How to build a successful internal communications plan for your business
By ATB Financial 18 September 2020 8 min read
Did you know that 95 per cent of CEOs say effective internal communication is very important to the success of the organisation? That’s according to a HR survey from Deloitte that also found only 22 per cent of CEOs believe their internal communication was being delivered effectively. Companies that excel at this and change management are more than twice as likely to be successful than those that are not, says a Towers Watson’s report on Change and Communication ROI.
What exactly is internal communication? It is an organization’s efforts to keep employees informed of news, information, changes and updates with the purpose of creating a shared understanding of the company goals, values and guidelines. Internal communications are a tool to build authority, engagement and trust with employees and support company culture throughout departments.
In addition to supporting business success, internal communications can increase employee engagement, says Jennifer de Vries, director, internal communications at ATB. She is part of the communications team at ATB that was recognized as 2020’s Corporate Communications Team of the year by the International Association of Business Communicators. “Internal communication is one of those key supports to help keep employees moving forward in the same direction with the same understanding of what they’re trying to achieve. It also helps with how the leadership shows up, which can be key to the culture and helping employees feel connected to their leadership and the organization,” she says.
And employee engagement matters. An Aon Hewitt report found that for every 1 per cent increase in employee engagement, companies can anticipate an additional 0.6 per cent growth in sales for an organization. “It's all about treating your employees well and keeping them informed. If an employee understands and buys into your company’s values and products, it’s easier for them to feel they have a solid base to start from. From there, they can start to embody those in their interactions with customers,” she says.
Where to start with internal communications?
When undertaking a new internal communications project there are two important things to know. The first is an internal communications team is a business partner for the company, which means it should be partnering with the other groups and leadership across the organization whenever communications projects are needed, says de Vries.
The second is that the communication plan about a specific initiative can’t replace the business plan for the initiative, she says. Say your organization is launching a new benefits package for employees or it’s opening a second retail location, there will be an existing plan in place with its own objectives, timelines, desired outcomes and goals. So, the place to start is understanding the existing initiative from a business perspective. “You must understand the goals and, particularly, the outcomes the team is looking to achieve,” she says. “Are they looking for employees to know a specific message? Do they want to see a behaviour change among employees?” This is important because the approach to the communications plan will be crafted differently depending on the outcomes.
An invaluable process to undertake as part of your overall internal communications program is a communications audit. Including an evaluation of how well your organization communicates with its employees. It can be a useful practice to understand:
- if your employees have the info they need to do their job
- what methods of communication work best for different employee groups
- a benchmark of how much your employees know about your organization’s key messages
- if internal communications messages are consistent throughout the organization
- areas that need improvement for future communications.
“Performing an audit of what and how you're doing from an overall communications program is a very good practice,” says de Vries. And an audit should not be a one and done exercise. Doing it every couple of years will help keep you up to date about what works and what doesn’t for your organization. This information will be highly valuable as you build individual internal communications projects.
Key elements of a successful internal communication plan
Every internal communications project should follow a specific plan to ensure it is developed effectively and can achieve its goal. ATB’s de Vries recommends including the following steps so your next internal communications project is a success:
- Align business goals with communications goals: Connect with the group inside the organization that is looking to communicate a key message. You need to learn about the group’s project, its business objectives, what they need to communicate and what they hope the outcome will be at the end of the project. “Understand their why so you can start pairing your communications objectives to those business objectives while aligning the outcomes they're looking for to your communications outcomes,” says de Vries. This ensures a solid foundation for you to develop a plan.
- Understand the audience: “Who are we actually trying to talk to? Or who are we trying to encourage a change in behavior? We need to know what employees need to hear this message,” says de Vries. Once you know who the internal target audience is, you can map out segments and identify key characteristics for each, which is important for how you communicate with the employees. For example, if you need to reach front-line workers who don’t have regular access to computers, you’ll need a different way to send them information. If you have office workers who spend all day on a computer, you’ll need to think about which form of communication — email, an intranet, an internal social network — will work best for the message. “It's about knowing them in order to understand the best way to reach them and the ideal way to write a message so it will resonate.”
- Select the channels: With your audience defined and segmented, it’s time to select the channels where your internal messages will be deployed. “Know that mix is always good,” says de Vries. While it really depends on what's available to the team members, a mix of channels allows for employees to receive or find information in the channels they use most or prefer to engage on. Remember that some channels are better than others depending on the message. For example, a message from the CEO about a new strategic direction may have more impact as a video than as a short post on an internal social network.
- Craft the message: Crafting the messages for your internal communications plan is all about being clear, consistent and conversational, says de Vries. One of the mistakes she sees in internal communications plans is the lack of plain language in messaging. “You have to recognize that everybody is going to have their own lens to look at the message, so it’s key to keep the language as clear, consistent and plain as possible that way everybody will be able to understand,” she says. Be sure to avoid industry or company jargon and don’t try to include more than three to five key messages. “Narrow your messages down. People don’t want to listen to 20 key massages,” she says. Lastly, de Vries adds that forward-thinking organizations are working on increasing personalization of internal communications to drive impact. This can include email lists for employee segments, so people receive specific information about internal initiatives that are relevant to their role instead of a generic mass message.
- Track and measure the impact: Measurement of your internal communications plan shouldn’t just come at the end — especially if it’s a larger project with major milestones that creates natural opportunities to adjust messaging, says de Vries. Instead, you should be thinking about tracking and measurement from the project kick-off meeting. When you have aligned your communication plan goals with the business goals of the project, you can determine what key performance indicators will demonstrate that the plan is working. These can include baseline metrics for reach and engagement of messages — like email opens, website visits, or link clicks. It’s also critical to look at ways to connect the communication efforts more directly to the business objectives, says de Vries. For example, if there is a new order form the sales team needs to be using, you can measure the email open rate that explains the new forms. But by tracking and measuring the use of the new form, you’ll have a greater understanding of how well employees are responding to the internal communications and achieving the business goals of the project. Be sure to add regular check-ins to your project timeline so you can look at performance and review results. This will give you opportunity and time to adjust your efforts where necessary.
One other useful tactic for tracking and measuring employee response is creating a way for employees to provide feedback. The mechanisms for feedback will differ depending on the project — it could be a form, a chat room, or a town hall — but employees often give critical insights or ask important questions that can be used to re-shape a message for greater impact.
- Adjust the plan: Through tracking and measuring your internal communications, you might discover that a message is not resonating or being misunderstood. While not ideal, what’s important is using the insight from your metrics and any employee feedback to adjust your plan, says de Vries. Without measuring your efforts, there is no way to track your plan’s progress and a lack of information on how to adjust and improve.
As with many business practices, the secret to success is a lot of the pre-work and planning that happens before you even begin typing up a message for your internal communications project, says de Vries. “Internal communications teams are there to help the organization ask those key questions before you get to the communications tactics in order to help the overall strategic thinking. Strong internal communications teams bring a holistic view to every project,” she says.
By connecting with the business team leaders, understanding the audience, goals and objectives, crafting clear messages, and developing a way to measure and optimize, you are setting the foundation for a highly successful project.
If you’re looking for a deep dive on everything you need to know around how to grow your business, our ATB X Accelerator program might be just the place for you. Alternatively, feel free to reach out to one of our entrepreneur strategists to explore where you are with your business, where you want to be, and how to get there!