Internal Communications: the super power helping to embed purpose into culture 

June 27, 2023

I recently spoke at the Institute of Internal Communications Festival 2023. Wonderful venue – Tewin Bury Farm – and an engaged crowd of internal communicators. 

In my session, I talked about the growing demand on organisations to deliver purpose alongside profit, and the increasing need to communicate aspirations and commitments to people and planet, authentically and effectively. 

A critical part of this involves embedding purposeful strategy into the fabric of a company, so it informs decision making and behaviours, and becomes part of its DNA and culture.

Playing a key role in ESG strategy

Internal communicators are having to become educators, translators (often of quite complicated and technical sustainability language) and change experts.  

Communications now plays such a key role in helping to drive the “responsible” agenda. Internal comms teams are working to craft cohesive narrative which people can get behind, with robust comms strategy and content to open up conversations across departments and teams, to make purpose meaningful on an individual level, get people involved and measure resonance and success.

We know it’s not always straight forward to cascade purposeful communications well, but it’s vital we’re able to ensure employees feel connected to the wider mission and vision and understand the contribution they can make. It plays into important human connectivity, helps people align their values with those of their organisation and ultimately affects the approach people take to their work. It also affects the success and speed of positive change. 

We hear from organisations that there are key challenges to getting this right:

  • Clarity around purpose – 66% of communicators don’t feel their organisation has a clear ESG strategy (State of the Sector Report, Gallagher 2023) 
  • Language and terminology – there are so many words used, often interchangeably when it comes to talking about purpose i.e. sustainability, ESG, responsible business, social value – and it can get very confusing 
  • Not knowing how to truly engage multiple stakeholders around ‘responsible business’ strategy, and how to use communications to mobilise behaviour change and embed it into culture
  • How best to back aspirations and commitments with quantitative and qualitative data

Hardwiring versus softwiring 

If you want to successfully embed your goals for people and planet into the DNA of your business, we talk about the need to ‘hardwire’ and ‘softwire’ it in. 

The first critical step is to outline a strategy and then ‘hardwire’ this practically across your organisation. Activity might include taking a look at the entirety of your operations and making changes to accommodate and enable targets to be met and positive impact to be driven. You might adapt HR policies, re-design incentives, alter updates on results and reconsider risk management. 

While you are beginning to embed it into the fabric of the company, you need to be ‘softwiring’ it too. Communicating aspirations, actions and changes to key stakeholders to encourage connection, awareness, ensure traction, resonance and to get people involved. 

Making purpose live and feel 

By making messages around strategy digestible, and actions ‘doable’ for all employees, internal communicators can start to shift the needle on environmental and social issues, as well as perceptions of company culture and purpose alongside profit.

We know however, that to achieve ground swell, you first need to create marginal wins. A sustainability strategy is only as good as its uptake, so it is important to build consensus with stakeholders. This can be done through finding and developing advocates and champions and critically, identifying the cynics and the blockers (in order to be able to put forward communications to persuade and encourage and show they have been listened to too). 

Being able to articulate the legitimate impact and benefit to business will be important, as well as presenting information in multiple different ways, across different touchpoints, so people can discover and explore for themselves. The ultimate aim is to ensure each employee understands the role they need to play to help deliver goals and ambitions.

Some top tips for good purpose comms 

  • Craft a clear, authentic narrative which brings the strategy to life for people. It needs to explain what being responsible uniquely means for your organisation – and importantly, explain the why
  • Develop consistent key messaging and terminology
  • Paint a clear picture for people of the purpose, plan and part people can play. 
  • Show how everything interconnects, for example, showing how E, D & I and environmental commitments all feed into the same bigger mission 
  • Open up conversation from the top, and then broaden this out to tell stories from the bottom up too, including a range of voices. These need to humanise and show examples of the strategy being played out in reality
  • Produce comms and content which encourages people to explore what the strategy means in practice for their own business units, departments, teams and them as individuals 
  • Produce targeted and relevant content for different stakeholder groups where necessary, and show the benefits and importance to everyone and why they should care
  • Build in feedback loops so that you can track and measure understanding, resonance and sentiment 
  • Embed purposeful content into the drumbeat of communications, so it feels more integrated into Business As Usual and not a bolt on, or siloed campaign
  • Use data to back aspirations with evidence and action. Be aware of the gap between say and do and use quantitative and qualitative data to help you tell a fuller picture. If this isn’t instantly available, you may have to build these processes in.

Keeping this a priority

We know there are many demands on everyone’s time. With so much noise and pace, the key question is not only how we keep responsible business high on the agenda, but also we prioritise communications around it. It is only through consistent awareness, education, listening, inspiration and honest and innovative communications, will be all collectively be able to drive positive change for people and planet.

Are you working through similar challenges in your organisation? We’d love to see how we can work with you.

Debra Sobel
Co-founder and CEO

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