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Effective Internal Communication in the Lab

Tips for developing effective communicators within and outside the lab

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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Science organizations rely on creative marketing and outreach strategies to attract top lab talent, showcase research products and services to potential clients or funders, and engage the general public in science. However, many organizations overlook the importance of effective internal communications for these marketing and outreach efforts. For example, one difficulty faced by communications staff is staying updated on the latest research news and developments in order to have regular content to share with the public. Thus, organizations would benefit from maintaining open lines of communication and promoting cross talk among staff to ensure information is shared throughout the organization. This article provides some ideas on how organizations can use best practices for internal communications to capture content from employees for marketing needs, train lab staff to be brand ambassadors, and get group buy-in for these communication efforts.

Ways to capture content for marketing and outreach efforts

One of the biggest challenges for any organization’s marketing and outreach efforts is how to capture current and relevant content to feed into external communication products (e.g., social media posts, newsletters, annual reports). In many cases, laboratories operate as individual units, which can make it difficult for the rest of the organization to know what everyone is up to. Therefore, it is paramount for lab managers to make a concerted effort to keep senior managers and communications staff informed of the most recent lab developments and accomplishments. Here are some suggestions for how organizations can use internal communications to streamline this process:

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  • Consider setting up a project or team site that can serve as a portal for internal communication efforts and gathering content from employees. If an in-house application is not available, there are many free and low-cost options (e.g., Asana, Basecamp) that can be tailored to such needs. Be sure to include help guides and other resources to train staff on how to use the website, along with other guidelines (e.g., file-naming conventions)

  • Require individual laboratories or other operational units to submit periodic updates with relevant news and information. This update can be a simple online form with a few outlined categories (e.g., recent publications and presentations, staff awards) of information to be collected and then submitted electronically to a central database and/or appropriate team members, including communications staff.

  • Maintain a shared calendar where lab staff can add upcoming events (e.g., conferences, talks, outreach events) that they will be attending or sponsoring. This resource will allow communications staff to publicize the organization’s presence at these events. It also gives managers an opportunity to touch base with lab personnel in advance of the event to see whether they need any marketing materials or other information to effectively promote the organization.

  • Ask lab managers and staff to regularly share already prepared materials and files that can provide ideas for promotions and/or can be repurposed for inclusion in marketing collateral. These materials may include open meeting minutes, presentation slides, and other related files (e.g., event pictures). Files can be deposited in a central repository for a project or team site, and this process can be simplified by creating an easy way to drop information into designated folders via email or a short form.

  • Facilitate ways for staff to talk and share their science in an informal setting. Some ways to do so include adding a quick roundtable discussion at regular meetings where employees can share updates or news, moderating an online discussion board, and scheduling coffee breaks with managers. Also consider hosting inhouse research presentations or symposia to provide a platform for employees across the organization to engage in scientific discussion about their latest work.

  • From a business development standpoint, provide employees with internal communication guidelines on how to make business referrals of potential clients, collaborators, and other interested parties (e.g., event sponsors, funding agencies) to the organization. These guidelines may include holding debriefs with staff after events to collect contact information, using a shared contact management system, and making prompt and effective follow-ups with contacts.

Training lab employees to be brand ambassadors

Staff members are the outward extension of any laboratory who commonly interface with target audiences, from presenting at scientific conferences to sharing updates on social media about their work. Therefore, they can be the best brand ambassadors to positively represent and promote the organization. In order to do so, it is essential to ensure lab staff are delivering consistent messages, equipped with the tools and resources to effectively communicate, and trained in science communication skills. Here are a few ideas on how to transform staff into brand ambassadors for the organization:

  • Conduct in-house communications training and provide other helpful how-to guides. These topics can include everything from the art of storytelling and an intro to social media to information on how to talk to the press and on media relations. There are a number of online resources available through professional organizations that can be used, or outside experts and consultants can be brought in to facilitate such trainings with staff members.

  • Leverage the networks of staff members to spread the reach of marketing efforts. For example, provide regular reminders requesting that employees share materials (e.g., forward email newsletters, share social media posts) with their contacts. Additionally, when considering what social media platforms to use, look at where employees are most active online. There also are applications (e.g., Dynamic Signal) that enable employees to subscribe to an organization’s social media feeds and easily share them through their own online accounts.

  • Create a downloadable communications toolkit to supply employees with the tools and resources to promote the organization’s brand. Sample contents of such a toolkit may include presentation and poster templates, logos and artwork, standard text for acknowledgments, marketing materials (e.g., brochures and fact sheets), and general talking points with key messages about the organization. Also, provide a way for employees to request printed copies of any of the materials to take along to conferences and other events.

  • Use the onboarding process of new hires as a time to distribute the communications toolkit and educate employees on standard branding and messaging and internal communication processes. The onboarding process also is a good time to capture content for future marketing needs by collecting key information (e.g., bio/picture, social media accounts, professional affiliations) that can be used to create a staff profile. As an example, marketing staff can then follow these employees online to stay updated on their activities and have an additional source of content.

How to get group buy-in for communications efforts

Laboratory staff are often consumed with the important science required to keep organizations moving forward; therefore, employees may think they don’t have the time or may not see the value in working on communication tasks. Thus, it is important to get group buy-in from employees as a starting point before implementing any new internal communications systems or requirements.

Here are some final thoughts on how managers can work with staff toward a shared goal of being effective communicators within and outside the organization:

  • Adopt a company culture that promotes open lines of communication and transparency within the organization. For example, consider sharing any news and updates collected from other labs with the rest of the organization by making these files accessible on a project or team site and/or providing a summary of highlights via an internal employee newsletter. This effort ensures information is being shared with any employee who may need it to do his or her job, and it also promotes collaboration across the organization.

  • Take the time to promote staff (e.g., lab member profiles, employee award announcements) in the organization’s communication channels, and use any potential marketing content that is provided by staff whenever possible. This will help employees recognize their contributions are valued, know everyone within the organization is being promoted equally, and see how the information is being used to advertise their work in marketing efforts.

  • Show the tangible results of marketing and outreach efforts to get more group buy-in and acknowledge staff efforts. These results can include summaries of relevant marketing metrics (e.g., social media statistics, number of publications downloaded) and highlights of outreach events. Also, case studies and related information can be presented on how business referrals have resulted in successful projects and collaborations.

  • Demonstrate to employees that managers also value communications and staff time spent on these efforts by including related tasks as part of regular roles and responsibilities, allocating adequate time and resources for this work, and directly tying these activities to performance objectives.

  • As communications activities take time and effort, provide staff with information on what communications resources (e.g., writing and editorial support, graphics design) are available to them, whom they can contact for help in this area, and any organizational approvals required before communicating to external audiences. In line with encouraging employees to communicate with the public, it is suggested to keep any media approvals to a minimum and instead default to training on best practices in media relations.

  • Finally, seek out lab employees who may have special interest in science communications and in gaining skills in this area for career growth opportunities. These staff members can help coordinate communication efforts among laboratories, train fellow employees in science communications, prepare draft marketing materials for external use, and serve as a technical liaison to any public relations and marketing staff.