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External and Internal Communications

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Regardless of the other communication disciplines I have practiced-media relations, financial communications, corporate PR, the list goes on-I have always maintained employee communications as part of my portfolio.

I believe deeply in the power of effective internal communications. The Globe and Mail made a point yesterday of reporting a Watson Wyatt Worldwide study that linked employee communications to bottom-line performance:

Shareholder returns for organizations with the most effective communications were 57 per cent higher than returns for firms with less effective communications over the past five years. The survey…also found that the best communicators had a 19.4-per-cent higher market premium-the extent to which the market value of a company exceeds the cost of its assets-than the less effective communicators.

There’s more support for a strong internal communications effort in the study and the Globe and Mail report.

However, a couple of items in the blogosphere recently have had me pondering the positioning of employee communications within the organization.

My friend Ron Shewchuk wrote a post for the IABC Employee Communications Common that asked just that question:

I’m particularly interested in whether internal communicators should report directly to Human Resources, or if it’s better to have a “dotted line” and report through to, say, public affairs.

The post drew 13 comments-not bad for a relatively new blog. Some took this position: “Since employee communications addresses the needs of all the employees in a company, it should report to the sole department responsible for all these people – HR.” Others vote for Corporate Communications. (Read the thread for details.)

I’ve had both experiences. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t report to either. I’d report directly to the CEO. There’s plenty of support for this relationship. In the real world, however, there are few CEOs who would happily add another direct reporting relationship to their plates.

I don’t buy the argument that HR deals with employees exclusively and therefore employee communications belongs in HR. In my experience, far too often HR sees employee communications as an HR communications function, focused on compensation, benefits, policies, and other HR-centric issues. Once you try to communicate anything outside the scope of HR’s jurisdiction, they get very nervous. In today’s world, that can be exceedingly dangerous. (That’s why, in many large organizations, HR maintains its own communicators, distinct from the general employee communications teams.)

Which brings us to the second bit of blogospheric buzz to capture my attention. In the wake of Microsoft’s announcement that Windows Vista would be delayed until January 2007, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the role of employee bloggers. I loved Robert Scoble’s characterization of employee bloggers as being “at the edge of a company.”) Robert insisted he was an official Microsoft spokesperson through his blog; so was any other Microsoft employee blogger, because the blogs are public and his remarks can be quoted by the media.

In comments to Neville Hobson’s blog, I suggested that the issue isn’t one of a blogger’s credibility, but rather of his authority. If 10 or 20 employee bloggers voice their diverse and varied opinions about a company issue-and in the course of their discussions articulate subtly (or not-so-subtly) different information, which one reflects the authoritative statement of record for the organization?

The question of where authority resides is an intriguing one. Inhis post, Robert suggested that he can be the authoritative source…sometimes. Which, exactly, are those times? It depends, Robert says, on whether he’s remarking on his own projects or team efforts, or if he’s simply opining about other company issues. Of course, Robert doesn’t tag his posts as “authoritative” and “non-authoritative;” nor does anyone else. It’s up to the reader to deduce that.

While we wrestle with these issues as we journey farther into the era of social computing, there is one thing companies can do to ensure accurate information is presented to various external publics: They can communicate more effectively internally, providing accurate information and access to details that will help those employees who blog (or otherwise engage in the great conversation) avoid making any mistakes. In other words, internal communcations is having a greater and greater effect on external communications.

Given that, how much additional emphasis do companies need to place on employee communications, and where should it reside? Too often, the answer comes down to politics. Wherever your internal communications department sits in the org chart, though, you’d better make sure there’s a strong tie to the external team and that messages are clear, consistent, accurate, thorough and candid. If not, this new era of social computing could reach up and bite your company in the ass.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.

External and Internal Communications
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