In the good old days (maybe 10 years ago or so), the role of an internal communications department was reasonably straightforward: to inspire employees by showcasing positive accomplishments, both the company’s and their own. But in 2016 with information flowing so incredibly freely — from traditional news media outlets, online publications, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. – the onslaught of news has complicated the role of internal communications and made its work notably more difficult.
These days, internal communications has to inform and transmit a company’s mission and values to employees, as it always has, while also addressing the current demands for immediacy and transparency. These are new responsibilities that must be taken seriously; communications that are merely cheerleading will be met with great skepticism.
Compounding the challenge is a factor that has long frustrated PR practitioners, even before the digital revolution: bad news travels faster and is absorbed more readily than good news. There’s a deep psychological basis for this. In a 2014 study, McGill University researchers found that people exhibited a “negativity bias” in deciding which news articles to read.
I’ve seen firsthand how much more likely people are to read and remember negative publicity. Years ago, I was working in-house at a large corporation and devised a way to get important news summaries to managers rapidly — before an article would post to the Internet. We branded these items as “Heads Ups,” signaling a need to pay attention quickly to what you were about to read. We treated important negative and positive news with the same urgency. Managers came to rely on these quick summaries, which were factual and unbiased (we worked hard to not give our own view of the impending article, but instead made sure to include the quote or quotes we had provided).
Over the years, I noticed that I would get many responses when the news was negative. Managers wanted to know more. But when a “Heads Ups” contained positive news, it was either not being read or provoked no response at all. In fact, I would sometimes ask if managers had even seen a positive story, and nine times out of ten, they couldn’t remember.
Today, these biases are only exacerbated through social media, in which the spread of bad news accelerates through retweeting, reposting and countless other forms of digital sharing.
Even more disruptive to previous communications habits, employees have direct access to information from business and political leaders from their own social media pages. They no longer need to rely solely on traditional news sources.
Those charged with marketing a company to its employees need to take account of this shifting environment. Employees are an increasingly critical readership, generally skeptical of overly positive messages from a company. They are looking for transparency, immediacy and honesty from internal communications — not fluff that, frankly, they’re unlikely either to read or embrace.
Internal communications needs to adapt to this increasingly transparent world. Departments should still report positive news about their company, but they are also obliged to report negative news as soon as possible. Internal communications also needs to utilize senior executives for this messaging. With the development of social media, direct messaging from top executives, world leaders, celebrities, politicians and even professional athletes has become the norm. Internal communications needs to create direct messages from the C.E.O. to employees at all levels.
Utilized correctly, transparent communication can create a more trusting and collaborative culture. By being timely and straightforward about a company’s shortcomings, internal communications will encourage employees to trust its positive developments as well. A company can create an ecosystem of trust in a news environment increasingly saturated with negativity.