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Establishing Effective Internal Communications Counseling: A Practical Approach to Building Trust and Delivering Results

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The ancient saying “A prophet but in her own land” has modern meaning for corporate communicators, who must often impress and earn the respect of their internal clients. Many internal clients do not have high regard for the strategic skills of corporate communicators. Because of this, communicators believe they are not given enough opportunity to be a part of strategic decision-making.

Our research and experience show that there are three things internal communications teams can do to develop strategic abilities and improve client service. These aren’t techniques to be applied from time to time for certain projects or only highlighted during off-site retreats. They are practices that should be integrated into the thinking, planning and execution of all client work, which will build stronger relationships with clients and create more trust for communicators.

Here are three practices that can make communicators more trusted and effective counselors for internal clients:

1. Understand the role of internal consultants.

Members of high-performing communications departments know how to use their relationships within the organization to get things done. Equally important, they demonstrate their strategic-thinking skills to build confidence with clients. This includes embracing the role of a strategist, but also showcasing other roles as researcher, innovator, diplomat, politician, project manager, collaborator and accountant.

Information gathering is essential.

The university relations division of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) conducted an assessment of its own effectiveness in these roles. This analysis was the first step in a strategic-planning process led by three senior members and a cross-functional committee from the division, with guidance and support from the Albright Group.

Committee members conducted interviews with administrative and academic leaders across campus and at the academic medical center, as well as at individual schools and departments. This phase of the research was conducted to determine attitudes about the quality of university relations’ services and identified the priorities of internal clients.

An external research firm’s quantitative survey measured VCU’s performance in a number of key areas, including knowledge of the client’s business and marketplace trends, strategic-thinking skills, project management and creative quality. A report of the qualitative and quantitative research findings was then presented to division staff and key clients.

The department also conducted a survey and interviews with its own staff members to determine their perception of the quality of their work, relationships with clients, and priorities for improving the work process and product. The combined findings from the clients and division proved invaluable in identifying the strengths of the department and opportunities for improvement.

In a far-flung and diverse organization such as VCU, this listening process helped to clarify a range of client priorities and goals. The interviews alone were recognized by clients as a commitment to improve services across the board. Within the division, employees learned where they were exceeding, meeting or failing client expectations. They also gained a better knowledge of their clients’ business, and identified opportunities to better educate clients about the division’s resources.

2. Demonstrate strategic capabilities.

The opportunities for communicators to participate in strategic discussions improve significantly when they demonstrate an understanding of the client’s goals and challenges.

Only a small percentage of strategic plans have a communications component, and the main reason strategies fail is due to poor execution driven by ineffective communications. A valuable question to ask your client is: What can communications do to make strategy more effective?

Many clients have a tendency to delay involvement from communicators until their plans are well in place, only seeking help with specific strategies. Communicators oftentimes reinforce this behavior by moving heaven and earth to complete a project without engaging in a broader discussion about the goals of the project early on.

Make yourself invaluable.

By seeking input from stakeholders across campus, VCU’s communicators demonstrated their commitment to better understanding the strategic goals and priorities of their clients. The communications staff is now better positioned as a strategic resource with valuable insight and experience. In a relatively short period of time, three major business units (two schools and the strategic enrollment division) chose university relations over outside consultants to develop and implement comprehensive marketing communications plans. What’s more, the units are involving the division in their planning process early on.

University relations is also committed to ongoing involvement from stakeholders. It launched a campuswide “communicators roundtable,” composed of the lead communications staff of the major business units. The roundtable has been a successful forum for building partnerships through sharing of best practices, providing professional development, and ensuring access to division executives to discuss universitywide communications challenges and opportunities.

3. Collaborate to integrate communication.

Most managers recognize the importance of communications and marketing as a key to business reputation and success — ranging from sales and profitability in business to enrollment and donations in higher education. What they often don’t know is the extent of the resources required.

VCU’s research determined that many clients were unaware of the depth and breadth of services provided by university relations. This was a bit of a surprise, as university relations includes all communications functions under one roof, including marketing, creative design and production, public affairs, special events, internal communications and speechwriting.

As a result of their findings, VCU’s communications team now employs multiple tactics to engage with their internal clients, including:

  1. Client summits, which introduce the team and its capabilities, and also determine how the team can help the school or department succeed through an integrated communications plan
  2. Assessment of individual project requests (e.g., direct mail, special events, advertising) and, when appropriate, proactive presentation of integrated and strategic communications options to clients
  3. Convening of a communicators’ network across campus, which regularly brings together the university relations staff and their client contacts
  4. Establishment of an advertising advisory group that includes clients, deans and faculty from communications disciplines to provide input into annual institutional advertising campaigns
  5. Intentional sharing of trend and marketplace information with clients, as well as invitations to pursue professional development opportunities and awards programs
  6. Annual client surveys to monitor perceptions of creative quality, communications effectiveness, marketplace expertise and client service

The advice from Greek philosophers that “you become what you contemplate” is valuable for communicators seeking to enhance their strategic value as internal consultants.

J.R. Hipple and Sarah Huddle, APR, are managing partners of the Albright Group, a strategic communications and leadership advisory firm that specializes in higher education.

Pamela DiSalvo Lepley, APR, is the vice president of university relations for Virginia Commonwealth University.