“Attend to the in-house before going to the out-house.”

Have you heard that catchy phrase before? The first time I ever heard it — in 1983 at my first national school communications conference as a newly-hired school PR professional — I laughed out loud.  But do you know what? Once you get past the humor it’s actually pretty profound; it so neatly sums up everything I know and believe about communications. It’s become my own little mantra!

Because it reminds me of where our communications focus should lie: our internal communication.

So many organizations spend countless dollars and countless hours on PR, trying to put out fires that have started outside of the company. They forget that what those on the inside are saying is every bit as powerful — and as potentially damaging — as what the rest of the world is saying about them.

Poor internal communication in action.

The importance of good internal communication – or lack of it – manifested itself personally one day while I was in line at the grocery store. I overheard a local school district employee complaining vehemently about her employer, which happened to be my school district.

As a new parent myself, I couldn’t help but listen intently. I began to wonder how I could feel good about “my” neighborhood school when clearly someone deeply connected was so openly dissatisfied. To me, at that moment, it didn’t matter what the newsletter said about high test scores, outstanding teachers, or positive student experiences. It only mattered what this respected educator was saying about the district’s lack of transparency, integrity, and appreciation for its employees. I believed every word she said.

After my grocery line experience, I dug in deeper and became even more devoted to championing positive internal communication practices and ideas. Without a deep commitment to open and honest communication with employees and the will and skill to establish a positive work culture, how can any organization expect support and respect from those on the outside looking in?

I’m convinced that what employees believe and share with others about their workplace can – and will – make or break an organization.

So I’ve adopted 11 principles that underpin effective internal communication:

  1. Employees should be the first to know. Share the news. Whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, employees have the right to be kept in the loop.
  2. Management should make it a priority to engage employees in the discussions and decisions that impact them.
  3. Employees should be given reason to feel their opinions matter.
  4. Employees will be more productive, have greater job satisfaction, and positive morale if they work in a place where internal communications is valued and practiced.
  5. Face-to-face is hard to beat: messages should be communicated in person whenever possible.
  6. It won’t be appropriate to share all communication broadly but when possible, communication should be open, honest, and conversational.
  7. It takes more than one communication tool to get a message across; recognize and commit to using various tools.
  8. Any perceived communications issues should be honored and discussed respectfully.
  9. Communication should be two-way; implement tools and practices for both listening and communicating a message.
  10. “How will this decision impact employees?” — This is the lens through which all decisions should be viewed.

And the final principle?

  1. Strong internal communication will have a positive return for any organization — it may take effort but it’s always going to be worth it.

It may be nearly four decades since I first learned about the principles that guide effective communication but I believe that most of them are just as relevant today. And none more so than the importance of internal communication. Get the “in-house” stuff sorted and you just might find that the “out-house” stuff takes care of itself!

Lori Oberheide is the Director of Communications, Education Services at PointNorth Consulting. She joined PointNorth after a successful 36 year career working for school districts and ESD’s across Washington and Oregon.