It was March 2020. In a span of hours, many of us had to transition our entire firm to a fully remote workforce. COVID was still a term we were all getting used to, and protocol on a national, global, and firmwide level, was changing rapidly. Employees were anxious, looking for direction and connection. At every level, all resources were focused on managing the business during this crisis. It would have been challenging to STOP, organize thoughts, and consistently communicate at the right time with the right message to the right people. This is where a, perhaps lesser-known field of marketing, internal communications, comes in. Internal comms is a game-changer during chaotic times like these.
According to the Public Relations Society of America, internal communications is defined as “the transmission of information between organizational members or parts of the organization. This is public relations — just a form that happens internally.” The role can come in many forms. It can be a dedicated, full-time communications professional who sits in marketing, human resources, or another administrative team. It might be an additional responsibility of the firm’s marketing or HR team. Whatever the firm structure, the function is the same: a gatekeeper responsible for filtering mass communications into clear, concise language for the right audiences through the proper channels. When done right, internal comms leads to higher productivity, higher levels of employee engagement, a stronger culture, and is a key player in marketing your firm to your own people and building a more informed and value-driven workforce dedicated to serving your clients.
Like any relationship, communication is critical, and that starts with how employees at every level receive information. Consistent messaging driven by internal communication processes not only makes employees happier than haphazard, inconsistent messaging, a good strategy and well executed plan can also impact another critical asset of law firms – time. How much time in your organization is wasted by people searching for information because they don’t know who to call or it isn’t readily available?
Strong internal comms can also reduce the amount of time people spend translating inaccurate messages or reading between the lines when things are not clear. Think of internal comms as a function that takes a labyrinth and turns it into a straight line – the right messages get to the intended audiences more quickly. For example, when introducing a new policy that impacts staff, you may initially think only to communicate it to staff. But think of how it may impact attorneys or others in your firm and ensure you communicate appropriately. Looping in communication professionals early in the planning stages can help craft the best possible roll-out strategy, taking into consideration the questions that are likely to get asked by various positions in the firm and addressing them upfront. It is also essential that your people hear big firm announcements before they go public. They should never be the last to know about a firm expansion or a leadership change. First, it builds trust when employees are “in the know,” but it also prepares them to answer any questions they may receive from clients, potential clients, or vendors.
In times of crisis, internal communications are not only a “nice to have” but also a necessity. As previously mentioned, March 2020 was a chaotic time, full of confusion. Perhaps more than ever, employees longed to feel safe and connected.
At Baker Donelson, our internal communications team was integral in taking information communicated during daily meetings and sharing it with applicable audiences through a daily CEO video update or other communication channel.
The role can be a bit like an air traffic controller, filtering the many updates and messages from each department so the firm’s COO, CEO, CIO, and HR director can focus on their primary responsibilities. Our internal communications team also helped keep us connected during a time when we were isolated. They worked with other internal teams, forming initiatives to build employee-centric programs and events. We hosted virtual sip-and-sees, virtual cooking demonstrations led by employees, and CEO wellness challenges designed to get employees outside and moving.
How you communicate internally defines your culture and, therefore, the engagement of your employees – good or bad. Think of it as the huddle on the football field. If the players are not told the plays or don’t understand them, they can’t work together effectively as a team. Instead, they’ll go in all different directions, run down the clock, and likely drop the ball. Effective internal communications help ensure all of your “players” have the information they need to do their job well. Your firm strategy is the playbook, and your internal comms team continues to bring every decision, every policy, every change right back to that strategy. Internal communications professionals combine many, sometimes-competing messages into one clear communication strategy that aligns with your organization’s mission, vision, and culture.
Whether you’re starting from scratch or want to refine your internal communications function, here are a few best practices to keep in mind.
Designate a liaison
If you do not have someone dedicated to internal communications, have a member of your marketing/communications team regularly meet with (or attend an already established meeting of) your internal administrative department heads and executive team to find out what their priorities are. Then see how you can help prioritize and craft consistent messages for the firm.
Create one central repository
For example, we created a tool called “Meeting in a Box.” It consists of talking points with a corresponding power point and includes all relevant updates that employees need to know – everything from new lateral hires to the latest COVID protocol to Open Enrollment for Benefits dates. Leaders primarily use the tool for their team meetings and is also a repository for various written updates as needed.
Tap into your best resource – your people!
Use your annual employee survey, or more frequent pulse surveys, to see what interests them or what information they are craving. You can also measure how communications are impacting their engagement.
Find your communication champions
One internal communications person cannot be in every office all the time. Create a team of “reporters” who serve as the boots on the ground in each office. They can help take photos, shoot iPhone videos, and write up content when needed.
Pause before hitting send
First, think, “should I be sending this?” A big part of internal communications is deciding when not to communicate to control the quantity and quality of communications. Second, when rolling out internal communications about a new policy, program, or another initiative, take a moment to think about how employees at every level may perceive the message. You might consider sending the message to a test group first to get their input.