Passive vs active internal comms—and how to up your game to proactive communication

By Samantha McCabe
March 18, 2021
7 min read

Being an internal communicator takes a lot of finesse. You likely find yourself balancing the needs of your leadership team, your colleagues, and your own hunches about how to best communicate.

Depending on the set-up and viewpoint of your organization, you might mostly be someone who “takes orders” from higher up for internal comms. You’re a functional employee: you are told what you need to send out, how to send it, and when it needs to be received.

Sound familiar? We’re here to help you make the transition from “order taker” to being a partner and collaborator with your leadership team, able to confidently advise them on what the best way to communicate a message is. By slowly moving the needle of company culture on internal comms, you can turn what we call a “passive” internal comms strategy (more on that in a moment) into “active” and even “proactive” communication.

(If you’re still working on that confidence piece, we have another blog post geared specifically towards helping you out.) 

Why active & proactive communication styles are key to success

Why do we even care about elevating ourselves above passive communication? There’s this idea, pervasive within the industry, that when a message is sent out it will act as a cascade or waterfall—it will trickle into every nook, cranny, and crevice of your organization. Thus, everybody will learn and understand the message automatically.

We’re here to (gently) tell you that that waterfall image is a lie. Not only will that kind of passive communication not reach everyone you need it to, but in the process, you’re missing out on a major opportunity for building goodwill. By directing and supporting that flow of water, you’ll be partaking in more active communication.

Now more than ever, active internal comms is more likely to boost employee engagement, which we know is a strong predictor of success during times of uncertainty or upheaval. Employees are looking for someone to fill the gap of uncertainty that the pandemic and economic struggles have created—even if that uncertainty is not within the organization. They’ll identify a lot more with an organization that is reflecting what they need to hear.

(In times of crisis, internal comms makes the difference. Sun Peaks Resort maintained employee engagement during the pandemic with our help.)

So how do you get them that information? Read on for our breakdown of the difference between passive, active, and proactive internal communication, told through one handy example.

Passive internal comms & why it doesn’t work

Passive internal communication isn’t only unengaging—it’s ineffective. Take this scenario, where we’ll pretend Company A has recently been acquired.


Because the companies are prioritizing public approval, a media release is distributed and hits the morning headlines the very next day. Staff are in shock, and discuss the news throughout the office: “Did you know this was coming?” “Are we being laid off?” These “water cooler” conversations spread throughout the company’s employees before they receive the all-staff email about the acquisition—because the person doing internal comms received the information at the same time as everyone else and had to scramble to put something together.

There are quite a few negative effects that might result from this scenario:

  • High risk of misinformation: in the gap between the media coverage and the all-staff email, employees have had a chance to openly theorize about what comes next. An all-staff email is too late to effectively correct it all.
  • Anxiety: your employees will feel a rush of anxiousness when hearing major company news from their TV or radio.
  • Erosion of trust: employees should never be the last to know when something like this happens—it conveys that shareholders and the public are more valued than them.
  • Long-term retention risk: with all of the above factors considered, it’s no wonder that some employees might jump on the opportunity to work somewhere else in the future.

Shifting to active internal comms & the benefits it brings

Take the same scenario, but with some very slight tweaks. In this instance, the media release goes out at the same time as the all-staff communication is distributed, getting the message to employees before the morning news coverage hits the airwaves.

Shifting Active Comms

You will likely still see that inevitable water cooler conversation, but now most of your employees will know about the acquisition and its context as they chat with their colleagues. (Tone of voice is huge here.) Even if they haven’t seen the news yet, they will soon know they were sent the message at the same time as everyone else, helping build that crucial goodwill in the face of change.

In this example, you’ll also notice the addition of department meetings, giving your leadership team the opportunity to hear what the comments and concerns from employees are. To implement this step the most effectively, make sure managers have concrete talking points, and support them in how best to deliver the information.

Here are the considerations we need to have in mind for our active communication scenario:

  • The availability of information has built trust with employees.
  • But we’re relying on the same cascade visual, where one form of communication (the all-staff email) is supposed to trickle down to reach everyone.
  • We don’t have full control of the narrative—it is dispersed throughout the company, relying on managers to get us further along.

In short, we’ve found our feet, but we’re not being truly strategic yet. This is where proactive internal comms comes in.

Taking it further: bringing a proactive communication mindset to your organization

We’re once again working with the same scenario: Company A has been acquired.

This time, there is one crucial, overarching change: the communication sits with the team before the event happens. The internal comms players are given a chance to develop a plan to deliver the information and actively follow up.

Taking It Further

You can see that the info is actually being sent at the same time as our active comms example—but now it is aligned with a communication strategy that has been built in advance, using materials created in advance. In addition, time has been booked for an all-hands meeting and Q&A with the leadership team. During this time, employees can ask questions, give feedback, and have their questions and concerns answered and allayed at the source. By decreasing reliance on the information cascade, there is less risk of misinformation.

This communications strategy has a long tail: the team will also schedule follow-up internal comms to address anything that might come up in the course of the post-announcement meetings and discussions.

This is proactive internal comms, focussed on aligning organizational strategy with communications strategy—because they really are linked.

The only reason this plan works is because the internal comms person or team is not in an order-taking role. Rather, they have found a position of trust at the leadership table.

Transitioning to this relationship and communication style may not come easy. It takes time and work to build. We recommend you start in the active phase of internal comms, tracking your successes and telling those stories to your leadership team. That way, you can show the real benefits that your organization stands to gain by going beyond the role of passive communicators. As you prove yourself through your work, you’ll hopefully take on that advisor role, opening up an opportunity for further dialogue.

Just remember that the most important piece here is that employees come first. Supporting them and bringing them along—and making them feel valued and reassured—will pay off exponentially.

Transforming your internal comms starts with a great strategy

Internal comms strategy doesn’t wildly change overnight. Luckily, we have the tools and templates to get you started, from conducting a channel audit, to measuring the right metrics, to mastering your tone of voice.

Whatever your idea might be, you need a dependable software to get your messaging out, gather feedback, and create a general sense of community and belonging among your employees. Our internal comms software, Reach, could help you get there. Book a demo and try it out, or head to our technology page to learn more.

By Samantha McCabe