Are internal communications managers responsible for the rise of nationalism?

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In the 1800s, it was common for employees at the Post Office or Great Western Railway company to get married in their uniform

In any individual life, there is rarely enough to feel completely proud of, especially for those of us who haven’t founded a Silicon Valley start-up, developed a blockbuster vaccine or presented a reality TV show.

Taking pride in collective achievements is important because it lightens the oppressive burden we’d otherwise feel to ensure that our own individual attainments should always be stellar. For some, communal pride might come through religious institutions, for others, through football clubs. But it wasn’t too long ago that many more of us were able to take pride in another place – through our corporate identities.

It wouldn’t have been unusual in 1895 for an employee at the Post Office or Great Western Railway company to get married in their uniform, in the same way those in the military do today. That’s because the ideals of their company resonated deeply with the better nature of the employees. The Post Office or station master could justifiably feel proud of the company’s devotion to excellent service, professional dignity and commitment to reliability.

Back then it was possible for employees to see themselves as a participant in a grander, more noble enterprise. Profit was naturally still important, but the relentless and exhausting pursuit of it through short term quarterly targets was a long way off.

Things are very different now. Engagement at work is at an all time low. Gallup reports that around seven in eight employees feel little or no sense of engagement with what they are doing. Many feel their jobs are depressingly pointless. The idea of wearing the uniform of a railway company to a wedding could only now be seen as a cynical joke, perhaps only appropriate if there were unexpected delays to the service or a shortage of seats.

If an increasing number of us are no longer able to take pride in a broader corporate identity, it’s perhaps no coincidence that more of us are looking to take pride in the guise of national identity instead. Especially for those who have the narrowest opportunities in society, patriotic pride is an option that is always available – and one that will never let them down.

In the face of the crisis in employee engagement, we might expect internal communications teams to be sitting near the head of the corporate table. After all, they are the department entrusted with articulating the company’s mission in such a way as to motivate and inspire a sense of loyalty and commitment.

For a few organisations, internal communications teams face a near impossible challenge because their company is so far from operating in a way that could lay any claim to the deepest motives of their employees. Some indeed, such as a few of the discount airlines, take a perverse pride in ruthlessly putting profit far above the pursuit of any higher mission. But for most businesses, things aren’t so bad. The majority are set up to do something that in some way either makes our lives slightly better or diminishes our suffering. In a basic sense, that’s as true for a company producing sports equipment, shirts or kettles as it is for Greenpeace.

The trick is finding ways of defining and articulating that message in a way that helps employees understand where their contribution fits into the grander scheme of things and makes them feel, at least in a modest way, proud. That requires thinking further than an intranet post or the odd all staff email; the challenge for internal comms teams in terms of addressing employee engagement is undoubtedly a big one, but it’s never been more important.

Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.

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