Internal vs. External Communications:
Loving Soulmates or Strange Bedfellows?
It’s not surprising given their names, but internal communications describes the practice of transmitting messages and information within an organization, whereas external communication describes how an organization transmits messages and information to outside stakeholders. Internal communications can include sub-genres, such as leadership communications, manager communications, and HR communications, just as external communications can include advertising, public relations, and marketing.
One way to better understand both kinds of communications is to take a closer look at how they’re different. Let’s start by delving into their unique audiences.
Internal vs. External: Key Differences
#1: Target Audience
Target audience is the top differentiating factor between internal and external communications. For internal, the organization is speaking to its own employees, either as individuals or as members of a group. For example, brand-new employees could be an important group. Other groups could include sales representatives, R&D scientists, operations personnel, or remote workers.
External communications are directed toward key stakeholders located outside of the company. Again, these stakeholders can ultimately be narrowed down to a single person, but like internal, individuals are often considered in groups, including:
- Current or prospective clients
- Stockholders and partners
- Creditors and investors
- Regulators or government officials
- Members of the general public
All communications happen in a medium with a specific context. This is also known as a communications channel, and the channels used for internal and external can be different.
Internal communications often take place in peer-to-peer exchanges, between a shift supervisor and a line worker or a manager and her direct report, even between two C-suite leaders. But internal communications can also take place via very familiar vehicles, such as company-wide staff meetings, company blogs, internal chat platforms, newsletters and emails, group-specific department or project meetings, and employee training sessions.
External communications can also occur in peer-to-peer scenarios (like a customer service help call or a sales presentation), but they more frequently happen as mass communication. Specific external communications may come in the form of advertisements, brochures, annual reports, print or digital media, social media, phone calls, texts, press conferences, face-to-face meetings, reviews, or surveys.
#3: Desired Action
Internal communications serve the purpose of informing and educating employees. The goal of these communications is to keep individuals or teams engaged in their work, so they will in turn remain productive and efficient, with the goal of keeping the company profitable.
External communications are about establishing, protecting, and enhancing the reputation of your organization and its brand in the business world and society at large. Sometimes external communications may also be done to inform and educate your potential clients, current customers, suppliers, and vendors, but there’s an underlying purpose of motivating a specific action in response: the buying or selling of a product or service, or a potential partnership.
Internal communications convey the values of your organization’s brand in a way that employees can not only understand, but also buy into. Successful internal communications create a strong team of employee ambassadors who manifest your brand and are dedicated to your company’s success. External communications are more about general branding efforts designed to win over and maintain relationships with customers and partners through marketing, advertising, and sales.
#5: Scope and Content
While it’s important for internal and external communications to be in sync message-wise at the highest level, the exact information and level of detail conveyed by each varies. Imagine for a moment you’re the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. You may intentionally use complex medical terminology and detailed explanations when communicating internally among your own highly educated staff, but externally you may take multiple approaches. The medically explicit language and details can be effective in marketing to the doctors who may prescribe the drugs and to regulators who must approve it. But everyday conversational language emphasizing a drug’s benefits may be more suitable and effective in marketing geared toward your potential customers who will end up in those doctors’ offices, asking about those drugs.
#6: Frequency and Timing
How often and when your internal and external communications occur depends on the audience and the situation. A company that is a good internal communicator keeps their employees informed, both in good times and bad. However, a company addressing a crisis or launching a new product may intentionally communicate more frequently and more intensely to interested external stakeholders.
So internal and external communications have some differences. They also have a number of things in common. Let’s take a look at some of the similarities.
Internal vs. External Key Similarities
#1: Audience Knowledge
For communications of any type to be effective, you have to understand your target audience:
- Who are they?
- What do they want to know or do?
- How do they want to feel?
- When and how do they communicate?
Thoroughly answering these questions sets the stage for well-connected communications, both internally and externally.
Let’s take the example of a real estate company that wants to sell more houses to young, first-time home buyers. Their target audience may have limited assets and thus be apprehensive about making such a large purchase. They are hungry for knowledge about what to do and when, and they’ll want to feel supported throughout the entire home-buying process. Young people are digital-savvy consumers who prefer to access the internet using mobile devices and who are more comfortable texting and using social media than talking on the phone or reading a newspaper. So, rather than invest in traditional advertising, the real estate company would be better served in building a connection with them by producing and sharing high-quality educational content geared toward new homebuyers across digital platforms like the company’s website, Zillow, social media, and mobile apps.
#2: Consistent Messaging
It takes multiple points of contact to convert most prospects into clients. No matter when or how a customer receives your organization’s message, it should be consistent. The same is true for employees within your company: if you’re telling staff one thing and telling external stakeholders something else, the probability of a brand disconnect increases. And with nearly ubiquitous phone and internet access, it’s easy for an internal stakeholder to share something externally. It won’t take long before someone calls out discrepancies they detect between messages sent to internal vs. external audiences.
Looking at the history of ExxonMobil’s internal and external communications gives a good example of this inconsistency. For decades, the company publicly questioned the existence of climate change even as it conducted its own research that often showed very real evidence. Eventually, it was subject to a federal investigation about whether it had been deceiving the public and its investors about the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Harvard University researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes found that 83 percent of peer-reviewed papers and 80 percent of internal documents from Exxon acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12 percent of ExxonMobil advertorials do so, with 81 percent instead expressing doubt. In fact, it wasn’t until April 2014 and after extensive public scrutiny that ExxonMobil finally released a report that publicly acknowledged climate change risk.
There is no substitute for good storytelling when it comes to getting messages across; it resonates with any audience. The more human you can make a story by including authentic, personal anecdotes, the more effective it will be both locally and globally. This is true for spoken, written, or illustrated stories.
#4: Add Value
Good communications help your organization’s bottom line by adding value for all involved. When your internal communications are effective, your employees understand your company’s brand, feel valued, have higher morale, and are consequently more motivated. Externally, good communication leads to more new customers and more loyalty among existing customers who continue to buy your company’s products and services.
#5: Two-Way Communication
Talking at someone is never effective. Internally, employees expect to not only receive information from bosses and company leaders but also to be allowed and even encouraged to share their ideas, give feedback, and collaborate with others. Employee surveys are still effective tools for encouraging two-way dialog. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, members of Facebook’s People Analytics team describe how much traction they still get with traditional surveys. On average, 61 percent of Facebook employees submit their own feedback and suggestions during the survey process, and each person touches on five distinct topics.
Externally, customers also want a voice. Sometimes, they don’t automatically believe advertising claims, and they want quick and honest answers to their questions before committing. Other times, they want to share opinions or describe their experiences, both good and bad. In a survey conducted by Clutch, a B2B buying and hiring marketplace, more than three-quarters of people (76 percent) expect companies to respond to comments on social media, and 83 percent expect brands to respond to these comments within a day or less.
A Trend Toward Togetherness
Over time, there has been a trend toward the convergence of internal and external communications. More companies are aligning both functions in a tighter relationship under one communications department.
Increasingly competitive marketplaces force companies to operate more efficiently, and communications are part of that efficiency. With a united communications team, a company can strategically develop and review its message just once, then adapt it accordingly as needed for different internal and external channels. Often some resources — stories, videos, and infographics — can be created and used for both.
What the internal communications team does to foster employee relations may apply well to external communications efforts to strengthen outside stakeholder relations. Or some internal employee stories may be perfect for marketing externally to reinforce a brand’s identity and messaging. Each respective audience sometimes needs and wants different information in different formats at different times, but an integrated approach to strategizing, planning, and managing all communications will save an organization resources in the long run.
Of Course, Sometimes Separate and Different Is Better
Like in any relationship, working together doesn’t mean that everything can or should get shared both ways. Take social media: given our human tendency to want to share information, it’s important to be clear in internal communications with employees about what is for internal eyes only. Staff may need to be updated on new products or services, but you don’t want them to talk publicly about them until the official launch. Additionally, it may be illegal to disclose some kinds of sensitive information externally to investors or shareholders who could profit from it.
The Power of Partnership
There is a fundamental connection between internal and external communications. Each is important and serves its own individual purposes, but when paired well together, they can more effectively leverage their own respective ideas, strengths, and experiences to benefit each other and the organization.