This was the question that a client emailed me last week and it set me thinking. My immediate response was, it has to be in external comms. Then I started thinking about some companies where they have outstanding HR teams and it would sit more naturally there.
I posted this question on LinkedIn and Twitter – and here are some of the thoughts. Interestingly, internal communications is clearly an activity that everyone wants to own – those in HR said it should sit in their domain, those in marketing and comms insist it should rest with them!
Look at the responses below. There are contributions from Kingsley Iball, retired ecologist and board member of Leeds Federated social housing; Nick Eggleton who specialises in branding and marketing; Lorna Branton, head of external communications at Sheffield Hallam University; Gareth James was personnel director of Rhone Poulenc and now runs People Plus – an HR consultancy; and Simon Kingsnorth was head of people experience at First Direct and now runs Optimal HR..
Simon Kingsnorth makes a valid point that a lot of this will depend on what he calls ‘the level of HR maturity’ – in essence is HR there for compliance and tactics or in an organisational development role.
J Craig Mundy writes in the Harvard Business Review, on Why HR still isn’t a strategic partner. He says the very fact this question is still being asked is because in so many organisations it just has not happened. He suggests that HR leaders should ask of every activity, does this cause friction in the business or flow? He explains ‘Friction is anything that makes it more difficult for people in critical roles to win with the customer. Flow, on the other hand, is doing everything possible to remove barriers and promote better performance.’
This very much supports our view – I wrote in this blog about the role of internal communications to understand the customer better.
We are just about to start working with a major new client on their internal communications. They liked the fact that we are strategic and our starting point is to look at what internal comms are needed to deliver business goals. We’ve all seen businesses where they have loads of newsletters and an intranet with lots of information that may be interesting but add little value.
Our role with this client will be to set up communications that create an innovative culture; that will ensure employees trust what they hear from management; that will deliver better value and service to the customer.
So coming back to the original question – where should internal comms sit? I guess you have to ask the following questions
- What do you want internal communications to achieve? What is the biggest issue and what will be its role?
- What are the roles and skills in existing HR and marketing/communications teams – is either team already a ‘strategic partner’ in the business? (while J Craig Mundy talks about HR not being a strategic partner, everything he says could equally be written about communications)
- Do you need to recruit new skills – and where will they fit best culturally?
And that comes back to the debate we had on LinkedIn and Twitter. I went back to Kingsley Iball to say I agreed that internal comms must sit with everyone including customers and stakeholders, but I think our client was asking about where physically an internal comms person/team should sit and who should manage them.
He came back to say ‘Ah! Hot-desking freelancer maybe’
And actually, I had already been thinking about this. When I went to Ernst & Young many years ago, it was just as the law came in that allowed professionals to market themselves (I know, hard to remember all that now!). Marketing and PR were very new functions and there was no natural ‘home’ for them in our London office and no-one quite knew how to structure marketing – should it be central or functions in divisions or sectors – or part of the international structure?
It was the best thing that could have happened. Apart from the rapid promotions this involved, we got to understand the breadth of the business, the gripes in different departments, how communications reached the outer corners of our operations.
In terms of where should internal comms physically sit, I would say ‘keep moving’. As to who should manage it, I think this should go into the team that is most strategic and business-focused. As Simon Kingsnorth says, the most important thing is to be clear about purpose and have influence.
But whatever the decision, HR, external comms and internal comms have all got to work as a close-knit team.
So, thanks to everyone who contributed to this debate – and have we ended up with the ‘right’ answer for our client?!!
Victoria TomlinsonChief executive, Northern Lights PR
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Ben PindarCommunications director, Northern Lights PR
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Helen RobinsonAssociate, Northern Lights PR
Jonny RossAssociate, Northern Lights PR