Kate Isichei is a global collaboration and internal communications consultant and host of the Engagement Express podcast. She has over 20 years of experience working with multinationals on technology implementations, transformation projects, and leadership visibility.
In this post, she shares her expertise on how to structure a high-performing internal communications team.
With the increased visibility of internal communication professionals during the pandemic, one might assume that this would translate to bigger budgets and more resources.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case.
The reality is that internal communication teams are still quite lean in comparison to Public Relations and Marketing.
Why might this be?
It's primarily down to the perception of internal communication versus PR and external communications. In the past, internal communications simply did not get enough credit and attention for helping businesses achieve results. The impact of IC activities was hard to trace, whereas the impact of PR and external communications is carefully measured and proven.
Having said that, the pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of internal communications and engagement, and I do feel that many internal communication leaders are now getting a seat at the decision-making table.
Having spoken with a number of clients and agencies, internal communications is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before internal communications catches up with our external communication cousins.
The current state of IC function in large and smaller organizations
Over the past 15 years, I have worked in various Director and Head of Internal Communication roles and have seen very different approaches to team structure. When there is a well-built internal communications function, teams are successful and have a demonstrable impact on business. But if the internal comms function in an organization is lacking or poorly thought out, teams struggle to influence business priorities.
You may believe that larger organizations would have a better IC function, given their relative size, the number of employees they communicate with, the various business units they have to coordinate between, and the resources that are available to invest in internal communications.
Unfortunately, I have found that some businesses are quite large but still maintain a very small internal communications team; some of whom wear many hats—making it even more challenging.
This can stretch the team in ways that reduce the focus on priority projects which is not ideal for the business. In this way, the team can be seen as less effective, creating a vicious cycle of undervaluing internal communications because of reduced impact on business objectives, which in turn leads to fewer resources, recreating the original obstacles to their success.
Thankfully, not all organizations treat internal communications this way.
On the flip side, there are much smaller companies and institutions that have a bigger internal communications presence with an impressive structure and roles to cover the spectrum of internal communication tasks, which are usually quite broad.
These teams are set up for success because they are well resourced, thoughtfully planned, and can therefore easily impact business results and demonstrate their successes.
To that end, the size of your organization does play a role in how large your IC team should be and perhaps influences how many of each role you need—but there is not currently a standard, direct correlation between the size of the organization and the maturity of their internal communications function.
What does the ideal IC function or team look like?
What the ideal internal communications function looks like in your organization really depends on the size of the business and, more importantly, how seriously it takes communicating internally with its people.
To determine what roles and scope your internal communications team needs to maximize their impact on business goals, it’s helpful to first review what kinds of tasks usually are put to internal communications teams.
Common tasks and responsibilities of an internal communications team
In my experience, here are just some of the most common areas of focus for internal communication teams:
1. Managing internal communication channels
These could include but are not limited to channels like email, newsletters, internal blogs, intranets, apps, digital signage, presentations, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, etc.
Managing these channels could include creating, scheduling and posting content, reviewing and reporting on engagement metrics, maintaining editorial calendars, researching and developing stories, shooting videos, and otherwise contributing.
2. Supporting external campaigns with an internal spin
The role of internal communications in supporting external campaigns should not be overlooked—employees are drivers of culture and can be powerful advocates for your brand and products.
Getting employees on board with external campaigns can increase alignment with your company objectives, help employees feel connected and involved, and ensure employees are supported in their roles to drive business results.
3. Creating plans for new technology implementation
Developing a technology implementation strategy can be one of the more complex roles of the internal communications function. This may include auditing existing internal communication technology and channels, vetting prospective technology vendors, coordinating and collaborating with IT and legal departments to get approval, presenting and making a case for new technologies to leadership and the C-Suite... and that’s all before the technology is even purchased.
After the purchase of new technology, internal communications is often responsible for coordinating with IT for technical setup, communicating with the entire organization about the new technology, onboarding employees, developing a strategy for engagement and adoption, and then reporting on the success of the new technology, or building a case for keeping said technology when it’s time to renew.
4. Supporting and guiding executive communications
Internal communications is often tasked with helping to craft the messaging, agendas, speaker selection and logistics of company-wide meetings and events.
In some cases, their influence on leadership communications may (and should) extend beyond company-wide meetings, to other company communications. Internal communications often works with leadership to guide and advise leaders on the best ways to communicate with employees, and how they should focus their communications for maximum impact.
Over the pandemic, we’ve also seen the rise of internal communications as the conscience of organizations, helping leaders to navigate challenging issues like furloughs, lay-offs, health and safety, as well as a breadth of other crisis communications that are vulnerable to external leaks.
As you can see, the reach of internal communications can be quite extensive. So, depending on the needs of your business, you may need more or less roles to create the ideal IC function.
The roles needed for an ideal internal communications team
With those dependencies in mind, as a minimum, I would recommend building a team that features most, if not all, of the following roles:
Internal Communications Head / Director
This role takes a helicopter view of how internal communications can align itself, at a strategic level, with the organization’s mission, vision, purpose and values.
Typically, this role requires 10+ years’ experience as well as experience in managing teams.
Internal Communications Business Partner(s)
These roles partner with specific parts of the business.
Quite often, these business units will already have resources in place to manage internal communication. In this case, it’s important to work alongside them (not from a hierarchical perspective) so they are connected to the overall communication coming from the center of the organization.
These roles are pivotal to the success of internal communications and therefore quite senior. In line with an internal communication manager role, 7-10 years’ experience would be ideal.
Internal Communications Channels Coordinator
This role helps shape the approach to using existing channels and assessing which new ones, if any, are required.
This person will also be a great support for stakeholders who are not sure of the channels, how they work, and what they do.
Coordinators need a good level of understanding and knowledge of the most common communication channels both internally and externally. Being an avid user of new and emerging external platforms like Tik Tok and Clubhouse is very useful.
Internal Communications Multimedia Executive
A well-resourced internal communications function will also include a graphic designer and or multimedia specialist who would feed into all campaigns and business as usual communication channels and activities.
Design skills and a creative eye all help bring this role to life. Whilst many years’ experience would not necessarily be a prerequisite, extensive experience in creating graphics and working with multiple media formats would help the team to create innovative and engaging campaigns.
How to build and scale your IC function
As stated before, just because you’re a part of a large organization, does not guarantee that you will have a larger, more mature team.
We, as internal communication professionals, can provide counsel for leaders to make informed decisions regarding the structure, size, remit, and reach of the IC function.
Whilst the pandemic has shown that effective internal communications can be a game-changer for organizations in times of crisis, if we are to build on the momentum, considering the business case for increasing the team size is a matter that deserves some serious consideration.
My suggestion would be to set aside some time with decision-makers to discuss how internal communications have added value to the business both during the pandemic and before. Make a simple business case to share with them but don’t be overly pushy or demanding.
Plant the seeds in their minds and revisit them at a later date once they’ve had an opportunity to review it.
For more professional IC advice from Kate, visit the Where to Look Communications website and listen to her fantastic podcast Engagement Express (featured in our post The 21 Best Internal Communications Podcasts for 2021). You can also follow Kate on LinkedIn and Twitter.