How to be more strategic: Channels

Post by Lee Smith, Director of Gatehouse Communications

Monday 18 February 2019

We’re now half way through our 12 part blog series on strategic internal communication and it’s finally time to turn our attention to an area we all know and love – channels.


Choosing and using channels is bread and butter for us internal communicators, but we don’t always step back to consider what channels we need, how they relate to each other and how and where we should be deploying them to best effect.


Channels come in all shapes and sizes, from large-scale corporate events to desk drops and flyers; from intranets to chat bots. Arguably for something to be a channel, it has to have a distribution method built into it – so video without a delivery platform is just content.


We have experienced a digital channel explosion in recent years. The channel landscape inside organisations has shifted in line with external media, and as social media has taken hold, we’ve seen the rise of the enterprise social network. As mobile devices have become more and more central to our lives, so too have many organisations embraced apps and mobile-enabled platforms.


But whilst organisations are increasingly adopting a digital-first approach, research shows these channels aren’t always effective.


I would always argue that face-to-face is king. When you need to land a difficult or complex message, guarantee a group of people have a consistent communication experience, convey emotion or spark a conversation, it’s the obvious choice.


According to Gatehouse’s latest State of the Sector study, face-to-face channels are both widely used and highly effective. Despite being expensive – not only to stage but also in terms of the employee time they eat – big ‘set piece’ events like all employee conferences and town hall events have weathered the global financial storm well and, where other channels have been pared back, these have largely remained in place.


Team meetings and briefings are a critical part of the communication mix for many, but our experience running IC audits underlines that they suffer from variable quality. If they happen at all. The challenge here, as with most face-to-face channels, is that we rely on other human beings to deliver them. Over the last decade the number one blocker to communication success – according to State of the Sector – has been ‘poor line manager communication skills’. Just because we have the channel, doesn’t mean it works well – which is precisely why it’s so important to audit them every now and again.


Similarly, just because a channel is out of favour doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. Print-based channels, for instance, can be incredibly effective.


Employee magazines – once an IC staple – are now used by less than half of internal communicators globally and yet they do things other channels cannot. In terms of portability, magazines are the ultimate take-anywhere channel – no worries about devices, data usage or deployment. And certain types of content can be consumed far more effectively in print, feature articles in particular.


Considering channel types


Before selecting specific channels you need to consider the broad types of channels you should have in place. In the last post, we introduced the Gatehouse 6As model as a useful framework for considering the communication journey we need to take employees on – from awareness and appreciation, action and advocacy. It’s helpful to consider that model in the light of channels too – as some channels are clearly more geared toward driving awareness and understanding (think posters and intranet content), while others are powerful when it comes to influencing behaviours (think face-to-face and, potentially, social).


One of our clients buckets their channels in four ways.


They have:


  • The core ‘centrepiece’ channels
  • Face-to-face channels
  • In-depth channels
  • ‘Buzz’ channels.


That’s another interesting way of looking at it – first identify your core must-have IC ‘plumbing’, then identify the channels that provide an emotional and human connection, allow you to deliver more detailed information and/or create a buzz internally, through comments, shares and likes.


At the same time, it’s vital you think about the specific needs of your audience (if you missed it, see my last post on audience segmentation). Employees who are out and about, for instance, will have very different needs to those in a call centre or office environment – so you also need to ensure you identify the right channels for your audience. It’s also critical that you have in place all the channels you need to take your them on that communication journey.


Creating channel ‘blue prints’


In our client work in this area we recommend developing a series of channel ‘blue prints’ – a process which forces you to think more strategically about your channels.


This work often follows an IC or Channel Audit, which identifies what’s working and isn’t working. These blue prints cover the following:



  • What specific role will this channel play in the internal communication mix?
  • Where does this channel fit in relation to the Gatehouse 6As model – what part of the journey does it support?


  • What specific audience groups will be reached?
  • How, when and where will each group access this channel?


  • How often will this channel be deployed?
  • How often will content be updated?
  • What shelf life does it need?
  • Will it be locked to a specific timetable or cycle of activity?
  • Does it have to precede or follow another channel?


  • What types of content (long or short text, audio, video, graphical?) will feature on this channel?
  • What is the optimum balance of content (e.g. if a mix of group, division and local)?
  • Who will contribute content?

Ownership & governance

  • Who will own and manage this channel?
  • How will consistency be maintained?
  • What kind of governance is necessary for this channel?

Standards & protocols

  • How will you ensure content is high quality?
  • If a set of guidelines are created for this channel, how will you ensure these are being followed?
  • What protocols will be put in place and how will they be enforced?

Feedback & measurement

  • How can this channel be used to capture feedback or listen to employees?
  • What will happen to that feedback?
  • How will you demonstrate you have responded?
  • How will we know if this channel is effective?
  • What specific measures or KPIs would you recommend?
  • Are there any useful analytics or output measures that are provided as part of this channel (particularly important for digital channels)?

Resource requirements

  • What resources (people, time, money) are needed to support this channel?
  • What input is needed from other teams and functions (e.g. IT)?


You can use this framework as a checklist to create your own channel blue prints.


Pulling it all together


Once you have considered each individual channel, it’s time to pull together your thinking into a channel framework or matrix – the sort of thing you can share with senior leaders or include as part of your strategy.


At Gatehouse we consider this sort of document to be one of the basic ingredients of strategic IC – and yet, according to this year’s State of the Sector study, less than half of internal communicators have one. It might well be in your head, but if it isn’t written down or captured clearly, it won’t help you be seen internally as more robust and professional.


Over the years I have seen many variations, but most of them boil down to a fairly simple landscape-format document capturing the target audience, a brief description of the channel, its purpose, content and frequency. These are the headings you want as a bare minimum, but feel free to adapt as you see fit to create a structure that’s right for you. Sometimes these documents are adapted to create channel guides which are shared with all employees.


Armed with your blue prints and channel matrix, you can be much more confident about how, when and where to deploy your tactics, what content goes where, how you will measure impact and where to invest your time and energy.



About Lee

Lee Smith is co-founder of London-based internal communication agency Gatehouse, a Gallagher company. As part of a Fortune 500 business with offices in 33 countries, he advises some of the world’s biggest and most complex organisations on how to engage, motivate and inspire their employees.

He has spent more than half his life in the communication business – a career that has spanned nearly three decades, covered both internal and external communication disciplines and in-house and agency roles.

He is a Fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Institute of Internal Communication.


More in this series by Lee:

Part 1 – Hardwiring internal comms to organisational goals

Part 2 – How to be more strategic

Part 3 –The power of insight

Part 4 –Messaging

Part 5 – Know your audience