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The communications/change dynamic

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Internal communications and change are natural bedfellows. After all, the majority of IC is focused around change of some kind. Lately, however, there has been some blurring of the lines, particularly in the development of change roles, so it is important to understand why they should still be two distinct disciplines that require their own skillsets, however complementary. This blog looks at the importance of getting the right communications expertise as part of your change programme.


Change is part of everyday life for most organisations but sometimes it is so fundamental and critical that it needs to be carefully planned for and managed to ensure a successful delivery and outcome. In recent years the area of change management has grown rapidly, evolving from project or programme management to something far more holistic. Of course, project management still has a role to play in change management but it is now about taking a broader look, beyond the spreadsheets and risk analysis to focus on the wider organisational change impacts and how to manage these.

To help define this new area better, I spoke to Paul Arnold, independent business and leadership transformation consultant: “Change, and change management, are terms that are so commonly used in business nowadays that we find we need to define our view of it so as to avoid any confusion. Change Management is the discipline of managing the effect of change on people in an organisation, and their customers. Simply put, it is about looking after the people-side of change.

“We use a simple hurdle question to test this – as a result of your project, will people need to perform or behave differently? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a change management need.”

With such a broader, people-focused approach, it is no surprise there are overlaps with internal communications, as there are with other disciplines, such as HR. However, that is not to say that change managers must become communications or HR experts. Their role is to understand the change and its impacts, and then draw support from these other disciplines in order to deliver the right outcomes and ensure a smooth transition into BAU.


So where does that leave the role of IC? Many people, myself included, believe that the majority of what is thought of as ‘BAU’ internal communications is already change communications to a greater or lesser extent. With the exception of information sharing/referencing, most activities undertaken by an average internal communications team are usually generated because some form of change is taking place. Perhaps where it becomes 'change comms', using Paul's definition, it when it is part of a coordinated change management approach. When this happens on a more strategic level, then greater consideration needs to be given to the way in which communications are managed outside of the BAU remits.

As mentioned at the beginning, it has become common of late to lump communications in with the change manager’s role, but this does not give it the importance and expertise it requires during these critical programmes. A change manager will not usually have the depth of experience, knowledge or skill to develop a complex communications programme at such a strategic level, and nor should they, since this crucial workstream requires an intensive focus that would distract change managers from the managing the broader programme. Change communications often involve a number of stakeholder audiences that will need to be carefully mapped in order to deliver consistent but nuanced messages using the appropriate channels whilst avoiding message conflict and resulting confusion.

Most important of all is to develop one overarching narrative that can act as a silver thread, weaving through all the different messages so that they join up and make sense. Ensuring clear, straightforward and meaningful communications is never more critical during times of significant change, such as business mergers or transformations, new system or process roll out, culture change, rebrands or market repositioning. These are not situations where organisations should be relying on someone without significant knowledge and experience of delivering multifaceted, strategic communications programmes.


“Communications is critical to any change management programme” says Paul, “and therefore it is important to have someone skilled in this area, who understands how to develop the programmes narrative and then use the right approach to deliver it, within your change management team.”

The communications specialist may already be found in your organisation – often it is great opportunity for an existing communications manager to get exposure of more strategic work, or to allow a team member a chance to develop more specialised knowledge and skills. Should this approach be taken, their position will need to be backfilled whilst they are seconded to the programme, or some BAU tasks are rescheduled or stopped to account for the change in prioritisation whilst the change is delivered. The alternative option is to hire some external support on a contract basis, which will allow you to potentially bring in more senior expertise and relevant change communications experience not currently found in your organisation. Your decision as to which option to select should not only be dependent on budget and existing resources, but should also account for the importance of the change, the timescales and the level of expertise required.

Whichever option is selected, the key is to ensure that the change manager and change communications specialist roles are clearly defined to ensure they have a distinctly separate, albeit complementary, remit in order to gain the maximum value from these key players in your change management approach.

Are you about to start or currently in the middle of a change management programme? If so, how have you resourced it? Please share your thoughts below or if you would like to discuss a similar challenge further please do get in touch. To receive alerts for when new blog posts are released, please provide your details on the right, or follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.