Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Patrick Holmes
Director of Internal Communications at University of California, Berkeley
I enjoyed talking with Patrick Holmes to learn about his career path. This is his internal communications story.
Patrick Holmes is a strategic internal communications leader and consultant. He currently leads internal communications for UC Berkeley, consistently recognized as one of the best public universities in the world. In this newly created role, Patrick is building an internal communications program from the ground up.
Prior to joining UC Berkeley, Patrick worked at Oregon Health and Science University for over 10 years, including five years directing internal communications. OHSU is Oregon’s only academic health center and the largest employer in Portland.
Patrick earned a bachelor's degree in social science at Portland State University, with an emphasis in communications.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
I didn't consider internal communications as a profession until an opportunity presented itself. Looking back, I realize that the decisions I made when I was younger shaped my path to this profession.
In my senior year of high school, I realized that I would have enjoyed working on the school newspaper and decided that I would try to join my college newspaper the first chance I got. On a small liberal arts college campus, the newspaper served as a critical way people received information about the college and what was happening on campus. That was especially true for students. In many ways, we served as the internal communications function for the college. I noticed many parallels to that experience once I got into internal communications.
Fast forward to when I was at OHSU and ended up landing in the communications department. At one point, I sat next to the internal communications specialist and learned what the role was like before stepping into it. I had volunteered to take on a few special projects to get experience in that area. I realized it was something I enjoy.
When that position opened up, I applied and got the job and fell in love with the field. A short time later, they promoted me to be in charge of internal communications. I leaned into the profession and have always jumped at any opportunity to learn and grow. I don't just want to be a practitioner. I also wish to be a thought leader in the space.
A lot of organizations still don't have a formal internal communications function. I'm now at UC Berkeley as its first director of internal communications. It's crazy to think that such a prominent and well-respected university has not had an internal communications function until now. They're leaning into the value proposition of internal communications, and it's exciting to build the program from the ground up.
How do you describe your role to others?
We connect employees with the information they need to do their job and feel connected to the place they work. You can break it down into three components: engage, inspire and inform.
Employee engagement is such a buzz term, but there is a clear link between employee engagement and business outcomes. As internal communicators, we engage employees by creating a sense of community within the organization. We do this by creating a two-way dialogue with employees, writing special features to create a shared experience, and promoting other activities. For example, one of my colleagues at OHSU had the idea to start an employee talent show. She and I served as the co-hosts each year, and we had a lot of fun with it. That was a great engagement opportunity for the organization!
Inspiring employees means helping them see how they connect to the mission. At places like UC Berkeley and OHSU, the mission is very compelling. Helping educate the world's future leaders, healers and innovators is incredibly inspiring. But depending on your role, it may be hard to see how you're helping further that mission. That's why it's vital that internal communicators, regardless of the type of organization, help keep employees inspired by the work they do and see how they connect to the bigger picture.
There's a famous story about a custodian at NASA who was asked during the space race: "What do you do here?" He answered: "I'm helping to put a man on the moon!" It's so essential for every member of an organization to see how they connect to the mission, and internal communicators play a crucial role in making that connection for employees.
Last, but certainly not least, is information sharing. Providing employees with the information they need to do their jobs is so critical. Employees cannot be effective in their role if they're not up to date on the latest policies and procedures, can't find the information they are looking for, and are distracted by aspects of "employee life" that are frustrating.
Employees need the intranet to find information. They want to know if parking rates are going up and what's on the menu in the café. These are the things that impact their day-to-day lives. If they are moving to a new building, they'll want to know where the bathrooms will be or how big the fridge will be. It's human nature to worry about the necessities of work life.
Similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, employees have their own hierarchy of needs from their employer. The basics like food, water and shelter still apply here, but they're also concerned about their pay and benefits, commutes, professional development and other factors. If we neglect these basic needs, employees won't be in a place to be able to care about vision and strategy and the other more aspirational communications we share.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
It only snows a few times a year in Portland, so it isn't prepared when big storms hit. With OHSU being a major hospital with 24/7 operations, employees need to get there no matter what.
We found during bad storms that our communications were lacking. We were out of practice and didn't have systems, standards or templates. We realized we needed to do things differently. I have to give credit to our head of operations, who empowered me to flip the script and think of what a positive, successful communications outcome would look like, and work backward through the operational considerations to get there.
That gave me the license to think beyond communications to structure this process to achieve the communications outcome that we wanted.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
Interpersonal skills are critical. Internal communicators might interact with more people than anyone else at an organization. When I left OHSU, there were 18,000 employees, and I had met thousands of them. There were 500 employees on my farewell email who I knew well enough to consider them more than an acquaintance, and many of them I thought of as close friends. Not many people have this breadth of knowledge and interaction with people across an organization.
Organizational skills and being able to juggle multiple priorities are also necessary. You have to be a "jack of all trades." There are a lot of specialized roles in the marketing and communications world. As an internal communicator, you end up wearing most of those hats. In a single day, you may have to write a speech for an executive, create a flyer for a stakeholder, plan an event and build a web page.
When there is a need for an internal campaign, I develop the concept, determine the channel strategy, find the graphic designer, write the communications plan, and then execute on all of the deliverables. You wear so many hats that it's essential to have a broad skill set and be willing to learn.
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?
I try to attend conferences when I can, stay connected with networking groups, and follow industry news. Occasionally I'll take a vendor call just to make sure I'm up on the latest technology and trends. The key is being open to meeting new people and learning new ideas. Too many people stop their learning when they think they've mastered the field and become stagnant. I try to look at what other internal communicators are doing and learn from different areas and disciplines.
Our work directly impacts the organization's success, so I take my role in contributing to that success very seriously.