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Wait, I thought internal comm WAS PR

cafe.jpegI listened to a great interview with Peter Vogt from eBay about internal communications hosted by the (in)famous Lee Hopkins pushed through the Comms Cafe podcast recently. I know that Lee is huge on internal communications and I appreciate his passion for proper communications. The interview was excellent, Peter having some great things to say about his experiences with Microsoft and eBay. Fascinating stuff. You should all check it out.

There was, however, one thing I took issue with. Now, I’m not sure how people define public relations in general, but I have my own thoughts and ideas. In fact, I’m rather passionate about my views of PR. I tend to look at PR as a parent phrase for all kinds of communication. I’ve felt this way for many, many years. The one thing that does shake my beliefs a little bit is how few of the broad spectrum of PR colors one gets to use on a daily, or even, job-related basis.

I mean, if you pitch products 50 hours a week to consumer rags, chances of you viewing issues management as part of your PR job are slim. If you comb through the minutae of details of investor relations tactics 5.5 days a week, you’re not going to understand how media training really fits into your job description. And it might not. And you shouldn’t expect it to. But just because I don’t do something often or ever doesn’t make it foreign to my field. If I’m a chef, just because I only boiled lobster and roasted chicken today doesn’t mean that suddenly grilling steaks is no longer cooking. Follow me? So I don’t frequently handle crises, but I would expect to know more about what to do if a client were to call with an issue then he would. Because I was trained, you see, as a public relations professional.

So imagine my surprise when, while wrapping up this delightful interview, Vogt said something that confused me and left me wondering if I should go back and relisten to the entire interview.

Peter, who has a degree in public relations, said, “I actually did quite a bit of PR work with my internal communications here and there… but I always found that internal communications actually had the opportunity to really make a difference in many ways, and that when done well it can be the true leader, it can lead the change rather than PR leading the change.”

Oh, internal comms can lead corporate change differently, and sometimes better than having PR lead the change? Excuse me while I ask this one simple question: what are you talking about?

When he said it, I nearly drove off the road (incidentally, I was actually driving when I listened to this podcast). To me, that phrase is akin to saying “I would never let my sister say that, but certainly one of my siblings could” or “I really hate roses, but I enjoy flowers of all kinds.” Internal communications is a subset of public relations!

Let’s break it down. Employees are internal audiences. Internal audiences are a public of an organization. Public relations is the management function that builds two-way relationships with various publics. Internal communications would be public relations to – gasp – internal audiences!

There, now while I hop down off my soap box, will someone explain to me what he meant?


6 Responses

  1. Some people argue that internal communications is more of a subset of human resources than public relations…..or a bit of both.

    But why a person with a background in PR would believe that internal communications is something separate all together….I do not know.

    Perhaps he “fuddle duddled” his words….? Although, based on that one quote it doesnt seem that way.

  2. Scott: you make a good point. HR does handle a lot of internal communications, and sometimes PR folk are seen as encroachers. Thanks for bringing that up. However, as you point out, it still seems odd and doesn’t explain what he said very well. It was something I didn’t think of initially, so I appreciate it.

  3. Luke,

    In my undergrad PR courses, internal comm was often taught as a particular unit separate from the more glamorous topics such as media relations. Perhaps that segregation, from a curriculum standpoint, is why some believe it to be a separate practice altogether.

    I’m with you though: “two-way symmetrical communication between an organization and its publics” seems to include the employees of the organization to me.

  4. Internal communications is to public relations what rugby is to gridiron (American Football). Rugby and Gridiron are forms of games commonly known as “football”, and internal comms and PR are disciplines of a larger field called “communications”.

    The rugby-gridiron comparison can be taken a step further. While both games seek to move a ball over a goal line, rugby prevents a team from throwing the ball forward. Gridiron, on the other hand, is built around the forward pass. The “forward pass” in communications is the ability to communicate externally. While some PR folks communicate externally, internal communicators almost never do.

    The different rules of our respective games give us different orientations,approaches, and measures of success. And occasionally, an effective PR person can be an effective internal communicator, just as a fair gridiron player named Dan Lyle became one of the best rugby players in the history of English rugby.

    But the games are fundamentally different, even if the ball and field look kind of the same.


  5. John: thanks.

    Mike: This is an excellent metaphor and I appreciate you taking time to share it. However, where the analogy breaks down for me is in the definition of public relations and communications. As I described it above, PR = communication with organizational publics. To extend your metaphor, as I see it, Rugby is internal communication and gridiron is something else, like media relations. PR is “football.” I totally agree with what you’re saying, but we start at different places. You haven’t made clear to me how PR is actually different than communications. PR is the function of communicating with any public with an interest in an organization…employees included. Nobody just does “PR,” it’s always some subset of it, media relations, publicity, internal communications, investor relations, etc.

  6. Hi Luke…

    While a classic definition of “PR” indeed addresses any intentional form of communication between an entity and it’s “publics”, with “publics” effectively substituting for “audiences”, “stakeholders”, or “constituencies” (my preferred term in polite company), let’s be clear about one thing. The prevailing paradigm in PR at the moment is still focused on external communication, most senior PR practioners/communications directors are external communications people, and the application of external communication approaches and strategies onto internal “publics”, “constituencies” or “employees” often misfires because the rules of the game are fundamentally different.

    Have a look at how I define Internal Comms on my new blog, CommsOffensive325, and I’d be happy to swap a link on my blog roll for one of yours.

    Mike Klein
    Washington, DC

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