Why Internal Communications Is a Business Driver

January 2, 2014

Surveys can tell you if employees are happy, satisfied, and care whether management has done something since the last employee survey.

But do your internal efforts to keep employees happy and engaged matter as a business driver?

At the PRSA/AMEC Measurement Symposium in October at the PRSA 2013 International Conference in Philadelphia, Chris Atkins of PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Chris Thornton of Ketchum Change demonstrated that not only is the answer “yes,” but that you can also predict how much internal communications drive business.

Atkins and Thornton presented an approach to internal communications measurement that not only assessed standard factors such as morale and job satisfaction, but also included a model that predicts how pulling different levers of communications (messages, channels, messengers) affects the engagement of PwC employees.

Why is engagement so important? Because unlike other “happiness” measures, engagement is the expression of the behaviors of what we want from employees: advocacy, retention, discretionary effort.

Here, Atkins shares the story of this research:

What problem were you trying to solve when you began your communication research?

We started out with channel rationalization. Like many large organizations, we have many communication channels that we use to varying degrees, and we wanted to understand which were most effective. Ketchum helped us see that there was more we could do.

Through a few adjustments to a typical communication effectiveness survey, we had the opportunity to show the causal relationship between communications and engagement of staff. Correlations are helpful, but identifying the engagement outcomes driven by communications could focus our efforts.

The project made us realize that there are three outcomes for most communication: to inform, to instruct and to inspire.
[This] caused us to think differently about outcomes. Why settle for informing employees if there is a chance of increasing their overall engagement with the firm through more effective communications?

Why does connecting causality between communications and engagement matter to you and PwC?

Within the U.S. firm of PwC, we hire 5,000 college graduates every year. And we invest a great deal into every hire.

While we felt we were doing a good job communicating with our current staff, we have an eye on what the future of the firm will look like as Millennials begin to make up a larger percentage of our staff.

Our Millennial staff members have different expectations than previous generations, and we want to make sure that the communication levers that drive engagement are meeting [everyone’s] needs. The danger was we weren’t using all the levers we could to reach Millennials and drive engagement.

What surprised you about the research?

I was surprised that there was a way to even measure causality for employee engagement. I was familiar with measuring causality with consumer and political communications, but I had never seen it used internally.

I was also surprised that with the comparatively small sample of our population, Ketchum was able to get to causality. This is something I would have thought would fit under the banner of big data. In fact, the actual number of responses we needed was not intrusive at all, which is something we consider in an environment that wants staff focused on delivering excellent service to clients.

The data allows us to identify the messenger, message and channel that will most likely lead to a desired outcome, such as job satisfaction, likelihood of staying with the firm for another year, or being proud to tell friends and family he or she works at PwC.

Would we do it again?

We don’t know yet what the outcomes of our research will be. What we do have is an extremely thoughtful, rational and defensible approach to pulling the communication levers that will help increase the engagement of our staff.

A lot of things can affect the outcome. [But] we know that 20 percent of staff engagement is connected back to communications, so we have a responsibility to use this information to drive our thoughts and actions.

David B. Rockland, Ph.D.

David B. Rockland, Ph.D., retired as CEO of KGRA in 2017, but continues as part-time chairman. He and his wife, Sarah Dutton, who recently retired from CBS News, have also started their own research and consulting firm to work with Ketchum and other clients at rocklanddutton.com.


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