Communications and HR have long been considered as separate groups within a company. However, smart HR leaders are noticing how communications are often key to turning their strategies into real-life success stories. After all, HR often “sells” a choice or strategic shift to the rest of the company.
Amy Flood was an English major who had always been interested in science and medicine. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, her job at a PR firm focused on pharmaceutical and biotech industries allowed her to combine her love of writing and science along with practical skills.
When the PR firm established West Coast operations, Flood moved to California. It was the dot-com era; technology was driving innovation and growth in all types of industries. She decided to leave the agency life to transition into an in-house communications role at Gilead. In her first position, she managed communications for the launch of one of the company’s products. As Gilead grew as a global brand, so did Flood’s opportunities and responsibilities. Her job expanded over the years to encompass a variety of projects and niches, such as corporate philanthropy, employee communications, and patient advocacy. When reflecting on her time at Gilead, Flood said, “It felt like it was a new job and a new company every few years.”
Flood worked over two decades at Gilead before shifting to her current role in 2021. She felt it was time for a change. She credits a trusted mentor who helped her discern what she liked most about her job and how it could influence her future. Flood shared her recollection of this pivotal phone conversation.
“He said, ‘Start talking about what you like about your job. Don’t say anything negative. I just want you to talk about what you like about your current job.'” Her mentor listened as she talked. After a few minutes, he stopped her. “He asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about HR?’ I said, ‘No, I’m a communications person.’ He said, ‘Well, a lot of what you just described is HR.’ I hung up the phone thinking about that.”
A couple of days later, Flood got a call about an opening for her current role at Corcept Therapeutics. She said, “After my conversation with my mentor, I thought about what I wanted to do. The more I had thought about it, the more I realized a lot of the work I had been doing wasn’t in HR, but it was in adjacent roles. And that work had been the most motivating and the most fun. It led me to the path I am on today, where I serve in an HR leadership role.”
When it comes to making a direct connection between communication skills and HR, Amy Flood is not alone. Blue Rock Search has also seen an upward trend in the instances where Corporate Communications has become a functional responsibility of the Chief People Officer. We believe one of the factors that drive this trend is the need for better retention strategies in an era where HR is subject to multiple internal and external pressures.
Communications are part of the culture-building in which HR plays a critical role. Yet, as an academic literary review on HR-based employee perceptions stated, “HR content as perceived by employees may not be the same as HR content as perceived by their managers. Empirical studies confirm that HR perceptions vary across the organizational hierarchy.”
As we’ll see, communications are a good place to start addressing this perception.
HR and Communications in a Changing Corporate World
Change—whether as a career change like Flood’s or as many other shifts taking place—has become a significant part of life in the past few years. However, the intersection of communications and HR has been evolving for a long time. For instance, several developments in corporate culture and technology have erased the division between the two primary areas of corporate communications: internal and external.
“We used to think about internal and external communications as two separate teams. You had an external comms team and an employee comms team. They talked to two distinct audiences and maybe even used two distinct sets of messages,” explains Flood. “That’s just been blown up, and it’s been blown up by the world we live in and technology and social media. The line isn’t blurry. It’s gone. So now employees are getting their understanding and perspective of a company from public external information and vice versa.”
Flood continues, “I think that relates to HR, particularly from the standpoint of culture and people’s understanding of what a company is when it comes to a workplace. Current and future employees ask, ‘Do I want to be here?’ They assess what a company projects and how it describes itself, and judge whether that matches people’s experience.”
She remarked how employees currently have more resources and sources of information than ever. HR communications tasks have become significantly more complex, which has now increased with the push for remote and hybrid work. Communication challenges escalate when all these factors are paired with an increasingly global world. A 2016 study from Drexel University noted that “any project involving team members located in different places is going to experience limitations related to communications and human resources management.”
How Companies Can Succeed
With all these changes, HR is turning to communications experts to learn how best to manage their new challenges. The Drexel study also concluded that “Human resources can leverage cross-cultural innovation and creativity by initiating various programs and processes that support global projects… Human resources, if properly supported, can be a strategic function that creates value for the company, ensuring survival, growth, and profitability through proper human capital management.”
According to Flood, success in HR communications hinges largely on flexibility.
“There’s a tendency to design a process or implement a structure, and often this outcome represents a great deal of time, money, and thought invested by the organization. When things don’t work as designed or intended, it’s tough to walk away,” she said. “Flexibility is about a willingness to think about things differently. We’re working from a foundation of what we’re trying to do. The result that we’re trying to get is what will drive the process, not the other way around.”
When further describing what flexibility means for HR initiatives, Flood added, “Companies need to demonstrate their willingness to be creative and a willingness to try things. When you get something wrong, flexibility is also a willingness to turn around and admit we didn’t get this right. And, we’re going to try something different.”
According to Flood, honest and authentic communication is critical. In today’s world, a solid corporate communication strategy is necessary to attract and retain talent; hence why HR should prioritize communications.
“We can design the best benefits program. We can design the best career development framework. We can design all those things. But if we don’t communicate them effectively, what have we actually done?” Flood said. “People need to understand, and I think in many cases, that’s storytelling. It’s not a pamphlet that lists benefits. It’s helping people understand what something means from a career development standpoint. It’s giving people an example of ‘here’s what it looked like for this particular person, and it could look the same for you.'”
When HR communications make nebulous strategies feel real and personal, they can help their companies achieve goals for employee engagement, employee satisfaction, and retention. In addition, this can result in linking HR benefits to the company’s performance.
Amy Flood’s background provides her with a distinct perspective from many HR executives. And yet, she is far from being the only one making that type of career move, particularly as more HR departments realize the importance of a strong, targeted communications strategy.
By Ruben Moreno
About the Author
After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.” Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.
 Wang, Ying et al. “Employee perceptions of HR practices: A critical review and future directions.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 31, no. 1 (2020): 145.
 Browne, Winifred, et al. “Two Key Success Factors for Global Project Team Leadership: Communications and Human Resource Management.” Journal of IT and Economic Development 7, no. 2 (Oct. 2016), 46.
 Browne et al., 45.