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Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 223–230
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Public Relations Review
Internal communication: Definition, parameters, and the future夽
Ana Tkalac Verčič a,1 , Dejan Verčič b,∗ , Krishnamurthy Sriramesh c,2
Marketing Department, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Zagreb, Trg J. F. Kennedyja 6, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia
Marketing Communication and Public Relations Department, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Kardeljeva pl. 5, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia
School of Communication, Journalism, and Marketing, Massey University, Private Bag 756, Wellington 6140, New Zealand
a r t i c l e
i n f o
Internal communication
Public relations
Corporate communication
Employee communication
Strategic communication
Communication management
Human resources
Internal marketing
Culture and internal communication
a b s t r a c t
As an organizational function, internal communication is gaining in importance, meriting
a special issue on the topic. This importance is evident in many recent efforts among practitioners in Europe and the US to seek recognition of this field as an independent domain.
Scholarship on internal communication has not kept pace with these initiatives. This introduction to the special issue addresses several key issues related to this topic and presents
findings from a Delphi study of the leaders of European associations on internal communication. Results of the study are fuzzy: respondents see internal communication as
interdisciplinary management function integrating elements of human resources management, communication and marketing, but at the same time they see it primarily as a part of
the organization’s communication function that is simultaneously managerial and technical. However, they contend that internal communication is an independent research field.
© 2012 Published by Elsevier Inc.
1. Introduction
Internal communication is among the fastest growing specializations in public relations and communication management. Its rise began in the 1990s in the US and spread thereafter to Europe growing strength in the new millennium. A host
of factors such as globalization, deregulation, and economic crises brought with them permanent restructuring, downsizing,
outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions and other kinds of more or less creative destruction. These further resulted in a drastic
reduction of trust employees have in management leading to lower employee loyalty despite the increased need for the
strategic management of a workforce that has been growing more diverse. Among the more competitive labor markets of
Asia also, emotional engagement with employers has become an issue that demands deliberate management from organizational leaders. In short, internal communication has emerged as a critical function for organizations and thereby meriting
recognition as a specialty in itself.
The recognition of the importance of internal communication has resulted in a series of initiatives aimed at understanding
and analyzing the field and advocating it as an independent domain. In 2010, practitioners of internal communication in the UK set up the Institute of Internal Communication ( as a separate entity from the Chartered
夽 The authors would like to thank Fraser Likely, a partner and president of Likely Communication Strategies Ltd., for helpful comments on the previous
version of the manuscript.
∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +386 1 23 91 444; fax: +386 1 23 91 210.
E-mail addresses: [email protected] (A. Tkalac Verčič), [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] (D. Verčič),
[email protected] (K. Sriramesh).
Tel.: +385 1 238 33 22.
Tel.: +64 4 801 5799x62402.
0363-8111/$ – see front matter © 2012 Published by Elsevier Inc.
A. Tkalac Verčič et al. / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 223–230
Institute of Public Relations (, which has a space for internal communicators under the title CIPR Inside
( In continental Europe, the Institute of Internal Communication
is leading a transformation of the Federation of European Business Communicators Associations ( into a
European association of internal communicators. A similar transformation is occurring in the US within the Council of
Communication Management ( All these recent initiatives point to the recognition that internal
communication is important and that it is a specialist domain unto itself.
However, scholarship on internal communication has not kept pace with these initiatives from practitioners, which
prompted us to set “internal communication” as the theme for the 18th International Public Relations Symposium (popularly
known as Bledcom) in 2011. The conference call for papers elicited a record number of submissions from both academics
and practitioners. Some of those papers, and others that emerged as a result of discussions during, and after, the conference
are included in this special issue. In this section, we offer our own perspectives on this topic as the Organizing Committee of
BledCom and co-editors of the special issue while also presenting results from a Delphi study of the eleven members of the
Federation of European Business Communicators Associations (FEIEA). We hope that these findings, and this special issue,
not only describe the status of the field but also serve as a catalyst for further research and debate on this topic in Europe
and globally.
2. Literature on internal communication
The paucity of scholarship on internal communication within the public relations domain is a glaring lacuna that ought
to be addressed. Communication is a central concept for organization and management theory (Thompkins, 1987) and much
of the nascent research on this topic has emerged from scholars of organizational communication (Goldhaber, 1993; Jablin
& Putnam, 2001; Jablin, Putnam, Roberts, & Porter, 1987) and organizational psychology (Drenth, Thierry, & de Wolf, 1988;
Lowenberg & Conrad, 1998; Schein, 1988). Researchers of human resource issues see communication as a management
tool (Heron, 1942; Fitz-enz, 1990; Lachotzki & Noteboom, 2005) while those interested in marketing perceive employees
as internal customers and therefore have developed internal marketing to interact with employees (Ahmed & Rafiq, 2002;
Dunmore, 2002; Gummesson, 2000).
The scant scholarship that exists on this subject in public relations views employees as internal stakeholders and so it
has developed internal public relations (Seitel, 1989) or simply internal relations (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006). Sowa (2005)
wrote: “partnerships must be built with internal stakeholders” (p. 433). If there is a difference between public relations and
corporate communication, that difference does not extend to the way the two fields view internal communication (Oliver,
1997; Cornelissen, 2008). Internal communication is an essential element of change management (Carnall, 1999; Clarke,
1994; Deetz, Tracy, & Simpson, 2000; Kanter, Stein, & Jick, 1992; Durig & Sriramesh, 2004).
We disagree with the assertion of Cheney and Christensen (2001) that the fluidity of organizational environments
demands internal and external communication to be integrated and that the difference between the two is becoming
meaningless or even misleading. Empirical studies in applied communication among contemporary organizations report
that internal communication is among the top five responsibility areas of public relations and communication management
practitioners. This finding is consistent for studies conducted in Europe and the USA (Lurati, Aldyukhov, Dixius, & Reinhold,
2010; Swerling et al., 2009; Zerfass, Tench, Verhoeven, Verčič, & Moreno, 2010). We find that in practice, internal communication is emerging as a specialization as evidenced by practitioner books on internal communication that have gone into
multiple editions in a short span of time (Quirke, 2008; Smyth & Mounter, 2008).
Kalla (2005) identified four domains within internal communication: business communication (concerned with communication skills of employees), management communication (focused on management skills and capabilities for communication),
corporate communication (focused on formal communication), and organizational communication (addressing more philosophical and theoretically oriented issues). Integrated internal communications subsume all four. While she uses the term in
the plural form (internal communications), Berger (2008) refers to it in the singular as employee/organizational communication. Welch and Jackson (2007) break down internal communication by stakeholder groups into four dimensions: internal
line management communication, internal team peer communication, internal project peer communication and internal corporate communication. Likely (2008, p. 15) based on a review of articles in the journal Strategic Communication Management
and other publications oriented to internal communication, conferences and fora reported that the internal communication
function operates five roles: “(1) communicator (reporter/facilitator/democrat); (2) educator (trainer/coach); (3) change
agent; (4) communication consultant with a small ‘c’ (operational performance and process advisor); and (5) organizational
strategist (relationship manager)”.
After a thorough literature review, Grunig (1992, p. 575) concluded: “In spite of all of this research, however, we emerge
from this section with little theoretical understanding of how internal communication makes organizations more effective”.
However, in the two decades since he made that statement, several scholars have provided empirical evidence on the positive
relationship between internal communication and organizational effectiveness (Hargie & Tourish, 1993; Dickinson, Rainey,
& Hargie, 2003; Quinn & Hargie, 2004; Robson & Tourish, 2005). Clampitt and Downs (1993) claim that the main benefits
of an internal communications audit include improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, higher quality of services and
products, increased levels of innovation, fewer strikes and reduced costs. Almost three decades ago, Snyder and Morris (1984)
found that two perceived communication variables (the quality of supervisory communication and information exchange
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within the peer work group) positively correlated with critical revenue and workload measures of overall organizational
3. Internal communication: a Delphi study in Europe
This literature review, the importance of this topic, and the lack of empirical research about it led the first two authors
to conduct a Delphi study to determine the perspectives of the topic among representatives of national associations in the
Federation of European Business Communicators Associations (FEIEA). We strongly feel that globalization requires us to
assess all issues from a cross-national and cross-cultural perspective. In 2010, the FEIEA had eleven member associations:
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the UK. The Czech Institute
of Internal Communication (IIK) became an associate member in 2011 with a prospect of becoming a full member in 2012.
The Delphi method has previously been used in public relations. White and Blamphin (1994) used it to study public relations
practice in the UK, while Wakefield (2000) used it to study international public relations. The largest Delphi study in public
relations was conducted in 1999 and 2000 as part of the European Public Relations Body of Knowledge (EBOK) seeking to
codify the existing body of public relations literature in Europe and to enable its fuller use and application unhindered by
linguistic, cultural and administrative barriers. Given the relative novelty of this field, we found it appropriate to use this
method and sent the first set of questions via in November 2010 requesting responses within a month. However, it took
four months to receive ten responses. Although our initial questions were in English, we received responses in English,
French, and German requiring us to translate them into English before analysis. Based on these responses, a closed-item
questionnaire was developed for a second Delphi round and distributed in June 2011 that elicited 8 responses. Based on
these responses and other communication, we determined that a third wave was not pragmatic and we report findings from
these two rounds with our own discussions next.
3.1. Definition and parameters of the term
Internal communication, often perceived as a synonym for intra-organizational communication, is quite often equated
with employee communication. This was quite evident in the data from our Delphi analysis. Our Delphi respondents defined
“internal communication” simply as all forms of communication within the organization. But, as we shall see in the next
pages, there is a dire need to define or redefine the boundaries of an organization, which will also perhaps redefine the parameters of internal communication. That apart, our respondents felt that internal communication should motivate employees
and thus create value for the company. Interestingly, our data also indicated a narrow definition of the term in another way
– a more tactical one – as the process of writing for the in-house employee publication. Today the information manager is
more of a mediator between the management and workers, as well as being an internal coach for management. Aligning the
goals of individual employees to organizational goals is also seen as a task for internal communication. Such alignment helps
organizations build strong cultures. Internal communication is the aspiration (starting from the vision and proceeding to
policy and mission statement and eventually to strategy) of achieving a systematic analysis and distribution of information
at all strata simultaneously coordinated in the most efficient way possible.
After the majority of our Delphi participants stated that internal communication includes the exchange of information
among employees or members of an organization to create understanding, in the second round we asked respondents
to describe what internal communication is for them. Most of the participants agreed that it is a management function
in-charge of communication. In order to reach further understanding of the concept of internal communication we also
asked the participants to tell as what they believe internal communications are in charge of. The highest level of agreement
(M = 4.38) was with the statement that they are in charge of information dissemination. Participants had a slightly lesser
agreement (M = 4.13) with the statement that IC is in charge of management and production of internal media, followed by
– alignment of employees with organization’s purpose (M = 4.00). It seems that the one-way approach to communication is
the predominant view among these experts. All of the other statements that were included in the questionnaire had a level
of agreement that was over 3.00, implying that all of the statements describe internal communication to some extent. This
includes – communication within organization (M = 3.88); organizational culture (M = 3.75); improvement of organization’s
communication (M = 3.50); motivation of employees (M = 3.38); engagement of employees (M = 3.25); and finally – mediation
of management and employees (M = 3.13), that had a mean only slightly above 3.00.
When all of the described statements were viewed through the modal values it can be seen that only two statements –
IC is in charge of information dissemination and IC is in charge of management and production of internal media – have the
modal values of 5 (meaning that most participants completely agree with mentioned statements). However, the data also
suggest that internal communications are still seen predominantly as a technical function.
What is intriguing in the responses from both these rounds is that even though the respondents were all from Europe, end
therefore exposed to multiculturalism, there was not a strong emphasis on the need to take culture into consideration. We
believe that sooner than later, we need to recognize the reality that neither of the two entities in question here – organization
and employees – is as homogeneous as one may tend to believe because of globalization and mobility of populations. The
formation of trading blocs has resulted in countries trading not as independent entities but as conglomerates often sharing
the manufacturing of a product among nations within the bloc. The European Union and Eurozone are prime examples of
this and especially the Eurozone is currently having to come to grips with this heterogeneity and inequities. Globalization
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has extended the boundaries of organizations beyond national political borders and thus created and a heterogeneous
workforce that calls for cross-cultural communication – a complex process. So, we believe that the definition of the term
internal communication needs to be addressed to reflect this reality. Doing so and setting cross-cultural parameters will
result, in our view, in giving internal communication the recognition as an independent domain that it seeks.
3.2. Relationship with other management disciplines
Just as public relations are often juxtaposed with other management disciplines, one should analyze the link between
internal communication. Our Delphi data revealed a host of areas that were perceived to be close to internal communication such as human resources, change management, organization development, public relations, marketing and general
management, corporate human resources, corporate strategy, and as the most logical partner – corporate communication.
Internal communication as a discipline is intertwined with these disciplines, particularly in the communications and human
resources area. In the words of one of the respondents, the internal communication specialist should ideally be knowledgeable in multiple disciplines because only then can he/she be a valid partner to the management. Managerial activities cannot
be properly performed without using internal communication to some extent. However, internal communication should
also not be perceived as subordinate to any of the mentioned disciplines, except when management structures in a given
organization place internal communication in a reporting line to one of them.
In the second round we offered various options regarding the place that internal communication should hold in an
organization. Most respondents agreed that internal communication is an interdisciplinary function integrating elements of
human resources management, communication and marketing (M = 4.25). A relatively high level of agreement was connected
to the view that IC is a part of public relations/corporate communication (M = 3.75). Even though the agreement with the
statement that IC is a management function at the same level as marketing was slightly above average (M = 3.13), most of
the respondents strongly disagreed with the idea that IC is a part of marketing (M = 2.00). These results reflect that there
is a certain amount of overlap with human resources/corporate communication/public relations functions (although not so
much with the marketing function), but it cannot be squeezed into any of those boxes and more and more deserves a box of
its own.
3.3. A theory-based practice?
The theory vs. practice debate that often occurs in public relations is very evident in internal communication as well. Like
all practice-oriented fields, theory can also help internal communication become more effective. However, the perception
regarding the strength of the linkage between theory and practice is often based on who is being asked: scholars seem to
see the link more strongly than practitioners. The Delphi responses, coming entirely from practitioners, suggested a weak
link between theory and practice. Even so, most respondents cited management and psychological theories as beneficial
sources for internal communication while some participants also saw the relevance of language studies, media work, and
marketing. For the most part, participants agreed that IC is in the field of general communication, but with a significant
input from management and human resources sciences. Interestingly, the relevance of public relations theories to IC was
identified by only one participant. However, after conclusions from the first round were factored in reformulating statements
for the second round, the level of agreement among participants increased. The two statements with the highest levels of
agreement were: “IC is a practice-based discipline and draws from knowledge of many sciences” (M = 4.13) and “IC draws
from communication science” (M = 4.13). Theories from psychology were perceived to have the least amount of influence
on internal communication according to our respondents (M = 3.25). In order for the theory–practice link to be accepted
by a greater number of practitioners, there needs to be more empirical research on the topic. Research that has predictive
capability will be the best tool to impress upon practitioners that while “doing” is important, reflecting upon what is being
done and then revising action based on reflection is the best recipe for efficacy.
3.4. Knowledge-level and skills needed for internal communication
If we agree that internal communication is a specialty, it behoves us to link specific knowledge and skills to this domain.
What specific knowledge does a practitioner need to succeed in conducting internal communication and what skills should
one have for the purpose? A knowledge–skill attributes were identified in the first round of our Delphi study such as knowledge of multiple languages, writing and editing, basic psychology, organizing events, communicating and understanding
different cultures, understanding of various media (online, video, print, etc.), understanding of research techniques, change
management, project management, marketing, work with media, branding and design. Most participants agreed that communication skills such as writing, speaking, oral presentations, gathering and analysing data, and knowledge of the Internet
were helpful to internal communication experts. Whereas one of the participants stated that internal communication is all
about journalism knowledge and “layouters,” most of the other respondents mentioned the importance of management
skills, business skills and communication skills as being important.
In round 2, we then offered a list of various types of skills and knowledge and asked the participants to rate these for importance on a scale from 1 to 5. Most of the skills were rated as highly important. The highest level of agreements and the highest
overall score was reached for communication skills (designing, presenting, speaking, writing,. . .) – (M = 4.88 and a modal
A. Tkalac Verčič et al. / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 223–230
Fig. 1. Knowledge and skills for internal communication.
value of 5). Other necessary skills were rated as follows: diplomacy and mediation skills (M = 4.63); general management
knowledge: planning, organizing, executing, measuring (M = 4.50); strategic communication knowledge (audience segmentation, messaging, channel and media selection, communication audits) – (M = 4.50); networking skills (M = 4.50); strategic
business knowledge (M = 4.25); intercultural skills (M = 4.13); project management knowledge (M = 4.00); journalism skills
(M = 4.00); business skills (M = 3.88) and coaching skills (M = 3.88) (Fig. 1).
We believe the debate about strategies vs. tactics parallels the theory–practice link explored in the previous section. In
many ways, the two are interlinked although we have discussed them separately for several reasons. As long as internal
communication is seen as a tactical function, it will not become an independent domain nor will it add value to the organization. Those who value the need for introspection and reflexivity in a domain, will also by extension value the ability of
the domain to transcend tactics and contribute to strategic management.
3.5. Is internal communication a separate research field?
We believe that internal communication has now progressed into being a specialist domain in itself. This was confirmed
in our Delphi evidence as well. Seven of nine of our respondents agreed that internal communication is, and should be, a
separate field. Even though internal communication ought to be practiced as a segment of public relations, it also deserves
to be an independent department just like media relations or issues management. One of the respondents explained that
IC is a separate field since the relationship between members of the organization is distinct from relationships with other
stakeholders such as shareholders, customers, regulators, etc. Depending on the company, internal communication is located
in either the “Communication” or “Human Resources” department because, as of now, in most organizations it is not seen
as an independent department.
3.6. Current issues in internal communication
Like every emerging domain, internal communication also faces several issues based on its novelty alone such as the
justification for its existence as an independent field. Lack of avenues for training and professional development also create
a perception that this is not a professional specialty. The Delphi evidence suggested that the lack of scholarship in this field
that shows the positive link between internal communication and organizational well being also has contributed to the lack of
recognition of this field among senior managers. According to participants the digital-native generation of new entrants to the
job market and bring a pervasive way of experiencing communication in general and internal communication in particular.
Other issues that came up among the Delphi respondents included credibility of leaders, engagement and employee loyalty,
motivation, social media, cultural differences and interpretation of messages, communication of line managers/managers,
web based social networking, communicating change, communicating during social crisis and issue management.
The second round confirmed the issues mentioned in the first round with the highest average and modal values. One of
the hottest issues IC seems to involve new internal digital (social) media with a very high average of M = 4.75 and a modal
value of 5. Change communication follows closely with an average level of agreement of M = 4.63. Topics such as employee
engagement, loyalty and motivation (M = 4.38); value for money(M = 4.0) and trust and credibility of leadership (M = 4.00)
have relatively high scores as well. Issue of cultural diversity had an average only slightly higher than 3.00 (M = 3.25) but a
modal value of 4, meaning that opinions depend largely on the origin of the respondent. Given the mobility of the workforce
and the forces of globalization that have created a “global village”, we believe this low score is indicative of the ethnocentric
mindset that still dominates most fields including communication. We can only hope that this score going higher in the
years to come based on the recognition of the heterogeneity of employees in every region of the world (Table 1).
A. Tkalac Verčič et al. / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 223–230
Table 1
The currents issues in internal communication.
What are the current issues in internal communication? (5 means agree and 1 means disagree)
Answer options
New internal digital (including social) media
Change communication
Crisis communication
Trust and credibility of leadership
Employee engagement, loyalty, motivation
Cultural diversity
Developing internal communication policies and standards
Auditing, budgeting, and return on investment measures
Value for money
3.7. Nomenclature for the field
Nomenclature issues continue even in the field of public relations and that extends to internal communication as well that
has been described as internal communication, internal communications (or IC), or employee engagement. Our data reveal
that at times it has also been described as internal marketing or internal public relations. Other names include business
communications, employee communications, employee relations, relations with internal publics, corporate communications, leadership communications and management communications. We included these terms in round 2 of our Delphi
study and asked respondents to state their agreement with each term (as the best description of the field) on a scale from 1
to 5.
The term internal communication (in singular form) is by far the one that most respondents agree with (M = 4.50). Only
other two terms that received a higher than average score were employee communication(s) (M = 3.75) and corporate
communication(s) (M = 3.13). The term internal marketing had the lowest average (M = 2.13) and modal value (1) (Fig. 2).
3.8. Internal communication as a separate field
The central question to all of this discussion is whether internal communication is a separate field. In our Delphi study
there seemed to be quite a high level of agreement that internal communication is a field of its own as it requires some
specific set of knowledge and skills or, at least, a specific combination of them. However, in words of one participant the IC
department cannot exist by itself since it can only be successful if its members “live” the company. That is why, no matter
where they are placed from an organizational standpoint (be it with human resources, with communications or with top
management) they must have a daily exchange with other areas (including operations) in order to be effective. In practical
terms, internal communication is managed within human resources, corporate communications or another organizational
unit. So out of round 1 of our study, the idea emerged that even though there is a strong relationship between internal
communications and other departments (mostly human resources) – it should represent a separate field in practice i.e. a
separate department in the organization.
Evidence from round 2, however, points to a different situation. For this round, we had offered four statements that defined
internal communication as a part of marketing, human resources, a part of communication (corporate communication,
public relations, integrated communication) and a field of its own. The statement that had a highest average and modal
Fig. 2. The names of the field.
A. Tkalac Verčič et al. / Public Relations Review 38 (2012) 223–230
value (M = 4.25 and D = 4) defined internal communication as a part of communication with IC as a part of human resources
next (M = 3.88) and internal communication as a field of its own coming third (M = 3.63). Our respondents were not in favor
of linking IC with marketing (M = 1.88).
4. Concluding thoughts
Internal communication, as a practice and an independent domain, is in its infancy. At best we can say it is in adolescence
based on the evidence from the Delphi study, which, although conducted in Europe, is very indicative of the perceptions
of the field in several other parts of the world as well. On the one hand, respondents describe internal communication as
a management function in-charge of intra-organizational communication and as an interdisciplinary function integrating
elements of human resources management, communication and marketing. On the other hand, they see it in charge of
information dissemination and of management and production of internal media. While our respondents gave precedence
to traditional communication skills over business and management skills, they also saw employee engagement, loyalty and
motivation, value for money, and trust and credibility as the hottest issues they are dealing with. Whereas respondents
perceived internal communication as an independent research filed, they also simultaneously saw it as a business function
that was a part of the communication department. Whereas they report that they are dealing with engagement, loyalty,
motivation, trust and credibility, they seem to recognize the least amount of for psychology in their work. After all these
paradoxes, there seems to be agreement on one fundamental area, though: the specialization should be called ‘internal
Beyond, these, we contend that there needs to be a revised view of what constitute the boundaries of an “organization”.
As the world becomes a more interdependent “global village”, not only the boundaries but also the characteristics of “organizations” change. This implies that the definition of what is “internal” to an organization also is being altered and should
be revisited. In other words, a broader definition of “internal communication” is in order. For example, is the Eurozone an
organization? Are the discussions currently underway to address the economic crisis in the Eurozone to be characterized as
“internal communication?” is the Eurozone an organization? We rarely see scholarly discussions considering such a broad
definition of what is “an organization” and what is “internal communication in such an organization”. If we accept this
broader definition of what an organization is, then there is no escaping the fact that such internal communication is so
increasingly becoming cross-national and cross-cultural. So, discussions of the impact of culture on internal communication
become important and yet this has yet to be discussed so far. These are the challenges that future research needs to address
in order for internal communication to come of age as an independent discipline that adds value to the organization.
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