The Internal Communications department of the future

Someday, all of our jobs may be replaced by robots. For the foreseeable future, though, it takes people -- talented, dedicated people -- to staff a successful internal communications function. William Amurgis takes us through the roles communicators need to play to carry it out.

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By William Amurgis

Before offering a complete internal communications department of the future for your consideration, first, though, are three underlying assumptions:

(1) No longer can we afford to (only) cascade messages down from the top. Our organizations have become too complex and too slow to rely upon such an antiquated method. We need to be more nimble, transparent, and inclusive.

(2) As much as I might prefer face-to-face or print communication, those methods are too inefficient, costly, and slow for any organization above a certain size and geographic scope. Instead, Web and mobile technology allow for timely, multimedia, interactive communication without regard for rank, function, location, or tenure. Fortunately, our employees — who have embraced consumer technology and social media in their personal lives — expect similar approaches at work. I look forward to the day when every employee has a smartphone with access to the company network, enabling the employee to be both a consumer and a contributor — anytime, anywhere.

(3) Even though I advocate a future where everyone is a communicator, communications professionals still have a pivotal role to play: helping others, throughout the organization, to become better communicators, and highlighting the best of employee contributions, while also reinforcing key messages around strategy and values. Such reinforcement aids in prioritization, so that scarce resources are more productive on the right things.

What’s required to support these assumptions

Obviously, the actual number of people within your internal communications department will vary based on the size and scope of your organization, but all these roles should be represented in some capacity:

1. Editor. This person manages the content, posting relevant news (internal and external) and announcements while also curating the best of employee contributions. Each news item is only the start of a conversation, as all employees are invited to add context. From my experience, this context is crucial: the intranet has become the most trusted source of important information at my former company, and I suspect this trust is built on the variety of perspectives. In essence, each news item gets a reality check.

2. Technical support. With desktop, kiosk, and mobile devices serving as the primary communications channels, having dedicated technical resources is an important success factor. Yes, you might be able to draw on these resources from the I.T. department, or from contract services, but having them on the internal communications team ensures that they are fully dedicated to the maintenance and evolution of the channels. This is how my former department is currently structured, and it always delighted me when an employee made a worthy suggestion for a new feature and our dedicated Web developers were able to deliver it within 30 minutes.

3. Designer. Again, you can draw on designers from other departments, or from a design agency, but I prefer to have a person dedicated to internal communications. The designer seeks to inspire employees with vivid photography, video animation, Web design, infographics, and presentation support. The designer should also be schooled in basic usability conventions to ensure that any designs have visual, interactive, and emotional appeal.

4. Community manager. This person monitors all the employee-generated content, highlighting the best contributions, responding to feedback, and encouraging participation. This person also conducts usability analysis around key tasks and analyzes employee activity (search terms entered, pages viewed, behavior exhibited) to look for ways to improve the experience and enhance productivity.

5. Communications support. To help everyone become a better communicator, this person conducts on-demand (pre-recorded) and live sessions on topics such as public speaking, writing, meetings, effective presentations, photography, video, social media, and listening. This person is also available to assist leaders with presentation development.

6. Servant leader. In my opinion, the leader of the internal communications department has one primary responsibility: to serve and support everyone else in the department. Naturally, this person will be required to attract, retain, and develop talent, and to set direction and priorities, but — depending on talent scarcity for the other roles — the servant leader may not necessarily be the most highly compensated.

Other specialized roles could also be added — such as photography and video production, perhaps — but, as a support function, the internal communications department should be as lean as can be.

Notice that this department has no speechwriting function. That’s by design. To me, we can coach a leader on how to present, but the words must be authentic — which means they must be chosen by the person speaking and not a ghostwriter. That’s a role I’ll gladly see us abandon.

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About William Amurgis

William Amurgis is the former director of internal communications at American Electric Power, a large electric utility based in the U.S. He is currently exploring other opportunities.