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5 key learnings from this year’s Gatehouse State of the Sector report

We explore 5 key learnings from this year’s Gatehouse State of the Sector report that internal communications professionals should pay attention to – and what they mean for IC strategy and planning over the year ahead.

Have you read the latest State of the Sector report?

This annual research study has become an invaluable resource in the internal comms community over the last decade.

It’s a goldmine of insights taken straight from the horses’ mouths – with over 1000 IC professionals taking part in the research. Covering important industry topics like budgets, leadership communication, channels and challenges.

If you haven’t seen this year’s report, you can check it out here.

The great thing about State of the Sector is that it brings to light key issues and trends facing the IC industry right now.

And provides helpful pointers on how global IC professionals are approaching their internal communications – providing a helpful guide to benchmark your own IC activities against.

Based on the variety of challenges we’ve seen IC teams dealing with across the many global clients we’re partnered with, we’ve handpicked the five most critical learnings we believe this year’s report brings to life. And offered handy tips and advice on how you can traverse the challenges and opportunities they present in your own organisation.

So without further ado, roll up your sleeves (or eyelids!) and let’s dive right in…

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5 key learnings from this year’s Gatehouse State of the Sector report

1. Internal comms professionals are starting to switch their focus from senior leaders to line managers

You might have noticed that IC professionals have paid a lot of attention to improving the communication skills of senior leaders over the last few years. Perhaps this has been one of your most recent priorities too.

In fact, upskilling senior leaders has been seen as so important to internal communications success that it consistently ranked within the top three priorities for IC pros in successive State of the Sector reports since 2016.

And it’s easy to see why. Poor communication from senior management is rated as the third biggest pain point employees experience in their day-to-day roles. And ‘mushroom management’ (when leaders neglect to keep employees in the loop about performance and change) drives one in four people to seek employment elsewhere.

No wonder then, that IC professionals have devoted so much of their focus and efforts to enhancing senior leadership visibility and communication. We even put together a comprehensive guide on how to do it – with input and contributions from 50 leadership communication experts from around the world.

But in this year’s State of the Sector, this is no longer the case. ‘Enhancing leadership visibility’ dropped by five spaces on the priorities list this year – coming in at spot number eight. With half as many IC professionals advocating it as a top priority than just two years ago.

State of the Sector 2020 report

So what shifted in its place? You guessed it – enhancing line manager communication. 

While it didn’t bag the top three spots – which were understandably taken up by the usual suspects like communicating strategy, values and purpose, supporting a change programme, and developing or refreshing an IC strategy – this shift in focus is significant. 

You’ll probably know that when it comes to line managers, a lack of communication skills has long been a major sticking point for internal comms professionals.

Like a dam obstructing the flow of a river – the ‘frozen middle’ can stop key communication messages from making it to the front lines of an organisation.

But here’s the rub. Because of their proximity to their teams, line managers are arguably the most effective way to reach employees. And according to research by Gallup, they account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement levels. So it’s a crying shame that they often go discouragingly underutilised.

Line Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement levels.

Where senior leaders are offered one-to-one coaching and strategic training by IC professionals (as we discovered in the report) – line managers are often handed conversation packs and just expected to get on with it.

But this is not the answer.

That’s not to say this approach isn’t worthwhile. It’s one we use consistently with our clients as part of wider comms and engagement programmes, and it always pays dividends.

But if we’re to really make the most of this vital channel in our communications, we need to treat line managers the same way we’ve treated senior leaders. Giving them dedicated support and guidance by sharing our expertise – rather than simply telling them what to do.

It might seem like investing in line managers is just giving us another big fish to fry along with everything else we have to contend with.

But by giving this crucial audience the capabilities they need to effectively communicate with their teams, it’ll free us up to make a wider impact in the long run. Perhaps you could collaborate with your business’ HR/L&D teams to offer communications training modules (face-to-face or online) specific to your organisation?

Which leads us nicely onto…

2. Internal communications professionals should collaborate more closely with other business functions

You’ll likely be aware that IC’s reputation amongst the C-Suite has largely blossomed in recent years.

So much so that 68% of IC professionals say that their leaders now understand the strategic value of internal communications to business performance – and this only looks set to grow further.

68% of IC professionals say that their leaders now understand the strategic value of internal communications to business performance.

This is great for IC professionals looking to work side-by side with leaders to enhance leadership visibility and communication in their organisations. And for those whose primary objective is to communicate the strategy, vision and values of the organisation.

But what about all the other communication that goes on in our businesses? The sort of communication that doesn’t come direct from the C-Suite?

Organisations are like organic ecosystems, made up of various different departments and functions that operate independently, but are unified in service of the organisation’s goals.

Beneath this overarching purpose and synergy, these teams have their own priorities and objectives – as well as their own individual communication needs which will impact the wellbeing and engagement of their members.

So what use is nailing an organisation-wide internal comms campaign that aims to increase employee engagement, if it simply drowns in the noise of the day-to-day comms across these different functions?

According to State of the Sector, just one in three (37%) internal comms professionals are ‘very involved’ in supporting the communication activities of functional teams.

And even fewer – 16% – say the same about upskilling others’ communication skills.

But just like we do with leaders and managers – we need to use our privileged position as communication experts to share best practice and guidance across every corner of our organisations.

Not acting as messengers who do people’s comms for them. But as coaches, trainers and educators who empower folks to communicate effectively off their own backs.

This might take a significant up-front investment of time and resource. But the pay-offs over the long-term will be three-fold:

We’ll further build our reputation as strategic advisers and increase the impact of IC.

We’ll be able to drive engagement more proactively and organically across the business.

And we’ll free ourselves up to focus on our bigger priorities, rather than having to spread our time across various teams and manage functional day-to-day comms. 

Looking to collaborate with multi-discipline teams?

Many of our clients operate in complex matrix environments with teams spanning multiple functions, sectors and locations. Thanks to our tailored approach that caters for each organisation’s unique needs, we’ve always found ways to build communications capability right through to the front lines.

To find out how we can help you create great communicators across your organisation, talk to us today.

3. Internal comms professionals need to be content curators rather than content creators

For years, the internal comms function was seen as the internal post office of organisations, with IC professionals regarded simply as messengers tasked with ‘sending stuff out’. Or worse, being called upon at the last minute to conjure up considered and compelling communications at the drop of a hat!

As we mentioned earlier, it’s encouraging that we’ve started to shake off the shackles of this restricting stereotype to forge a reputation as strategic enablers of business success.

That’s not to say that creating compelling content shouldn’t be a fundamental part of our remit. After all, we are very good at it!

It’s just about being more strategic in our approach to connecting people to important messages in our organisations.

This requires shifting our role from simply being content creators, to being strategic content curators. As the guardians, custodians and advocates of our organisations’ communications.

This is going to be an increasingly critical skill for internal comms professionals in the wake of growing volumes of communications – which took the top spot on this year’s list of barriers to IC success in the report – as organisations face a rising number of things to communicate about.

one of the biggest barriers to success is a volume of communications that is deemed excessive, and a resulting difficulty to cut through the noise.

This could lead to information overload if employees struggle to get their heads around key messages and what’s important. Especially since for the majority of employees, their key concern is just getting their job done – not spending time trawling through reams and reams of copy.  

So internal comms professionals need to step up to the plate and focus on prioritising the most important information, based on the different audiences that exist within their organisations. Using strategic techniques like segmentation and personalisation to drive the right messages home.

Being close to the brand and business strategy means IC professionals often have intimate access to organisational priorities and the messages senior leaders want to communicate. Which puts us on an ideal footing to make sense of them for employees, whilst also ensuring they’re cascaded in the most economical and focused way.  

We also need to have the courage to push back when we feel the amount of communications is spiralling out of control. Using the connections we build with employees to inform which messages are prioritised.

This is also a great opportunity for IC pros to build those bridges with different functional teams. Working with function managers to organise and prioritise comms to keep employees informed, without drowning them in irrelevant information.

4. We need to talk to more people more often

We’d argue it’s common knowledge that the most effective internal communications embrace two-way dialogue, rather than an exclusively top-down approach.

You’ll know it’s important that IC professionals frequently rub shoulders with employees on the front lines to get a clearer picture of the challenges facing them, and give them opportunities to make their voices heard.

But this year’s State of the Sector report suggests we’re more out of touch with employees than we might like to think.

As it turns out, there are some substantial discrepancies between how IC professionals think people are engaging with internal communications, and employees’ reality on the doorstep.

When it comes to financial performance, their contribution to strategy and their knowledge of the reasons behind leadership decisions, employees are significantly more likely than internal comms pros to rate their understanding as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

For instance, 76% of employees rate their understanding of financial performance as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, whereas only 42% of IC professionals would say the same.

76% of employees rate their understanding of financial performance as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, whereas only 42% of IC professionals would say the same.

There are two reasons why this might be:

1. IC professionals have more information at hand than employees, and so know what insights employees might be missing out on

2. IC professionals underestimate the effectiveness of employee communications.

Based on the results from the report, we can only speculate as to which of the above is true. But either of these positions suggests that as a profession, we could be less in tune with our stakeholders than we might think.

It begs the question – could these discrepancies stem from a lack of quality measurement?

After all, measuring the impact of internal communications effectively is something a lot of internal comms pros struggle to get right.

But it’s plain to see that if we don’t prioritise being better at measuring results, then we could fall victim to a skewed perception of the difference we’re making on the ground.

To get a more rounded understanding of how people are engaging with comms, we need to focus on both quantitative measures, and qualitative insights direct from the horses’ mouths.

And that means getting out and talking to more people more often. Engaging with them. Finding out what they’re familiar with, and where there might be gaps in their knowledge.

But it also means engaging with line managers and functional teams, to find out what they’re contributing to the organisational messaging and gather qualitative success stories to highlight the collaborative impact of the cascade. Not just focusing on comms ‘owned’ by the C-Suite – but on the different IC activities happening across the organisation. 

Who knows – you might even be surprised by what you discover…!

5. When it comes to digital channels, interactivity must come first

Do digital communications take precedence over print channels in your internal communications?

Broadly speaking, State of the Sector suggests this is the case across the board. Digital channels are more accessible, less costly, and have less of an impact on the environment (a key consideration in today’s climate).

But while you probably use at least a couple of digital platforms to engage with employees, you may have wondered: what makes for a good digital communication?

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Find out how we achieved a 1000% increase in applications for Millicom’s graduate recruitment programme by strategically combining targeted communications with an immersive digital experience.

Well – this year’s State of the Sector might have uncovered the answer.

It’s no secret that digital channels are generally more interactive than traditional print channels, which tend to be more static and one-dimensional. But when it comes to creating connections, some digital channels are more effective than others. 

85% of internal communicators describe digital channels as 'very' or 'quite' effective.

This is demonstrated by the fact that the digital channels which IC professionals rated as being the most effective were the ones that are the most interactive – such as mobile messaging apps and internal social channels (ESNs).

One in two organisation (52%) currently use social channels as part of their channel mix.

On the flip side, platforms which are typically more one-dimensional – such as podcasts and blogs – were seen as being far less effective.

This particular insight is compelling, because it makes perfect sense. As internal communications professionals, everything we do revolves around building connections. Bringing people closer together. Connecting the C-Suite with the shop floor. Building brands from the inside-out.

After all, shared experience trumps content. It’s how people best learn and make sense of the world around them.

So shouldn’t we use this revelation to drive more focused action around using interactive digital platforms, rather than relying on the same old traditional static channels?

Of course, your IC channel mix depends on the unique needs of your organisation as much as industry best practice.

But where possible, it’s best to combine the two – so you can prove your value, whilst satisfying what works for your business.

And that’s it! Phew!

As you’ve probably gathered, there’s loads to be learned from this year’s State of the Sector report. We’ve barely scratched the sides of the insights that are contained within.

So get your copy to discover more – and why not take a gander at our own research and resources while you’re at it?

The insights every internal comms professional needs

From infographics, whitepapers and primary research reports – we’ve got something to suit every IC pro looking to boost their knowledge and get better results. Take a look at our Useful Resources page to see what you can discover…

Meet the author

Michael Hargreaves

I’ve always been a big lover of words. Whether it’s tackling complex client linguistic challenges, writing research-intensive industry articles, or crafting imaginative and engaging communications, words are as much a part of my DNA as sonnets were a part of Shakespeare’s. I’m also a huge grammar nerd, and my obsession with the correct usage of hyphens has earnt me the affectionate nickname around H&H of ‘the hyphenation king’. When I’m not utilising my inner thesaurus, spending time with my wife is what brings me the most joy. She’s also managed to convert me into a cat person, so we now have four – which does a lot for keeping me on my toes!