Employees are essential for an organization’s success, and communicating with them plays a vital role. But measuring links between employee communications and business results can be challenging.

To measure the effectiveness of internal communications, many business leaders and communications pros have focused on employee engagement. Analyzing employee engagement is a start, but it’s too broad a measure to provide the specific insights needed to develop informed communication strategies.

For the past two years, I’ve worked with a research team to define standards for measuring internal communication, so practitioners can create more effective communication plans and assess the value of communications for their organizations.

The research started in 2015, when the Institute for Public Relations and the Commission on Research, Measurement, and Evaluation convened an international, 11-member task force comprising academics and practitioners. Its job was to develop standards for measuring internal communications. After conducting a literature review and numerous discussions, the task force identified possible standards for internal communications measurement. Working with my colleagues Julie O’Neil, Ph.D. of Texas Christian University; Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, of Jackson Jackson & Wagner; and Sean Williams of True Digital Communications, we conducted a two-round Delphi study — a structured communication method that relies on a panel of experts to form a consensus — with 22 leading internal communications professionals who each had practiced in the field for 10 years or more. We also garnered input from hundreds of practitioners through presentations at PRSA conferences and at the International Public Relations Research Conference.

We found that many PR practitioners are unsure of how to measure and evaluate internal communications, or do so in different ways.

Employee engagement

We decided not to include employee engagement as a standard for measuring internal communications, since the phrase encompasses and reflects other standards such as knowledge, understanding, discretionary effort, trust and satisfaction. Instead, we found that organizations can pinpoint specific factors that influence employees’ perceptions and behaviors. If communicators can better understand these influencers by independently measuring them, they can then effectively address root causes of why employees are not engaged.

Our research defined 22 standards for measuring the effectiveness of internal communications, organized into three categories:

  • Outtakes: Whether employees received, paid attention to, comprehended or retained particular messages
  • Outcomes: Evidence that employee opinions, attitudes or behaviors were changed or reinforced
  • Organizational impact: If and how internal communications influenced organizational performance


The study did not focus on outputs, since the task force assumed there would be little disagreement on basic PR activity such as the number of stories read, click-throughs and employees in attendance.

Measurement standards

The proposed standards support an operational model in that outtakes lead to outcomes, which in turn, lead to organizational impact. We believe that a successful internal communications program must fulfill standards associated with outtakes and outcomes to achieve standards of organizational impact. (See the list below for the final 22 standards and their definitions.)

Some experts on our panel noted that although awareness is the easiest and most measured standard of internal communication, it’s the least useful because it doesn’t necessarily change behavior. For a message to be effective, employees need to understand why it’s relevant.

When asked about which outcome standards (satisfaction, attitude, empowerment, collaboration and trust) were most important, “trust” was the outcome most cited. One respondent explained, “Most individuals need to experience an inherent sense of trust in an organization, its leaders and fellow workers in order to feel confident enough to work well collaboratively and in team settings.”

Among thought leaders, many organizational impact standards were used and valued; retention of employees and safety were measured most frequently.

Measurement obstacles

The study found that leadership often does not devote the time and resources needed for the measurement standards. One suggestion was for communications pros to build a business case for a measurement plan, showing that effective communication is connected to financial outcomes and that a successful organization is likely to measure and evaluate its internal communications.

Organizations don’t need to measure or work on all 22 standards concurrently. An ideal first step is to identify a few standards in the outtakes, outcomes and organizational impact categories, or to focus on just one category. We recommend that organizations ask employees to help select the standards they consider most important, which helps improve communication and workplace culture.

Next steps

Many of these internal communications standards — such as awareness and knowledge, collaboration and teamwork, trust and satisfaction — depend upon or correlate with one another. We plan to test their reliability so practitioners can measure the standards in a consistent and comparable manner. We recognized that, in certain instances, these factors could be labeled as causal.

Additional testing will map the relationships among the standards and perhaps uncover more complex standards. Ideally, the research will lead to an internal communications guidebook and measurement instructions for PR pros.

In the meantime, we encourage internal communications practitioners to use these standards to measure and evaluate their communications initiatives. Consistent measurement demonstrates the value of public relations — something we strive for every day.


Outtakes

  • Awareness: Whether employees have heard of an organizational message, issue or topic
  • Knowledge: How well they comprehend such messages, issues or topics
  • Understanding: How well employees can relate such knowledge to their work, to help the organization achieve its goals
  • Relevance: The extent to which communication with employees is meaningful and useful
  • Information Retention: How well employees recall messages or topics

Outcomes

  • Attitude: How employees think or feel about a subject (an organization, topic or issue), ranging from very negative to very positive
  • Advocacy: How much of their own time and effort employees are willing to spend to promote or defend an organization and its products and services
  • Authenticity: Employee perception that an organization is transparent, honest and fair, especially about how it pursues its organizational objectives
  • Empowerment: Do employees have the information and power to make decisions that can solve problems and improve performance
  • Collaboration: Employees from different parts of an organization coming together to solve a problem or create something
  • Teamwork: Employees within the same unit working together to achieve a common goal, under a manager’s leadership
  • Discretionary Effort: The amount of effort employees give to an organization, team or project, beyond what is required of them
  • Trust: Employee belief in the reliability, truth and integrity of the organization’s leadership, decision-making and communication
  • Satisfaction: How happy employees are with their jobs
  • Transparency: An organization’s willingness to share positive and negative information with its employees in a timely fashion
  • Fairness: Employee perception of whether organizational processes that allocate resources and resolve disputes are impartial and just

Organizational Impact

  • Productivity: Quality and quantity of work, based on resources
  • Innovation: Employees thinking differently and experimenting with new approaches, ideas or behaviors
  • Continuous Improvement: The process by which employees suggest ways to improve the efficiency, productivity and quality of a product or process
  • Reputation: How internal and external stakeholders evaluate an organization based on their personal and observed experiences with the company and its communication
  • Employee Retention: The number or percentage of workers who stay with the company after a given period of time
  • Safety: Employees’ freedom from physical and emotional harm, injury or loss

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 Issue of Strategies & Tactics.