During times of crisis, communication is key. How you address a crisis can mean the difference between keeping your business afloat and going under. And while external communication is certainly important, your internal communications are just as critical.
So why should you devote time to your internal communication and branding?
In this episode, our experts discuss why internal communication and branding is critical to your brand’s ability to weather tough economic times and extraordinary circumstances.
*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.
Why is Internal Communication Important?
Chris Wilks: Oftentimes when companies engage us for branding work, they're mostly concerned with their external brand and how their prospects and clients will interact with them. They don't always consider their internal brands and how their employees perceive them. Why is this a mistake?
Elizabeth Tindall: Well first off, branding is all about promises you're making to key stakeholders. And so if you're preaching one thing externally to the public and all your customers, but you haven't gotten your internal employees on the same page, it's hard for them to deliver on that promise and meet customer expectations, right?
On the flip side of that too, it's aligning everybody on the same goals and priorities to help reach the goals set for the company.
Chris: So, particularly in a situation like this, it seems like that's even more important and more crucial. I mean, is that an accurate depiction of why an internal brand in times of crisis is even more paramount?
Bo Bothe: I think the big thing for all companies should be that people need to be informed, they need to be on the same page. They're delivering a product based on the way you're promising. And if everybody doesn't understand what needs to happen, what's going on, why we do what we do, it just causes confusion. And that confusion can turn into mistrust -- whether it's mistrust internally, from the culture and the people, mistrusting leadership, mistrusting that their vision is right, or mistrusting that things will work out -- or external mistrust.
It could be the mistrust from the customer that doesn't believe that they can still deliver. Especially in situations like this, where if every time we went and bought something, or picked up food from somewhere, you start to think, "Is it safe? Is it done the right way?" All that kind of stuff.
So there are all those pieces that go into it. And I think a lot of that comes from leadership, leadership's communication, their skill, their ability to communicate in a crisis, but also their ability to communicate clearly and effectively during regular time as well.
The Benefits of Strong Internal Branding and Communication
Chris: You mentioned confusion. I think that not having your internal brand buttoned up, that creates confusion, but then this massive, uncertainty kind of just plops down on top of that and that just exacerbates all the problems and really highlights the problems that are already existing.
So what are some of the benefits of having an internal brand ready and buttoned up? Of having everybody on the same page in a time like this? I mean, we talked about some of the drawbacks, but what are some of the benefits of a strong internal brand and a strong internal communications plan in a crisis time like we're experiencing right now?
Elizabeth: Well, I think if you've already been doing internal communications and you have that framework set, you're already light years ahead of many. And so you have the structure in place where you can seamlessly continue to communicate just pivoting the conversation on what to do now.
I think having an internal brand, as I said before, having everybody aligned on the purpose of the company -- the values, the mission, why we do what we do and what the corporate strategy is -- it allows you to already have everybody rowing in the same direction so that when a crisis does occur, you're not having to catch up and make sure everybody's on the same page. They're already in the boat. You might just need to course-correct a little bit, versus everybody figuring out how to get in the boat and row.
Chris: I think I can speak from our perspective at BrandExtract, when all this change just kind of happened overnight. It was like, "Hey, the office is going to be closed tomorrow, don't come in." No one was standing around waiting for marching orders or waiting to understand what needed to get done. It's clear. Our values are on our walls:
- Step up and own it
- Do the right thing
- Teach and lead
- Act with heart
- Have grit
All these things guided or helped us, or helped me personally, understand what was expected of me. Understand what was needed.
So it wasn't like we had to reset and adjust too much. Obviously our physical environment changed and the way we were able to interact -- we had to do that more digitally -- but the mission, the goal, the values, the vision for the company remained the same. And I think that was huge for us.
Bo: Yeah, I think Elizabeth talking about the channels and having the system set up is important because I think if you've conditioned your team to know what to expect then they know where to look. I mean, I think that was a little bit of our challenge, we had multiple channels, right? We had email, we had chat, we had Google Hangouts. We had some different channels, but really all it took was one or two quick emails or quick thoughts and this is what we do here. This is what we do there. And it gets taken care of.
The other side of it is, this is a good time for us to sharpen internal communications. I mean, any company, if it's in the midst of this, they have to pay really close attention. And if they're doing a good job, then what they're doing is they're tightening up on their systems and processes.
It's not just panicking or shutting it down and communicating as little as possible, because this is definitely time for over-communication. There are a lot of people right now that feel like less is more. That makes sense in a time of very big uncertainty but if you take that approach, the problem is that it leaves a lot to be desired, a lot to be imagined. And people's imaginations can go to really dark places without a little bit of support, especially in a challenging time.
Chris: I'm glad you mentioned it as an opportunity to brush up on this or shore up your internal communications because I think a lot of times people can look at crises as negative situations, and rightfully so, but there's always an opportunity or there's always a positive that can come out of it.
One of the things can be is that if you don't have these things in place, if you don't have these channels in place you might be starting a little further back, but this is an opportunity to refocus on its importance. So I think that's a good point to focus on the positive or what you can do to enhance communication in this part.
Elizabeth: Right, it's never too late to start.
Impacts of Poor Internal Communication
Chris: So what are the impacts or outcomes of poor internal communication strategy or in some instances, no internal communication strategy? What are some of the things that can happen?
Elizabeth: Well, I think it starts with what Bo just alluded to, there's uncertainty and it's like we say, "You can manage your brand or have your brand managed by the outside world." I mean the employee base starts to manage what they think, and worst case, it can lead to attrition of people not feeling stable, not knowing what's going on, making assumptions, and ultimately, potentially looking for another job.
Chris: Then, of course, there's lower productivity, like on a smaller scale, right? People don't know which way they should be rowing. So maybe there's wasted effort, or maybe projects get pushed or deadlines slide or things fall through the cracks. And then what that does, if you're all rowing in different directions and things start slipping through the cracks, then maybe your customers start to see that and they start to feel that impact. And I think that obviously has an impact on the bottom line.
Bo: Well, I think the worst thing in the world is fear. I mean, in general, there's fight or flight, right? There's good fear, like "This is a bad situation. I need to be careful." And then there's the other 90%, which is just fear of the unknown.
I think in the void of conversation, to Elizabeth's point, you don't own your brand, you manage it. If you're not managing it, people are going to manage it for you. They're going to come up with the story, they're going to fill the white space.
Just listen to anybody talk, barely is there ever a quiet pause in a conversation because that white space is scary. And I think that, especially in situations like this, if there's a gap something's going to fill it. I think that then turns into demotivation. I think a poor internal communication strategy, or a lack of it, can demotivate a team.
I think there's a balance here. I think people do think about these channels as motivation channels. They think about internal communications as a way to motivate their team. And quite honestly, sometimes just information is motivational. Just using it to tell people what you're doing and what the expectations are and what's happening is way better than "come on team, we can do it."
That's sometimes, for an Italian guy like me, hard to not just want use that channel. "Let's go, let's go!" And the reality is people may not be ready to go, or you may not have told them enough for them to be comfortable with going and that just stokes the fear.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I think it's critical to be genuine and as transparent as possible for the company, in terms of communication.
Bo: Yeah, especially now.
The Role of Internal Communications in M&A
Chris: So switching gears a little bit here. Given the current climate, it seems like there's a lot of talk or there's even some momentum building around mergers and acquisitions and companies merging and things like that. What role does internal communications and branding play in an M&A strategy?
Elizabeth: I think with M&A it's more critical than ever on many different fronts. On one hand, you might have done a great job managing your brand both externally and internally, and the company you're merging with or acquiring may not have done as good of a job internally. So, you might end up with some big challenges integrating cultures, as well as the brand.
Or perhaps they didn't deliver on their brand as well, based on misalignment between internal expectations of how to deliver on the promise versus what you're actually promising to your customer base. So there's that part of M&A. And in the midst of M&A, internal communications are paramount to keeping both sides informed and providing as much guidance and information as possible.
Bo: And sometimes that's a challenge because you're still two different companies in a kind of fact-finding, due diligence phase. And if you're not aligned with your co-conspirator on the other side, say the internal communications teams are misaligned, it can cause a lot of problems and a lot of slow down in the actual integration when the two companies do come together.
We just worked in a situation where one company bought another. One company was very deliberate and active in their internal communications -- separate quality, it was a lot of quantity of internal communication. The other company didn't even have it as a function.
So when you put those two communities together, you've got completely misaligned expectations of, "Man, my CEO used to talk to me every day." As opposed to, "My CEO never talks to me." In that channel, right? That CEO might walk the halls or talk to you in different ways, but in the absence of that communication, if something comes up, it creates all kinds of friction and expectation misalignment at integration. So you just have to be very deliberate and smart about how you're going to manage that, and how you're going to make the transition between the two different cultures and the two different styles.
Challenges in Uncertain Times
Chris: So thinking about how the world is today -- we're in the midst of a global pandemic, and a time of unprecedented change in the way that we're going to do business -- what are some of the challenges that are going to arise with, or that have already arisen, with internal communication and internal branding due to this specifically?
Bo: I think there are two pieces.
- There's the technological part, how do we share information securely? So there's a safety issue there, and how do we make sure that we're not letting in viruses and all this other stuff. So there is a technical issue to this.
- Then there's this kind of an old school mentality of, if we don't say anything, it's going to be okay, because anything we do say is going to be used against us. So it's almost like an old school kind of mentality of, it's better to just be quiet than communicate.
I don't think that works today anymore. I was just on a call this morning, we were doing a workshop with a bunch of people, and one of the things we noticed was that on LinkedIn people were sharing the letters from their CEOs.
So the CEOs are sending out emails or letters saying, "Here's what's going on with the business. Here's what's happening." And those things are being screen-capped and shared. And most of them are well-written, well-articulated, and when the CEO and the company are trusted, they are well-shared onto these social channels.
When they're abrupt, too verbose, disingenuous, or even tone-deaf to the current environment, they're shared in a negative way on different channels, because nobody wants that attached to them. I think you do have to assume that your information is going to be shared externally, but if you take that old world, old school mentality of, "Well, let's just not share anything then," you're actually missing out on a lot of opportunities to motivate and reduce the fear we talked about earlier and maybe even to build a better brand with that information.
Chris: Yeah, social media did away with the whole idea that I can put my head in the sand and not worry about it, right? There's conversations happening about you, around you, and in this case, those internal conversations are there for the world to see. So it's important to have your internal brand and your internal communication align with what you're portraying externally.
Bo: Yep. Beware of the adjectives, especially in a time like this. Basically put your opinion out there with no adjectives. Just state what you should do, right?
"I want to wear a face mask." or "I do not believe I need to wear a face mask."
If you take the adjectives out of it, it makes it a different thing. I think that leaders need to be aware of that when they're communicating about certain situations like this one because you're not really sure how the receiver's going to take it.
If you've got a culture like we've got -- we've talked a lot, we've got a shared language, it's a handful of people -- it's a little easier to use those adjectives in a way that people kind of understand them. But less is more. When I say that I mean, less words and more impact and more detail are critical in a time like this.
But those adjectives get in the way sometimes. When you add those things, it just really changes the way that something needs to be read by someone that's afraid or concerned or just needs information.
Chris: It distracts from the message, I guess. Because people get so consumed with that, now it's about my opinion; "How do I feel about this adjective or this perspective?" I see exactly what you're saying.
Bo: Well, if you think of internal communications at the state level, you just had a really recent situation where somebody mandated something and another person turned around and said "it's recommended that you do this, but you don't have to". Some Americans are going to react to and do it because they know it's right for everybody else. But when they're told what to do, it becomes an issue. And so how do you manage those stories internally and externally and understand your audience I think is a big key to that too.
Tips for Updating Internal Branding and Internal Communications Processes
Chris: Well, this has been great. I want to kind of let you guys out of here with one more final question. So what tips do you guys have for people who are looking to update their internal communications or update their internal brand right now? Or somebody maybe who doesn't even know where to start. What would you recommend for those folks who are embarking on this journey?
Elizabeth: Well, I think, genuine, honest communication is key. Being as transparent as possible, being factual and not trying to provide too much information. So there's a balance. It's finding the right balance between providing factual information, but not over-promising on something that may or may not prove to be correct.
Chris: Right. Being realistic with what you're communicating.
Bo: Yeah. Elizabeth knows that my biggest flaw is sometimes I use more words and more words and more words because I want people to understand better. And the reality is all those additional words don't matter.
People, and especially in situations like this, need honesty and the appropriate emotion along with facts and the details, right? They want to know you care, but they need to know the facts. They don't need to know how you feel about it and how everybody feels about it.
I think that being clear and having a clear understanding of the message you want to convey and the points you want to make are critical now more than ever. And then understanding the channels, understanding how people receive information and where they best receive it.
If emails don't get opened, then maybe it's chat. If chat doesn't work, then maybe it's texts. This wonderful thing we've got now with Zoom and GoToMeeting, we've got different ways to share information and being deliberate about picking which media works for what you're trying to share, I think is important as well. And so as people are putting those things together, I think keeping that in mind would be key.
Chris: Awesome. Well guys, I really appreciate it. I think this is a really insightful episode, so thanks a lot and stay safe out there and we'll talk to you guys next time.