Internal Communications Moves to the Forefront

A new Korn Ferry survey underscores the growing importance of employee communications amid the pandemic and growing social activism.

The CEO wants to let employees know that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is encouraged but not required. An employee is asking about plans for returning to the office. A manager in an overseas office needs approval to disseminate an email informing staff that pay cuts will be restored at the beginning of the year. 

All of these tasks have one thing in common—they are the responsibility of internal communications. Once an afterthought of an organization’s communications function, internal communications has become on par with, if not usurped, external communications in importance amid the pandemic, remote work, sustainability, Black Lives Matter, and purpose movements. In a recent survey of Fortune 500 chief communications officers conducted by Korn Ferry, CCOs ranked strategic employee communications as the most impactful part of their jobs in this tumultuous and challenging year.

Richard Marshall, global managing director of Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise, says employees are increasingly seeking—and in some cases demanding—answers and transparency from C-suite leaders around the organization’s stance on a host of issues, among them diversity and equity, remote work, post-COVID planning, and safety and health. “Because of these big systemic issues organizations are facing, internal communications is now front and center of everything,” Marshall says. 

Internal communications has increased in importance over the past few years for a number of reasons. Historically, it consisted of disseminating information about benefits and messages from the CEO. The communications function’s main priority was in media relations, elevating the company’s profile and reputation, financial communications, and crisis management. 

But that started changing about a decade ago, as organizations began focusing on digital transformation, relying on internal communications to craft messaging strategies for employees around changes in areas like culture, engagement, and performance, says Peter McDermott, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise. He says that’s where the line between internal and external communications started to merge. “Through digital transformation, C-suite leaders realized the importance of aligning internal and external communications, which ultimately leads to a positive commercial impact,” McDermott says. 

But communications leaders who responded to the Korn Ferry survey say one of the biggest challenges they face is getting messages out to an increasingly dispersed, remote workforce. Sending a company-wide email and putting a poster up in the cafeteria is no longer enough. Moreover, town halls with the CEO, a popular way to speak to the entire workforce at once, aren’t possible in-person during the pandemic and are unwieldy over videoconference. In fact, according to the survey, CCOs ranked creating timely and engaging content to reach all employees, “especially those without email,” as a major area where improvement is needed. 

Put another way, it isn’t just about communications anymore. It’s about telling compelling stories across text, video, and social media that both inform and engage employees at a time when they can’t gather together. Ann Vogl, a principal in Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs and Marketing practices, says creative and strategic internal communications will only grow more prominent as social issues and external forces like those experienced this year increase the need for connection between employees and leadership. “Employees are counting on companies for purpose and safety, and leaders need to communicate that they care about them if they want to deliver results,” Vogl says.