Focus on Employee Communications

Which Department Owns Internal Communications? It’s Complicated

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jun. 17, 2019

The way an organization communicates with its employees can determine the corporate culture. Creating a consistent cadence and attitude ties communication to the mission and ensures employees see the value of company benefits, as well as opportunities to advance. Yet most companies haven’t even thought through who owns this function or how it operates.

A recent report from Poppulo titled “Delivering Effective Internal Communication” found huge diversity in where company communications sits. The study found that 38 percent of internal communications experts say they report to a corporate communications division, while another 16 percent say they report to HR; 16 percent report to marketing; and 21 percent selected “other.”

“There is no clarity that says internal communications needs to sit in one department over another,” said Denise Cox, content and communication specialist for Poppulo, an employee communication software company.

employee communications
Denise Cox, content and communication specialist, Poppulo.

But there is one issue that she is certain of: If a company wants an engaged and productive workforce, they need to create a formal communication strategy and make sure it is owned by someone.

She’s in favor of handing to HR.

“HR seems like a good fit because HR works with all of the employees from before they are hired to when they leave,” she said.

They understand the evolving needs of employees, they have relationships with all of the business units, and they have access to workforce data that is relevant to the entire communication process. “Putting comms in HR is a path that a lot of successful organizations have taken.”

A New Seat in the C-suite

HR also manages all of the rewards, benefits and employee experience activities, which are a big part of corporate communication, and link directly to how engaged the workforce is. If companies are going to invest in these programs, they need to talk about them in a way that drives participation and communicates value, said Melissa Yim, head of strategic communications at Deloitte.

employee communications
Melissa Yim, head of strategic communications, Deloitte.

But while much of this information comes from HR, Yim believes companies should move internal communications into the C-suite.

“We are starting to see new C-level roles for chief of employee experience,” she said. Dedicated strategic communication leaders are in charge of creating seamless communications experiences and pulling all corporate communications under a single umbrella.

These leaders will work closely with HR to gather information about rewards, performance reviews, benefits enrollment and engagement efforts, but the communications leader does all the actual communicating.

“There is a lot of expertise in HR, but their communication style tends to be more administrative, and they don’t always tie the message into the broader business goals,” she said.

Adding a communications expert to the top of this process ensures the messaging will reflect the company culture and business goals. “You need a purposeful narrative with a consistent brand, tone and voice so employees feel connected to the company.”

A Decentralized Approach

Still other companies believe internal communications should be part of every business unit’s job.

employee communications
Cory Barkman, internal communications consultant, Southern California Edison.

“Embedding communication folks in each department makes the communications more relatable,” said Cory Barkman, internal communications consultant for Southern California Edison, the primary electricity supplier for much of Southern California.

Barkman was originally part of a centralized corporate communications department, but the utility recently went through a reorganization, which cut his team in half and embedded them in all major departments. Each communications person still adheres to a defined communication governance and brand perspective, but they each operate independently on behalf of their business unit. Barkman now handles communication for IT.

It was a big adjustment, but he finds the new approach to be more authentic. Working side-by-side with IT has helped him to understand the communication needs of the IT team and to craft messages that accurately reflect what they are working on. “There is more alignment around timing and messaging,” he said.

While he appreciates the decentralized nature of his team’s process, he sees many models for successful internal communications. The key, he said, is to put it in the hands of someone who knows how to deliver a consistent voice, feel and brand to every message.

“If someone in the HR department is knowledgeable about communications, then they should do it,” he said. But if HR is already overworked, it can also fall to a corporate communications or marketing team. “No matter the structure, the important thing is to have good communicators in this role.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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