Is there such a thing as “internal” anymore?


Leaked memos, confidentiality breaches, even cyber-attacks – it now feels more and more likely that a business, at some point, will have to deal with internal communications going public.

In fact, the threat of a leak is real, as a survey reveals that one in four UK employees have intentionally leaked confidential business information to people outside of their organizations.

With so much vulnerability surrounding privacy in a business, it’s common sense that employers shouldn’t assume that internal communications are guaranteed to stay internal. Whether it’s a memo about job cuts, or a curt dressing down via email to all employees – it’s all just one click away from going public.

When internal communications go wrong

stressed employees

In 2014, Sainsbury’s made the headlines when an internal communications memo – suggesting that staff encourage customers to spend an extra 50p during every shop – was accidentally put up in a shop window rather than in the staff room.

It quickly made its way on to social media where it was retweeted thousands of times and picked up by Buzzfeed, TV stations and newspapers.

These, and other notable IC mishaps, have made companies wake up to the realization that what is spoken and written internally can easily end up doing the rounds of Twitter and the national press.

When Yahoo sent a memo around to all its staff notifying that all remote employees should start working from the office with immediate effect or quit, it soon went viral. While the company may have wanted to demonstrate bold leadership, it actually left workers feeling dejected and patronized.

The message failed on a few points. It didn’t address the need for remote workers to be at home, it didn’t follow a conversation to those affected by the policy change and the language used made the company sound dismissive. And sent months into Marissa Mayer’s appointment as the company’s new CEO, this was perfect media fodder which led to a major comms crisis in-house.

What these stories tell us is that in order to retain your company’s reputation, it’s imperative internal communications become “public-proof”.

Whether it’s David Marcus, president of PayPal warning his employees that they can look for another job if they don’t start using the PayPal app, or the Sainsbury’s and Yahoo gaffes – internal communication can lose all context once it lands in the public forum. A misjudged phrase or clumsy wording can have severe consequences once it gets out. What was supposed to be authoritative and persuasive comes across as mean, aggressive, and ruthless.

How internal communications should tackle leaks

internal communications
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There are more ways to leak confidential data than ever before. Organizations use Slack, Whatsapp, Microsoft Teams and a whole host of other messaging platforms to communicate with staff. Bigger businesses are more vulnerable. The greater the number of staff, the greater the risk of internal communications going awry.

Of course, when communications do leak, the press delight in exposing the less professional side of a big business. AOL, Sony and, Tesla are some other big names who have experienced very public IC slip-ups and had to deal with the inevitable social media field day.

There is a way of not hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Rather than fearing a potential leak, internal communications should be composed as if they WILL leak.

Most employees are wise enough to not criticize co-workers, gossip about their private life or spread office rumors via email. Internal communications should be treated the same: Don’t write anything to your employees that you wouldn’t want your customers to read.

Any type of correspondence within the business should be conceived with the notion that it could reach a much ‘wider’ audience.

These examples show how foresight and empathy are often missing in an organization’s internal communications. What Marcus, Yahoo and Sainsbury’s didn’t do was ask, ‘What would a customer think if they read this?’.

Had they done, a crisis would have been swerved.

Internal communications is the conscience of an organization

internal comms
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If we learn anything from these howlers, it is that internal communications should be the conscience of a business – getting the message across without any of the barbs and stings of a hasty email from the CEO or profit-boosting sales talk.

This type of communication should have a wider audience in mind – it only takes one disgruntled staffer on the receiving end of a heavy-handed memo to set social media alight. Which is why the private face of the business (internal comms) and the public face (PR and external comms) should be aligned.

Creating bullet-proof internal communications

Breaking down the gulf between internal and external communications is the first step to dealing with leaks. No company is completely secure from confidential information ending up in the wrong hands, so it’s vital to these two departments work together to deal with any crises.

It has often been the job of many a PR department to brush company blunders under the carpet. Comparing internal and external comms to non-identical twins, communications consultant Adam Kirtley says, “when the internal twin malfunctions, the poor external twin often has to pick up the pieces.”

But both departments are really two sides of the same coin: both cover the same issues and should be in sync with the organization’s brand, promise, values, and vision. When they co-exist harmoniously, a uniform defense is created to tackle any leaks or breaches.

Lessons to be learned

Internal communications interact intranet
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When huge companies go wrong, it’s an opportunity for all of us to learn what to do right:

  1. Communicate outside of email – there are many ways to get a message across than fire off something that could spread like wildfire in seconds. If the CEO needs to vent, a face-to-face meeting is far more productive. Likewise, the role of the company intranet can be very effective in providing a room for frank, open discussion about a given topic.
  2. CONFIDENTIAL!” “DO NOT FORWARD!” “EMBARGOED” – these terms are a red rag to an employee willing to leak. There is no room for sensational language in internal comms.
  3. Be transparent – if bad news is on the horizon, don’t offer false hope. Staff sense when something is afoot and internal communications’ role in this situation is to balance candor with a legitimate need to keep certain information confidential.

When internal communications does its job right, it can have a hugely positive impact across the company. Unfortunately, like we’ve seen in the examples discussed, when it goes wrong, its impact is a lot more far-reaching.