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Inside out

Internal communications form the basis of effective external branding

View from airoplane windowThe most challenging aspect of internal communications seems to be giving brand stakeholders need-to-know information when they need to know it. Achieving this objective is not as easy as it sounds.

No brand escapes the consequences of poor internal communications, and at no time is the need for internal communications more vital to brand success than during a crisis.

Consider this example: It was just post-launch for a brand that was to become the company's most precious asset. The brand was launching into a fiercely competitive market — up against the pharma marketing heavyweights. Like most brands, it had an Achilles heel and its competitors were quick to expose this vulnerability as a "major and serious" safety concern, which was certainly not the case.

This competitive assault turned the company upside down. A few select members of senior management caucused behind closed doors for days without communicating their feelings or intentions to internal stakeholders. Employees were told only: "Conduct business as usual, our drug is safe."

Later it was learnt that the rationale for this was concern that a defensive response — even to internal stakeholders — would somehow validate the threat, thereby shaking employee confidence and distracting people from doing their jobs. However, the fact was poor internal communications resulted in wild speculation and a level of fear that paralysed the brand.

Instead of stakeholders engaging in the usual brand management activities to quell concern, résumés were updated, and some were even sent to the competitor that sparked the crisis in the first place. The field force — without being given an objection handler or seeing evidence of PR in action — was terrified when calling on doctors as they did not know how to address the misperception head-on.

The lesson learned was that internal communications drive, and directly affect, external communications. In this case, it cost the brand dearly in terms of sales and brand uptake.

Internal miscommunications
The communication skills that enable companies to win the hearts and minds of customers seem to abandon them when it comes to internal communications, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, in today's pharma brand management environment, staff are expected to do more with less and do it faster. Under these conditions, something has to give, and that something is often internal communications.

Secondly, the growing number of communication channels, the increasingly complex brand issues and challenges, and the sophistication of analytics and strategies have resulted in more points of contact for a single brand than ever before. Managing communication across the proliferation of stakeholders can be very daunting.

No doubt the pressure on internal communications will continue to intensify. The need for more effective planning and management has never been greater. Pharma brands require constant connection across functions to ensure integration. It must be recognised that internal communications are the basis for effective external brand communications.

So how is effective internal communication achieved? The key is grounded in five fundamental principles that should be tailored to the specific needs of the brand and organisation.

Engage rather than direct
Several years ago, it was enough to improve access to information. Today, effective brand management demands stakeholder engagement through two-way communication. Communication is a dialogue — an information exchange that involves listening and feedback, not just informing or directing. The process of communicating should be thought of as a loop rather than an outward cascade of information. Effective internal communications management creates a culture of productive ideas exchange that improves brand performance.

Horizontal communication
We have all experienced it: you have driven a project to near completion only to learn that it is not compatible with a project being launched by a colleague down the hall. Vertical (top-down/bottom-up) communication tends to silo information in functional areas. Nowadays, well-orchestrated horizontal  — or peer-to-peer — communication is essential to keep stakeholders aligned.

One technique to help convey information across functional boundaries is to create a "brand integration map". This identifies major brand initiatives by function and quarter over a one-year planning period, thus communicating what stakeholders need to know, when they need to know it.

Make the message stick
The fundamental challenge of communication is how to make sure it has impact or "stickiness" as Malcolm Gladwell calls it in his book The Tipping Point. If your message doesn't stick, need-to-know information is lost.

When it comes to making internal communications stick, the same rules apply as with external customers: keep it clear, simple and consistent; speak in a language your audience understands — avoid jargon; frame it in the context of "what's in it for me?".

These rules will drive brand performance when applied to all internal touch-points related to the brand, be it through live contact in the form of face-to-face and via the telephone, or in written communication ranging from informal emails to formal presentations.

Filter communications
Free-flowing information from as many sources as there are brand stakeholders is a reality in most environments. While information sharing is essential to brand success, preventing information overload is equally important. Poor targeting of communications results in time lost in filtering unnecessary information, compromising productivity. Irrelevant details in communications to the right target may lead to confusion and tune-out. Communicators should create targeted distribution lists instead of using a universal one; filter content based on relevance; respect time sensitivity, communicating in enough time to allow appropriate action. These practices can help individuals who need to know stay tuned-in and effectively respond to what matters for the brand.

Content is king
The relative importance of information content versus the channel used for dissemination sometimes gets confused when developing an internal communications plan.

An effective plan is not a low-budget tactic that results in a newsletter or intranet site filled with unprioritised, unfocused content.

First and foremost, an effective plan strategically assesses information value and timing — again, what people need to know, when they need to know it. It should consider the channels through which stakeholders are willing and happy to communicate.

It is only by distinguishing the importance of content from its channel that an internal communications plan can be formed.

Smart teams
Smart brand teams view internal communications as vital to success and of equal importance to external communications. When effectively planned and managed, internal communications create a culture of connection and ideas exchange, align stakeholders around the brand mission, and influence the behaviours that ultimately drive brand success.

The Author
Donna Vetter is an independent consultant to the pharma industry. She can be reached at
To comment on this article, email

17th February 2009


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