The Gatehouse Blog

Selective Engagement: why attempts to communicate with all employees equally are futile

Should internal communication treat all employees on an equal basis? Mike Klein of Changing The Terms argues that ‘Selective Engagement’ – a technique that identifies the most influential employees in an organisation and focuses communication efforts on these individuals in priority – is a better choice for internal communicators.

A common theme in internal communication is the idea of egalitarianism. Internal communication professionals often assume that they have to ‘engage’ the largest possible number of employees. Effectiveness of internal communications is often measured in numerical terms: page views, article hits, readership, etc. – rather than focusing on impact.

Although focusing on egalitarianism sometimes has its place in the corporate world – compliance with codes of conduct and adherence to agreed processes and values being obvious examples – it is often counter-productive to maximizing the effectiveness internal communication.

“Although focusing on egalitarianism sometimes has its place in the corporate world… it is often counter-productive to maximising the effectiveness internal communication”

Internal communications are increasingly being dumbed down so the greatest possible number to access and understand the messages, often with added pressure to be “engaging” or even “entertaining.” But as many messages are important to only a limited number of people, who, in turn, require detailed content inside of a credible context, the push for infotainment sometimes does more harm than good.

Why Selective Engagement can help

A selective engagement approach represents a potential solution to this problem. It turns the current model on its head: instead of communicating with everyone in an organisation, you communicate with a handful of truly influential people. You connect these people together and support their networking abilities so as to encourage the flow of information across the organisation, spreading from the influencers to the rest of the staff through their informal influence networks. It reduces the number of people targeted by internal communication, increases the depth of content and accelerates the speed and credibility of message delivery by making use of trusted social connections.

Identifying high-impact employees


How do you decide which individuals to engage with? The go-to approach nowadays sees IC teams using senior leaders and managers to champion their messages. These so-called ‘high-status’ employees are viewed as legitimate sources of information, usually cascading information from the hierarchy. Yet they often don’t deliver the best bang for your buck. IC teams should instead focus their energy on ‘high-impact’ employees – influential employees who are considered by their peers as being trustworthy and credible. These high-impact employees would then be given sufficiently comprehensive information they can digest then share onward, providing context for other employees and making the information more relevant to them.

“IC teams should instead focus their energy on ‘high-impact’ employees”

It’s important that senior management not be bypassed or blindsided – they have high credibility as sources of some, though not all, authoritative information, and they can also play a supportive role in selective engagement in validating and further contextualizing what the influencers are sharing. It is vital that leaders and managers be mobilised in conjunction with other influencers in the organisation – in other words, that traditional top-down communications are effectively aligned with a selective engagement model.

Social analysis

How would this work in practice? There are a number of different social analysis methodologies that can be used.

A full social network analysis, incorporating survey questions asking employees who they trust and who they think is knowledgeable, can be conducted by specialist vendors who then distill a list of the most influential employees and create a social map of how the influencers connect with their peers organisationally and geographically.

These services can vary in cost depending on the size and scope of the organisation. In yielding lists and maps, they produce tangible assets which, if well-used, can yield significant and measurable return on investment from increased communication impact and reduced spend on all-employee campaigns and platforms.

For smaller organisations, or teams within a large organisation, a basic actionable methodology can be used that requires limited actual spend.

An example of such a methodology is the “Lincoln Rules,”  which were first articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1840, well before becoming President of the USA. As a local politician at the time, Lincoln spelled out a social analysis model which served him in his political campaigns:

The first step is to identify the population – your employees, for instance. Next, it’s necessary to determine what side they’re on – whether they’d support an initiative, oppose it, be indifferent to it, or whether they’d have trouble deciding. You should then avoid activating the opponents while mobilising the most influential supporters to persuade the undecided. It’s possible to keep track of individuals and their stances using a simple spreadsheet. My own first social analysis was done by hand back in 2001. It is definitely possible to get results from this approach with limited resources.

Redefining internal communications

What does this mean for the wider internal communication profession? The entire profession could be redefined with the advent of selective engagement. Selective engagement will bring us back to strategic organisational communication, and potentially deemphasize the current drive to keep a massive number of channels full of content.

IC professionals will, however, need to find different ways of measuring the effectiveness of their actions – simple analytics won’t cut the mustard, and the ability to map the flow of repeated words and identifiable behaviour changes, which some social analysis programs can enable, would offer much greater power than the simple tracking of hits and visitors and the like.

The business case for selective engagement is still a work in progress but, given the growing interest in the concept, I predict that within a year or so there will be a strong business case backed up with corporate examples collected from the individual vendors who are pioneering in this space. I expect this emerging body of evidence to embolden internal communicators to be able to cite the cost-efficiency of selective approaches versus all-employees approaches to get a bit more freedom to operate, and to have a set of influencers who can help them achieve targeted results in areas that may have been too small to address with an all-employee approach. As the effectiveness of selective engagement is better understood, it then will become possible to turn down or turn off expensive channels and activities, allowing internal comms to deliver higher impact at lower cost.


Before becoming an internal communication consultant, Mike Klein worked as a political consultant in the US for eight years. With nearly two decades of experience in internal communication, Mike has penned a book about social dynamics in large organisations, titled From Lincoln to LinkedIn, the 55-minute Guide to Social Communication. Mike currently authors a blog, Changing The Terms, which advocates selective engagement and a strategic approach to internal communication. Mike is an MBA graduate of London Business School and is based in the Netherlands.