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3 easy steps to an internal communication strategy [including a practical example]
A good internal communication strategy is an essential building block for your company's success. It enables you to moderate change and anchor it in the team. This article will teach you what you need to develop sustainable and strategic internal communication.
Twenty years ago, few employers thought about whether they needed an internal communications strategy - or whether how they communicated with their team impacted employee engagement. That has changed. Most managers now realise that their behaviour is critical to the productivity of their department. While managers used to work hierarchically and task-centred, they often now prefer an employee-oriented leadership style at eye level. Authenticity and humanity win over smooth-talking and acting aloof.
However, it can quickly become confusing if you're pursuing specific goals with internal communication. Whether it's introducing an employee app, a merger or a change at the top, scepticism and resistance to change on the part of your employees are pretty normal. You need a strong internal communication strategy to guide your employees safely through these phases. With it, you can address your staff at precisely the right time. Otherwise, you risk time-consuming misunderstandings or the rumour mill taking over.
Definition: what is behind an internal communication strategy?
Strategic internal communication is a planned sequence of communication measures towards employees - with a specific goal. In a communication strategy, you define exactly when you communicate with whom, how and why.
Planning a strategy takes a lot of time and energy initially. You can then save time and effort during implementation because you don't have to think about the correct communication in the middle of your day-to-day business. With strategic communication, you act proactively and create scope to adapt and develop your strategy if necessary.
Internal versus external: communication strategy differences
As with external communication, it's worth taking a strategic approach to internal communication. However, there are some differences to consider:
The differences between internal and external communication strategy at a glance.
Developing an internal communication strategy: how to build it up successfully
Developing strategic internal communication requires the following steps:
- Step 1: Determination of the TARGET state
- Step 2: Analysis of the ACTUAL state
- Step 3: Action plan to get from the ACTUAL to the TARGET state
As this process is dynamic, you must repeat and evaluate the process regularly to further sharpen your communication. Developing successful strategic communication is not a one-way street.
The requirements will change continuously, so you should continuously adapt your communication strategy. Get regular input from the entire workforce. Feedback from your staff is worth its weight in gold. It helps both parties to better understand each other's needs.
Step 1: Determination of the TARGET state
Here you define the goals of your internal communication, for example:
- Your employee motivation
- Introducing a new tool
- revising your mission/vision
The more straightforward and precise you can make your goals, the better. This will help you to find the appropriate measures in the third step.
Step 2: Analysis of the ACTUAL state
This is where the real work of the communication strategy begins and where you lay the foundation. The more precisely you know the needs of your employees, the better you can design measures that will affect them positively. For these first steps, use instruments and tools such as:
- Target group analysis: your employees are not a homogeneous group. Employees in accounting most likely have different needs than warehouse employees. For each target group, list what they expect, which channels they use, the risks, and what they fear.
- SWOT analysis: here, analyse the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of each respective communication target.
- Time and budget: good communication costs time. Make sure you know beforehand what resources you have allocated for this. Important: compare the current effort with how much time it will cost if you have to deal with misunderstandings afterwards.
There are no clear rules about which instruments and tools you should use. It all depends on your company and goals: surveys, team meetings, or polls — digital or analogue. Use the tools that are best for you to assess the current situation.
The more precisely you know the needs of your employees, the better you can design measures that will affect them positively.
Expert for (crisis) communication at fasel & fasel
Step 3: Action plan to get from the ACTUAL to the TARGET situation
Each communication goal has a different function and needs specific measures. Start with the most urgent one. If your goal is very ambitious, break it down into sub-goals. Make each goal measurable, for example, through the number of clicks on articles or the opening rates of emails. Ask yourself the W questions:
- What: What information does each target group need to understand the communication project?
- When: In what order should the content be placed?
- Where: Through which communication channel should the information be shared for each target group? Digitally, for example, via the social intranet? Live during a meeting? Or does it need another medium?
- How: What is the tone of voice? Are the answers written, or is there a meeting? A word of caution: information can often come across as cold and top-down in writing. Come up with recurring core messages to allay the fears of your staff in each target group.
- Who: Who is the sender, and who communicates? Is it the boss personally, the management, or the HR department? Depending on this, there is a different level of trust.
- Why: Always explain to your employees why this communication project is essential. Be honest. Don't blame others if something doesn't work out or if there are challenges ahead. Honesty builds trust and reduces scepticism.
Very important: despite all the planning, remain authentic and human. If questions come up about information planned later — answer them. Always adapt the strategy to reality and do not try to impose the plan if it isn't working. Allow for real life.
Clever communication: like on the radio
Regular updates are crucial for the success of your communication goals. Behind this is the so-called mere-exposure effect:
The more often people are exposed to an initially neutral stimulus, the more positively they perceive it over time. Regularity makes resistance melt away over time. By the way, radio hits also work this way.
5 reasons why an internal communication strategy is so important
- Information control: employees want to be informed. If you don't provide them with the information, they will simply get it through other means. This carries a high risk of rumour-mongering, as employees often misinterpret and pass on the news.
- Saving time: once trust is lost through misinterpretation of information, it takes a long time to work up to it again. Resistance to change and scepticism soften slowly. This can be very obstructive, especially when you want to introduce new work systems or technologies. Proactive communication can save a lot of time here.
- Higher satisfaction: studies show that employees are motivated to work when they feel good. This is true even if they don't identify with their tasks. But if they experience their workplace as a good community, they still produce great results. If management takes enough time to communicate with its employees, they feel taken seriously and are more motivated.
- Attachment to the workplace: a workplace where staff experience appreciation, especially from their leader, is very valuable. Regular communication will give them this feeling.
- Efficiency: planned, strategic communication can be evaluated. It can also be improved and better targeted.
Internal communication strategy: a practical example
Let's imagine a company that wants to increase employee motivation. In doing so, they face several challenges. Firstly, their employees work remotely at a computer, partly in countries with a time difference from Germany. Secondly, their employees work independently of their manager and don't need to exchange information with each other about work tasks. Additionally, they hardly have any direct contact with customers.
Alongside this, the feedback culture is task-oriented, and feedback is often brief. There are hardly any opportunities for advancement, and their tasks are uninteresting and rarely result in intrinsic motivation.
Motivation is, therefore, primarily driven by money, and occasionally due to their relationship with their manager. This leads, among other things, to regular absences due to stress-related illness and the risk of inaccurate or slow processing of tasks.
To increase motivation, the company decides on two measures:
- More networking among each other: studies show that social interaction is essential to employee motivation. This networking is even more important than interesting work.
- Sharpening the company's mission: if employees can identify with the values and ideals of a company, this increases their motivation to be part of it. This creates a sense of purpose in their work.
What the follow-up tasks looked like:
Since communication was so far primarily written, the number of meetings increased. The company introduced the following new online meeting structures:
- Weekly exchange on work tasks for 60 minutes
- Bi-weekly meeting of employees for free personal discussion for 90 minutes
- Monthly feedback meeting to talk about structural challenges in the company for 90 minutes
- Monthly training meeting where the employees teach each other for 60 minutes
- Introduction of an online team event every three months, as well as an offline team event twice a year
In order to sharpen the mission, the leaders first went through a process to determine their values and motivation. From this, they developed their vision for the next ten years. They presented the results to their employees and asked for feedback.
In the next step, the managers defined the points where they were already living the vision and where they were still lagging behind. These difficulties are currently being resolved step by step, and the company is continuously developing its vision in harmony with the employees.
The work is quickly showing results: since these communication measures, staff loyalty has significantly increased. Stress-related sick days have decreased — and the quality of work results has improved.
Top-down communication — that's over. A well-thought-out internal communication strategy helps to increase staff motivation, reduce stress levels, and increase productivity. Strategic internal corporate communication helps minimise misunderstandings and resistance to change and alleviates fears and uncertainties among the workforce.
To build a sustainable communication strategy, companies should determine their ACTUAL and TARGET state, set goals, and create an action plan to achieve them. To respond to changing demands and needs of employees, the strategy should be regularly reviewed and adapted. Internal communication is no longer a one-way street!