The reality gap

October 22nd, 2019

In Birmingham earlier this month, CIPR Inside started to change the conversation in internal communication. Why? Because in practice we’re struggling to make the move from tactical to strategic IC inside our organisations.

There’s plenty of research about the state of internal communications, and it’s made for grim reading. Not enough of us have strategies, measurement is still a dark art and membership of professional bodies is embarrassingly low.

It’s an interesting conundrum because there’s plenty of free resources and training available along with paid courses, conferences and qualifications. So why isn’t it translating into our day-to-day work?

Possibly because the reality of working in-house can be chaotic, and even with the best intentions in the world, applying best practice and delivering work that could be considered award-worthy is a pipe dream.

For example, your only advocate at board level leaves and suddenly internal communication is no longer a consideration. Or the first you hear about a new change project is two days before it’s being announced – despite all the work you’ve been putting in to build relationships within the organisation.

Or you want to demonstrate the impact internal communication can have yet the tools and platforms you’ve inherited are old and creaky. But never fear, other parts of the organisation will have measurement, unless teams like HR are also working off legacy systems that are no longer fit for purpose. So, now you have no measurement and every team is vying for precious budget.

It can feel disheartening when you know what you should be doing but it sometimes feels like the universe is against you ever achieving it. I asked three in-house internal communicators for their views on this and they kindly shared their thoughts which I’ve included throughout the rest of this blog along with some of my own suggestions for how we close the reality gap…

“Over the last ten years I’ve studied all the theory, applied all the practice, and sung from all the hymn sheets. Yet nothing’s truly prepared me for the day-to-day reality of working in a fast-moving organisation. Sure, we all want to be a bit more ‘strategic’ in what we do but try telling that to your board when you’re battling whatever shitshow’s hit the media over the last 24 hours and your customer-facing employees are in the firing line.”  Senior IC Manager.

Educate other professions about the value of IC

We know that to be effective internal communicators we need to understand how our business works, the functions we support and many of us also take an interest in topics such as neuroscience, data analytics and AI.

And we’re pretty good at helping each other learn about things like that through conferences, events, book clubs, blogs, webinars, podcasts etc.

However, it’s equally important that we’re also educating other functions about IC. We need to be speaking at HR conferences, be guests on marketing podcasts, have articles in leadership publications, etc.

Without this, many internal communicators will continue to be lone voices inside organisations struggling to make headway.
There is a clear role here for professional bodies to lead the way but at the heart of these organisations are volunteers who give up their time to move the industry forward. Why not considering adding your voice and efforts to one of them?

I’ve volunteered for both CIPR Inside and IoIC and truly believe that you get out what you put in. If you want to change the conversation, you need to be part of it in the first place.

“Sometimes it feels like the reality of how far we have to come is ignored and we speak about becoming strategic like it’s an overnight fix. This is why for me the ‘answers’ membership bodies give can only be taken so far. They need to start listening and working with their in-house members if they ever want to hit the nail on the head”  Senior IC Manager.

Share the bumps in the road

Internal communication is beginning to have its day in the sun so it’s only right that we celebrate our successes. But are we guilty of sometimes only sharing the successful outcomes? Could we be better at talking about the really tough moments that went into achieving success?

That can feel scary, especially when everyone else knows everything, has bags of confidence and gets it right first time, every time. Except of course they don’t. We all struggle with impostor syndrome and sometimes we don’t achieve what we set out to.

And often we don’t even realise the image we’re projecting to others. A couple of years ago I was having a tough couple of months, so I was amazed when a friend told me that to the rest of the world, I looked like I had a perfect life. Maybe those of us who are more vocal in the industry need to be conscious of checking we don’t only share when everything’s going swimmingly.

At the Changing the Conversation conference we held a mastermind where people could share challenges with their tables and crowdsource solutions. The feedback was great, and I’d love to see more of that happening in environments where people feel safe to share and be vulnerable.

“If you keep up to date with the latest thinking in the industry, working in-house can sometimes feel like you’re constantly failing. Having the right tools, resource and sponsorship can vary wildly depending on how much your leadership team understand what you do. Of course, influencing senior stakeholders is a key part of our job, but when working life is increasingly volatile and unstable – and IC roles often still misunderstood – it’s often easier said than done. Sometimes it can feel like you’re letting the industry down.”  Senior IC Manager.

Don’t lose sight of reality

As a consultant, I generally do project work but every year I try to work with at least one client for a longer period of time and base myself in their offices several days a week. I find it helps me to not lose sight of the reality of in-house internal communications, and how sometimes all the best practice goes out the window when the proverbial hits the fan.

I’m sure other consultants do very similar things, and it’s important to ensure that we don’t create a divide. I love how much consultants are part of the IC community and aren’t met with the eye role that consultants in other industries often are by their in-house counterparts – I’d hate to see that change.

That’s why I think it’s so important that we have a mix of people volunteering and sharing insight to ensure that the conversation with internal communications is realistic and can be applied to everyday situations. We have lots of fantastic theory but it’s how we apply it in practice.

“I’ve worked in comms for over 10 years. I’m currently managing an IC team in-house and since I joined a year ago, have struggled to get sponsorship for even the basics. A complete (and ongoing) change in leadership and strategy has meant IC has been “deprioritised”, despite it being key to success. When I read content from the industry experts, I see a huge gap between my current experience and where we should be. I know we should be strategic, trusted advisers who are outcome focused, but in a volatile and ever-changing workplace, it’s often impossible. This can be disheartening when you want to prove the value of IC”  Senior IC Manager.

“I’ve worked both sides of the coin – with consultants/agency and in house. There’s a huge gap. So much talk about a need to be strategic, however little value-added tactics on how to do so. When it comes to the research conducted to back strategic advice, it lacks one massive thing. Context. Context of the culture you work in. Context of the structure you work with. And context of the operational challenges a business faces that IC are meant to align to.”  Senior IC Manager.

When I critiqued measurement models and frameworks as part of the recent CIPR Inside measurement report, I found exactly this. We need to be taking the research a step further and helping people adapt models, theories and frameworks to suit the organisations they’re working in. A one size fits all approach will never work.

Some final thoughts

Thank you to the in-house communicators who contributed to this blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we close the gap so that the conversation within internal communications reflects the reality of working in it.

To finish, here are some final thoughts from the contributors:

“The IC pros who earn the most respect from their leadership teams, aren’t the ones pontificating over how comfortable their ‘seat at the table’ should be or faffing around with picture perfect engagement models. No – they’re the ones who are out there reacting and responding to whatever it is the business needs, when it needs it. Once you’ve learned to roll with the punches of an in-house role, everything else come a little bit easier.”  Senior IC Manager.

“My view is that taking a data driven approach, finding a senior sponsor and learning when to push back will help enormously.”  Senior IC Manager.

“You gain respect and the opportunity to be strategic through knowing your audience – how they’re made up, how they’re targeted, and how they feel about the communications they receive. Demonstrating that you’re actively listening to their verbatim feedback as well as analysing their engagement stats will give a balanced view that’s realistic in terms of what can and can’t be done.”  Senior IC Manager. 


Image credit: Aitoff





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“Helen’s passion for her profession shines through very clearly and she manages to combine her deep knowledge of internal communications with a mix of pragmatism and fresh thinking. She is a delight to work with and has a high level of integrity.”

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