Kate Isichei is a global internal communications consultant with over 20 years experience. She supports small to medium businesses looking for help to create and execute their organisation’s internal communications strategy or to increase engagement amongst employees. She’s also host of the Engagement Express podcast (which I would certainly recommend) where she interviews other thought leaders about how best to create a more engaged workplace. She’s worked in a variety of international internal communications roles and she got into the international space more by chance than planning. I interviewed Kate for the Business Beyond Borders Event last year.
So what is internal communications strategy?
In the past the internal communications role wasn’t as formalised as it is today. 15 years ago most companies (if they even had a person with that role) would put the position into the HR department. Generally it was just part of one HR person’s job to take care of internal communication and so it was a little bit of a neglected specialty. In recent years however, companies have recognised the importance of aligning their external communications with their internal communications. That means that today the internal communications is often even a department of its own that works closely with the regular marketing department or possibly reports on a functional level within marketing.
Ultimate target for internal communications is to achieve higher employee engagement which will therefore lead to higher productivity. McKinsey also have a study showing that companies with a more effective internal communications strategy have between 20-25% higher productivity.
Why is internal comms important?
These days people are much more open about sharing information on the companies that they are working for. That means it’s ever more important to ensure that both the external messages which the marketing department is conveying to the public for sales purposes and the internal messaging which is communicated to all employees is very closely aligned. The rise of websites such as Glassdoor, the sharing of information on LinkedIn, and Twitter rants means that companies have to be more careful than ever before to ensure that they are practicing what they preach externally to their customers. Happily, the days are long gone when a company can have a marketing message around sustainability but not use environmentally friendly practices within their office or manufacturing environment. The example of Brewdog in the last months has also shown the futility of trying to hide a mismatch in external and internal comms over a sustained period.
However internal communication is not purely the communication that a company is making to all of their employees but can also be extended to e.g. franchise partners or any other kind of external partners who may have access to an extranet.
Employer Branding and Role of Internal Communications Strategy during the pandemic
Even though there may have been no senior roles initially in internal communications the situation has changed as the function has become more formalised. These days there are also many formal qualifications that applicants can obtain in the field and employer branding has become increasingly important. When the pandemic began in the first quarter of 2020 then internal communications could really be said to have come of age as this became mission-critical for many companies.
At the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020 Hilton group for example redirected all of the budget from external branding and promotional activities into internal communication and employer branding and employer engagement activities. The CEO recognised that taking care of his employees was the most important thing that he could do at such time of crisis.
What are the main steps involved in developing a global internal communications strategy?
Build a Brand.
You need to be extremely clear as to what your company culture & core values actually are, as well as what you want to communicate. If there is uncertainty internally as to exactly what you wish to communicate to employees and how your messaging should look, (or what your company core values are) then you will not be able to craft a coherent internal communications message. This becomes even more important when you’re working with international teams. Here, the question of how much global and how much local is an age-old problem between all major functional departments.
Without clarity as to how your company culture is and how you need to translate your core values to all of your employees then you will not be able to have an effective strategy.
Be strategic about your strategy.
What do I mean by that? Well, from the 10,000 metre perspective you need to be extremely intentional about every part of your internal communications. You need to work out which of your core values need to be communicated in which way and you need to make major decisions about how much top-down and how much inter-departmental discussion or communication there needs to be.
Communicate consistently and regularly with opportunities for teams to give feedback.
Make sure that your internal communication is a two-way dialogue and not just a set of occasional edicts from above! Especially with global teams, it’s easy for the feeling of isolation to arise so it’s better to communicate little and often, encouraging overseas branches to bring in their perspectives and points of view.
Also, if there’s one thing that binds people around the world it’s a certain reluctance to change, so keeping them familiar with whatever tools you are using, by frequent contacts will encourage collaboration and engagement.
Measure the effectiveness of your communication.
KPIs need to be defined that support your strategic aims for the communication strategy. That means that you also need a set of tools with built in analytics in order to measure whether or not your goals have been met.
What is special about working in global internal communications versus domestic internal communications?
Of course, you’re faced with the challenge of all of the different languages. Whether you describe this purely as translation or localisation or even transcreation, it means a lot of additional steps and time needs to be planned into your process. In fact according to Kate this is one of the most frequent mistakes that companies make when they first go international with their internal communications. They don’t allow enough time for the localisation process.
So how can a localisation process look when we’re talking about internal communications?
Increasingly, companies are defining a corporate language which mostly turns out to be English. However, this isn’t ideal for internal communications across-the-board.
It might be okay for general communications between locations but as soon as you start looking e.g. at the manufacturing teams or call centres then the people working there have completely different levels of education and may not be able to understand the finer points of English. After all, they are paid for a completely different skill set. In that case you need to localise your internal communications to ensure that the message is getting across as it should be.
Imagine a team leader in a production facility running a training for his stuff on a new initiative that headquarters have rolled out. In this kind of scenario, it’s essential to have localised language but also localised messaging because the way that different cultures receive information and process information is different.
Kate explained that in general you don’t have to use extremely sophisticated language when crafting your internal communications messages. She learnt that the language level of an average 15 to 16-year-old means that the content should be accessible for most people. In this way, by using relatively simple language from the beginning, you can centrally craft messages which need less changes to be acceptable in your local branch offices.
Points to consider when selecting a languages service provider
Of course, when you start working with languages service providers in order to localise you’re messaging then you have to consider a number of points:
- ideally you should craft the message in a clear language from the very start to make it easier to translate
- You should pick a service provider who is experienced in your industry so that they are already familiar with the nomenclature that you are likely to be using
- Before sending any messaging to the localisation service provider you should ideally align it with your local teams to make sure that the wording and presentation is suitable for that particular national market. Of course, there are service companies who can do this step together with their localisation teams if you don’t have a local team member who is specialised on this kind of internal communications.
- You need to go through a number of feedback loops in order to avoid messages getting scrambled or simply been translated in a way which is not natural to the markets where the teams you are targeting are based.
In short, you have to plan a lot more time into the process if you’re working internationally, because you shouldn’t underestimate the localisation process. If you want to do this well then it is not something that can just be done with a 48 hour turnaround window. Ask any translation services provider and they will probably tell you the same.
Challenges of working internationally
As soon as you start to work outside of your domestic or home market then the legal frameworks, the cultures and the languages are often all completely different. So, companies need to consider how they are going to manage this kind of internal communications. In many companies, teams in regional offices are left to their own devices as long as the results are okay.
The alternative is that head office may try to impose a copy paste version of the home market onto regional offices without realising why this is not a practical solution. The result is often a power struggle between local offices and the central office however this is often carried out under the table and is not openly spoken about.
Global vs Local
So, one clear requirement working internationally is that companies need to be extremely explicit about how much global and how much local they need to have in their internal communications. Will the local office receive guidelines from the headquarters and be allowed to take the decision on their own? This is okay until things go wrong and then maybe some kind of rigidity is required e.g. in the event of a PR crisis, production problems, or as we’ve recently seen, in the event of a pandemic.
If we take the example of a product recall, then clear instructions and clear unified wording is required from central management. This avoids uncertainty and can often help to present media crises. So, the question is, when is it a global decision and when is it a local decision?
Make sure your messages are landing
To ensure clear communication of your messaging it’s really important for internal comms specialists to make sure that they are collecting information and implementing solutions, based on feedback received.
That means it’s really essential that the messaging is transported in a way which is familiar to the teams who are being spoken to. e.g. intranet messages, email, video?
You therefore need to learn about local culture and about local legal frameworks in order to be able to communicate effectively.
Understand what are the right channels for effective communication
Developing engagement in teams is a key leadership function and clear success driver for companies. One of the first things that an internal communication specialist needs to do when they enter into a new market is to make sure that they understand the channels which are commonly used there for this kind of communication.
e.g. in Germany, use of the tool Yammer (a collaboration/forum type tool) is restricted due to GDPR reasons.
Communication channels are more than just email. Don’t assume that people will read email or even that the whole organisation will have access to email (for example in manufacturing facilities).
You need to consider what channels are generally used in the head office of your organisation and what is normal in the local market? Then you have to learn how to use those effectively and how you can combine the best of the global and local methods to reach your audiences. You have to make sure that your teams will hear from you regularly and reliably whatever their technical constraints may be.
The future of global internal communications
Over the past 10 years most if not all multinational companies have integrated an internal communications role into their company strategies to ensure that their engagement is optimised. They have recognised that this brings value to their bottom lines and is worth investing budget and resources into.
For internal communication specialists the pandemic has provided an opportunity to move from a tactical function executing on orders given from above into a far more strategic role. The expertise of internal communications specialists has been relied on to shape the way that companies have communicated with their teams and the decisions they have made during the past 1 1/2 years.
Kate’s Top Tips for starting out in global internal comms
Make sure that you can learn as much about the local markets as possible.
- What are their priorities and challenges?
- How do they like to receive and consume information?
- What is special and unique about their working practices?
- Ideally you should visit the market to see how they really are working and to get as much firsthand intelligence as you can
- Speak to as many people as possible on the ground and learn what are their concerns and their attitudes towards headquarters
- Learn about the culture of those markets and make sure that you take that information back to the head office. You have to accept that it takes time to build trust and confidence on both sides, and this can only occur with frequent interactions and more meaningful communication.
It’s a learning curve
This could sum up the international expansion story of most people be it in communications, sales, operations or marketing. There are so many different cultures, languages and business approaches around the world that wherever you go into new markets it is really bound to be a huge learning curve. Anyone starting out will soon realise that, whilst you’ve heard a lot of cliches about which nations are organised, which countries have which kind of humour etc, some of those may be true but certainly not all of them. Working in this kind of global role means that you have to be open to other perspectives. People don’t always behave as you would expect and working with a wide variety of nationalities and cultures opens your eyes to other solutions and other ways of managing your business that you perhaps wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
This interview was originally recorded as part of the Business Beyond Borders event. You can find the full interview below.
If you are interested in access to the rest of the Business Beyond Borders videos, please reach out to me.
You can find some of the other interviews here on the blog:
- Maria Iacob: International Money Transfers
- Lorenzo Fornaroli: Managing International Logistics & Supply Chain Management when starting out in Export
- Kathrin Bussmann: Starting to Build your Brand in International Markets
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