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Blurred lines

When BBC News boss Fran Unsworth briefed her teams on plans to lose 450 posts at part of an £80m savings push last week (Jan 29), the information broke online almost as quickly as staff were hearing it.

It was probably little surprise that, in a room full of newshounds, information like this was going to prove too juicy not to share instantly.  But the live tweeting of the internal staff briefing highlighted the increasingly blurred line between internal and external comms.

For most of us, social media is the norm and reaches across both our work and personal lives. By November last year, the UK was home to 45 million social media users, with 39 million of those active mobile social media users. We share everything on social media, our big news, our everyday and everything in between. But for comms professionals this raises questions.  Before the social media boom, an organisation’s comms were relatively clear. Internal comms flowed within the business and external comms flowed out  However, with the use of social media, the previously clear distinction between internal and external comms continues to get more blurry.

So, is there a difference between internal and external comms anymore? How can you be sure internal comms remain just that?  It’s not easy. Even Google struggled when an employee briefing on a potential censored search engine for the Chinese market was fed to a New York times journalist to tweet.  When social media is so accessible and part of your everyday why wouldn’t you share news like this? Particularly if you tweet about every other part of your life – meals, work, family, exercise, pets. Why would you leave such big news out of your newsfeed?  And Fran seemed to agree during her briefing to BBC staff, stating “there had to be a move away from traditional broadcasting and towards digital”. You can’t deny they were listening on that front.

It is on the minds of many comms professionals and has caused anxiety when dealing with some tricky change projects.  If senior leaders have in the back of their mind that ‘this message could go externally viral’, you could find that the validity and authenticity of their message gets lost. I’m sure many comms specialists have experienced senior managers ask questions like that of a senior HMV exec when they announced job cuts in 2013 – “How do I shut down Twitter?” So, if the line is now blurred or non-existent, what impact does this have? Has it led to changes in the way you communicate with staff?


Here’s four key things that can help smooth that path:

  1. Trust your people

Trust is the key word in all of this. If staff are trusted and treated well, the chances of finding your internal messages on external newsfeeds dramatically decreases. As communicators this isn’t always in our control, so embrace the change.

There will inevitably be changes to how we communicate, social media isn’t going away and like everything else in life it continues to change and evolve. Greek philosopher Heraclitus is right: “The only constant in life is change”.

  1. Share your skills and make the change work for you

This is where internal and external communicators can really support each other. Both have incredible skills that are still very much required but you need to share that skill through your content and alignment of your planning. This is vital if the line between your comms is blurred. Embrace this. You can’t change it so use it to your advantage.

Working more closely also allows you to really make your content work for you. Repurpose it as much as possible, share external content with internal audiences first and make use of internal content for external audiences. It can save time and is a great process for uniting comms teams and keeping staff in the know.

  1. Continue to make great internal comms

Sometimes internal messages do get shared externally. If they do make sure you learn from it. But whatever you do don’t stop creating great internal content for fear of it being shared as that’s no use to anyone. Our job is to make sure that comms are well produced, are as authentic as possible and that the situation is managed.

  1. Be proactive

If you’re worried about internal messaging being shared wider than your organisation, consider the impact it would have and then be proactive in mitigating any negative outcome.

Reach out to those teams you think might share it first, keep the transparency and use all the communication tools/skill at your disposal.

As for the leaders in your organisation, support and advise them as much as you can to be more authentic, not less. Build your relationships and (that magical word again) trust with them and make sure you include them in your comms plans. That will help to reassure and keep them up-to-date.

As for Fran, has she lost any authenticity from the BBC experience? You decide. 

Katie Jones (@mumseybythesea) is Internal Communications Manager for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service

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