How to Develop an Internal Communication Strategy

Industry Advice Communications & Digital Media

Companies in the U.S. spent nearly $200 billion on marketing in 2019, putting immense resources towards developing strategies to communicate with potential customers and crafting and distributing the perfect messages. Few spend the same resources on considering how to best communicate with their employees—and it’s costing them.

About 70 percent of employees in the U.S. feel disengaged at work, and fewer than 30 percent believe in the brand that employs them, according to Gallup. This leads people to quit and seek out more fulfilling work, and Glassdoor reports that companies spend an average of $4,000 on recruiting, hiring, and onboarding each replacement. By helping employees feel more connected to their companies through thoughtful internal communication, organizations can create an open, collaborative culture that drives both retention and productivity.

“It’s about building relationships and understanding not only what the organization is trying to accomplish, but also what will motivate employees,” says Ed Powers, a professor of practice who oversees the Public and Media Relations concentration within the Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication at Northeastern University.

Here’s why an internal communications strategy is vital for any workplace and how you can create one that addresses your company’s goals.  

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What is Internal Communication? 

Similar to marketing campaigns, which tell customers what they need to know about your products, internal communication methods—like emails, meetings, newsletters, and messaging platforms—tell employees what they need to know about the company and their role within it. Through these channels, colleagues can communicate about important news, goals, tasks, and questions.

An internal communications plan, typically designed and implemented by corporate communications or human resources teams, outlines the strategies and tactics you’ll use to communicate with employees. It describes the current status of your business and its goals, the core messages you want to distribute, when and how you’ll do so, as well as a framework for measuring the plan’s effectiveness. Following an internal communications plan increases the likelihood of delivering a clear, actionable message through a channel that resonates with your employees—the same way a marketing plan sends specific messages to segments of your external customer base.

The Benefits of an Internal Communications Plan           

In addition to providing employees with more actionable information, establishing an internal communications plan will bring organizations these key benefits.

1. Support in Meeting Goals 

When IBM wanted to drive innovation and find new projects to explore, the tech giant launched the IBM Cognitive Build program, an internal incubator in which teams of employees competed to secure funding for their ideas. Having a thorough internal communications plan made presenting, implementing, and maintaining this ambitious program across IBM’s worldwide workforce possible.

By engaging its more than 300,000 employees with a series of targeted communications, IBM achieved a 70 percent participation rate and put hundreds of employee-led projects into action, efficiently meeting its innovation goals and making significant strides forward in the development of its Watson supercomputer.

“Organizations that can get their employees moving in the same direction with high levels of energy and productivity like this are going to beat out their competition,” Powers says.                                                                                                                    

2. Reputation Management 

Internal communications are also critical when managing a company’s reputation, particularly when employees have more opportunities than ever to share their experience on social media and review sites like Glassdoor.

“Your company is your employees, for better or for worse,” Powers says. “If an employee feels like they’re not being informed about what’s happening at work, that leads to feelings of disrespect. That’s what they’re going to share with family and friends.”

Keeping employees informed about relevant internal news in a way that makes them feel heard and appreciated encourages them to view their employer considerate and invested in each employee’s success. 

3. Customer Support 

Businesses also need to concern themselves with how employees present their workplace to customers. When employees understand their purpose at the organization and receive clear, respectful training and support, they’re more likely to provide exceptional customer service that leaves a positive impression. Powers cites Chik-fil-A’s internal communications and training delivery as one reason behind the chain’s consistently high rankings as diners’ favorite fast-food chain.

How to Create an Internal Communications Plan 

In his corporate and organizational communications classes at Northeastern, Powers teaches a four-step framework that students apply to multiple communications strategies. Here’s how you can adapt it for internal communications planning.

1. Research 

During the research phase, Powers advises communicators to take stock of the current climate within the company. This includes everything from the goal of the internal communications campaign and the current type and frequency of communications to understanding what information the target audience needs and the channels they prefer using. Conducting careful research into how these elements impact the company will lead to a more thoughtful plan that directly addresses each one.

2. Strategy 

After creating a clear picture of the company, communicators can develop more effective strategies for distributing information to segments of their employee audience.

“The initial reaction by somebody who’s not in the field of communications might be that we already know who’s in the audience and what they need because it’s employees,” Powers says. 

Each of those employees, however, plays a very different role, and the channels you choose to interact with new managers will likely be very different from how you address a long-tenured executive. One group may prefer to get information in a meeting where they can ask questions, while employees short on time might appreciate an email that they can read at their leisure. 

Communicators should also consider the content of their message. It’s easier than ever to send out and access vast amounts of information, but as Powers points out, doing so can quickly overwhelm employees. 

3. Execution 

With a strategy in place, it’s time to implement your vision. Think of strategy as the goal—for example, you hope to increase attendance at trainings to boost productivity. Your tactic, or implementation, might be to distribute a series of short videos describing the benefits of these trainings because your research has shown that employees would appreciate a quick, visual snapshot of the topic.

“If you don’t have the strategic vision about why you’re doing something, then there’s a chance it may fail,” Powers says. Laying the groundwork that helps you understand your relationship to employees—and theirs to their work—makes tactics more impactful.

4. Evaluation 

Your work isn’t finished when you enact your plan. Think about what success looks like, whether it’s an increase in opened emails or the submission of a certain number of new ideas, and establish a way to track those results. Regularly check in with the plan’s progress and use the data you collect to make improvements if necessary or create company-wide best practices if an idea worked well.

Additional Considerations When Planning

Developing a robust internal communications strategy is no small undertaking, but a few tips can help you increase your odds of success. 

Powers recommends taking timelines, cost, and difficulty of implementation into account. A small upgrade to an intranet channel might take a few weeks, while building a new website from scratch may take several months, a new graphic designer, and a budget to match. Planning for these resources helps prevent the need to rush your rollout.

It’s also essential to ensure that two-way communication—and the willingness to listen to and incorporate employee feedback—is part of your strategy.

“With all of the different communications tools we have, people will have ways to express their opinion,” Powers says. “It’s better for them to do that in the internal discussion and express their frustrations there than take it to an external discussion.”

Finally, don’t give up. Team members who bring energy and enthusiasm to launch day may forget all about the plan a few weeks later, damaging the company’s reputation with some of its most important stakeholders.

“If the communications program has done what you promised employees over an extended period, you’re going to be in great shape,” Powers says. “If not, they’re going to call you out on it.”

Improving Internal Communications 

A strong internal communications strategy is a key component of a business’s overall communication plan. Understanding how it fits in with those other pieces can enrich your career and allow you to provide your employers with valuable insight. Earning a master’s degree in corporate communication gives you the foundational knowledge you’ll need to get started.

Northeastern’s Corporate and Organizational Communications program teaches students skills that will help them succeed in their careers. By studying business cases, researching trends in communication, interacting with experts in the field, and taking part in interactive and experiential learning opportunities, you’ll discover how to address complex communication challenges based on real-world examples. 

The program also offers six concentrations that allow students to focus their education on specific interests, such as human resources and public and media relations. Each offers additional opportunities to craft, deliver, and measure the impact of messages in distinct corporate settings. 

Download our free ebook to learn more about the communication skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace. No matter your role or industry, clear and effective communication with your colleagues will be essential to your career growth. 

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