The Gatehouse Blog

State of the Sector 2020: the good and the bad

Emerging trends

As always, this year’s report has highlighted some good and some not so good.

On the bright side, we’re seeing evidence of increasing trust in internal communicators, as financial investment into IC is increasingly being funnelled into skilled specialists to build the function. These specialists are also extremely positive when describing leadership’s perceptions of them: the vast majority believe they are viewed as trusted advisors by executives.

Communicators are slower to assume good things when asked how employees receive the communications they produce and distribute — but when we overlay State of the Sector data with that from our audits, sourced from employees of FTSE 100 companies, we see that IC teams are in fact too hard on themselves! For the most part, employees think internal communications are either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, and feel they have a good understanding of their organisation’s vision and how they contribute to the strategy. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, in 2020, a trend for internal communications reporting into strategy and transformation teams has emerged…

On the other hand, perhaps this should be a surprise… As a profession, we’re unfortunately still not thinking or acting strategically enough. We’re not adequately identifying our flaws and obstacles, and even when we do, we’re not doing enough to overcome them (line managers’ lack of communication skills, anyone?). Generally speaking, we’re not planning ahead enough, taking into account not only our organisations’ long-term objectives but the threats that could be our undoing. Scarcely any IC teams surveyed said they produce a formal strategy covering a period of more than 12 months, and just one in two have a channel framework. Meanwhile, two thirds of internal communicators measure their impact on an ad hoc basis, with a focus on outputs (such as online metrics and attendance levels) over outcomes (such as a reduction in absenteeism or turnover).

Look, we know that we’ve got a tough job, and we know that many of us feel underappreciated for all the effort that we put in, so we’ve tried to make things simpler for everyone this year. We’ve put together six recommendations to propel your IC team forward — three shorter- term ones, which will have an immediate impact on employee engagement with your communications (and, by extension, trust in the function as a whole), and three longer-term ones, to develop a more strategic approach and position within your organisation. Take these as slowly or as quickly as you like — but know that this is where we see the IC profession heading over the next decade, so the sooner you embrace this challenge, the better. Naturally, we’re always on hand to help if you need anything — don’t hesitate to reach out. Otherwise, read on, and download the full report from!

What to do next: three projects to increase engagement with your communications

Whilst the benefits of these projects are far-reaching and touch many areas of organisations, the causes at the root of any issues can actually be clearly identified and killed at a relatively low cost.

1. Craft a channel framework

Planning has long been a thorn in internal communicators’ sides — but in today’s fast-paced world, in which channels tend to proliferate, overlap and overtake one another in recurring cycles, it is increasingly difficult to define what messages we’ll send out, with what purpose, when and on what channel. Currently, fewer than one in two IC teams (46%) use a formal channel framework document — but this is a crucial piece of the puzzle, which, frankly, should be far more widespread than it is. In 2020, let’s stop investing time and effort in channels that aren’t working for us, and focus instead on the channels our audiences engage with most, formalising this into a document that holds us accountable.

Currently, fewer than one in two IC team (46%) use a formal channel framework document – but this is a crucial piece of the puzzle, which, frankly, should be far more widespread than it is. 

2. Address the content overload

It was just two years ago, in 2018, that we began asking internal communicators how big a barrier the volume of internal communication in their organisation is. Ever since, it has featured towards the top of the list, and both this year and last year, it was singled out as the biggest obstacle to internal communicators, with around one in two battling content overload! And this isn’t all — it very frequently features in the internal communication research we produce for clients. Across the board, employees are struggling to see the wood for the trees — they’re finding it hard to prioritise the important content due to the overload of irrelevant stuff. It is imperative that we, as IC specialists, get a handle on the messages being sent across our organisations as soon as possible.

3. Upskill line managers

And now, another barrier that has been felt by internal communication professionals for years! Line managers are denounced as detrimental to internal communications every single year. But still, senior leaders are prioritised over line managers when it comes to support — in fact, two thirds of internal communicators attribute the lowest level of priority to line managers, and fewer than one in five consider them the highest priority group to support! Beyond that hands-on support, just 39% of IC professionals provide internal communication coaching and training —arguably a one-off investment that could make things easier for everybody. It’s time now, as we kick off the new decade, to overcome the line manager obstacle once and for all.

Beyond that hands-on support, just 39% of IC professionals provide internal communication coaching and training – arguably a one-off investment that could make things easier everybody.

What to do next: three multi-faceted transformations that will reposition your IC function

1. Create a data-driven culture

You’ve probably already heard the term ‘data-driven culture’. It’s been creating a buzz across the business world — from the more technical functions like IT and operations to the people-driven ones, like HR and internal communication. But just as employees are suffering from an overload of information, it can be daunting for organisations, faced with this much data, to develop a strategy to reap the benefits of it all. Many seem to have determined that the number one thing that is needed is more data — IC professionals have diversified the channels that they’re using to capture data, incorporating a mix of traditional surveys, online analytics and qualitative feedback from managers and communication champions. And that’s great, but at the root of the ‘data-driven culture’ is, in fact, the ‘culture’ part. Taking data and doing something with it is not embedded into people’s day-to-day behaviours at work. The solution to the problem has to be multi-faceted and implemented over time, ensuring your organisation knows what it wants to know, has the tools to retrieve this information, has the resource to analyse the output, and consistently shares insights across teams.

Taking data and doing something with it is not embedded into people’s day-to-day behaviours at work

2. Shift from a focus on channels and content to one on employee experience

A consistent theme across the State of the Sector reports of recent years has been around the broadening scope of the internal communication function. IC has shifted from the internal post office to being much more of an influential entity. Importantly, 70% of internal communicators say they are now involved in propelling the people agenda and employee experience, with two thirds stating they are seen as a key driver of this by others. With all that said, many IC functions are still setting fairly limited objectives for the future — continuing to spread the strategic message, communicating change and carrying on improving channels. There are two core areas we can improve in. First, tying in with the previous recommendation, we should be measuring more, developing a better understanding of our people’s wants and needs, so as to deliver a tailored communication experience to them. In addition, we should be building stronger relationships with other functions, collaborating with them far more than we do now. As a function, we’re not an island, and we need to prove this by working with and for our colleagues to deliver a better employee experience, which motivates everybody to come to work in the morning.

IC has shifted from the internal post office to being much more of an influential entity.

3. Develop an all-encompassing IC strategy

Taking a broader perspective, every obstacle that is faced by internal communicators could be, at the very least, minimised if we took a more proactive approach to our activity. Long-term planning is the biggest area of opportunity for us as a profession. We’re OK at campaign plans, and most of us have a yearly communication calendar, but multi- year IC strategies are actually on the decline— and they were never prevalent to begin with! Only a third of internal communication functions have developed a formal IC strategy. It’s not just internal communicators  who are missing out… We’ve spoken to plenty of executives over the years who have expressed frustration at their ‘reactive’ rather than ‘proactive’ IC functions — and then those same leaders have declined to give IC a seat at the table when making decisions. If we want to be taken seriously as specialists in our field by our stakeholders, and maximise our chances of delivering effective messages to our target audiences, we need to do some forward-thinking. This will change our reputations in our organisations — positioning us as consistent, purposeful and goal-driven. It will increase trust in our function and what we have to offer — and lead to us being invited to sit at the decision-making table. We’re already seeing evidence of this happening, with 2% of internal communicators worldwide reporting into a strategy, transformation and innovation team.

Biography: Andy Macleod

Andy has over 20 years’ experience in internal and change communications. Over the last five years, he has partnered with organisations big and small to support their internal communications recruitment needs.

If you’re looking for a head or director of internal communications/employee engagement, a business partner or a change comms lead, Andy has the network to find you the best talent available.