The Three ‘Non-Negotiables’ of Internal Communications

By Ryan Flynn

While proactive and targeted media campaigns will always be critical components of any organization’s strategic communications operations, OpenAI’s botched leadership restructuring last year highlights the importance of effective teamwide messaging. The unnecessary drama that unfolded surrounding Sam Altman’s employment status underscored that modern workers’ trust in their employers is tied directly to the C-suite’s commitment to transparency and consideration of key stakeholder sentiment – and further demonstrated what happens when poor messaging severs that trust.

Understanding how to maintain employee morale and confidence has never been more important to long-term teamwide success. We routinely have seen that the most effective internal communications strategies elicit responses that help drive an organization forward. Whether explaining a marked shift in strategic thinking or navigating difficult conversations surrounding a reduction in force, there are three “non-negotiables” when executing productive internal communications initiatives.

  1. Deliver the news directly from the source – not through the grapevine.
    When delivering an announcement that will alter the course of an organization’s future, leaders are often operating under circumstances such that their employees, investors, clients, commercial partners, and other key stakeholders will be at least partly surprised by the news. Because these directives are often communicated during periods of increased organizational stress, it is critical that affected individuals both inside and outside the company learn the news directly from senior leadership, not via the press or through rumor and speculation.

    Although OpenAI’s board of directors accomplished this objective when announcing Sam Altman’s termination, there were several other critical strategic failures that led to this unique communications disaster.

  2. Clearly present the facts.
    While crafting the right language and setting the proper tone are principal elements of any teamwide messaging, it is essential that leaders provide their colleagues with as much accurate and relevant information as possible.

    When OpenAI’s board announced Mr. Altman’s firing, their teamwide note failed to cite any indicators of poor performance beyond “communication issues.” This messaging failed to provide a direct, comprehensive summary of the facts, which has routinely proven to be the best approach to avoid the worst-case scenario – having to immediately reverse a decision or issue an organization-wide follow-up to correct the record.

  3. Understand – and empathize with – potential stakeholder reactions while making your case.
    While the OpenAI board’s failure to provide any firm reasoning was a key component of this internal messaging debacle, their apparent disregard of potential reactions from key internal and external stakeholders ultimately forced them to quickly reverse course.

    This incident exemplifies that the most effective internal messaging anticipates and addresses head-on the potential consequences, both positive and negative, rather than ignoring or dismissing inevitable concerns. Such communications must also make the case for why announced changes will benefit the entire organization. These core elements of a productive internal communications operation help address stakeholder questions in a manner that conveys leadership’s understanding of the organization’s goals and the current mindset of the rest of the team.

As the OpenAI story has proven, a company’s reputation is often defined by the steps taken and words spoken during moments of upheaval and uncertainty. In the current professional and media environment, first impressions are paramount and getting your message right the first time can be the difference between an organization’s successful transition – or bumbling into its next chapter.