Align Internal and External Communications

EPISODE 126 | Guest: Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix

Most organizations have communications for both internal and external audiences. If you’re sending mixed messages, or if those messages don’t reflect common branding and values, you can lose both employee trust and customer revenues.

In this episode, we talk about the importance of aligning your internal and external communications, what the benefits are when you do, and some of the real bottom-line repercussions if you don’t.

  • Learn where internal and external communications should overlap
  • Understand the benefits of communications alignment
  • Hear why brand standards are just as crucial as consistent messaging
  • Discover the three Ts (transparency, trust and training) and channel maps
  • Get best practices you can start using today

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Get more communications advice in our Free Guide: Digital Signage Communications Planning


Derek DeWitt: A lot of organizations are using digital signage to show messaging for both internal and external audiences. Alignment between these internal and external communications is crucial. When these are out of sync, it can lead to confusion, distrust and even reputational damage. Ooh, ooh. So, to talk about how you can better align your messaging, I’m here with Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix. Hi Deb. Thanks for talking to me today.

Debbie DeWitt: Hi, Derek. No problem. Love to be here.

Derek DeWitt: Of course, I’d like to thank everybody out there for listening as well. Don’t forget you subscribe to the podcast and follow along using a transcript on the Visix website. You can also review this podcast on IMDb if you like it.

Okay, so to start, let’s give a quick overview of what we mean by internal communications versus external communications.

Debbie DeWitt: Well, I think internal communications is pretty obvious to our listeners. It’s messaging to your employees, your staff, volunteers, anybody inside the organization. You know, this is gonna be things like HR notices, progress to goals and things like that.

Whereas external communications can be for customers in places like restaurants or hotels, you know, banks, sports facilities, museums, pretty much any retail setting. You might have students if you’re a school or it’s on a college campus.

Derek DeWitt: Or visiting parents or other alumni and so on. People who aren’t attending at the moment.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. Certainly, in hospitals and clinics, you’ve got your patients and visitors. And then obviously in government offices, you’ve got the general public. That could be true for community centers, you know, chambers of commerce, nonprofits. So, external communications are those messages you’re putting out to anyone outside your organization.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And these are two quite different audiences, really. What’s the overlap between internal and external messaging?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, yeah, those are different audiences, but there’s a consistency in that you want everyone to experience your overall brand the same way. You know, you wanna present a clear message and present the company in a certain way to everybody. So, your core messages about your company, your mission, your values and your brand, those all need to be consistent.

And I’ll also say transparency is a very important topic today to both internal and external audiences. So, you know, those two forms of communication have got to work together.

Derek DeWitt: So, what can happen if the internal and external modes of communication don’t align?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, misalignment can happen when your internal messaging is inconsistent with external communications. But it can also happen when your internal messaging doesn’t really reflect the reality of the organization’s operations or your culture.

Derek DeWitt: So, for example, having an external-facing message, something like “our employees are our most valuable asset,” and then for the internal messaging, it’s just, “Work harder drones!”

Debbie DeWitt: Right. Yeah. And it doesn’t even have to be, you know, “work harder drones” or “work longer hours” or something like that, it could just be that like you’re showing all goals or all KPIs or whatever, but you’re giving no recognition, you know, no wellness tips, no things like that.

So, it basically comes down to, if you say it publicly, you need to walk your talk internally and vice versa, because otherwise people, and especially employees, are just gonna call bullshit.

Derek DeWitt: That’s for sure. I think we see this all the time. We see this constantly where companies are saying things exactly like this, “Our employees are very important.” And then, you know, then we find out Amazon drivers have, you know, piss bottles, and they’re not allowed breaks, and people are being pressured to work overtime with no extra pay and things like this. And it really does smell of hypocrisy.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I think we see it a lot in environmentalism. I think you get a lot of greenwashing. I think you have companies out there saying, you know, how much they are working toward, you know, cleaning up carbon or how important the environment is to them. But then internally, like, there’s not even a recycling program.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And, and I think, people are savvy enough these days that many times people will look at the external facing messaging and then kind of check up on it, you know?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, not only that, they don’t just check up, they will out you, like, they just will. There’s nothing secret. You know, it’s all online now. So, yeah, It used to be maybe that obviously your internal messaging was just memos or newsletters. And then, you know, externally you had a poster or a, I don’t know, an ad in an airplane magazine that maybe your employees didn’t even see. But now everybody sees everything. So, they’re gonna call it if they’re like, these two things do not match up.

Derek DeWitt: You know, there’s an old article in Fast Company that I read that talks about something called the “reputation gap”. And it calls out two great quotes. One is by Abraham Lincoln, “Character is like a tree and reputation, like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it. The tree is the real thing,” which I think is quite nice. And then, one of my faves, Benjamin Franklin, said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation and only one bad one to lose it.” Which is very, very true.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. You know, reputation gap is that difference between what you think people think about you or your brand and what they really think about you or your brand. And, you know, we’re talking about consistency in communications. You know, making your internal and external communications work together can help shrink that reputation gap.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. But how much are people sort of misaligning things? Are they using different messages or brand looks for different audiences? Or how is it happening?

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, I think as much as messaging plays a part, branding is a big one (identity, brand standards), and they’re certainly misaligning those. A study called The Impact of Brand Consistency from a place called the Demand Metric Research Corporation, which, you know, sounds heavy to me.

Derek DeWitt: DMRC!

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah! I mean, it’s got weight.

Derek DeWitt: We’re watching!

Debbie DeWitt: It’s got weight. But this study said less than 10% of participants said their brand presentation is very consistent.

Derek DeWitt: Huh.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And 95% of those organizations have brand guidelines, but only a quarter of them have formal guidelines that are consistently enforced.

Derek DeWitt: So, a quarter of them consistently enforce formal guidelines, and still only 10% have consistent messaging anyway.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, over 60% reported that materials are always, often or sometimes created that don’t conform to brand guidelines. The “always” is concerning. How can you have brand guidelines and then report that they’re always not conforming to brand guidelines? It makes no sense to me. But that’s a big number.

Derek DeWitt: Oversight. There’s no oversight would be my guess.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And I’ve heard of this. I had a friend who worked for IBM years ago and said, “oh yeah, there’s this whole, you know, identity kit and we have PowerPoint presentations we’re supposed to use, but I make my own every time.”

Derek DeWitt: Ah, that could be it. It’s just people going maverick out there, right?

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, it’s a lot about visual consistency, those stats certainly are, but that’s just as important as the content of your communications. And if you’re not consistent in your look, I very much doubt you’re being consistent in your messaging.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s probably true. So, what are some of the benefits of aligning internal and external communications?

Debbie DeWitt: So, I’ve got several here that came from a great article on Livestorm, and we’ll put a link to that in the transcript. The first one is that using the same look and language avoids confusing your employees and your customers.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Everybody’s saying the same thing, instead of, there’s one message for us and one message for clients.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. That can get very confusing. So, unified messaging helps you come across as genuine and creates trust.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Just like transparency, authenticity, and clarity build trust. And I think authenticity is the key here. Don’t greenwash, don’t do things so that you just give the appearance of creating authenticity. Actually be authentic.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Be transparent. But when people can see what you’re doing, you have to be authentic. You’re backing it up. And then clarity, going back to not causing confusion, that all builds trust and it all bolsters your internal culture. Because, you know, your employees feel more informed, and customers don’t get conflicting messages.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And of course, when employees understand the messaging and values that you’re showing to clients or to the public, then that helps them align what they’re doing with the overall business strategy.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. We’ve talked a lot about all of your communications need to stem from a strategy, and if you’ve made that very clear to your employees, and it’s not just, hey, this is our mission statement, these are our goals, this is our strategy to get there, but why. And get that buy-in from them, and then they can become brand ambassadors, you know? Since they know you’re advertising, word of mouth is still a thing out there.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. It’s basically an additional marketing channel.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Another benefit of aligning these communications is that you get collaboration, and that provides valuable insights and ideas because, you know, you get more diverse opinions. And as we’ve talked about in one of our blog posts that we’ll link to, you eliminate silos.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Siloing is a thing of the past, and getting rid of them really does boost efficiency and productivity. I know for some people who maybe have been in the business a long time that sounds wrong or counterproductive, but it’s actually true.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And it’s not necessarily about not having an org chart or no hierarchy. It’s really about, siloing is more about a mindset, and I encourage you to read that blog. But one of the things that all of this does is it puts your company in a much better position to navigate change. And for example, right now, businesses are in a major state of change.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s for sure. I’ve said this a bazillion times, I’ll say it another bazillion times, agility is the key to success in the, at least early, 21st century.

Debbie DeWitt: Yep.

Derek DeWitt: You have to be able to pivot quickly when things change suddenly. And it’s easier to rework one communication strategy or campaign than it is to do two or three or four of them.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. Especially if you really have divergent messaging going internally versus externally. You know, you’d have to completely overhaul both, versus if you’re consistent in your messaging inside and outside, it’s just tweaking it. And, you know, a big one is, according to a study by Lucidpress, which is now called Marq, the average revenue increase attributed to always presenting a brand consistently is like a 10 to 20% boost.

Derek DeWitt: Huh. That’s kind of crazy.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah.

Derek DeWitt: So, all of this is not just intangible feel-goods, you know, hey man, we’re in line with the young generation. Like, there is a bottom-line effect.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. You make more money.

Derek DeWitt: And it’s quantifiable. I mean, we’ve, see again like I said, this may sound like no, that can’t be right. But there are studies, and meta studies. And yeah, it really does.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And it’s about, I think that revenue comes from not only being consistent internally and externally, but also within those streams. You know, don’t keep changing your message around. It’s back to those, that core mission, that core brand, that core messaging that needs to be consistent.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. All right. All right. You convinced me. It’s important to do it.

Debbie DeWitt: Excellent.

Derek DeWitt: And a lot of people don’t. What are some of the best practices for aligning internal and external communications?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, I’d say first and foremost, as I do in all things, you have to get leadership buy-in. You know, if the C-suite or the president of the university, whoever your boss’s boss’s boss is, if they aren’t committing to this, it’s not gonna work.

You know, you have to commit to consistency and bake it in at every level of the organization. If not, you’re gonna get those people who go rogue and don’t understand what the repercussions are. All these things we just talked about, what the benefits are of not doing it and what some of the downsides are if you do go rogue.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Like the guy who’s out there creating his own sales materials, yeah, he might be getting some results, but ultimately, he’s kind of hurting the company in the long run.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. If not reputationally, then certainly operationally. I mean, what happens when some updated language or legal terms aren’t included in his homemade materials. Someone back at HQ is gonna have to deal with the fallout at some point.

And I feel like this goes back to transparency, trust and training. And yes, that’s the three Ts, and I just made that up. But, you know, I think if people truly understand your messaging and why you’re presenting things a certain way, they’ll get on board.

Derek DeWitt: Hmm. Yeah. Hopefully. One thing I saw repeated a lot when I was looking into this subject is that it’s important to develop a shared vision and mission statement, not just three guys in a room deciding this is what’s gonna happen.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, first of all, you do need to get the three guys in a room if that’s the way you’re gonna do it. But you need to write it out. You need to hit that mission, your values, your goals, but then you need to make sure everyone understands and adopts them. Those are three very different things. Creating it, training everyone on it and making sure it gets adopted.

Derek DeWitt: Honestly, you gotta kind of beta test. Don’t just stick up posters or digital signage messages. You need to train people and if something’s confusing, you need to rework it, reword it. And honestly, I think there’s nothing but upside to, in that process, getting other people’s input on what exactly your organization should be focusing on, to a certain extent.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. You can’t have every single person give input, but certainly…

Derek DeWitt: Right. Cats! No, dogs! No, birds! No, snakes!

Debbie DeWitt: Obviously, it’s bunnies. But no, I mean, it really comes down to having that common understanding of the purpose. You know, all of the stakeholders involved need to be aligned around a central message. And that helps you ensure that your messaging is aligned across all your channels, that internal and external come together because everybody in your organization, the ship is steered in one direction.

Derek DeWitt: And, like we’ve talked about already, you do need to develop brand standards of some kind.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And again, train everyone on those and have some sort of controls in place. Go back to that stat where, you know, what was it, less than a quarter of companies surveyed, they have them, but they don’t enforce them. You need to be able to check up on things.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And again, don’t get all Big Brother about it. You know, you gotta enforce that brand identity or it’ll get diluted, but do it in the sense of, hey, we’re all in this together and we’re all kind of, you know, we’re all working towards the same goals here.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Carrot versus stick. I’m a big proponent of that. And, you know, on that same topic, I think having cross-team collaborations, you know, like have your marketing and your internal communication teams come together. It’s one of the most important, best practices I could recommend. I kind of feel like it’s also the most obvious, you know?

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure. I mean, if you want internal and external communications to match up, you’ve gotta get the teams that work in those areas, like, in the same room.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, definitely you want those teams working together on all of these best practices. I think they’re the ones who should develop them together. You know, as you come up with a communications plan or a strategy or best practices for your communications, well, get the people working on internal and external to come up with those together. And that way you’re gonna hit any road bumps, you’re gonna work out any kinks in the system early on. You know, and again, that’s about buy-in.

Derek DeWitt: Sure.

Debbie DeWitt: I think one of the things those collaborations can actually produce are audience profiles. You know, internal communications should be experts on all those internal audiences (I mean, we are talking about employees, that kind of thing), and marketing should have a pretty good idea about their target audiences. So, when they collaborate on messaging, they can find conflicts or tweaks needed to deliver campaigns that’ll work for each. I mean, you need consistent messaging, but obviously you’re not gonna maybe advertise to your employees the 10% discount that you’re gonna do to clients.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Sure. And when we’re talking about these profiles, one term for it is personas. And we actually have a previous episode about this on AI and audience personas, and how the two things kinda work together. Again, link in the transcript for people that are interested in looking into that further.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And once you have those audience personas or profiles, I’d suggest you create channel maps for those different audiences.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. Another term! What’s a channel map?

Debbie DeWitt: It’s another term I just made up.

Derek DeWitt: Really?

Debbie DeWitt: Yes, I’m on a roll today!

Derek DeWitt: Wow, you are on fire!

Debbie DeWitt: I am, I am. So, a channel map. But basically it was the best thing I could come up for to mean having a plan for which communications go on which channels.

Derek DeWitt: Ah, okay.

Debbie DeWitt: You know, even if your messaging is consistent, like I said, it doesn’t mean everybody sees everything or that every message goes everywhere.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Yeah. It’s knowing which platforms different communications go on. Like, this would be good for the intranet, but for social media, we’re gonna have to shorten it, or we’re gonna have to change the way that it’s formatted or the focus, we’re gonna have to add in hashtags, you know, so on and so forth. Every communications medium has a slightly different way that it communicates information.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, definitely. And you’re gonna have recurring messages or recurring campaigns, so you can create that channel map to say, like, for example, like HR messages go on the intranet.

Derek DeWitt: Not social media.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. They go on the intranet, back office digital signs, on our Microsoft Teams feed. New product ads go on the website, public social feeds, but also on our intranet and our back office digital signs, ’cause we want our employees to know what we’re saying to our clients.

Derek DeWitt: Sure.

Debbie DeWitt: You know, and you’ll possibly segment a lot further to get more granular. But you know, we’ve talked about this before for digital signage, basically, when you’re figuring out what goes on what screen. And it’s all about, again, knowing your audience and knowing the right messaging to put in front of them. But with internal and external communications, you know, you may get some overlap, and that channel map is just a way to help you figure out, in broad categories, what goes where.

Derek DeWitt: And, of course, you have to plan for ROI.

Debbie DeWitt: Yes.

Derek DeWitt: You have to study, analyze, and (I just can’t say this enough) and adjust over time.

Debbie DeWitt: Always. So, if you aren’t measuring success, everything we’ve talked about is a waste of effort. And you know, I know we kind of say that at the end of all of these episodes, but it’s really true. We’re giving advice.

Derek DeWitt: Do what I told you!

Debbie DeWitt: No, no. That’s that bad message again.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, right.

Debbie DeWitt: No, but, you know, measure that success. Set up goals that are realistic. If this is the first time you’re doing it, you’re going to have to adjust, obviously. And I think a lot of it starts again with that buy-in. A lot of it is just starting the conversation.

I’d start honestly at the internal comms and marketing level. And if you’re a digital signage manager, you need to be in the room too, and then take it upstairs, you know. Take it upstairs and see what they think and get that buy-in, and then it can get pushed out, not down; get pushed out in a way that, you know, you can hope works.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. Absolutely. Let’s call it communications irrigation.

Debbie DeWitt: Another term!

Derek DeWitt: Another term.

Debbie DeWitt: Oh, this is awesome. Three original terms in one episode. Come on, people.

Derek DeWitt: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.

Debbie DeWitt: Value for money.

Derek DeWitt: You’re welcome, Buzzword Bingo players.

Derek DeWitt: So, to wrap up, it’s clear that aligning internal and external communications is crucial for any organization that wants to build trust, engage stakeholders and achieve its goals, which I hope is every organization, regardless of what you do.

Some ways to do that are to implement brand standards, create a shared vision and mission statement, use cross-functional teams and foster transparency. But none of that will work unless you have buy-in at every level and provide employee training and feedback systems. Because if you get everyone on board, then you can pretty much be sure that your internal and external messaging is aligned and effective.

Debbie DeWitt: Nice one! Nicely, nicely summarized.

Derek DeWitt: I’d like to thank Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix, for talking to me today about aligning internal and external communications. Thanks, Deb. Stimulating talk, as always.

Debbie DeWitt: Ah, you’re welcome. I love talking about communications, you know it.

Derek DeWitt: She does. She does. As do I.

Everybody out there, thank you for listening. I remind you again there is a transcript on the Visix website of the conversation that we just had with links to all of the studies that we referenced.