Opinion
WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

'INTERNAL COMMS WAS UNDER THE RADAR... BUT I FEEL IT'S HAVING A MOMENT'

IoIC is using its anniversary celebrations to explore what truly matters to employees. Chief executive Jennifer Sproul explains how changes in society have impacted internal communicators' role – and how the Institute's work and new purpose is here to help.

12th March 2019

What matters most to me at work is freedom and trust. I am a very passionate person and I love being given the trust to strive for better – even if it doesn’t work, you still learn from it.

JENNIFER SPROUL, IoIC

It’s spring 1949. The queen is, no doubt, bleary eyed from lack of sleep and relentless nappy-changing with her first born. The NHS is in its infancy; not quite a year old. And another – you might even say more significant – birth is taking place.

On 12 March, the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE) is welcomed into the world in an office in Marylebone after research suggests house journals need to be taken more seriously and given a higher profile. Seventy years later, BAIE has become Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) – and its goals remain the same.

IoIC originated to advance the key internal comms channel of its time and promote positive employee experiences for all, says chief executive Jennifer Sproul. “As our founders believed, house journals needed to show how much the business valued its people. What employers say to their employees can never be underestimated.”

Having spent much of her career championing professional skills and expertise in membership organisations, notably Market Research Society, Jennifer joined IoIC in 2015 as head of commercial and the following year became its first full-time and salaried chief executive.

Her appointment was a strategic decision by the IoIC board to bring in a full-time chief executive with expertise in professional bodies who could take the Institute to the next level. Based in the Milton Keynes HQ, Jennifer is using her experience to help IoIC deliver best-in-class services for members and to grow activities and devise strategies that demonstrate internal communicators’ value in the wider business world.

“I was really excited about making that move into internal communication, as it’s something that impacts everyone,” says Jennifer. “Good craft and strategic expertise has the power to transform so much for organisations, but also how we all feel in our daily working lives.”


An Institute on the rise

Under Jennifer’s lead, the Institute has flourished. Its training course programme has diversified to include subjects such as neuroscience, culture, engagement, crisis communication and video. Last September saw IoIC, in partnership with Solent University, take over the running of the Masters of Internal Communication Management. A new mentoring scheme and the release of a detailed competency framework are helping internal communicators in their personal development. 

Not least, a fantastic new magazine, Voice, has proved a hit, rated one of the top benefits of being an IoIC member in last year’s survey.

Added to that, last year IoIC had the highest turnover and greatest growth in membership in its history.

“Any membership body is only as good as the people it represents,” says Jennifer. “It’s rewarding to see our community grow – not just in numbers, but, most importantly, in confidence.”

IoIC is using its 70th year as an opportunity to up the ante. A new campaign, #WeMatterAtWork, will reach out to organisations, internal communicators and employees to ask what makes them feel valued. It’s a strategy that will form part of IoIC’s agenda for years to come.

 

Is what matters at work in 2019 different to what mattered to people 70 years ago?

In 1949 and for a long time after, you left school, got a job and hoped to keep it. People wanted a good wage. We all still need to pay the bills, but we’re more driven by the environment and culture we work in. Fifty years ago, people worked in conditions that wouldn’t be tenable today.

As employees, our expectations have transformed. People have always wanted respect at work. We want people to say thank you. That hasn’t changed.

And the purpose of internal comms – to inform and engage – hasn’t changed either. Flexible working and connectivity aside, it’s those values – trust, transparency, purpose – that have come to the fore in recent years.


What do you think have been the biggest changes for internal comms since 1949?

Society has changed, especially in the way we form opinions of leaders. The battle for truth is greater than ever, and so authenticity and engagement has become critical to every organisation’s success. For businesses, there is added pressure to maintain a reputation through­­ CSR and social purpose. We want the values of the company we work for to be aligned with who we are on a human level. Our personal brand is important – that’s something employees didn’t have years ago.

Of course, from the first appearance of emails, technology has revolutionised the how of IC. But I think the biggest evolution, and where IC has really been making a difference over the past 10 to 15 years, has been in our strategic positioning. We have moved from being only tactical and informative. Now, we are helping to create positive working cultures and drive organisational performance. Internal communicators need to build on those strategic skills.

 

Can you describe a typical internal communicator?

Internal communicators are passionate. They ask the important question: what does this mean for our people? They practise what they preach, they support, empathise and share experiences to help each other succeed. It feels like a community in what can sometimes be a lonely place.

 

Why do you think it’s a lonely place?

Organisations don’t typically recruit large IC teams. If you’re a team of one or two people without other IC experts to lean on, it can be hard to know what works well and what good looks like. Having a community of peers can be invaluable in any career, so we can learn from others and share experiences. We all need that bit of therapy.

I would encourage all internal communicators to join organisations such as IoIC or tap into other communities, online and face to face, as not only can we help each other to get better as a profession, but we can build relationships and friendships that will support and encourage us.

 

Do you think internal communicators’ challenges – reduced budgets, smaller teams, technology growth – have become greater, or are we just more open about the stresses of the sector?

I don’t think reduced budgets and smaller teams are new challenges. We have often suffered from under-investment, but that hasn’t stopped us from making amazing strides in our work and increasing perceived value with leaders and wider functions. It’s ideas and passion that have seen us succeed. Often the biggest impact can come from the simplest of ideas.

I think technology growth has presented the biggest challenges. We have more channels to manage – probably with no greater resource. And because of the pace to get messaging out in a timely manner, we don’t always have the luxury of time to think about what we are saying. There is an expectation in business to be living the digital age – as if being digital means being better. Some of the latest stats in IC don’t necessarily support this.

 

What are the problems digital is causing?

We are overwhelming people with information and communication, which is not only creating problems in getting our messages across, but adding stress to a faster-paced working environment.

We are more open about those anxieties. The challenge is slowing down and taking a step back to think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and whether it’s working.

I know it’s easier said than done, but we need to push back with our colleagues, to be the conscience of the organisation. Ask, do you really need to do this in that way? We need to think more about whether a tool is actually giving the organisation what it needs while also improving the wellbeing of its people. 

As consumers, as a workforce, we are incredibly diverse and it’s easy to feel like we have to do it all, but IC professionals need to understand their audience’s behaviours and the cultural dynamic of how they want to consume content before they approach technology. It’s important to pick the right channels. Some employees will like Facebook, but others still like receiving letters.

 

What are the skills internal communicators need today?

IC professionals have had to become chameleons. In 2017, IoIC launched the competency framework to reflect the wider range of knowledge they need – things like strategic planning, neuroscience, coaching, culture, change management, measurement and building relationships. These are pivotal skills that win the hearts and minds of employees. And IC professionals need to make leaders see why they’re important.

 

Do you think today’s leaders see the value in internal comms?

We have come a long way. Internal comms was under the radar alongside other disciplines for a long time, but I feel it’s having a bit of a moment. We are involved in discussions at board level, because we are tackling return on investment and demonstrating that brand, reputation management and customer experience isn’t only the responsibility of PR and marketing. Internal comms has a major role in developing company culture by turning its employees into ambassadors who can bring people – new colleagues and customers – into the business because of what they say online and socially. And that links to profitability.

 

What is your advice to internal communicators who are struggling to make the breakthrough at board level?

Invest and spend time in building key relationships with your stakeholders. We can’t work in a silo. We have to work closely with other functions – and not just PR and marketing, but wider. I would encourage practitioners to gather insight and learn the psychology of colleagues in finance, operations, business, project management, HR. Think of it as an internal communication project of its own.

Go around the organisation and listen to those leaders and influencers, find out what is on their agenda, what keeps them up a night, how they operate. And from this valuable listening, go away and think about how you and internal communication can support them. Build your narrative into their passion. The C-suite is time-poor, so focus on their agenda. Find a couple of key areas where you can help and go in with the evidence to show IC can be part of the solution or strategy. That can be a turning point in those relationships.

I have always found it best, once I have leaders’ attention, to discipline myself to presenting a strategy on a single sheet of paper. If they can’t understand it from that, they probably won’t have the time to get on board.

 

How is IoIC looking outside of the IC sector for relevant insight?

We have been looking at organisations such as the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which has launched a Future Work project that presents fascinating content and research around how the world of work and our relationships at work are changing – from the impact of technology on the labour and skills market, to the increased importance of social purpose, the rise of the gig economy and key business and societal changes. 

We have been spending time looking at the latest insights for business and society. How will our economy be challenged and how will businesses maintain a competitive edge in the experience economy we now live in? What lessons or mirroring do we need to take into the IC world and how can we play a pivotal role in crafting the relationships and cultural environment to ensure continuous innovation, productivity, reputation and talent retention and attraction?

I think looking outside at key and future trends are invaluable to helping us as a profession ensure we are on the front foot and highlight the value of IC in helping organisations navigate the future.

 

Why is it more important than ever for businesses to get it right when it comes to work-life balance, wellbeing and employee health?

There is some great research that shows the impact on business from long-term absence caused by mental health, stress and anxiety. It is an area where the IC world is doing some amazing work to launch initiatives and ensure the business has the right cultural environment to talk freely about our mental health and where bringing your true self to work is applauded. But when you look at the data, the absence rates related to stress and anxiety aren’t moving, so what more do we need to be doing?

This is pivotal for businesses. Yes, there is the obvious financial factor, but more so we have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure we are coming together to help tackle the mental health crisis we find ourselves in as a society.

Organisations need to create a supportive environment to help people through challenging times and introduce policies that ensure people are not being unfairly viewed for employment because of mental health challenges they may be facing.

Communication can be incredibly impactful – in a positive and negative way – in how we feel about ourselves, our motivation and our contribution, and for advocacy of our organisations. We need to ensure that we support all people in our organisations to communicate well every day, as well as those moments when they really need the support.

 

What new programmes and activities has IoIC introduced in the past two or three years that are having value for members?

We have introduced lots of new activities over the past few years, with many more planned.  I don’t wish to be biased, but they have all had value in different ways. IoIC has a broad church of members with differing needs, challenges and preferences of engagement.

For example, the launch of the tailored mentoring programme has had immense value to both mentees and mentors. We all need a cheerleader in our lives. It’s an approach that has given both the mentees and mentors a chance to have that selfish “I want to talk about me” time. It is also confidential; you can ask anything. I am a mentor and I enjoy listening to others, developing my skills as a leader and having someone to bounce my own ideas off.

Plus, the online CPD portal gives members tools to plan and reflect, our qualifications have given members new skills, and our increased regional events are bringing members together face to face to build their network.

 

How can IoIC and the whole profession get internal comms on people’s radar as a career choice, rather than it being a role people fall into?

This is another passion project of mine, as 99 per cent of people I ask say they fell into internal communication. We are working with our FutureNet group to develop materials to tell undergraduates what a career in IC is. We hope to work with this group of ambassadors to target universities and devise a graduate roadshow to make this an attractive career choice.

In turn, it would be great to see IC employers offering more graduate roles.

 

Why are the IoIC Awards still of value? What do entrants get out of it, other than a trophy or certificate?

The IoIC Awards are unique and it’s the transparency of the programme that gives immense value. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our work and teams. The need for and value of recognition will never go away – from a simple “Thank you” to an award.

I am very proud of our awards as entrants get full critique from our judges – what was good and where it can be improved.
 


Jennifer Sproul and the IoIC team discuss plans for the Institute's 70th anniversary celebrations

 

What are you most excited about in IoIC’s 70th year – and how can members join the party?

Being 70 has given us a chance to look at what more IoIC can do to highlight the amazing work of this profession and its impact on organisational performance and working lives.

We want to deliver increased thought leadership, look to the future and launch a campaign to start the beginning of our advocacy agenda. I am truly passionate about the impact of IC on people and I think we have a lot to shout about.

We have launched #WeMatterAtWork as our new purpose and there will be opportunities for members and the wider community to showcase their work and the positive impact it has on making people at work feel engaged, connected and purposeful. This is the start of a journey which we will promote for years to come and we want our members to get involved on social media, and through our events and content.

We might end the year with a party – so members must join us for some bubbles.

 

What do you think are likely to be the internal comms trends over the next five years?

We are not going to stop being human and wanting the same relationships and connections, and a purpose and value. We may see business activity becoming more employee-driven, with the aim of strengthening the external brand and enriching the customer experience. If anything, this will present more opportunities for IC to help organisations navigate those relationships and keep them strong.

Maybe channels will be based around AI and virtual reality – or even holograms – and the office of the future will look completely different, but I think that will make human connection in a fast-changing world even more important.

What matters most to me at work is freedom and trust. I am a very passionate person and I love being given the trust to strive for better – even if it doesn’t work, you still learn from it.

JENNIFER SPROUL, IoIC

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