Who owns internal communications?

Julie Skidmore, Head of Internal Communications Practice at Ellwood Atfield, looks at the on-going struggle between Internal Communications and Human Resources and who really owns employee engagement.

It is a debate that continues to rumble on – traditionally it was a tussle for supremacy in employee engagement between HR and PR, but since organisations are increasingly employing experts in Internal Communications, the battle has shifted. Currently, opinion is fairly evenly split about who should take the lead in employee engagement. However, in my view, HR often impedes the delivery of effective internal communications because they lack the specific, professional IC skill-set.

As an IC professional with many years’ experience in various high-profile companies, I have had to involve myself in this ‘tug-of-war’ on numerous occasions. I can understand why HR feel they are justified in claiming the employee engagement prize. After all, they know the employee base exceptionally well and have the insight into how they relate to the wider strategy, culture and goals of the business.

However, what they are perhaps not so good at – because they are not internal communications professionals – is the ability to create a two way conversation which facilitates two way, employee feedback; creating messaging with meaning that eventually translates into action. IC is not just about pumping out messages and distributing information with no specific call to action.

Look more closely at the role of HR and we find that it is a department with a very crowded agenda. HR is responsible for many things including change management: helping the organisation restructure; downsize or recruit; introducing new ways of working and making it a great place to work; improving performance management; and ensuring clear career paths and succession planning. This, in turn, means HR has a challenging internal communication agenda as each of these strands needs to be communicated to get the business and the workforce supporting the overall HR strategy and its implementation. Added to this, HR is also responsible for ensuring that their company follows best practice when communicating with its employees.

I can see why HR feels internal communications is their ‘department’. Indeed, the overarching mission and vision of the company comes from them via the HR Director and CEO. However, while HR might ‘own’ the concept, they don’t own the communications around it. IC is there to engage employees and help build the culture. What fascinates me is that HR employs communications professionals and then sets about stripping them of their responsibilities. This really doesn’t make sense. In my experience, when HR sends out a communication, it is one-way traffic, with no opportunity for conversation. Employees are sometimes mistrustful of HR. They see them as the company’s police and as such are fearful of engaging and providing honest feedback in case they jeopardise their job. In my opinion, IC is there to bring issues to the surface and make things more transparent – however, HR and the board might be less encouraging of this because, in some instances, the proverbial can of worms is opened. Sadly, this can prevent IC doing its job properly.

It has never been more important to bring internal communications into the mainstream. Companies with more than fifty employees are required, by law, to keep their workforce in the picture of what is happening internally, including information about the state of a company’s finances. But some employees will continue to receive important announcements through the media instead of hearing about them first from their employer. If this tussle is allowed to continue unchecked between the two departments without clear definition of who ‘owns’ what, then messages become blurred and the company as a whole loses out.

So, what is the solution? A good starting point would be to give internal communications a seat at the boardroom table, thus placing it at the strategic heart of the organisation. And finally, HR and IC need to identify their strengths and learn to collaborate effectively since they should both be working to the same overall goal – after all this is business, not the War of the Roses.

Question & Retain and Ellwood Atfield are co-hosting a discussion that focuses on a Pulse Check on the question: 'Will internal communications ever make it into the boardroom?'

The event takes place on Tuesday 20th May at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery. If you would like to attend, please email: jo@questionandretain.co.uk



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