How to Translate the Importance of Internal Communication to the C-Suite
March 15, 2022
After an abrupt wholesale shift to remote, hybrid, and distributed teams, internal communication took center stage in the minds of senior leaders across the globe. Just as many organizations began to find their feet, the Great Resignation pulled the rug out once again. Deep divides then formed over the return to work, contributing to and confounding retention woes.
Many of these challenges are ongoing. All of them demand clear, tactful communication, and the risk of getting it wrong is significant.
As a result, an increasing number of internal communications leaders got the seat at the executive table they deserved. Just like HR teams a decade ago, the view of internal comms is shifting from cost center (or crisis center) to strategic business partner, and that’s a very good thing.
While this shift represents exciting possibilities, it comes with new expectations and noteworthy challenges many internal communicators aren’t yet equipped to overcome.
It’s not enough to simply provide value to your organization. How you convey that value makes all the difference. As communicators by trade, translating value might seem like a cinch. But just like the fabled cobbler’s children, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in communicating for the executive team that you forget how to communicate to them.
In this guide, we’re going to take a page (perhaps a full chapter) from our counterparts across the table. We’ll build a clearer understanding of what the C-Suite wants to know about internal communications—and perhaps most importantly—how to package and deliver that info.
Know the difference between IC metrics and key business metrics.
“But… aren’t my metrics business metrics?”
Yep, they’re business metrics in the sense that they’re connected to a business process. Members of C-suite don’t care about those metrics, though. They can’t.
Instead, they’re almost exclusively interested in the downstream results of those initiatives and what led to their ultimate success or failure. To break it down in context, let’s take a look at some examples of IC inputs, outputs, and outcomes.
Inputs and Outputs Versus Outcomes
Crafting a major internal email is an input; sending it is an output (one you undoubtedly poured over, maybe even lost a little sleep over), but it’s not what the CEO cares about. She cares how that email influenced revenue or the overall health of the organization, and how to make that influence predictable and repeatable.
In most cases, an individual email won’t have that sort of influence on its own, but rather as an important piece of a greater aggregate impact.
For that reason, although content engagement metrics are easy and fairly reliable to track with modern communications tools, they’re a common example of metrics to track and analyze at a departmental or even team level. In raw form, they’re just noise to the c-suite.
It’s our quest to discover the signal in that noise and amplify it.
Are content engagement metrics helpful? Absolutely. They’re instrumental in tracking and guiding the success of individual campaigns or larger overarching initiatives. Data nearly always tells a bigger story, but it’s up to the interpreter to piece it together.
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, even though internal comms professionals are often some of an organization’s best translators and storytellers, this last piece of the puzzle can be the most challenging to get right.
That’s why we’re going to spend the next section building a set of tools and frameworks, using real world examples.
Quantifying the bottom line impact of internal communications.
Internal communicators are (often unfairly) criticized for failing to achieve business results, but that’s not the case. You’re achieving business results every day, only traditional IC metrics like clicks and views, while easy to measure, frequently bury the lede.
This is in part due to tooling, which historically hasn’t been dedicated to the needs of internal communications, but also due to shallow metrics. With that in mind, let’s borrow a page from the marketing team’s playbook to get more from the tools we already have.
What are your conversion events?
Objective measures like opens and clicks mean nothing unless they lead to a more subjective, but equally quantifiable measure: conversions. Conversions matter because they lead to predictable outcomes. Those outcomes should be aligned with stakeholder goals.
Micro conversions and macro conversions
Conversions come in multiple sizes. Large-scale successes nearly always come as a result of multiple smaller successes, so it’s important to include that interplay in your larger data story.
Marinate on that for a minute: what does a micro or macro IC conversion event look like for your organization, and how do they relate? These events could be anything, as long as it’s quantifiable and leads to a goal-oriented business outcome.
Real world examples
IABC Fellow Jim Shaffer outlined a strategy for quantifying impact in an excellent article that every internal communicator should probably read. (No, really, please go read it—he put together a series of case studies you could use right now as inspiration for translating the value of IC work.) Here’s an example:
“FedEx was an early adopter. Its communication leader and the CEO teamed up with me to improve export sales. We conducted a global communication assessment that revealed that FedEx leaders and the communication team wanted to work more closely in order to improve business results.
We started in FedEx’s Los Angeles operation by reducing communication breakdowns that were impeding export sales. In 90 days, sales increased 23%. The investment generated a 1,447% return. We increased sales and reduced costs in five more FedEx locations.”
There’s no mention of the number of communications sent, received, re-routed, or read. Just the outcome of all those inputs. Were communications sent, received, and read? Undoubtedly.
Would those outsized returns and successes have been possible without myriad communications across multiple levels of the organization? Unlikely.
But that’s not the bottom line.
FedEx’s executive-driven goal was to improve export sales, the timeline was 90 days, and each ‘conversion’ of a broken communication line mended influenced the trajectory of that high-level goal. Success was measured by a percentage increase in sales and reduced costs, netting the organization a 1,447% return on investment (ROI).
Bring any member of the C-Suite into a meeting and tell them you can reliably achieve 1,000+% ROI in 90 days, and believe me, they’ll be all ears.
Quantify the risks of poor internal communication.
If there’s no risk in maintaining poor internal communications, why invest the resources toward improvements? After all, there are numerous other areas of the organization that would benefit from greater investment.
Under that pretense, it’s easy for comms strategy to feel like a ‘nice to have,’ even if you can outline the benefits. Just as with translating the value of great internal communication, the risks of getting it wrong aren’t always obvious to people outside your department.
You don’t have to look far to find an example of when a poor communication did more damage than even a lack of communication would have. That’s why it’s just as important to quantify the risks and identify some tangible outcomes of poor communication.
Highlighting and building a data story around poor comms isn’t always easy to do, because it requires an unvarnished look at an area your senior leadership team may not feel comfortable exploring; however, it’s essential to know where you need to improve.
Cindy Crescenzo of Crescenzo Communications shared a helpful strategy for conveying the risks of poor communication:
“In my surveys, if I see a set of behavior statements that have a high number of disagreement, I first show the low numbers of agreement, then show a graph that shows the high numbers of disagreement so that leaders can see we have a risk to communications.”
Empathy is the number one tool at your disposal when it comes to working with your colleagues across the table. Deeply understanding the intersection between their goals and yours will make translating the impact of comms easier and more natural.
Give them genuine stakes in metrics you can move, and watch how much more engaged and invested they become in your work.
For example, a colleague in the HR department almost certainly tracks employee retention or employee lifetime value as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Explore the intersection where internal comms efforts could influence that KPI, like onboarding, or recognition.
Instead of tracking message opens and clicks, consider something like employees successfully onboarded, and qualify that metric with qualitative and quantitative data from those new employees. If you can show how onboarding comms led to a decrease in new employee turnover, you’ll have a lot of new friends in the HR department.
The same goes for colleagues in any field. Empathize with them, learn about their challenges, and find the intersection. Sales might not be the first place you’d imagine internal comms could make an impact, but FedEx’s example is proof positive that it can not only have an impact, but a transformational one.
The more directly your metrics influence other key downstream measures in the organization, the more significant the initiatives that move those metrics become in their eyes. The importance of internal communications is truly indivisible, but it takes empathy, data, and storytelling to translate it.