With the advent of the hybrid workplace, the traditional internal communications career path—from Communications major through to professional—is changing. How can communicators continue developing skills that help employers and employees connect? We hear expert advice from a leading career coach.
As employers and employees alike adapt to dramatic shifts in how and where work is done, the idea of an internal communications career is also developing.
Throughout the pandemic, communicators have been asked to work harder than ever to deliver key messages. From crisis comms to mental health resources, employee communication has been indispensable in maintaining employee experience (EX) and supporting a widescale transition to hybrid working.
This recent demonstration of the importance of internal comms may have stemmed from circumstance, but a general understanding of the profession’s centrality to business operations has been building for years. Back in 2018, PRWeek wrote:
“Internal communications is no longer the poor relation of PR and marketing and as digital capabilities progress it can offer a career that appeals to creative mindsets and those that have a great grasp of the written word.”
Some of you working as internal communications managers might agree with me that it was never a poor relation.
Either way, comms is now more visible than ever and an internal communications career path may become something more people wish to pursue.
I knew from an early age that writing and communications were my passion (I have my first blog from 2001 to prove it!). During my tenure as a communications professional, which spans over a decade, I’ve led internal communication efforts for several organizations, including small nonprofits and national retailers here in the US. I have also experienced first-hand the evolution of communication channels over the years.
From printed newsletters to email to intranets, each channel presented a new opportunity to craft compelling messages that resonated with employees. In 2019, I joined Interact because I want to support other communicators to build an intranet that helps them inform and engage with their employees.
Work has changed; internal communications roles have changed
Although the pandemic has a lot to answer for with regard to the acceleration of technologies and remote work, the increased visibility of communicators and the changes to the work they do, also stems from a broader set of circumstances.
Factors here include the increased importance of DE&I, ESG, and the emergence of employee experience as a key indicator of employee satisfaction and company performance. Communicators contribute to all of these critical work-related topics, which has resulted in their skills being highly valued. At the same time, the continual flow of change means that communicators need to adapt quickly to new technologies and new messaging.
With all these changes, how should you continue to develop your internal communications skills?
Darcy Eikenberg is a leadership coach and the author of the new book, “Red Cape Rescue: Save Your Career Without Leaving Your Job.” As a former principal and communication leader at a global consulting firm, she has worked with many internal communication professionals and speaks at events for groups such as IABC and PRSA.
Darcy’s advice is that during this period of increased visibility, IC professionals can deploy three key strategies to help their own career development.
Internal communications career tip: redefine your job
Darcy believes internal communication professionals who want to develop their own careers and support those around them need to consider their importance.
“Today’s internal communication role is significantly different than it was even five years ago. But many companies—and even some in the roles—have never stepped back to assess what the role really is and why it matters. In a time of great change, you need to take the lead on this conversation. Start by answering questions such as:
- What problems do you solve?
- Where do you make things simpler?
- What happens for the better when you do what you do?
- Where do you make a difference — and for whom?
Once you understand what your real job is (and in my experience, it may be as an integrator, negotiator, or facilitator), you can communicate that better and help others understand the contribution you really make.“
Internal communications career tip: connect your work to bigger goals
After a period in which virtually every aspect of life changed, most of us recognize that work is different. Regardless of whether you work remotely, in-office, in a retail store, or at some other kind of location, there were significant changes in our routines – some of which have returned to their pre-pandemic states, some of which haven’t.
During the time when they were changing though, an important thing happened: the Great Discontent.
What is the Great Discontent?
Also known as the Great Resignation, the Big Quit, and a few other names, the Great Discontent refers to the record number of employees who have voluntarily left their jobs in 2021. Why? The best analysis suggests that as stay-at-home orders confined people to their homes, many of us re-evaluated our work-lives.
Difficult commutes, time spent away from family, unappealing workplaces: as technology enabled remote work—and some people were given financial aid—the urge to find new, more amenable jobs created a mass wave of employee turnover.
As in other fields, for your internal communications career to remain meaningful and motivational over the long-term, it needs to remain anchored to what motivated it in the first place. If you’re anything like me, those original motivators were about helping people and improving the employee experience than anything task-specific. If you’ve gotten stuck, Darcy Eikenberg thinks it’s time to step back and see your value again.
“Too many communication professionals are trapped in the execution of low-value work. They’ve let themselves become a commodity by focusing on the outputs (the newsletters, videos, digital assets, etc.) instead of focusing on—and talking about—the broader goals those things contribute to.
The game has changed. Creating ‘stuff’ is now a commodity; outsourceable and replaceable by anyone who can use the tools.
If that’s all anyone thinks you’re doing—no matter how strategic you believe it to be—you’ll never get promoted or rewarded.”
A final career tip: invest in your skills and yourself
The pandemic generated an urgent need for fast, multichannel communications. If communicators weren’t already in-the-know about Slack, Teams, video content, and emergency broadcasts, they soon developed their understanding.
In terms of professional development, this highlights the ever-present need for communicators to stay on top of changing trends at a strategic level and to understand the best practices of how and when to use certain channels. Throughout the pandemic, instant messaging and video became channels of note, while face-to-face (unsurprisingly) and email may have been quieter.
Digital signage is a good example of a communications channel whose value was seen throughout the pandemic. While remote and temporarily teleworking employees were easy to reach via email or notifications, frontline workers and those in locations that remained open had a different experience. Communicating with those lacking constant access to messages was made easier through SMS, push notifications on mobile apps, and digital signage.
By creating eye-catching, short copy that connected back to longer intranet content, communicators could attract on-location staff to important messages and ensure they stayed safe and informed. As with every other kind of communication format though, digital signage has its own best practices. By investing time in researching and understanding these new channels, communicators can enhance their own career skills.
You can find more on digital signage best practices in our downloadable guide.
However, while the channels may be changing, the communication skills they built on are not. These most valuable skills, many of which IC pros learn both as Communications majors and on the job, remain sought after and should also be developed through personal investment.
Darcy Eikenberg’s advice is to take control.
“When we wait for our companies to invest in us, we give up our power and reinforce the idea that we’re a commodity.
Go to an industry conference, even if you have to pay for it on your own. Volunteer for a professional association. Hire a coach to help you strengthen a skill, map out tough conversations or clarify what you want next.
When you use these strategies and invest in your own professional and personal skills, you break away from the commodity pack and start adding more value. It will not only benefit your career but your colleagues, company and community, too.”
The value of internal communications is high
It can’t have missed the attention of alert senior business leaders that reaching and engaging millions of dispersed global employees fell on the shoulders of skilled communicators. In fact, according to the Gallagher State of the Sector report for 2021, 66% of respondents said their level of influence on senior leaders has now increased.
Likewise, McKinsey’s nine tips to improve employee experience recognizes the value of communications. Getting employees to feel that they are seen, valued, and full of purpose are all tasks traditionally supported by comms teams.
If improving EX and keeping organizations connected and engaged wasn’t enough, there’s also the data that shows that organizations with better communication pathways also perform better financially. According to Towers Watson, “companies with highly effective communication practices enjoy 47 percent higher total returns to shareholders compared with the firms that are least effective at communicating.”
Why? Because in companies with better communication, staff are more engaged, more aligned with the mission, and more productive.
Communicators should feel positive about developing their skills in a world which relies on them more and more. And for those looking to pursue an internal communications career path, now may be a good time to discover how connecting people can give purpose and meaning to a job role.