There was a time when we assumed our communication with internal and external audiences could be neatly compartmentalized. It was simple (we thought): One message for employees, another message for external stakeholders. Even in the pre-digital era, of course, that assumption was mistaken.

While we need to tailor our messages to specific audiences, we also have to expect that those messages will be shared. I still recall the reaction when employees at a company I worked for first heard about ‘bad news’ in the Wall Street Journal. We were disappointed and dismayed. Trust in the company’s leadership took at hit.

The emotional dimension of brand

The fact is that an organization’s brand often ‘lives’ in the hearts and minds of its stakeholders, internal and external.

Almost ten years ago, Kathryn Yates, then the global communication practice leader at Watson Wyatt (now Watson Towers) discussed the need – more accurately the imperative – of a consistent inside/outside brand. She made the point that organizations often work very hard to build an internal value proposition that can engage employees and make them feel as if they play a key role in delivering the brand promise to customers. For these employees, the “brand is like coming home.” That’s why consistent brand messages are imperative.

When internal becomes external

In our digital era, the blurring of audiences has become even more pronounced. Nothing illustrates this more dramatically than the recent walk-out of Wayfair employees protesting the company’s sale of merchandise to migrant detention centers. Publicly, the company had no comment. Many employees, in contrast, were quite vocal about their feelings – amplified on social media.

As quoted in Marketwatch (2019), Anjali Lai, an analyst at Forrester, had this to say: “The crux of the issue is that Wayfair is turning a blind eye to its values-driven employees in the name of doing business as usual,” Lai said. “Both employees and consumers are increasingly demanding that brands pick a side and stand for something, because there is no longer such thing as neutral ground” (para. 17).

Applying lessons learned

So what is an organization’s leadership to do? columnist Minda Zetlin notes a range of options to consider in addressing employee activism. One approach is to explain the organization’s position, which may not be popular with employee activists, but at least is candid and transparent. Another is to change course. A third is to involve employees in the decision-making process. For instance, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff “established an internal group with employee representatives to help make decisions about who the company would and wouldn’t sell to. On the basis of that group’s recommendations, Salesforce’s sales to the Border Patrol went ahead” (, 2019, para. 9).

The tactics, of course, will vary depending on the situation. But recognizing the link between an organization’s external brand and its employee brand is the first step in deciding what action to take and how to communicate it. This is a communication lesson that leaders and communication professionals should not have to learn the hard way!

Does your organization do a good job of synchronizing its brand messages?

Posted by Carl Zangerl, Faculty