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Internal PR – Shouting into the Void?


Internal PR – Shouting into the Void?


Used with permission of the author:
Author: Andrew Hofmeyr 
Business Education Design (Pty.) Ltd. 
30 April 2007

A company’s most important internal PR messages are inevitably based on its most critical business objectives: 

  • We have to increase productivity  
  • We have to reduce costs 
  • We have to transform the organisation 
  • We have to improve customer focus 
  • We have to improve interdepartmental relationships 
  • We have to jack up the bottom line 
  • And so on 

These are the messages that are vital to company profitability. Yet managers constantly complain that the message ‘just doesn’t seem to get through’ to staff. And the classic internal PR response? We re-examine our communication channels and content. We play around with the media - used bigger posters (how about some colour, or maybe a cartoon?), more e-mails, memos with larger fonts, and sterner threats. We get radical and use industrial theatre. We get desperate and shout louder.

The challenge is that none of the above addresses the fundamental barrier to internal communication in South African corporations. The messages are getting there, but not getting through. And there is a simple explanation for this: It is an understandable and rather endearing characteristic of human behaviour that we only really hear what we can understand and only commit seriously to doing the things that make sense to us. So at the heart of failed internal PR is the simple fact that the majority of staff don’t really hear or buy into critical business messages because they don’t really understand the logic of business itself and the importance of company profitability, to them. So they listen, but can’t hear, so don’t do, or care.

Typical staff responses to the messages are thus quite understandable:

We have to increase productivity


Why? I’m working hard enough as it is.

We have to reduce costs


Why? They’re company costs, not mine!

We have to transform the organisation


Good grief no. I may lose my job.

We have to improve customer focus


Forget it. All customers ever do is complain.

We have to improve interdepartmental relationships


With those bastards?

We have to jack up the bottom line


Bottom what?

The above is not meant to denigrate staff. It’s just that we have no right to expect our staff to understand the logic of business. Their schools didn’t teach it. The company certainly didn’t. So why should they understand?

So, simply changing the medium of communication is rather like talking more loudly to foreign tourists – and just as ineffectual. Yet it is what we consistently continue to do.

What is the alternative? Creating a shared language of business, before or as part of the communication process, can yield dramatic results. Once staff understand the logic of business and the importance of company profitability to them, they become seriously keen listeners. A recent internal PR project at Iscor’s Vanderbijlpark Works study provides ample evidence:

After years of protection, from 1994 Iscor found itself uncompetitive in the face of international imports. A bold transformation plan, OP-EX, required compressible cost reductions in the region of 40%. To achieve this would require organisational and work process changes that were unlikely to meet with the approval of an already concerned workforce. Says Pieter Myburgh, PR Manager at Iscor’s VDB Park Works, “If we had just gone ahead with OP-EX, without providing staff with a clear understanding of the ‘case for change’, we would have faced major problems down the line, through their inevitable resistance to a plan that they would not understand and which had dramatic implications for them as employees.

“In other words, traditional internal PR processes would inevitably have failed. We decided to take pre-emptive action, instituting a process of basic business education, linked to an examination of the challenges faced by and options open to Iscor, in advance of the actual transformation programme. We analysed a number of business education programmes on the market, opting for Business Education Design’s Team Business, because of its hands-on approach and tangible outcomes. The programme designers then customised the programme to meet the specific challenges we faced – and the specific internal message we needed to convey.”

The results of the programme, attended by all staff and tracked from the outset by the NPI, have been dramatic. Pre-programme surveys provide a baseline measure of staff perceptions and attitudes to the planned transformation process. Post-programme measurements then provide an index of attitudinal and intellectual shifts. Key findings were in two areas – understanding of business and appreciation of the ‘case for change’:

Business understanding: 
Pre-post programme shifts:


Climate change – understanding, and accepting, the case for change: 
Pre-post programme shifts:


And what about the investment required? Says Myburgh, “The initial investment is considerable, in both direct and opportunity cost. However the return, in both the short-and medium- term, far exceeds the investment. Broad-based business understanding is now an integral part of the culture of the organisation. Staff actually talk business and all current and future internal communications are facilitated by this understanding of - even passion for – business.”

Andrew Hofmeyr (BA, HDE (PG), BEd. Med, MBA) lectured in educational theory at the Johannesburg College of Education and the University of the Witwatersrand from 1977 to 1992. During that time he studied research methodology and educational technology on an international fellowship at the University of Surrey, UK. He is a founder member of Business Education Design, whose training programmes are used by leading corporations and business schools in  South Africa and the USA. He can be contacted at andrew@bused.co.za and at the Business Education Design website www.bused.co.za.


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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