PR and communications experts reveal how companies can level up their internal comms to keep employees happy and engaged


Companies can no longer ignore boosting employee communications.

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  • The Black Lives Matter protests and pandemic are pushing executives to think more critically about how they communicate with employees internally.
  • Experts suggested leadership, internal comms, and HR listen and show empathy, utilize tools for engagement, ensure supervisors communicate relevant information directly to their employees, and connect external marketing messages with internal values.
  • “That shield companies hid behind is gone,” Norma Romero-Mitchell, founder of benefits consulting firm Benefits Plus, said. “All this has exposed vulnerabilities that have been going on for so long. People internally and externally are demanding change. I think it’s a beautiful thing, because this has been long overdue.”
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In late May, as Black Lives Matter protests roiled the nation, executives at one financial services conglomerate went from calling the killing of George Floyd “terrible events” to condemning it as a murder within one week. Then, in a series of virtual town halls that featured Black executives sharing their personal experiences, the firm’s top leaders pledged to fight against systemic racism. 

The shift from a vague statement to meetings focused on racism was the result of scores of conversations and drafts exchanged between division heads, internal communications, public relations leads, HR executives, and employees. But as the Black employees spoke about their fear of violence and personal encounters with racism, with tears flowing at times, another shift occurred.

“To hear from a Black person you work with every day that now she is terrified for her son to be out after dark, suddenly, the way you think changes,” said a white executive present at the town halls, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly on these matters. “The unfiltered sharing — it has been extraordinary. And it has helped.”  

That one firm’s experience illustrates an oft-repeated sentiment in communication circles. That employee communications — a subset of internal communications, which touches such other groups as suppliers, contractors, executives — is at a pivotal moment.

“Suddenly, employee communications is seen as a higher value function in the organization by company leaders,” said Shel Holtz, a communications practitioner of more than 40 years. “Communications plays a huge role in driving employee engagement, and engagement drives productivity. If we can increase the number of employees actively engaged, that serves the organization well.”

Shel Holtz.

Shel Holtz

While the spotlight on employee communications may be new, the forces pushing the function to a higher level at more organizations have been present for years. Digital tools, the war for talent, social media, social movements, employee expectations, and brand storytelling are among those forces. 

“The employee experience is the number one priority for HR leaders, and communication is a key component of all of that — especially now,” said Antonio Poglianich, a partner at Mercer, a New York-based HR consultancy. “Organizations that neglect to pay attention to ensuring that their internal employee communications truly align with how they’re behaving externally will be left behind.”

As many businesses reopen with eyes fixed on re-evaluating their businesses, employee communications must remain a top priority. Experts offered advice for companies to communicate going forward in the new economy.

Listen and show empathy

“You have to listen to what employees say to you, understand what you’re hearing, and be mindful of what you say to employees,” Poglianich said.

Antonio Poglianich.


When speaking about the economic realities of the pandemic, for example, many companies had to discuss the possibility of layoffs and furloughs that were on employees’ minds.

To encourage employees to stay the course, he said, leaders made sure to use phrases such as, “We’ll get through it, as bleak as it seems.” 

“Some of us have been talking to clients like this for years,” Poglianich said. “Now, clients are more open to thinking about what the conversation is that people, the employee, is having in their heads and what’s happening in their lives.”

Slack Internal Communications Director Amanda Atkins concurs. In addition to clear and transparent communication to help employees feel connected, Slack also provides new coaching and support resources to parents or caregivers juggling working from home and caring for others. Slack also institutes “Fri-yays,” which encourages employees to take off one Friday each month where possible.

Amanda Atkins.

Amanda Atkins

“My number one piece of advice is to listen to your people and meet them where they are,” Atkins said. “We’re all figuring this out as we go. Empathy and flexibility are more important than ever.”

For his current employer, Holtz said he sent health and safety information to employee homes. When others asked him why, his answer was simple.

“Because families are going to be nervous about their loved ones going back to work,” Holtz said. “We wanted to make sure they knew what we were doing to keep safe.”

Create more ways for employees to get involved in conversations

Employees want to feel heard and included, the experts said. Channels that let workers share their thoughts — such as meetings, internal social media and chatrooms, surveys, and focus groups — are a must-have to create or maintain those connections.

That’s why Holtz organized a weekly virtual meeting for senior leaders to provide updates and, as importantly, he said, to maintain cohesion while people work remotely.

“We have to retain the culture of the organization,” Holtz said. “We have to hear from the leaders. If there’s nothing new, then have a Q&A.”

T. Garland Stansell, chair of the Public Relations Society of America, a communications trade group, said the current landscape demands that companies involve employees in conversations, solutions, and implementations. 

This is why internal communicators are adapting in increasing numbers tools that facilitate engagement and can deliver personalized content. Social media apps, podcasts, and video snippets are among the tools seeing more activity in the current climate.

Tina Hawkins.

Tina Hawkins

With tools comes a new level of openness and frequency not seen before the pandemic, said Tina Hawkins of Yarber Creative, an employee communication consulting firm. Companies are more open to producing videos, discussing matters that delves into the personal, and asking employees to submit content.

One client, a global leader in entertainment, created a music video from self-recorded clips of employees dancing at home, Hawkins said.

“People need to be connected,” Hawkins said. “Some things that seemed ‘fluffy’ before or had a personal aspect, when you do them, you speak to people’s spirits.”

Be targeted in your approach  

Segmenting employees into groups — whether by team, age, tenure, race, family structure, or location — is also crucial in making sure people receive relevant content. 

Norma Romero-Mitchell.

Norma Romero-Mitchell

In her work to roll out healthcare programs for clients, Norma Romero-Mitchell, founder of benefits consulting firm Benefits Plus, has seen a rising need for targeted communications to support benefits changes.

“They want to be able to do things more easily, less complicated, and there’s the generational aspect of it,” said Romero-Mitchell, based in Philadelphia. “You have to tailor those communications because no one size fits all.”

Many companies have found it necessary to communicate throughout the year, instead of only during open enrollment, and with families directly. Interactive tools to project out-of-pocket costs are also a must-have. 

T. Garland Stansell.

T. Garland Stansell

Stansell said that one effective, enduring tactic is having supervisors provide certain information directly to their employee. 

“Well-planned, ‘one voice’ messaging delivered directly by management should not be discounted or abandoned,” Stansell said.

Live up to your brand story inside and out 

For decades, many companies viewed internal communications as a means to share operational, compliance, celebratory, and leadership messages. They were mainly top-down and had little customization, experts said. This happened in tandem with those same companies reaching customers with snazzy tactics and messages.

Today, employees are empowered by tools like Glassdoor and having access to company information online, Holtz said. This has pushed companies to connect their external marketing messages to internal audiences to tell a cohesive and consistent brand story.

“Back in the day, companies might’ve been able to say, ‘We’re going to put a different spin on it for the press.’ That doesn’t fly today,” Holtz said. 

Michael Stone, a branding expert at Beanstalk, a global brand licensing agency, said employees are a company’s brand apostles.

Michael Stone.

Michael Stone

“How brands treat their employees is something they’re going to remember,” said Stone. “Employees want to feel it. Consumers need to see it.”

Childcare, for example, is one social issue accelerated by the pandemic that companies must address in a way consistent with the values they’ve articulated to consumers. 

“Some companies are seriously stepping up, and those employees will become the most brand-centric employees a company could ever have,” Stone said. “The companies that don’t do that will lose their frontline.”

At the financial services firm with the emotional town halls, the experience also shaped the team’s approach to communicating with employees about racism, the executive said.

“Any internal communications on racism is written with an eye toward how it’ll be perceived externally,” the executive said. “Everything on this topic is being treated as potentially external.”

Angela Connor, founder of Change Agent Communications based in Raleigh, North Carolina, said employees also expect their companies to represent them well in public.

Angela Connor

Change Agent Communications

During the social justice protests, Connor said, one local business released a public statement saying it supported the Black community. Black employees were disappointed, meanwhile, because they thought the statement lacked specific points, and no one had mentioned the message to them before it went public. 

“It fell flat, and [the Black employees] felt embarrassed because it made the company look tone deaf,” Connor said. “We don’t live in the days anymore where people don’t align with their companies.”

Invest in better employee experiences as much as in good internal communication

Building lasting change also requires investment in creating better employee experiences, communication and HR experts said.

After all, companies with engaged employees lead to happy customers and are more likely to appear consistently on best employer lists. According to MIT research from 2017, companies whose investment in employee experience is in the top range had twice the innovation, double the customer satisfaction, and 25% greater profitability compared to companies in the bottom range for investment.

Plus, Poglianich said, the pandemic, social media’s influence, and social issues compel companies to provide for employees differently. Backed by analytics about their employees’ realities, many more companies are creating experiences focused on increasing mental and financial health and resiliency.

Similarly, Romero-Mitchell said, companies have to take a first step in addressing such issues as health and safety, childcare, diverse family structures, healthcare, and retirement planning to engage employees meaningfully. 

“That shield companies hid behind is gone,” Romero-Mitchell said. “All this has exposed vulnerabilities that have been going on for so long. People internally and externally are demanding change. I think it’s a beautiful thing, because this has been long overdue.”

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