We asked Sue Dewhurst to give some tips on building a business case for internal communication. Here's what she said:
For the past fifteen years, I’ve specialised in helping people learn about how to work with internal communication.
What most interests and fascinates me is understanding what people feel challenged by in their roles and figuring out what I can do practically to help them.
📚 Download our eBook "Building a Better Company with Internal Communications" and learn more on how to improve communication in the workplace!
I train and coach leaders and professional communicators, so the great thing is, I get to see things from both sides.
In a room of professional communicators, I hear repeated stories of people being invited into conversations too late, being asked to do work they see as low value and feeling frustrated by stakeholders who ‘don’t get it’.
I wonder whether you’ll be surprised to hear that these stories have never changed, in fifteen years?
At the same time, I regularly work with leaders (by which I mean senior leaders and line managers at various levels) who know communication is important.
They’re also usually very time-pressured and have a thousand and one things on their to-do list, internal communication isn’t their profession, and in some cases it’s not their comfort zone.
So, how do you convince your stakeholders to make internal communications their #1 priority?
Making the Case for Internal Communications Is About Connecting Leaders and Communicators
In my view, ‘making the case’ for internal communications is, to a large degree, about helping these two groups understand each other’s worlds, so that we can bring them together.
Whilst it might be tempting to look for that holy grail of a research study or piece of data you can wave in front of any leader to change the way you work together forever, I’m afraid a) if it exists, I haven’t found it yet and b) I don’t believe that’s the answer.
Years ago, when I was working as an in-house Director of Internal Communications, I didn’t have the easiest relationship with my counterpart in IT. One by one, each of my team had clashed with him.
Finally I asked my tech expert to take on the relationship. “I’m not a comms person!” he protested. “I don’t care,” was my reply. “You’re the only person left to try!”
The relationship flourished. He succeeded where all the rest of us had failed. Why? Because he was good – but so were the rest of my team.
I’m convinced the most important reason was that he was an IT person himself. He understood the IT Director’s world and spoke his language in a way that the rest of us hadn’t.
So, do we all need to be experts in IT/HR/strategy/customer services/whatever else our key stakeholders specialise in to make the case for internal communications?
Of course not. But here are eight things we can do to better understand and connect with their world, and help our stakeholders understand and connect with ours.
8 Smart Ways to Make the Case for Internal Communications
1. Talk Business First, Communication Second
I was once trying to persuade a client that they really should be inviting their in-house communications people into meetings about the change management project I was working on.
“But comms people don’t get involved in conversations like this”, said my client, puzzled. “Of course they do,” I responded. “I’m a comms person, and I’m here!” “Oh,” came the reply. “Well, you’re not really like the kind of comms people I’m used to. You’re more like a business person who talks about communication.”
It was a personal compliment … but it didn’t feel good to know this was a leader’s general impression of communication professionals!
I sometimes hold a quiz in workshops, in which I ask questions about key products, competitors, financial results and business measures.
It takes five minutes at the most, but it’s often a wake-up call for people to realise they don’t know their business as well as they thought they did.
If your knowledge is lacking, think about getting yourself a business mentor, or just a series of helpful contacts. Get yourself on the distribution lists for performance reports and media analysis.
One of my clients holds a webinar about their quarterly financial results just for the comms team, hosted by investor relations, so communicators really get to understand the issues.
2. Put Yourself in Your Stakeholders’ Shoes
Get to know what business issues are keeping your key stakeholders awake at night. Understand what matters to them. If you’re part of the same meetings as they are, notice what interests them and when they tune out.
If you don’t have good access to them, find out who their key influencer is.
Make your starting point in conversations what matters to your stakeholders (e.g. the latest sales results) not what matters to you (why you need a new channel for your internal communications).
3. Ask, Don’t Tell
In the process of developing a piece of training for line managers, a client told me they would like to improve empathy.
“What would empathy look like in practice?”, I asked. “Can you give me an example of the behaviour you’d like to change?”.
The client explained that today, if their leaders weren’t getting the response they hoped for, they would “give ten more reasons why their argument was the right one”. What she wanted leaders to do instead was ask a question, to understand the other person’s perspective.
It’s interesting that we as communicators can fall into the same trap.
We often start from the perspective of “how do we make the case for internal communications?” and line up arguments to bring leaders around to our thinking.
A more powerful starting point is to ask questions to discover what objectives our stakeholders are focused on, work out how internal communications can help them, and bring the two together.
4. Bring Insights to Help Stakeholders Make Decisions and Solve Problems
By helping your organisation listen, giving people a voice and developing your expertise in research and measurement, you can add value through bringing insights.
The IC team is often one of the few functions which has a view across the whole organisation, and which doesn’t have a vested interest in making things ‘look good’ for the boss!
Be the person who knows what’s on employees’ minds or what gets in the way of them doing their job. Use insight to help find the keys to solving business challenges.
I once put in place a series of ‘Talk about’ sessions focused on key business issues. We would use them to facilitate conversations, and also to ask for employee views about why things weren’t working, or what would make them better.
On one occasion my organisation was struggling to recruit internal candidates to new outbound sales positions. The assumption had been that people just didn’t like the idea of outbound selling.
Actually, what came through from the conversations is that anyone moving to a new role at the time would automatically be moved onto a new contract - and it wasn’t the sales job people didn’t want, it was the contract.
This was a useful insight, which led to new business decisions being made and the roles being filled.
Insights can come via conversational mechanisms like this one, from measurement methods such as focus groups, or just by watching – what are people talking about in your social media channels? What are they searching for online? What’s actually happening in the workplace?
5. Link Your Internal Communications Objectives to Your Stakeholders’ Goals
What kind of objectives do you set for internal communications? If they relate to communication outputs (‘hold 4 leadership events this year’), consider re-focusing on business outcomes. Here’s how it works:
- Start with your key stakeholders’ business goal (e.g. internally recruit 50 outbound sales people, to contribute towards this years’ increased sales targets). This means you will both be working towards a shared goal.
- Set out what you need people to do, and who needs to do it, to support the goal (x candidates from y locations to apply for the roles)
- Uncover why people aren’t doing it already. If it’s not known, try to bring insights to help bring understanding
- Set internal communications goals about what you’d like people to know and feel, to help change behaviours (potential candidates in y location know they would stay on their existing contract after moving to a new role; potential candidates feel the new roles look interesting and have great commission prospects)
Frame your internal communications efforts in these terms to your stakeholder. Put yourself in their shoes.
How would you perceive the value of your internal comms manager if the conversation starts and ends with you asking for an article about the new sales roles (which subsequently gets no results, because you don’t know about the contracts issue), compared to an approach like this?
6. Link Your Internal Communications KPIs to Your Stakeholders’ KPIs
What do you currently measure? Most internal communications measurements still focus on communications outputs, such as whether people clicked on an article, attended a briefing or enjoyed an event.
These types of measures can be helpful for communicators, because we need to know your channels are working well.
But if you’re interested in proving the value of your work to a stakeholder, measure what they value.
Measurement can be formative (understand why people are not applying for the outbound sales roles) or evaluative. Do people know the new jobs would be on the existing contracts? How do they feel about the new roles? Do people intend to apply for the jobs? Are people applying for the jobs? Have the roles been filled?
Again, put yourself in your stakeholder’s shoes. It feels nice to know 100 people read your article, doesn’t it?
But how would it be if you also had data which helps you understand the reasons why people are not applying for your roles, concrete feedback about whether people do or don’t understand about the contractual position, or insight into how they feel about the roles?
This type of measurement also tends to change the focus of your work.
In the first case here, once you’ve posted the article and seen that it’s been read, you’ve finished.
In the second case, if the measurement tells you that people still don’t know their contract wouldn’t be changed, you should be figuring out what else you can do to change that.
7. Re-think How You Talk about Your Role
When someone asks you what you do, how do you answer? What first impression is this giving? Are you helping people to view your role as adding value?
Often, internal communications professionals are perceived as tactical, not strategic business partners.
Even though internal communicators play a critical role within the organization, their contribution to the business bottom line is usually underestimated. Because of that, it is challenging for them to be seen as enablers who can enhance dialogue, foster collaboration, and support change within the organization.
So, If you don’t yet have an elevator pitch, now could be a good time to develop one. Imagine you’ve stepped into an elevator with a new senior stakeholder. You have 30 seconds until the lift doors next open, to articulate your role for the first time. How do you want them to think of you? What will you say?
8. Consider How Your Stakeholders Experience Your Role in Practice
Human beings are creatures of habit. Our brains are pattern-matching machines which continually make associations, predict what should happen next and behave accordingly.
So, if your stakeholders’ experience to date is that they call you into a meeting too late and ask you to create their PowerPoint, this is what that stakeholder will come to expect from you, and hence what they will keep asking you to do.
It will also be the easiest thing in the world for you to keep doing it, because this way of working has become habitual and changing may well feel challenging.
If you want to change how people perceive you, you’ll need to change how they experience you. So, try out some of the techniques outlined here.
Avoid setting the bar too high – don’t try them with your trickiest stakeholder! Go for your most easy-going, positive internal client and ask if you can try out something different.
There will always be challenging conversations as part of an internal communications role. There will always be people who see things differently from you, or who have a different opinion to you about what good internal communications look like. That comes with the territory.
But instead of looking for ‘the case’ that will win people over, understand what really matters to them and then hold up the mirror to yourself.
At the end of the day, your stakeholders want to feel you understand them just as much as you want them to understand you and they will take their cues from what they see you do in practice. If you want to be perceived as valuable, you have to deliver value.
Interested in learning more about internal communications? Download our free eBook today and learn how to take your internal comms to the next level.