Internal communications is a neglected, dusty footnote at most companies today. Overshadowed by flashy marketing plans and sleek corporate affairs, it’s tucked into the corners of other departments — often marketing or PR — with no agenda of its own.
Just take a look at your budget, and you’ll see what I mean. Only one-third of companies have a strategic plan for communicating internally,[i] while a mere 5% of organizations have a dedicated internal communications team.[ii]
And what about executive communications, the branch of internal communications where senior leaders deliver messaging to both managers and employees? Sure, most executives communicate with their organizations in some way. But do they have a long-term plan in place? A dedicated team to help them? A strategic vision for where, when, and why they communicate — and with whom?
Aside from a handful of top-performing executives, the answer is a resounding no. For company leaders such as HR directors, CEOs, presidents, VPs, and division heads, poor executive communications means flimsier engagement with key internal stakeholders. But a strong executive communications strategy can enable you to ignite employee engagement and boost your influence. Follow this 9-step guide to learn exactly how.
Step 1: Prioritize executive communications.
To bring your communication approach into the future, you need to actively set new expectations within your organization. Why relegate your strategy to some dusty corner of marketing or PR? It’s clearly not working.
These departments take a holistic “buyer’s view” of the company with an eye on branding and external perception. They do not originate in the executive suite, nor do they implement strategic messaging from the top down.
The best they can do — given their existing workload — is shoot off a few internal announcements each month, slap your name at the bottom, and call it quits. Even this bare minimum is rarely done at most companies today.
It’s no wonder that nearly 90% of employees say their leaders don’t communicate effectively with the organization,[iii] while almost half say leaders fail to provide clear direction about where the company is headed.[iv]
In today’s increasingly competitive market, this simply won’t cut it anymore. At a time when only 32% of U.S. employees feel engaged with their companies,[v] strategic communication from leadership needs the spotlight more than ever. As a senior leader, this starts with you. Unless you make it clear that executive communications is a priority, no one else will take up the call.
Executive communications is the missing link for senior leaders looking to strengthen their engagement with managers and employees, increase their influence, gain visibility, and create more buy-in from those around them. It’s time for a clear, repeatable strategy — straight from your office to the bottom line.
Step 2: Evaluate your existing approach.
It’s a fool’s errand to plan an executive communications strategy before you know what works — and what doesn’t. You need access to as much data as possible before developing your new strategy. This means measuring the right metrics with the right tools, and then analyzing the results for maximum impact.
A strong audit is the first step to taking the pulse of your existing communications. While you can certainly have an in-house team conduct this audit, it should never be conducted by the people running your current internal communications strategy.
No matter how talented they are, they’re simply too enmeshed in the content to assess it from a clear, unbiased perspective. Your two options are to ask an unrelated in-house department to conduct the audit or to hire an outside agency (like The CEO Communications Co.) to complete an impartial assessment.
The obvious benefits of outsourcing are that you get to work with an agency that brings a baseline for internal communications best practices; fresh insights and proven data from previous assessments; and new ideas to improve your strategy from outside the organization.
Audits are typically conducted by taking a random sampling of about 35 internal communications at your organization. Each piece of communication (e-mail, newsletter, video message, intranet post, etc.) is independently assessed on several dimensions based on employee communication best practices.
Taken together, these assessments allow the auditor to make recommendations for strategic improvements to set a baseline for effective communication at your company. The final stage of the audit is to aggregate the data and draw conclusions. At my own company, we put together a comprehensive report at this stage, highlighting key takeaways and insights — and what they mean for the organization.
This report includes recommendations for how to position and share findings with key stakeholders, employees, and other internal partners. In other words, we are finding a baseline for what constitutes effective communication.
And finally, we include a step-by-step action plan and timeline to implement improvements based on the audit results. No matter who conducts your audit, it’s imperative that a comprehensive report like this is completed soon after the results roll in.
Far too many organizations invest time and resources to assess their communications, only to let the findings linger and never use them in any meaningful way. Don’t let this happen to you.
Step 3: Measure employee engagement.
While the impartial audit is a critical first step, it still only gives you half the data you need. The other half must come directly from your employees. The whole point of executive communications is to engage employees, generate buy-in, and gain internal influence. You can’t do any of this without first hearing — and truly understanding — what your employees think.
This is where the employee engagement survey comes in. Notice that I use the term “engagement” instead of “communications” here. This is important, because we want to measure the current level of engagement between employees and the organization as a whole. While the audit focuses on the specifics of your internal content, the survey is focused on what your employees currently feel and think, and how they prefer to be engaged.
Employee engagement might seem like a buzzword, but it’s a critical aspect of company culture that can’t afford to be ignored. The McKinsey Global Institute found that productivity improves by 25% in organizations with connected employees.[vi] It’s no surprise, then, that when employees don’t feel engaged, companies suffer a decrease in productivity, efficiency, and talent retention. Communication is the glue that holds your employees together into one cohesive team.
If they don’t trust, like, or understand the way you communicate, your team will fall apart, joining the 68% of U.S. employees who don’t feel engaged with their companies today.[vii] If that statistic surprises you, consider that 35% of employees have to wait more than three months to get any feedback from leadership after reaching out.[viii] What’s more, 21% of employees feel they’re kept in the dark during key company changes.[ix] In order for your employees to truly feel engaged, they must be regularly informed, actively listened to, and given the respect of a two-way dialogue with leadership. So, how engaged are your employees?
I’ve put together my top six keys to a survey that will help you build a data-driven strategy for executive communications:
- Create early buy-in for the survey. Don’t just send out a survey to your employees without an introduction. Start by writing an introductory email — straight from you, the company leader. In a personalized email, communicate the plan to your employees. Send this message about a week before the survey is scheduled to start. Explain why you are conducting the survey, how and when the results will be shared, and what the employees will gain from participating in the process.Next, get your managers on board. Hold an in-person meeting, if possible, to touch base about the survey with your co-executives and top managers. Encourage them to incentivize their groups and divisions to participate in the survey, underscoring that this is a personal priority for you.
- Keep your survey questions on target. Your survey questions should be designed specifically to measure the three metrics we discussed earlier: meaningful engagement, channel usage, and demonstrated outcomes. If a question won’t help you gain clarity on these areas, then it shouldn’t be there.
- Keep the survey under 15 minutes. The most effective surveys are concise and quick. Include fewer than 25 questions so that your employees don’t suffer from survey fatigue. Don’t stray from the topic at hand. If your questions are carefully crafted to help you achieve your objectives, this will come naturally.The length of your survey is incredibly important when it comes to response rate. Employees are far more likely to complete the survey if they know it will take 15 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes or an hour. Be clear that you expect employees to use their paid time at work to complete the survey — and make sure your managers are clear about this, too.
- Make it absolutely anonymous. One of the most important elements of any employee survey is anonymity. Employees tend to be suspicious that “anonymous” doesn’t really mean anonymous. So go out of your way to make it absolutely clear that no one’s name or information will be shared with anyone for any reason. This is critical if you’re going to get honest responses to your survey questions.
- Use a convenient digital method. Hopefully it goes without saying that your survey should be digital. The days of handing out print surveys for comprehensive company assessments are long gone. Using an online method not only increases question response rate, but also allows you to get survey results instantaneously. For my own clients, I use a fully customizable online survey platform that can easily change to fit a wide range of organization needs. Find a similar platform that isn’t too rigid or hard to customize.
- Share your results. Once the survey responses have been collected and analyzed, share the highlights of the results with all employees. In a personalized email, explain the key insights you gained from the survey, how they will help shape your communications moving forward, and thank everyone for their participation. Then, ask for feedback: invite employees to engage with you directly about the survey process, the results, and the strategy you’re putting together.
Step 4: Put a dedicated team in place.
Your team is arguably the most important building-block of your executive communications strategy. The people who create and manage your messaging must be reliable, consistent, and professional.
When you hire an outside agency such as mine, you get a built-in team dedicated exclusively to your internal communications. This team then works closely with members of your administrative staff, marketing, and HR.
In my own experience, these folks help our agency keep pace with your busy schedule, remain astride of company news and events, and collaborate together for stronger, more aligned external and internal communications. More on that later.
The ideal team set-up is different for every senior leader but there is one core element that should be in place for everyone: You need a dedicated internal communications specialist whose sole responsibility is to consistently create content in your voice to connect with employees on a set number of important topics.
While it’s possible to hire from within for this position, it’s unlikely that you have an experienced internal communications specialist hiding in plain sight. Outside specialists come with the added benefits that they are more cost-effective than salaried employees, they bring best practices and ideas from outside the organization, and the best ones have years of experience writing for C-suite executives at a wide variety of companies.
Your internal communications specialist will be the main point-person who writes and manages your content, oversees your strategy, and executes each part of your communications plan. In doing so, he or she will likely collaborate on a regular basis with the other members of your team, such as your chief of staff or your head of marketing.
To begin building your long-term communications strategy, identify who these people are for you — and bring them together into a cohesive unit.
Step 5: Plan ahead with a long-term vision.
It might sound obvious that you should develop a strategy for executive communications. However, only 27% of internal communications practitioners have a written strategy in place — and nearly 50% of all internal communications is unplanned and ad hoc.[x]
This haphazard approach isn’t all that surprising, given that internal communications is often relegated to PR or marketing, without a clear budget or sense of priority. But a strong strategy is paramount to getting people at your organization to buy into your vision, objectives, and goals.
Your first order of business — once you have decided to prioritize and professionalize the way you communicate with your internal stakeholders — is to develop that strategy.
Let me be clear: When I say that you should develop the strategy, I don’t mean that I expect you to drop everything you’re doing to create a plan on your own. In the previous section, we covered the importance of putting together your own dedicated executive communications team. It is your responsibility to delegate the development of a strong strategy to this team.
A strong executive communications strategy will map out your messaging far in advance — looking 6 months to a year ahead — to reflect your long-term vision and persuade others on your ideas through a strategic campaign of communications in a variety of content channels.
It’s easy to get mired down in the details when you start thinking about how to communicate with your employees. But the key to mapping out a long-term strategy is to start by taking a giant step back. Together with your team, sit down and answer the following questions about your goals for executive communications:
What are your main communication goals for the year ahead?
- Start a dialogue with employees so they can give feedback on x, y, and z
- Communicate major business decisions and explain why they were made
- Engage more employees on a personal level to show that leadership cares
- Create buy-in for new upcoming company strategy/project/initiative
What key topics or issues do you want to cover?
- In-house career opportunities for employees
- The process for onboarding new hires
- Changes in leadership/company structure
- Upcoming product/service expansions
- New company strategy or initiatives
Who are your main audiences within the organization?
- 3000 employees who work in my division
- 50 managers who work in my division
- Colleagues in the C-suite and internal stakeholders
- Board of Directors
Step 6: Build a year-ahead communications plan.
Once you have your long-term vision plotted out, use a shareable spreadsheet platform such as Google Sheets to create a simple calendar strategy for the year ahead. This calendar should be basic; don’t worry about specific dates or other details at this point.
For each month in the upcoming year, write out a basic plan for communication in terms of theme, main objective, key topics, and routine messaging (i.e., messages that go out during the same month every year, typically around holidays or annual company events). Here’s an example:
In the example above, the basic plan for January shows eight potential messages to send out during that month. These are not intended to be set in stone. Rather, the exercise of looking a year out and writing down a general plan for messaging will serve as a flexible foundation for your more detailed monthly strategy.
Think of this year-ahead plan as a basic blueprint for the main objectives you want to achieve through communication over the next 12 months.
Step 7: Create a detailed monthly schedule.
Unlike the year-ahead plan, your monthly communications schedule should include details such as channel type, recipients, date of sending, and other specific information to guide actual content creation. As a result, you should only focus on one or two monthly schedules at any given time — otherwise, your team will get bogged down in too many details and it will be difficult to execute.
With my own clients, I like to use the following calendar format to schedule out these monthly details:
There is no right answer when it comes to how many messages you should schedule to send out weekly or monthly. In the example above, you’ll notice that there’s a loose cadence of about two messages per week for the month of January.
I’ve worked with some senior leaders who prefer to send out just one message a week, on a set day — say, every Tuesday. This is a fine approach. At a bare minimum, though, you should be sending out at least one message every two weeks.
The cadence of messaging you choose depends on a wide variety of factors that you and your team should consider, including your own schedule, your role at the organization, the size of your company, and the results of your communications audit and employee engagement survey.
Step 8: Align key messaging with corporate.
External and internal communications are like siblings. They each have different needs, talents, and interests. But when it comes down to it, they share the important stuff in common.
For all their differences, your executive communications and the various other communications coming from your company must collaborate to align on key messaging. This means that they must be “on the same page” in terms of tone and language, as well as in terms of the actual information shared with employees. To achieve this, the best executive communications have strategic alignment with corporate communications (marketing, PR, marketing, etc.) to stay on-message and on-brand.
Just as your customers have certain expectations of how they interact with your company, your employees and internal stakeholders do, too. That’s why the “secondary” members of your team should be people such as your chief of staff or head of marketing. They understand how corporate communications is done at your company, and can help your content strategist fit seamlessly into this existing fabric.
This is key. If communications from leadership have a completely different style and message from what employees are seeing from PR and marketing, senior leaders come across as unreliable while undermining corporate strategy. This isn’t just bad for you; it’s bad for the entire organization.
Research shows that when information coming from leadership is perceived as reliable, employees are more likely to identify with their organizations.[xi] When executive communications are out of sync with corporate messaging, employees feel less engaged.
Simply put, your executive communications strategy cannot exist in a bubble. Look for ways to integrate your approach with marketing, PR, and corporate affairs. What important initiatives are they talking to employees about? How can you add your voice to better lead and inspire the company? Your team must collaborate closely to leverage these opportunities to influence and inspire those around you.
We’ve already established that the “helpers” on your team — those in charge of marketing or your administrative staff — are mainly there to help your content strategist keep pace with your busy schedule, remain astride of company news and events, and collaborate together for stronger, more aligned external and internal communications. Part of this entails sharing and aligning your calendars.
This is as simple as it sounds, but it deserves its own section because it’s so important. Your executive communications strategy must reflect shared company priorities, events, milestones, project launches, and any other number of significant dates that affect your employees. Don’t miss an opportunity to create messaging to help guide employees on something that’s very important to them. Shared calendars are the answer.
Simply use a shareable calendar service such as Google to match up schedules with marketing, PR, and administrative departments so you can align your events with theirs. That’s all there is to it.
Step 9: Structure for a two-way dialogue.
The best executive communications encourage feedback whenever — and wherever — possible. This is something most senior leaders are failing at: Only 21% of executives say they actively solicit feedback from employees when given the opportunity.[xii]
This is why, when developing strategies for my own clients, I like to include an email to employees at the end of each month that asks for direct feedback on the topic at hand. You can set up an “Ask the CEO” email address specifically to receive this feedback from employees, send out a quick pulse survey at the end of each month, or use a dedicated forum on your company intranet to host discussions.
In some cases, it might be necessary to make the feedback anonymous; research shows that over half of all employees are hesitant to offer critical feedback for fear that it would adversely affect their career.[xiii] Still, don’t give your employees the cloak of anonymity too often. You want to encourage transparency and prove that open, honest feedback will be well-received and never result in punishment. Use your discretion to decide if the topic at hand is controversial or sensitive enough to warrant an anonymous feedback channel, and only deploy it when absolutely necessary.
The power of feedback is that it allows you, as company leader, to receive a constant flow of ideas and opinions from all ranks of the organization throughout the year. This is key to keeping you in tune with the mood of your employees, and makes you better able to address problems before they get out of hand. As McKinsey & Company noted in a recent study, executives frequently wait to receive feedback in their year-end reviews. They’re then surprised to be confronted with criticism of their leadership style or communication approach.[xiv]
You can avoid this unwelcome surprise — and build a culture of honesty — by welcoming feedback on a regular schedule, and giving employees clear and easy ways to share their thoughts. The reason I like to include an end-of-the-month email inviting feedback from employees on each month’s topic is that it encourages a timely discussion and provides context to employees’ ideas. The next step? Use what you hear. Show your employees that their feedback matters by choosing a few standout ideas every month to share with leadership and put into action.
About the Author
Stephanie H. Mann is the author of two books on communications, Executive Communications 101 and The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Business Writing. She has been a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Entrepreneur.com, and her writing has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., and other top publications. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Vanderbilt and a master’s in writing from Emerson College, where she was a Presidential Fellow.
Before founding The CEO Communications Co., Stephanie published hundreds of online articles as a web reporter; brought over a dozen print books to life as an editor; wrote features for national print magazines as a freelance journalist; and consulted for dozens of companies as a content strategist.
Seeing a massive need for authentic, strategic content on the inside of companies, Stephanie launched her own successful enterprise as an internal communications specialist. Today, as the founder of The CEO Communications Co., she shares her talent exclusively with senior executives to help them strengthen leadership presence and connect with internal stakeholders.
In her free time, Stephanie is an avid chef, interior design lover, and bona fide bookworm. She’s also a frequent world traveler alongside her brilliant entrepreneur husband, Marc. They live just outside Boston with their sweet chocolate labradoodle, Moose.
To learn how Stephanie and her team can take your executive communications to the next level, reach out to her today at stephanie@CEOcommunicationsCo.com.
[i] Poppolo, Poppulo Global Survey, Inside Internal Communications, 2016: http://download.poppulo.com/hubfs/Poppulo-Whitepapers/Poppulo-Global-Survey.pdf
[ii] Gallagher Consulting, Elevate The Conversation, State of the Sector on Internal Communication, 2018: https://ajg.com/media/1702953/2018-state-of-the-sector-on-internal-communication.pdf
[iii] Gallup, State of the American Workplace, 2017: https://news.gallup.com/reports/199961/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
[iv] Globoforce & IBM, The Employee Experience Index: A new global measure of a human workplace and its impact: http://www.globoforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/The_Employee_Experience_Index.pdf 2017
[v] Gallup, The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis, 2016: https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/188033/worldwide-employee-engagement-crisis.aspx
[vi] McKinsey, The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, 2012: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/the_social_economy
[vii] Gallup, The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis, 2016: https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/188033/worldwide-employee-engagement-crisis.aspx
[viii] Officevibe, The Global and Real-Time State of Employee Engagement, 2018: https://www.officevibe.com/state-employee-engagement
[ix] H&H, 2017: https://handhcomms.co.uk/blogs/10-shocking-stats-spook-internal-comms-professionals
[x] Poppolo, Poppulo Global Survey, Inside Internal Communications, 2016: http://download.poppulo.com/hubfs/Poppulo-Whitepapers/Poppulo-Global-Survey.pdf
[xi] Cornelissen, Joep. “Corporate Communication: A Guide To Theory And Practice.” SAGE, 2014: London.
[xii] FierceCEO, Survey: CEOs are ‘disconnected’ from staff, 2017: https://www.fierceceo.com/human-capital/communication-issue-ceos-employees-survey
[xiii] FierceCEO, Survey: CEOs are ‘disconnected’ from staff, 2017: https://www.fierceceo.com/human-capital/communication-issue-ceos-employees-survey
[xiv] McKinsey, Top executives need feedback—here’s how they can get it, 2011: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/top-executives-need-feedback-and–heres-how-they-can-get-it