Focus inward before reaching outside: the importance of internal communication for marine organizations

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By Toni Parras, Communications Professional, toniparras [at]

I know, it sounds like the title to a self-help book, but it’s true.  I’ve seen it time and again – organizations expend vast amounts of resources to promote themselves before they’ve even cultivated and internalized their image within their own organization.  In this age of fast, and often social, media demands, it may be that we are rushing headlong into campaigning without fully understanding what it is we’re promoting. 

Branding is not just something for big corporations like Coca-Cola and Microsoft.  NGOs – whether in the marine or terrestrial realm – have to think about their image beyond simply having a nice logo.  Their image, values and messages must be well-integrated into the organization's operations and staff’s mindset. 

Think about it: how many people in your organization know its mission and vision statements?  Does your organization have a Style Guide that outlines correct logo and tagline usage?  (Do you even have a tagline?)  How many times have you seen a variation of your logo that you thought perhaps didn’t match what the organization intended (different color, altered orientation, skewed proportions)?  Is there a standard PowerPoint template, or when different staff from your organization give presentations, the look and feel are so different that you’d think they all work for different institutions? 

Does leadership and staff keep each other informed of activities, ideas and announcements, or is there an assumption that “everyone knows”?  I can guarantee you – if you’re simply assuming and not ensuring it, they don’t.

Even if your organization has a well-conceived brand, are staff and partners well-versed in it?  Could they cite your cause consistently?  Your history?  Your goals?  Does your organization have a standardized orientation for new staff and volunteers?  Is it carried out consistently?  According to the US Department of Labor, 25% of workers have only been with their company for less than a year.  That means they simply do not have the institutional knowledge of the organization and it is that much more imperative to have a go-to induction process.

In the end, it all boils down to communication.  And understanding what that means exactly.  People have come to me and said they need help with their organization’s communications.  I ask them what specifically about their communications they need help with, and there is such a broad range of answers: we need to develop our brand identity, we need coordination between our partners, we need to get our story out, we need help developing products.  But rarely do I hear “we need to get our internal communications on track.”  But that is the first thing that needs to be done.

Okay, so first things first.  What exactly is communication?  Below are some excerpts from different communication strategies I’ve prepared for various organizations.  The first addresses just that question.  Then we’ll get into how best to do it.

What is Communication?

  • "The exchange of thoughts, messages or information by speech, signals, writing or behavior."
  • "Interpersonal rapport (a relationship based on mutual understanding and trust)."
  • "The art and technique of expressing ideas effectively."
  • "The transmission of information through various means, such as advertising, broadcasting, or journalism."

These are some of the various definitions found in dictionaries to define the term "communication."  Each one of these concepts plays an important part in how members communicate within and outside an organization.  These must first be tackled internally before attempting (or expecting) meaningful communication with external audiences.

Simply because an organization is engaged in communication does not mean it is communicating well.  Bad communication can be just as damaging – or more so – than no communication at all.  The following “musts” are essential to carrying out effective communication within your organization.

Communication Musts

  • You must have a clear mission before embarking on a communication strategy.  How do you know what to say if you don't know what you're doing? 
  • Communication goals must be measurable and obtainable; they cannot be too broad.  How do you know if you've succeeded in reaching your goal if you can't measure it?  (You also need processes in place to make sure the measuring is happening, but that is another blog post altogether.)
  • Messages must be clear.  If people don't understand what you're trying to say, they will likely dismiss it, or worse, misinterpret it and behave in a way you did not intend.  When communicating a new idea, project or goal, ask for or even require feedback to ensure that the audience understands it.
  • Communication must be compelling.  Nowadays people are subject to information overload; they have little time to filter through the mass of messages being bombarded at them daily.  In order to capture people's attention, communication must be rousing in both content and delivery.  Yes, this includes internal communication – don’t assume that because they must read the company memo, they will; after all, you are competing for your people’s attention just like everyone else.
  • Communication must be consistent.  Much of what people hear tends to go in one ear and out the other.  Communication must be reliable and occur regularly for messages to take hold.
  • Communication must consist of ongoing review and modification.  Communication is a two-way process.  It requires constant evaluation, feedback and adjustments to be effective.  If there is no feedback, it isn't communication.
  • Communication must be well-integrated into an organization's operations.  Open communication amongst an organization's members helps everyone do their job more effectively and better play their roles in achieving the organization’s goals.  It also creates a positive culture of mutual trust and respect.
  • Communication and conduct must match.  Every member of an organization is an ambassador of its cause; personal behavior is a direct reflection of the organization itself.  To uphold the organization's integrity, each individual’s actions must reflect the organization’s messages and values.

In one of my future posts, I will get more into addressing external communication.  In the meantime, take a peek inside.

Toni Parras, Communications Professional
Specializes in helping organizations improve their efforts through sound communication and evaluation; exploring innovative approaches to creating awareness, influencing behavior and evaluating efforts; and incorporating information design, photography, video and storytelling into marine management, conservation and education efforts.  Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect upon any bodies with which she may be associated.
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