As co-founder and director of Gatehouse, Simon Wright is responsible for co-creating Gatehouse’s Yearly State of the Sector Report—the definitive IC and employee engagement industry benchmarking survey. With over a decade of experience in communications, Simon is a former advisor to the International Association of Business Communicators and has consulted for an impressive list of organizations across a variety of sectors.


Chuck Gose: Always great to chat with you Simon. One of the reasons we’re chatting today is that Gatehouse is kicking off the 10th State of the Sector Survey.

When you started, did you think there’d be 10?!

Simon Wright: Haha—no!  

Lee and I had been thinking about what was going on in the industry and realised that there was no reliable information in the market. We decided we would find out for ourselves and State of the Sector was born!

CG: Looking back over the past 9 years, where have you seen the most dramatic changes in internal comms?

SW: Each year, we ask our audience how many dedicated internal communicators their organisation has, and the answer choices range from 0, through to 15+.  

In the 2017 edition, for the first time, there were zero respondents that selected the answer 0—meaning that every organisation that responded had a dedicated IC practitioner in place—which was great news!

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But I assume you see in some companies that communicators are still doing both internal and external communications.

SW: Yep—that is the case for sure.  

CG: Some like to think of internal and external comms as separate. Whereas others say it’s all communication—just the audience/viewers/readers/listeners change.

Where do you stand on this?

SW: I feel that a truly effective communication function listens and responds to the needs of all their people, from internal employees to external stakeholders, and their customers. If they can align messaging so that there is one version of the truth, there are significant benefits to the organisation.

CG: Why do you think organizations struggle with “one version of the truth?”

SW: The challenge is that if the internal/external messaging fails to align, confusion for both audiences amplifies.

At Gatehouse, one of the most common things we are being asked for nowadays is Strategic Narrative Development—which is a single document that sets out what the vision/company stands for. This helps to to establish that ‘one version of the truth’.

"It’s not an attempt to force change, but simply good old-fashioned maths: If we’re paying for it, we might as well use it."

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CG: How many communicators participated in the survey portion of State of the Sector last year?

SW: In 2017, we had around 400+ organisations represented—which was the largest number of participants to date.

This year, we are expanding our reach to include more of the US, as well as broader UK and European perspectives.  

We’ve partnered with a number of leading organisations to help us achieve this goal (including ICology of course!) and we are hopeful that we will have the largest number of participants yet for the 2018 report.

CG: What are we shooting for here… 500? 1000?

SW: I’d hope for at least 500, but 1,000 would be nice!

CG: It takes teamwork to make a dream work, ya know.

And you don’t want to forget about the Aussies and Kiwis. I see a lot of great IC stuff coming from that part of the world.

SW: Quite right! But we’re walking before we run... this year is about greater reach in the UK and US. We want to focus on Middle East and Asia Pacific next year.

CG: For those who didn’t read last year’s survey, what were a few of the highlights and surprises?

SW: The big takeaway in 2017 was what we called, ‘The Office 365 effect’.  

This recognised the huge impact that Microsoft was having on IC professionals.  

Whether intentional or not, the rise of Office 365 meant that IT and IC teams were being presented with tools they were expected to use. Things like Yammer and Sharepoint were suddenly being pushed, whereas historically, it was the role of the IC practitioner to identify the tools they felt best met the needs of their business.

CG: When we talked about this last year, the “Office 365 phenomenon” was relatively new to me. But in the past 9-10 months, I’ve seen more and more communicators challenged with what to do with the tools that IT is giving them. I don’t see it as a forced thing that often, but more of an expectation: “We’re already paying for it so you might as well use it.”

SW: That’s exactly right Chuck. It’s not an attempt to force change, but simply good old fashioned maths: If we’re paying for it, we might as well use it.  

The challenge is to use them effectively and for the tools to add value. The risk is that they are pushed out to the organisation with no controls or governance in place. So it becomes a question of ensuring the tools are implemented effectively and that a suitable and enabling governance structure is available.

"Governance is absolutely not (or absolutely shouldn’t be seen) in a negative way—it is about enabling tools and processes to be effective and work in the way they need to."

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CG: Governance is a rough one for some communicators. Some view it as a set of rules and restrictions—a more negative view. But others see governance as guidance and steps for success.

What’s the best way for a communicator to begin thinking about governance of a new channel or tool?

SW: Governance is absolutely not (or absolutely shouldn’t be seen) in a negative way—it is about enabling tools and processes to be effective and work in the way they need to. When we talk about governance, we are talking about giving a clear purpose and use cases to channels to achieve an effective return on the tool. That is definitely not a negative thing...

CG: Would you say that having proper governance is just as important as a content strategy?

SW: Absolutely! It is critical, but so often overlooked. Governance provides the framework to ensure the content is issued in the most effective way to achieve the goals of the content.

CG: Looking ahead to the 10th State of the Sector. Because of how the profession is changing, have you changed or added questions this year?

SW: Each year we review the questions to ensure we are keeping up-to-date with trends and changes in the profession. That said, most of the survey has stayed largely the same, with tweaks. This ensures the integrity of the results and enables yearly benchmarking.  

In recent years, we’ve added more questions about social media and mobile communication. And this year we added questions around geopolitical events, such as Brexit.

CG: I’m curious about these new questions. How are you guys seeing global geopolitical events affecting communication inside businesses?

"The normal isn’t normal anymore, so we are all looking at how we react to this."

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SW: Well, I’ll tell you after the results come out!!  

But in the past 12 months or so, there has been a changing landscape, which has shaken lots of things up. The normal isn’t normal anymore, so we are all looking at how we react to this.  

Uncertainty is common theme in responses. We need to be prepared to up our focus on change communication.  

In fact, in the past half year or so, Gatehouse has seen a significant rise in change communication requests. Organisations are getting prepared for change—although they might not know what that change is yet.

CG: I’m curious how personal use of social media is changing how companies communicate with employees. Not from a platform or technology standpoint, but from a messaging, content and visibility standpoint.

Are companies now realizing that employees are people who have their own megaphones?

SW: This an example of the important role of governance! The danger is that if these tools are left unchecked, the organisation feels that they are powerless to keep control of them. The reality is that the organisation needs to harness the power of social media.

CG: I read a study recently that 3% of employees can positively (or negatively) impact change across an organization. Do you think it’s IC’s responsibility to find out who the internal influencers are?

"I'm not sure how an IC professional can be truly effective if they don’t have a clear awareness of the key influencer groups—and thus a plan in place to support and enable those groups."

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SW: I think 3% is a tough number to take responsibility for (and not too sure of the validity of that number!)—but I do think IC is responsible for understanding its audiences.  

In fact, I'm not sure how an IC professional can be truly effective if they don’t have a clear awareness of the key influencer groups—and thus a plan in place to support and enable those groups.

CG: How would a communicator identify these individuals or groups?

SW: It’s about creating clear audience segmentation so the IC team can figure out who these groups and individuals are, and then how to respond to them.  

To do this, the IC team needs to have a clear line of sight into the business and a good awareness of the organisation. We find that IC Audits are an invaluable way of doing this.

CG: Can communicators over segment audiences? And where I’m going with this is saying “Oh you’re a female millennial, so you must like things this way.” Or “you’re a baby boomer, you don’t know how to use social.”

SW: It’s about taking a pragmatic view of core audience types. The CEO could be a core audience; the call centre staff of 3,000 may be another. The way we communicate to both groups will require defined and most likely, very different, approaches.

CG: That’s an interesting thought—segmentation by audience of leadership and structure.

So what’s the plan for publishing and sharing this year’s State of the Sector?

SW: The data is being collected over November, so analysis will take place in December, with the report compiled in January. The exact day will most likely change as we hit January, but we expect the webinars to begin end of January or beginning of February, with the report available soon after.

CG: I know that I will encourage communicators in my network to lend their voice to the report, like I do every year.

Let’s wrap up this chat with the same question I always do. Share your thoughts about internal communication via emojis.

SW: 😟 😍 👨‍💻

CG: Thanks for being on Chuck Chats!

SW: My pleasure Chuck - great to talk to you as always.