Knowing Who You Are Talking with: Understanding and Segmenting Your Internal Audience

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We often hear people say communication failed because they missed the target. Similar to any strategic communication effort, employee communication requires a thorough understanding and accurate grasp of who the internal audience is—whom the company and its leaders are trying to reach, connect with, listen to, or engage.

Employees differ in terms of demographics, psychographics, or behavior. In addition, today’s workforce is increasingly diverse. Employees from different backgrounds, cultures, generations, and with various levels of technology adaptability, work under the same roof. Such differences often lead to nuances with regard to how these employees interpret messages or react to internal communication initiatives. For instance, tech-savvy employees might applaud the organization’s plan to digitize the workspace, but slow adopters of technology might not be equally enthusiastic about the change or even against it.

Audience segmentation is not a new concept. Researchers have long identified various demographic, psychographic, and behavioral variables to segment external audiences for better targeted communication. The discussion, however, is limited when it comes to internal audience. In fact, employees can be segmented based on demographic differences, such as age, gender, education qualification, ethnicity, income, work tenure, job type, physical location, and employment status. Differences also exist with regard to employee psychographics, including personalities, values, attitudes, social needs, culture interests, desires, work styles, career focuses or desired career benefits, and entertainment preferences. Moreover, behavior variables, such as media consumption habits, involvement and engagement in organizational activities and issues, and organizational citizenship behaviors, can be used to segment internal audience. Another commonly used and straightforward approach to segmentation, particularly for the internal audience, is based on the hierarchical structure of an organization. Across the various levels inside the organization, employees can be grouped as frontline workers, line managers, middle-level management, senior management, and executives, and each group has distinctive functions and communication needs. The following discussion offers a closer look.

Frontline Workers
Frontline workers include both service employees who are behind the counter, on the phone, on social media responding to customers, or walking the floor, and blue-collar (e.g., manufacturing, maintenance) workers who perform manual labor. The frontline service employees have the most direct communication with customers and are often the organization’s living brand and influence customer relationships. Given their access to firsthand information and feedback from customers and the field, service employees are also the best sources of observatory research. Blue-collar workers are equally, if not more important, for many organizations’ and industry development. Although frontline workers exert great impact on the organization’s productivity and success, they are often the least considered group and most difficult to reach. One reason is because frontline workers are often geographically dispersed and operate within their own ecosystems and cultures, making it hard for corporate communication to penetrate.

Line Managers
Line managers are positioned in the middle of hierarchies and are important channels for distributing information to frontline workers. They are also information suppliers for senior and top management. As employees’ most trusted and reliable source of information about the organization, line managers can facilitate effective internal communication by translating corporate messages into a local context to make them relevant and understandable. They also help select useful feedback from frontline workers to include in corporate strategic decision-making. Much research has demonstrated how line managers treat employees affects employees’ overall attitude toward the organization. Good relationships with supervisors create a supportive working environment for employees, whereas poor relationships only distance and disengage employees. It is no wonder we hear “people join companies, they leave managers.”

Middle-Level Management
Middle managers act as mediators between business strategy and daily operations. Their access to top management and knowledge of operations place them at a unique position (Beringer, Jonas, & Gemünden, 2012). Senior executives depend on middle managers to execute company vision and strategies. Line managers count on middle managers to explain the rationale of the rules and policies and make them concrete and specific enough for digestion. Unlike line managers who focus more on managing followers and work units, middle-level managers often deal with peer relationships and communicate horizontally with other middle managers. While this could facilitate cross-departmental collaboration, the flip side of the coin is that middle managers who work together on a task may experience tension and resentment because of competition for resources, specialized perspectives, and loyalty to their own departments or self-interest (McKinney, McMahon, & Walsh, 2013).

Top-Level Management
Finally, on the top of the ladder are the C-Suite, boards of directors, and senior managers, who are the key decision makers in organizations. They determine the organization’s direction and strategies and influence organizational relations with key stakeholders (Resick et al., 2009). They help establish a collective purpose, communicate the vision, and define and communicate core values of the organization to stakeholders. The top management also sets the tone for internal communication. They establish the organization’s communication philosophy, allocate resources, and provide support for the communication function. More importantly, as the public face of the organization, top leaders are the most powerful communicators in the organization and embody organizational image for internal and external publics. Especially in the increasingly transparent world of social media, stakeholders (including employees) expect higher visibility, authenticity, and approachability from top leaders—this is the time when CEOs can be and need to be “chief engagement officers.”

Given such distinctive characteristics among these groups of employees, communication (e.g., goals, purposes, channels, messages, etc.) should be tailored to fit the needs of each group. For instance, to engage frontline workers, communication managers need to take the time and effort to fully understand frontline employees’ operational environment, use a limited set of channels particularly designed for frontline workers’ needs and routines (Raywood, 2015), and deliver more focused, actionable, and relevant messages. To engage line managers, organizations can provide training to equip them with effective communication strategies, skills, tools, and messages and empower them to communicate in a two-way, interactive, and engaging manner for fostering employee participation. For middle managers, communication can be focused on fostering collaboration and guiding them to spend less time protecting their own territory and reputation, develop a holistic view of the organization, and emphasize the big picture with the same vision and direction. Last but not least, to maximize top management’s support for internal communication, communication managers should act as business strategists for top management; gain a seat at the decision-making table; equip CEOs and other executives with strategic communication mindsets, strategies, and tools; and help CEOs enact their “chief engagement officer” roles.

There are, of course, other interest groups, such as volunteers, trustees for nonprofits, and contract workers, who can be considered as internal publics. Internal audience can also be segmented through other means (e.g., employee demographics, psychographics, and behaviors mentioned earlier). Regardless, the idea of internal audience segmentation is to truly advocate an employee perspective and put the backgrounds, needs, thoughts, and behaviors of employees under the microscope so that communication and messages can truly click with them.

In my upcoming co-authored book, Excellence in Internal Communication Management, with Dr. Shannon Bowen of University of South Carolina and Keith Burton, Principal of Grayson Emmett Partners, we offered concrete recommendations for organizations to segment internal audience. In this entry, I’d like to start the conversation by inviting you to share your thoughts, opinions, examples, or research ideas regarding best practices of employee segmentation.

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Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Florida and the Chief Research Editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center.

 


References

Beringer, C., Jonas, D., & Gemünden, H. G. (2012). Establishing project portfolio management: An exploratory analysis of the influence of internal stakeholders’ interactions. Project Management Journal, 43(6), 16-32.

Raywood, G. (2015). Engaging frontline employees: Six principles for maximizing the two-minute window. Retrieved on September 10 from http://www.edelman.com/post/engaging-frontline-employees/

McKinney, R., McMahon, M., & Walsh, P. (2013). Danger in the middle: Why middle managers aren’t ready to lead. Harvard Business Publishing, retrieved on September 10 from http://www.harvardbusiness.org/sites/default/files/PDF/17807_CL_MiddleManagers_White_Paper_March2013.pdf

Resick, C. J., Whitman D. S., Weingarden, S. M., & Hiller, N. J. (2009). The bright-side and the dark-side of CEO personality: Examining core self-evaluations, narcissism, transformational leadership, and strategic influence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1365-1381.

Posted in [Blog], Employee / Organizational Communication, Leadership Communications.

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