Change is hard: how to successfully make the switch from internal to external communications

February 20, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • I previously wrote about the challenges for marketers taking over communications but making a switch from an internal to an external comms role is equally difficult.
  • Communicators will actually be hampered by the similarity of the processes and procedures because these mask significant differences in the work itself.
  • Communicators switching to an external role need to be mindful of the different stakeholders and perspectives to consider plus some new procedural challenges.


I recently wrote about the challenges a marketer will face when they’re thrust into a communications role, particularly in a crisis. They have to perform a rapid transition, switching from a focus on brand – how the company wants to be seen – to reputation – how others see it. 

This requires a significant change of perspective but one that can be overcome with some foresight and planning. So although my piece was titled “A Marketer walks into a crisis…”, instead of being the set up for a joke, it was meant to help marketers prepare for this likely eventuality.

However, not long after I finished the piece, I had a meeting that made me aware of a similar problem much closer to home. 

We were on a call with a company’s communications lead who had suddenly inherited the portfolio for all corporate communications: both internal and external. This was a challenge for them as their focus had been wholly internal until that point. Not only were they struggling to adapt to the unfamiliar demands of the external environment, but they were also finding that switching between the two was extremely difficult.

Communicator heal thyself,” I thought. Maybe making this switch wasn’t just a challenge for marketers.

But why would a communicator struggle to adapt from an internal perspective to an external one?

I identified several reasons that I think are worth highlighting but, before I cover these, I want to underline where communicators are most likely to get themselves into hot water. 

Put simply, the difficulty arises from the similarity of the work. 

Whether you are working on internal or external communications, the skills, tools, and processes you use will be identical. That can lead to a false assumption that because the work feels the same, that it is to the same end. It’s probably similar for accountants who become auditors: the math will look very similar, but the purpose of the work is radically different. 

However,  you can’t conflate similarity of process with similarity of purpose: there are significant differences and you need to overcome these to make a successful transition.

The first big difference is your stakeholders. Your internal stakeholders are known and generally static: they aren’t likely to change very quickly. This makes it easier to develop an in-depth, granular knowledge of the internal stakeholders, often to the individual level. However, your external stakeholders are a shifting series of groups, many of whom will react to different situations in very different ways. That lack of a homogenous audience, and the need to identify, understand, and speak to multiple stakeholders simultaneously, is the most significant difference between internal and external communications. Matching strategy to expectations with such a broad set of people is extremely hard.

The second difference arises with the messaging itself. For better or worse, you will have a better idea of the effect of decisions, and the message you are delivering, with an internal audience. So whether it’s a pay increase or a series of layoffs, the impact on your internal stakeholders will be something you have a good sense of. However, your multiple external stakeholders are all likely to have a different reaction to your firm’s decisions and will react differently.

This also ties into my third point which concerns feedback. Even with an internal audience, you won’t be 100% sure of their reaction until you hear the response. However, feedback from an internal audience is significantly faster than that of an external group. You can hear the cheers or jeers right away in a staff town-hall meeting, but it could be days before you get a good sense of how the public has reacted to a new initiative. Plus, you have to sift through the different reactions of many different external groups: remember, their reactions aren’t the same. So understanding the external response is a significant challenge.

Finally, tight internal feedback loops help with faster decision-making and decision-adjustment. It’s much easier to ‘float’ an idea internally with casual conversations at the watercooler or on the fringes of meetings. Taking the temperature like this allows you to make an internal decision or roll out an in-house initiative in stages, adjusting as you go based on the feedback received. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option externally, where the feedback loops are much longer. Changing a decision based on external feedback is more akin to turning a supertanker than tacking a small yacht.  

Balancing the external and internal might sound like a significant challenge and it is. My advice to anyone responsible for both, like the client I mentioned earlier, is to appoint a lead for each. That way, instead of trying to ‘fast-switch’ between the two – something humans are bad at – you ensure that someone is solely focused on each audience. Otherwise, you need an exceptional level of skill and concentration to balance both, something I’ve rarely seen.

Seth Godin says that “reputation is what people expect us to do next. It’s their expectation of the quality and character of the next thing we produce or say or do.” That’s the same whether we are dealing with an internal or external audience. The difference is that the two environments and how you interact with them are very different. 

So although I was focussed on marketers in my other article, the need to shift mindset is something equally important for communicators. We have to treat the external as different from the internal, despite the similarities of the tools, processes, and skills required. 


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.