Communicating with executives can be challenging for internal communicators. But the role of these people is absolutely essential, particularly when it comes to effective communication and showing executives the overall value of comms.
Table of contents
Executives often have packed schedules and limited bandwidth for information overload. Their preferred style may differ from yours, requiring adaptation and clarity. More often than not, a senior executive will prioritize concrete results and may not immediately see the value of communication efforts. Furthermore, quantifying the impact of communication and proving return on investment (ROI) can be complex.
Showing your ROI was one of the key points that Maddy Rieman, head of Customer Success at Cerkl, focused on when providing feedback about our recent workshop at the 11th Annual Strategic Internal Communications – West Conference in San Francisco.
She knows just how challenging this can be, having worked alongside executives for more than a decade.
“Most of the time internal communicators are seen by executives as admins or middlemen or women acting for the leadership team,” says Maddy. “They aren’t recognized as active team members making strategic business decisions. Their value perspectives are often different, because they prioritize short-term financial returns, while the value of communication might lie in long-term brand reputation or employee retention. As a result, they often have a hard time showing their value to leadership based on the comms they are sending.”
Another issue is that a senior executive might be concerned that focusing solely on ROI reduces communication to a cost-benefit analysis, overlooking its broader strategic value.
Importance of Internal Communication
As a key player at Cerkl, Maddy knows how important internal communication is. As head of Customer Success, she has first-hand experience working with thousands of internal communicators all over the globe. She also knows how important it is to show corporate executives the ROI of Internal Communications and the value their work brings to their organization.
“Internal communicators are the heart of any organization,” says Maddy. “They are responsible for disseminating corporate strategy, helping build awareness around change management, fostering collaboration, and facilitating an incredible employee experience. However, one of the biggest hurdles I see most internal communicators face is being able to show the ROI of their key initiatives. Helping our clients develop strategies that focus on the bottom line to the business, is one of my team’s primary objectives. The moment an internal communicator begins tying their work to result-based outcomes, you see them become one of leadership’s most coveted strategic partners.”
Ongoing Research Supports the Importance of ROI
According to the ContactMonkey Global State of Internal Communications 2023 report, internal communications’ ROI is one of the top two internal communications trends. It acknowledges that the function of ROI “holds a high value to leadership and employees.” It also states that 55% of respondents say ROI is key. But, internal communicators find it difficult to build a strong case for increased budgets and more resources, because they don’t have a way to showcase its impact.
Workshop’s 2024 Internal Communication Trends Report shows that 38% of their survey respondents are facing challenges in convincing leadership and stakeholders about the value of their efforts. When they can’t do this, they don’t secure support for investing in new tools that can bring about meaningful improvements to the company.
Gallagher’s State of the Sector 2023/24 Internal Communication and Employee Experience survey found that 27% of respondents believe the lack of leadership buy-in is one of their biggest challenges. Their report states that businesses aren’t recognizing the value and importance of communications, and communicators are being left out of decision-making and not seen as strategic.
However, the report also shows that communicators who used measurement insights as evidence of value, or to prove ROI to leaders, are much more influential than those who don’t. The report shows that:
- 47% of strategic communicators are using measurement to influence leadership.
- Manager performance ratings are higher when communicators are “strategic”.
- Communicators within smaller organizations are the “most strategic.”
Furthermore, an increasing eagerness to provide ROI is driving demand for measurement, with 84% of respondents wanting to measure comprehensively or more often. Still, there are recurring challenges for a large percentage of respondents. For example:
- 58% lack time and resources
- 41% lack metrics
- 38% lack the technology and tools to collate and analyze metrics
Challenges when Communicating with Executives
You may have heard there’s never been a more important time to be an internal communicator. But, it can be complicated because communicating with executives can vary according to their position. For example, communicating with C-level executives is very different from communicating with executive vice presidents (VPs), senior VPs, and the full range of other VPs from those who deal with finance to those who focus on customer services. Then the focus and priorities change right around when dealing with managers, functional heads, and managing directors. And the size, industry, and organizational structure of companies also impact the scenario.
Generally, communicating with C-level executives (CEOs, CFOs, and COOs) requires a more formal approach. They are typically less interested in finer details and more concerned with broader strategic issues, the impact on the bottom line, and potential long-term consequences.
Other executives may have a narrower focus related to their specific departments or areas of responsibility. They may be more interested in operational details and specific solutions within their domain.
Internal communicators are expected to communicate effectively with all these people. The key is to frame your communication in a language that C-suite or other senior executives will embrace. After all, if you talk and think like a business owner, the C-suite will notice. Better yet, if you perform like one, the C-suite will love you.
What Communicators Often Don’t Know or Don’t Realize
Effective communication is key when it comes to communicating with executives, particularly when sharing the value and ROI on internal comms. But, communicators don’t always know how to communicate effectively.
Ironically, as Maddy points out, “They are in a unique spot to provide the ROI/context needed to show their value. It’s just how they can connect those dots to get themselves there.”
One useful piece of advice is to focus on activities rather than outcomes. Rather than presenting the quantity of efforts – e.g. the number of emails sent or events organized – focus on the quality of communications and their impact on business. Executives are primarily concerned with the bottom line and the strategic impact of initiatives. Communicators need to translate their activities into quantifiable results that demonstrate how internal communication contributes to achieving organizational goals.
It’s also essential to align communications strategies with the overall business goals and objectives of the organization. Demonstrating how internal communication supports strategic priorities, such as improving employee engagement, driving cultural change, or boosting productivity, strengthens this alignment and justifies investment.
Showing ROI on Internal Communication
When it comes to internal communication ROI, measurement can seem elusive. This commonly leads to questions about the value of effective internal communications. It is important to understand the financial impact of communications, showcasing the inherent value it brings to your organization — and the losses ineffective internal communication can cause. By understanding the ROI of communications, decision-makers can grasp the benefits and value-added from communications investments.
But it’s up to communicators to be preemptive. Understanding the challenges and opportunities involved is a good way to start.
“Strategic communicators set objectives, plan ahead and reflect on their progress along the way. They are careful not to focus purely on quantitative data, understanding instead the nuance gleaned from speaking to people.” Sharn Kleiss, Gallagher strategy partner, Employee Experience & Insights
When it comes to determining the ROI for communications investments, there are several potential issues, all of which present challenges.
- Quantifying the impact: Measuring the direct impact of internal communications on financial outcomes can be challenging. The impact of internal communications is often indirect and difficult to quantify. It can involve changes in employee behavior, engagement, productivity, and retention. These values are not often easily translated into financial metrics.
- Time lag: The effects of internal communications initiatives may take time to show measurable results. Determining the evaluation period of the communication ROI might be difficult. It can be challenging to distinguish the impact of internal communications initiatives and other factors influencing employee performance or business outcomes.
- Multiple variables: Internal communications efforts typically involve multiple channels, tactics, and messages. Understanding the impact of one initiative and determining its contribution to ROI can be difficult.
- Lack of standardized metrics: There are no standard metrics for measuring internal communications, so it can be challenging to come up with a rigorous approach. Unique goals and objectives should also be considered when evaluating ROI.
Research shows that good internal communication is a key driver of an organization’s financial performance. This creates a great opportunity for communicators.
By helping executives recognize the crucial role communication plays in fostering employee engagement and commitment, communicators can enable organizations to unlock their full potential and increase their market value.
There is an undeniable connection between high ROI and effective communication practices. By cultivating a culture of open dialogue, transparency, and alignment with organizational goals, companies can enhance employee commitment and engagement.
But, to harness the full potential of the internal communication return on investment, communicators must embrace a strategic approach. This is clear from the Gallagher report quoted earlier.
Maddy says that typically she gets asked things like, “How can I show the value in the comms I am sending on behalf of leadership?” Or, “I feel like things wouldn’t get done without the comms strategy we are rolling out, but we don’t get much of the praise/accolade when things go well.” This is because they typically focus on when things don’t go well, rather than taking the opportunity to share success stories.
Don’t focus on wanting to simply get a specific message out. Rather, ask what result they hope to achieve with the delivery of certain communications. Her advice is to, “Look for tangible results that you can help tie a campaign or specific comms to.”
7 Strategies for Communicating with Executives Effectively
Here are seven proven strategies for effective communication.
#1 Identify Key Priorities and Concerns of Executives
If the executives you deal with have a profit center vs. cost-center mindset (which most do), it’ll pay to adopt the same mindset.
At ConAgra Brands, the CEO and his communication leader, Theresa Paulsen, adopted a value proposition for comms: “Our work will help the company make money or save money. If it doesn’t make or save money, we won’t do it.” Sounds dramatic? Yes, but it is sure to get your leaders’ attention.
Start your “show them the money” approach by leveraging the Cerkl ROI calculator to demonstrate how a streamlined employee experience actually impacts the bottom line. Pull them in by showing that the company is leaving money on the table without a clear strategy.
#2 Analyze Communication Preferences and Styles
Any good business plan starts with an assessment of the landscape. An internal communications strategy is no different. Internal interviews, insights from HR surveys, benchmarking, employee comms data from Broadcast, and business leader discussions are great places to start. Then, take these tools and work with your cross-functional colleagues to prepare a SWOT Analysis. This tool helps you identify actionable insights through a structured process to uncover strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in the internal communications space.
A SWOT analysis can be great fodder for a second session with senior management and will help you with communicating with C-level executives. Just be ready to discuss indicated actions – the answers to the “so what?” and “what are you going to do with it?” questions. Do this, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a business advisor and strategist, as well as a skilled communication tactician.
#3 Craft Messages that Resonate with Executive Audiences
Maddy encourages internal communicators to use leadership’s verbiage and buzzwords when pitching a new idea/campaign. This, she says, is because “people love to hear their own words used in context.”
This is exactly what you need when selling the value and ROI to executives.
#4 Use Contextual Comparisons when Providing Data to Leadership
C-suite executives are data people. There’s no better way to validate your actions than by using supporting facts and figures.
Not only is it important in the planning stages of new initiatives you are trying to push forth, but producing and regularly presenting data such as your Open Rate and Click-Through-Rate (CTR) will confirm your theories and showcase your results.
Your strategic planning can save the company loads of money, so make sure the higher-ups are aware of your triumphs.
When sharing data, be ready with industry averages and other benchmarking stats that help busy executives understand how well you are doing. Consider delivering the data points in quick sound bytes. Your CEO will love to repeat these in his or her next board meeting or investor luncheon.
As Maddy points out, saying “this comms/campaign got X% open rate or Y% CTR doesn’t give them the contextual information they need to understand how this might stand up to other comms similar or send in the past.” Instead say, “We saw that this campaign/comms gained three times more traction over comms similar in nature.”
#5 Identify Relevant Metrics and Key Performance Indicators
While there are no standard metrics for measuring internal communications, it’s important to try and identify relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and try to find both quantitative and qualitative ways to measure achievements.
First, you need to know what your communication goals are. They may include increased employee engagement, enhanced cultural alignment, boosted employee morale, and positive change management. Then you can track progress by analyzing the reach and delivery of messages via email, intranet, and employee apps. You can assess engagement with communication with click-through rates, participation in polls or surveys, and response rates to calls to action. You can also gauge employee comprehension of messages through knowledge quizzes, post-communication surveys, and focus groups.
When choosing KPIs, focus on data that will help you make informed decisions and improve communication strategies. You also want KPIs that will directly measure progress towards your defined communication goals.
Existing data sources in your organization can also be useful. For example, there may be data from learning management systems, HR systems, employee surveys, and an internal communication platform that you can leverage.
#6 Tailor Appropriate Communication Plans
When communicators tailor communication plans, it’s important to ensure that they help executives understand the ROI of internal communications. Communication plan ideas include:
- Executive briefings: Present a comprehensive overview of internal communication initiatives, highlighting their impact and showing how they align with executive priorities.
- Monthly ROI dashboard: Provide executives with a regular, easily accessible overview of key metrics and KPIs as best as possible. Show how these connect to business outcomes.
- Shadowing opportunities: Offer executives a chance to experience internal channels and employee perspectives. Organize focus group discussions that enable employees to give feedback directly to executives.
- Case study showcase: Highlight successful communication initiatives and show their tangible impact on the organization.
#7 Choose the Most Appropriate Channels for Communicating with Executives
Measuring the impact and ROI of internal communication initiatives can be challenging. These efforts are multifaceted and often involve a diverse mix of channels, tactics, and messages.
Executives are typically busy and prefer concise, data-driven information presented in a clear and efficient format. So, be sure to consider their information needs and preferences. Also, respect their time. Schedule meetings strategically, keep them concise, and ensure the agenda is clear and relevant to their needs.
Choose channels that effectively support your specific communication objectives. For example, use executive summaries, short video updates, internal newsletters for broader updates, and one-on-one meetings or confidential reports for sensitive information.
Utilize internal communication platforms, secure messaging apps, or collaboration tools to facilitate efficient communication and real-time updates.
For urgent or complex matters, consider more direct and personalized channels like phone calls, face-to-face meetings, or video conferences to ensure immediate attention and clearer understanding.
How Broadcast Can Help to Communicate More Effectively
Maddy highlights ways that Cerkl Broadcast can help improve communications and make it more effective.
- Broadcast enables communicators to build custom dashboards to access real-time metrics whenever necessary.
- Communicators can use Broadcast Campaigns to group comparable communications that allow for comparative reporting.
- They can use existing Broadcast metrics to provide insights and show comparisons based on the national average, companies of the same size, or organizations from the same industry.
When you sign up with Cerkl Broadcast, you will meet with your dedicated customer success manager who will help shape your data stories when presenting to leadership or anyone outside of your comms team. It’s a winner!
Are you ready to take your journey communicating with executives further? There’s a whole lot more information for you in this internal communications resource.
Want this ten-part series in your inbox? Subscribe below to our emails!
To communicate effectively with executives, it’s crucial to be concise, and confident, and to focus on delivering key messages that align with their strategic objectives.
Interacting with C-level executives requires professionalism, preparation, and the ability to articulate value propositions clearly. It also requires an ability to succinctly address their high-level concerns and priorities.
Making connections with executives often involves networking strategically, demonstrating genuine interest in their work, and showcasing how your expertise can contribute to their goals.