‘One Direction?  How to achieve alignment in internal and external communications

On Tuesday 13 May we held an Ask the Guru session, all about aligning internal and external communication.

One of our gurus, Louise Barfield has shared a write-up with us.

So over to Louise:

In the heights of the glorious RIBA building in London’s Portland Place, CIPR Inside’s latest  gathering of communications professionals took place. I facilitated the Q&A session along with two experienced communicators: Kathryn Bell, communications and engagement leader at TfL and formerly of global engineering giant, Thales, and Alistair Smith, MD of Group Communications at Barclays.

The event aimed to uncover some of the truths of ‘alignment’ – how feasible is it to integrate comms content to both people within the organisation and outside it? And what are the challenges of bringing the two together?

Here the five main issues shared by the Guru’s and the group discussion:

1. Crunch time: What brings people together?

‘Never waste a good crisis’ has become a familiar mantra for many organisations and the question was raised on whether this type of situation can act as a means of galvanising employees. For Barclays’ Alistair Smith the financial crisis provided the company with a starting point from which to rebuild reputation internally and externally, with a new CEO who invested a great deal in being a ‘joined-up’ communications culture.

Smith also asserted that the word ‘crisis’ is over-used (understandably within the financial services perhaps) and the comms teams have to manage the firefighting whilst keeping the momentum of change.

Kathryn Bell stressed that it didn’t just have to be a negative event to bring people together, however, quoting TfL’s learnings from the organisation of the London 2012 Olympic Games as changing how groups and projects were managed, for the better, with internal communications benefitting from a more inclusive approach. Asking ‘do we have the right people in this room?’ has become a way of challenging how projects are started, for example.

2. How do you deal with fragmentation?

Someone asked what are the barriers to bridging the internal/external gap: from leadership style and fragmented, ‘silo’ culture through the question: who owns the long-term view of the organisation’s future?

Alistair Smith warned against ‘over segmenting’ the employee groups you need to reach, as both external and internal people often cross over between stakeholder labels- media professionals are also customers, employees are also shareholders and so on…..so instead, he recommended building a strong narrative, built around the purpose or ‘reason to exist’ of the organisation and make sure this is clearly articulated.  This isn’t just about controlling the message – it’s helping people make sense of what change is happening and gives employees a rationale when new stories predominate about their employer.

Although there will always be tension between different teams – and short-term conflict of tactics – Kathryn and Alistair both advised using consistent language, based on either the strategic objectives, values or a compelling event to drive a clarity of communication.  Being mindful of wider groups of people helps too…..rather than isolated ways of sharing news and content.

A question on managing global comms highlighted this challenge – with the gurus advising to involve multi-regional comms leaders and draw on their local insights, before issuing a ‘one size fits all’ campaign.

3. Past, present or future?

Making sure communications are aligned for current activities – from rebrand to a media ‘leak’ that threatens corporate reputation – can be seen as the ‘day job’ for most comms teams. But how relevant are both the history and the future strategy of an organisation?  What’s more compelling and vital to aligning stakeholders, particularly in times of volatility and change?  Alistair’s answer was simple: both contribute to the narrative, but it’s important to ensure the story you’re sharing is mindful of the whole organisation – not just the vision of the leadership.  Build a narrative that includes the contributions (and participation) of a diverse range of people and you’ll strike a chord.

Kathryn Bell stressed that sometimes you have to address the tendency of employees to refer to their ‘default’ past company structure and history. She shared an example from Thales where employees referred to themselves by previous corporate sub-brands, rather than the wider Thales UK brand – and how this was addressed head-on to prevent confusion and irritation for customers and other stakeholders.

4.  Giving employees what they need

From a corporate communications angle, if a news story happens at the weekend you can’t always rely on internal channels to share that current version of events. Barclays’ Smith recommends giving employees credit for grasping what’s  happened but still providing them with the ‘7am Monday morning’ version when they return to their desks.

TfL’s Bell advised on the importance of creating clear signposts and ‘set pieces’ for employees throughout the working year, to pull together resources, people and comms focus to either public events (e.g. the ‘Year of the Bus’ in London’s public transport system) and let them participate by giving employees what they need to know and do.  Linking wider initiatives that involve cross-functional teams is a useful way of bringing people together, virtually and face-to-face.

Providing the right content is also important. Helping middle managers to connect the wider strategy to delivering performance calls for ‘brief the briefer’ tools and chunks of content that feed involvement by employees.

Alistair Smith talked about ways of coaching managers to communicate more engagingly – rather than just ‘sending them on yet another management course’ perhaps.

Bell shared how the ‘One Thales’ ethos was developed, backed by real examples of success and ‘did you know?’ company facts and stats, the principle of being part of one organisation aimed to stop irritating and confusing customers, as much as unifying employees.

5. Best question of the evening…

‘Which is the toughest critic or audience: the media or employees?’

Alistair’s response was that Barclays’ employees are bound to be more interested in what’s shared in internal and external comms – with more emotional investment. Both he and TfL’s Kathryn Bell agreed the media are there to do a job – report the news – and the rules of the game are clearly laid down.

Summing up…

Across the discussion, it was agreed that although employees can be  just as disaffected or cynical as members of the media, there is a much greater opportunity for them to become ambassadors for what’s happening, and why, within an organisation.  Given the right tools, a story that makes sense to them individually, and an understanding of their part to play in the process, alignment may not be such an unrealistic ambition after all.


Thanks to Louise for sharing this with us. We’re currently planning our next guru events alongwith other relevant content for you. Why not tell us what you think and answer our survey here, it will guide our planning and make sure we do what you need us to do. The survey is open until 30 May, and there’s a prize draw to win a bottle of bubbly! What more incentive do you need to give us judt five minutes of your time…


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