced collaboration, comprehension, teamwork, decision-making, and innovation.
Students with an interest in organizational communication are advised to seek additional training and education in the areas of organizational development, executive coaching, and I/O psychology. These skills will provide a rich understanding of the nuances and intricacies of organizational behavior and communication.
Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.
About the Author
Debra Davenport is the president and CEO of Davenport Public Relations, a full-service firm with offices in Phoenix and Los Angeles. She is a faculty member with Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication where she teaches in the MS in Communication program.
*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.
Davenport, D. (2016). Walden University, Minneapolis, MN.
Invernizzi, E., Biraghi, S., and Romenti, S. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?q=strategic+role+of+internal+communication+Invernizzi&oq=strate&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j69i61j69i57j69i61l2j0.6084j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#
Ostroff, C., Kinicki, A. J., & Muhammad, R. S. (2003). Organizational culture and climate. In Weiner, I. B., W. C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen, & R. J. Klimoski (Eds.), Handbook of psychology (Vol. 12, pp. 565–593). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.