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Internal Communication: More Than A Newsletter

In the fast-paced world of public relations and issues management, it’s tempting to focus on external audiences. After all, customers, clients, patients, stockholders and others depend on a steady stream of interaction and information.

Internal communication — with the people who work and serve in your organization — is too often missed in a rush to satisfy external audiences. For any organization, including school districts, the most effective strategic communication focuses internally first. And when a stressful world takes a toll on employee morale, a strong internal communication program is critical to retention efforts and improving the workplace experience.

What Difference Does Internal Communication Make?

In the words of the late school PR leader, Nora Carr, APR, “If you don’t take care of the in-house, you’ll end up in the outhouse.” 

In short, it could be argued that your employee audience matters most. The way an organization communicates internally has the power to make or break virtually any other strategic communication program or plan.

Talking about work is a normal part of daily life for most people. Look around your school system or organization and consider the stories your employees are sharing. Are they singing praises or highlighting flaws? Are they inviting their friends to come work with them — or telling prospective hires to steer clear? 

Staff members who are knowledgeable and positive can help you tell your story. But someone who feels frustrated about work will fill a conversation with something else. Stories about an ineffective boss or school leader, low confidence in the future direction or disconnection from the organization’s outward persona are critical reminders that perception is reality. And few things hurt an employer’s reputation more than a vocal disgruntled employee.

Getting Started and Measuring Success

Many pros are familiar with the importance of timing with internal communication. It is always best if mass notifications hit employee inboxes and phones before external audiences receive them, when possible. Being the last to know is never a good feeling — especially for an employee. Used consistently, this timing strategy will build trust and respect among teachers and staff.

Effective internal communication, however, goes well beyond message timing or newsletter designs. Whether you want to measure how your internal communication program stacks up — or it’s time to establish one — benchmarks are the best place to start. 

Internal communication is one of the six critical function areas identified in the Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures, published by the National School Public Relations Association. This valuable resource helps communications pros and other leaders assess their work and identify steps for improvement in each critical function area. 

For internal communication, the publication outlines eight components of an effective program:

    • Research to understand what your employees need, expect, think, know and feel
    • Employee engagement
    • Employee alignment with the organization’s vision, mission and goals
    • Leadership and management communication
    • Managing information overload
    • Customer service
    • Employee ambassadors
    • Communicating with employees during a crisis

Get to Know Your People

Research is the first step in any communication program. Without it, leaders will make decisions based on assumptions and guesswork. Getting to know employees goes well beyond hallway conversations. Formal research methods, such as surveys and focus groups, are the only way to measure and understand what employees need, expect, think, know and feel. It speaks volumes, as well, when a leader or leader or leadership is afraid to survey.

Steps you can take:

    • Conduct focus groups or “listening sessions” with broad representation of the organization. Intentional facilitation and a formal recorder role are essential.
    • Send an annual employee survey to measure communication effectiveness and identify key information to guide internal communication efforts.
    • Explore elements of the Gallup Q12 instrument or Energage Top Workplaces Survey
    • Invite employees to serve on committees and task forces.
    • Create a feedback opportunity to help guide the hiring of new staff.

Engage Your Employees

Employees who are fully engaged will bring their full potential of talent and performance to the workplace. As cited in NSPRA’s Rubrics, organizations with engaged and committed employees enjoy a 44% higher employee retention rate and are 50% more productive than organizations that do not, according to Izzo and Withers (2000). 

Steps you can take:

    • Work as a team of managers and leaders to coordinate the use of email and newsletters. The goal is frequent, thorough and accurate. A regular cadence of organization-wide messages can help cut down on information overload.
    • Prioritize regular two-way dialogue between union representatives and leaders.
    • Set up an employee intranet that includes easy access to key resources and content.
    • Create onboarding procedures for new employees that include a broader view of your organization and each employee’s role in achieving the mission.
    • Establish a program to celebrate employees for their work and dedication. A recognition program doesn’t have to be extensive, but it should be formalized, consistent from year to year, fair, and aligned with district goals or priorities.

Contextualize Your Vision, Mission and Goals 

In a school, every role supports student learning in some way. It’s critical that employees understand how their specific job connects to the organizational mission and the bottom line. The International Association of Business Communicators contends that connecting these dots ensures every team member knows what they can do to move the school or organization forward. 

Steps you can take:

    • Schedule time to focus on the mission, vision and goals during new employee orientation.
    • Support programs and events that are centered around the mission, vision and goals.
    • Develop key messages that help tell the story of the mission, vision and goals in action.

Intentional Leadership and Management 

The words and actions of leaders play the biggest role in an employee’s perception of the organization. Formal communication, such as newsletters and email, plays a small part, compared to language and behaviors of managers. When leaders understand how to support effective communication — and their critical role in the organization’s success — they can impact employee morale and retention. Remember, people don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad managers, and communication is key.

Steps you can take:

    • Keep managers supported and informed; give them tools to carry your messages. 
    • Train principals, coordinators and managers to support and empower employees
    • Develop strategic communication skills, including empathy, among leaders.
    • Do a leadership team book study with Adam Grant or Francis Frei.
    • Work as a team to identify and build on management strengths.

Work Against Info Overload

A culture of employee wellbeing includes reasonable norms and expectations for responsiveness. Imagine the inbox of any employee, on any given day. With hundreds of emails piling up, it’s all but impossible to effectively sort through dozens of coworker exchanges. Leaders should work together to streamline announcements and coordinate updates that are being sent to staff. Focus on reducing the number of messages overall.

Steps you can take:

    • Allow only select senior leaders access to send to the “all employees” email list.
    • Provide employee training on how to manage a busy inbox, including folders, filtering and other tools.
    • Shorten messages and include links to your website or another web-based resource..
    • Create a centralized, common internal calendar for employees to find critical dates for attendance, meetings, testing, etc.

Invest In Customer Service

Few things affect a brand the way customer service does. Whether the experience is good, poor or somewhere in between, it leaves a lasting impression. Schools have a powerful opportunity to create a positive experience for students and their families — as well as their employees — in small, everyday interactions.

Steps you can take:

    • Think about internal and external customers.
    • Use a secret shopper approach to explore customer experience.
    • Provide ongoing customer service training to the employees most likely to answer the phone or greet a visitor.
    • Set expectations — speed, tone, language — for replying to email inquiries.

Equip and Empower Ambassadors

There is nobody closer to your organization than the teachers and staff who work in your schools. And nobody carries more credibility at school and across your community. Key messages about your mission, vision and values can be used in virtually any communication being sent to employees. 

Steps you can take:

    • Make it simple for employees to find good news and helpful information that’s memorable and easy to share with others.
    • Survey to identify internal opinion leaders — those others trust for accurate information and advice.
    • Establish a list of ambassadors or key communicators who naturally amplify news and updates to a wider audience. Keep these individuals informed and orient them to key messages throughout the year.
    • Be honest with employees about your school’s challenges and what these could mean for employees.

Update and Communicate in a Crisis

When a crisis hits, student and employee safety and security are top priority — and prompt, direct communication with staff is essential. A crisis creates urgency for communicating with all stakeholder groups. Your employees should always receive the most current information during and after the crisis, often with additional context or detail that relates to their location or role. 

Steps you can take:

    • Write or review the crisis communications plan to include levels of priority messaging in a crisis and strategies to ensure employees are kept informed.
    • Create crisis message templates and save them where they are easy to access and repurpose quickly.
    • Plan a tabletop crisis drill that includes communication to identify gaps and areas for improvement.

Internal Communication Will Travel

Employee communication is internal, but it’s wise to assume it can — and will — be shared with people outside of your organization. Every message should be written with the appropriate information and tone for external eyes, including social media and news media. 

“Communication is the real work of leadership.”
– Nitin Nohria, Dean, Harvard Business School

There is never a good reason to include confidential, sensitive or unprofessional information in an email or other staff communication. Internal communication comes first, but every audience matters. And leaders who understand this are equipped to build trust with employees and the people they serve.


To thoroughly review your internal communication program or other strategic communication work, purchase a copy of NSPRA’s Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures. CEL’s team is also happy to help with strategic communications planning tailored to your specific needs and concerns.

Published on: July 12, 2022