Interview: Organizational perception starts from the inside out

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IN a recent interview, Padraig McKeon, president of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII), consultant communications director and lecturer at Dublin City University (DCU) in Ireland, shared his insights with Orla Clancy about the heightened focus on communications in organizations and how it starts with the internal audience.

Internal communications

In recent months, we have seen an increased emphasis on internal communications due, in no small part, to the spike in remote working arrangements globally. 

“There was already a significant shift towards internal communications. Looking over the last five years, it is the strongest growth area for people working in communications in Ireland. Every major international employer, a lot of public sector bodies, charities and even government departments now have, or are talking about bringing in, internal communications managers. The pandemic has accelerated that significantly as organizations need to retain the trust and confidence of their people and communication is vital in that situation,” said McKeon.

The conversation then moved to Covid-19 specifically and how organizations have been very responsible about returning to office and getting it right. 

“A lot of effort has gone into helping organizations plan a return to the workplace. Communication has to be very clear because ambiguity introduces risk and risk could be fatal. Communication has a huge functional value just now in getting organizations back, which is helping an increased recognition of its value.”

Brand ambassadors

McKeon opines that how an organization is perceived externally starts on the inside; that the teams that are aligned in their communications are invaluable brand ambassadors.

“If you’re going to be truly strategic about communications, you’ve got to start on the inside and work from there out. The first point of contact for those outside an organization is generally with the people who work there. They’re an audience for the organization, but they’re also a communications medium to others. There should be a very clear and deliberate connection between the messages you are delivering to the internal audience and those being delivered to external audiences. Internal and external communication should be tied at the hip.”

“The employee who talks enthusiastically about the employer with a smile on their face sends out a message about an organization that all the media relations and events and advertising in the world could never achieve. Working from the inside out is about having the delivery of different forms and tools of communication integrated, not necessarily all driven by exactly the same place, but all aligned so that they’re consistent with each other. They’re echoing and re-echoing each other and they’re serving different purposes within an overall pattern.”

Cross-functional approach

Public relations today is about much more than issuing press releases to media; it is about building relationships with key stakeholders, and it’s cross-functional across an organization.

“The traditional view of public relations as leveraging communication through the media has evolved greatly. There is still a function that talks to media, but the media are greatly changed – there’s less of them; they’re more specialist; more online – and media relations now sits in the midst of a range of other areas of communications,” said McKeon.

“Success is about building out all elements of communication over time, integrating them and working across all levels of an organization from the board, through to the CEO and senior management and into other functions. For me, the future will see a lot more communications work, but under a much diffused set of headings.” 

Communications is a multifaceted function of any organization and messaging is delivered across different platforms depending on the target audience.

McKeon says that “The cross-functional approach doesn’t center on any one form or one tool – a press release, a brochures or material on the web. You strike the message once and then distribute it in many ways. This is the case irrespective of the type of organization, be it charitable, commercial, political, or public service.”

“With access to digital tools and channels the communicator today can access, adjust, target and retarget precisely in real-time. When you have those tools you’re going to use them. Planning starts with understanding what communications needs to do to serve an organization’s objectives. You then you look at the audience – who needs to ‘get it’ to deliver on those objectives. You look then at how can the relevant message be delivered to that audience? It could be by digital channels; some of it will be by traditional media; it may be about events or through some form of experience… but you start with how do we get to this audience for this purpose, you deliver, you monitor, assess and if needs be you recalibrate and you go again – that’s the way the world is evolving,” continued McKeon.

Organizational objectives

A communications strategy by an organization needs to mirror the strategy and objectives of the organization itself over the long term. The resources applied to communication should support the delivery of target outcomes set by that core organizational strategy.

“It may seem strange to even have to say it, but as the world of media tools and channels is changing so quickly, with alluring new media formats, it is important not to get caught up on the medium or the format of delivery. Instead, we have to stay focused on the audiences of the stakeholders that are going to best serve in delivering on that organizational strategy,” said McKeon.

He went on to note how many organizations are reassessing their approach and are much more discerning and selective in the tools that they use.

“It is about a lot more than media relations strategies; they are aligning all of their different strategies so that their communications are relationship based rather than transactional. All of the elements of the communications strategy need to be in sync with each other, be it media relations, events, print or web based collateral or social conversations. It’s about shaping messaging and thinking it through to the end audience.”

McKeon then spoke about his experience of organizations taking an ad hoc approach – event by event or initiative by initiative – where campaigns are intent based. Such organizations are “never ahead of the problem” he noted. With a proactive strategic approach, they begin to see the problems coming before they become problems; to know who to talk to before they need to talk to them. In this way, boards and senior leadership teams are owning the management of their reputations.

Crisis plans

When asked about whether many organizations had factored a pandemic into their crisis plans, McKeon says “It would be hard to say that people were prepared. The notion of a pandemic was certainly in some plans, particularly in transnational organizations, but the reality of it hadn’t been practiced in a way that, for example, fire drills, evacuations or product recalls are rehearsed.”

“The problem the pandemic created is that for a period of six to eight weeks, for a lot of organizations in the business to business space and many in business to consumer, there was literally no market. There was no-one to market to; there was no-one looking to buy your product. No-one had conceptualized ever a world in which there was, literally, no market. So there was no playbook and most people were making it up as they went.”

Internal – external – onward

As the world emerges from crisis mode, what’s next for the communications industry? “So much that happens around us in our world is actually enabled and fueled and facilitated, or not as the case may be, by effective communications. As structures change and evolve, I think there’s going to be more and more and more conscious investment in communications by organizations. There are going to be more and more opportunities; they’ll be more defined and more refined and there’ll be a huge amount more of internal communications. There’ll be a lot more stakeholder communications.”