Reflecting on the State of Employee Communication

by Lee Smith

At Gatehouse, we recently launched our 11th “State of the Sector” survey. Backed by the IABC Foundation and a host of other leading professional bodies, it’s now the biggest annual study of its kind in the internal communication space.

Together with my co-director Simon Wright, we’ve spent much of the last month or so running preview sessions and talking through the headline results with communicators from all around the world, so now is a timely moment to pause to reflect on them and consider what it means for our profession in 2019.

When we launched this research back in 2008, there was a distinct absence of insight into the fundamentals of internal communication—bread-and-butter stuff like channels, messaging, structure, budgets and professional priorities and challenges. As former in-house communicators, Simon and I were keen to plug this gap and provide some useful regular benchmarking for practitioners—hence State of the Sector was born. In the decade since then many similar surveys have emerged, but ours has grown to become the definitive study in the space, eagerly awaited each year by insight hungry communicators.

And what a fascinating journey it has been!

As in previous years, the results paint a picture of a profession in the throes of its adolescence. We’re maturing, but at different speeds in different parts of the world.

This year we have called out six areas for improvement:

  • We’re planning-poor and obsessed with the short term. Generally speaking, we’re far too reactive and too focused on the here and now. Many of us don’t align what we do to the organization’s strategy and we lack long-term perspective and robust planning.
  • We’re working blind and failing to demonstrate our value. Insight, measurement and evaluation is often rudimentary, and we remain focused on output rather than outcomes.
  • We still haven’t won over senior leaders. There remains work to be done to win that coveted seat at the table. Despite rising confidence, we’re still not involved in business decisions or in change—and when we are we’re late to the party.
  • We’ve all but surrendered the battle against poor line manager communication. Many communicators have hoisted the white flag and simply given up when it comes to improving line manager communication, despite this being named the single biggest blocker of success over the last decade.
  • We’re beginning to realize digital isn’t the answer. There’s no doubt digital channels have failed to deliver on the promise of a few years ago—in fact they are making our jobs tougher and creating more internal noise and bandwidth issues for employees. Also, the harsh reality is that inside many large organizations, technology simply isn’t fit for purpose.
  • We’re simply not investing enough. Incredibly, the very biggest organizations are earmarking a “chocolate bar budget” to communicating with their employees—less than £1 per employee per month! We’re spending roughly the equivalent of a Mars bar when we know that it costs in the region of £35,000—the price of a luxury car—to recruit and onboard a new employee.

These are, for us, the areas where we should be focusing our professional energy, creativity and resources over the next 12 months and beyond.

Of course, there are positives to celebrate too:

  • Professional confidence is on the rise; 75% of us now say we have a clearly articulated purpose, 72% of us say IC is seen as a key driver of employee engagement, and 7 in 10 of us think leaders understand the value we bring and see us as trusted advisers. That level of self-belief has got to be a good thing, even if it is built on shaky foundations!
  • This year has seen an increase in use of key planning tools like a 12 month tactical communication plan, channel framework, audience profiles and longer-term strategies—so the direction of travel in this vitally important area is positive, albeit from a low start.
  • Communicators appear to be taking action to shelter employees from increased “organizational noise” by streamlining and consolidating channels. They are also awake to the fact that digital is not always the answer and, in fact, can make the situation more challenging—which is no doubt one of the reasons we have seen a reduction in the use of some digital tools. Face-to-face channels are widely used and considered to be highly effective by the vast majority of communicators.

As an agency that works with many world leading organizations and practitioners, we see incredible examples every day of how and where internal communicators add value and make a difference.
When we’re operating at the top of our game we can move mountains and there are examples all around of excellence, great planning, enabling strategy, creativity, demonstrating value and influencing at the top level. So there are many reasons to be cheerful.

Nevertheless, we hope that by shining the light on our collective areas for improvement, State of the Sector serves a useful purpose by pinpointing where we need to focus our attention and what we need to do to continue to evolve.

Lee Smith will co-present the session “The hallmarks of great internal communication” on Monday, 10 June.

About the author
Lee Smith is director at Gatehouse, a Gallagher Company. He’s an award-winning internal communicator with nearly 30 years’ experience. A senior adviser to some of the world’s leading organizations, he works with Gatehouse’s international clients to help them build their communication capabilities. Smith has a passion for raising professional standards and, through the Accelerate strategic internal communication master class program he created and leads, has helped many hundreds of communicators develop their internal communication knowledge and skills. Smith is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Institute of Internal Communications, and holds an MSc in corporate communication & reputation management.