Internal Communications: Freedom of Speech? You Cannot be Serious.

Now, please tell me what is wrong with the quotation below. (And I’m not talking about spelling or syntax, smartarses, I’m talking about content).

“Some companies are training staffers to broaden their social-media efforts. At Ford, Mr. Monty plans to soon begin teaching employees how to use sites like Twitter to represent the company and interact with consumers.

 Coca-Cola Co. is preparing a similar effort, which initially will be limited to marketing, public affairs and legal staffers. Participants will be authorized to post to social media on Coke’s behalf without checking with the company’s PR staff, says Adam Brown, named Coke’s first head of social media in March.”

This is from the Wall Street Journal – an article already mentioned on this blog – which witters on about how companies are using social media (specifically Twitter) to do something. I’m not sure what. On the face of it – to waste time, resource and budget. But hey! Maybe it’s just me.

But that’s not what this is about. (For once.) No, this is about the wisdom of letting your employees have free and uncontrolled access to the media which, in effect, is what the good people at Ford and Coke are thinking of doing.

Are they completely insane? As we all know, your people are your greatest asset and your greatest liability. As ambassadors for your brand and product, there is nothing more powerful than a vociferous and loyal employee – and here’s the important bit – that has been well-briefed and is on-message.

This is why internal communications departments exist – to generate that loyalty, to bring the workforce on-board, to maintain motivation and momentum – to ensure the messages that are going out are consistent and in line with company strategy and policy. This is why internal comms works hand-in-glove with external comms – and why all messages go past the external comms (PR) department – because anything said by anyone about your brand or business can impact on reputation. And it’s your reputation that you trade on.

In no company or organisation that I know do employees get to comment publicly, to an external audience (and I’m not talking mates down the pub, here) without being carefully briefed and monitored. In fact, in many companies and organisations, it is more than their jobs are worth for them to do so. Why? Because not everyone is as sensitive to the message and to reputation as those employed as guardians of reputation and, time and time again, through simple error of judgement, or naivety, or malicious intent, employees’ comments and actions in a public arena bring a company into disrepute. And then you have a crisis, and then you have some shit to shovel.

Example? Dominos Pizza (apologies, because I’ve used this example before, but – damn – it’s a good one) and the posting, on YouTube of video footage of unhygienic practices, in a Dominos franchise, by employees.

You simply do not allow employees free rein. You don’t. It is accepted.

Then along come the social media strategists. “It’s all about content, it’s all about dialogue, it’s all about the quality of the conversation” – free spirits in the digital age. Not for them the rules of the old guard – no, the rise of the internet and FaceBook and Twitter has changed the world and we must move on or wither and die.

It appears that their lobbying – and the continuing spread of Shiny Object Syndrome – has convinced even the most conservative of organisations (Coke, anyone?) that they should be allowed to let employees post directly to the social media sites, without passing the sense/health check that is the PR department.

I know – if anyone ever reads this (hello?) – that I’ll be accused, as a PR professional, of being miffed that I’ve been edged out of the frame and that stuff is going on without me.

Maybe. But I think this is a disaster waiting to happen. Time will tell. Personally I hope there’s someone in both organisations (Ford and Coke) who remembers what the real role of a corporate communicator is, and is powerful enough to perform it.

The real role of a corporate communicator is to look at stuff like this and say ‘no fucking way’. And put a stop to the stupidity immediately.

11 thoughts on “Internal Communications: Freedom of Speech? You Cannot be Serious.

  1. Although there is a lot I could say in response to this, I’ll keep my reply to this quote:
    “. . . there is nothing more powerful than a vociferous and loyal employee – and here’s the important bit – that has been well-briefed and is on-message.”
    I completely agree! That’s why it’s so important to make sure your employees are all always well-briefed. That goes for every single employee throughout the company. John C. Havens and Shel Holtz give several good examples of the importance of internal transperancy in their book, Tactical Transperancy.
    Good, up-to-the-minute internal communications will make sure your employees are always on-message and well-briefed. Asking them to recommend the brand to friends in person is no different than asking them to do so online, except that online their voices can be heard by a lot more people.
    Your point is well-made for employers that urge their employees to go out into cyberspace (and the real world) and promote the brand. That’s why a good social media strategy includes a strategy for keeping the employees well-briefed and well-aware of the message.

  2. Yes, employees need to be briefed. And the article you quote states that they will be trained! So I don’t see the idea of letting trained, briefed, hand-picked employees interact with customers on the company’s behalf as a dangerous one.

    Can you imagine someone trying to Tweet on behalf of the company, answering customer service complaints/queries, etc. and having to go to PR for approval of every tweet? No – you pick the right person to tweet and train them so they understand the limits of what they can say and when to get help from PR/Legal, if things get nasty or something big happens. You’re talking about responding to a lot of “I like coke better than pepsi” “why does BK serve Pepsi and not Coke” types of tweets.

    Also, the Domino’s example is one where employees weren’t tweeting or videoing on behalf of the company. Running all official Dominos Tweets and posts through PR wouldn’t have stopped it. And certainly, this was a crisis situation and professionals handled it – I don’t think Dominos let just anyone respond on the company’s behalf.

    I see the Domino’s case as an example of how easy it is for what’s happening internally (especially the bad stuff) to go public, rather than a reason to try and stop employees from talking about work. And I don’t believe it’s possible for a company nowadays to maintain 100% control of messages that go public.

    One of my favorite reads is the Authentic Enterprise report by the A W Page Society:
    Talks about how the walls are dissolving and what a company says externally has to match the way they really are internally – authenticity is key to success. This means trusting employees and moving away from pure command and control.

    Last thought: social media is conversational and personal. An individual needs to post – imagine if a company ran an ‘official’ Twitter stream with no person’s name, only press releases and ‘we’re so great’ messages. It would be a flop and would turn people off. The companies seeing a positive response to their efforts are those who let the customer service rep/pr person/exec be themselves and talk about the company (within a set of guidelines).

    My twenty cents!

    • Thanks for this – great reply.

      The WSJ article actually says ‘some companies are training staffers to broaden their social media efforts’ – this is journalese for ‘I’m about to introduce two examples of companies that have told me they’re going to start letting their employees post to social media’.

      The companies themselves – Ford and Coke – talk more in terms of ‘teaching employees how to use sites’ and ‘authorizing’ employees to post without recourse to the company’s PR staff. This does not automatically imply training programmes for nominated Tweeters and posters – and in any case, when you’re messing with a company’s reputation, even if someone has been trained, you still monitor what they do very closely. Hence briefing documents, position statements and Q&A documents every time a senior executive speaks to the media (common practice in the majority of listed companies).

      The whole Customer service scenario that you describe is, I believe, discrete from the plans of Ford and Coke. Customer Service staff normally have sheets of pre-prepared responses which they use (reactively) to answer general complaints and queries and they never stray from the script. If I’ve read the WSJ article correctly, what they’re talking about is allowing staff to be active in their use of social media – not responding to general enquiries, but posting their thoughts, opinions and commentary.

      This is very different, fraught with danger and would require a whole different type of training/preparation. It could be argued that one cannot train someone to post to social media – you’re talking about delicacy, sensitivity, social awareness etc etc – arguably stuff that you cannot teach.

      As for the Dominos example – the only way to have stopped that happening would have been to have had a policy in place which says Dominos franchisees and their employees do not post Dominos-related material on social media. Any franchisee or employee found in breach of the policy will be fired.. Simple and – once you make a couple of examples, pour encourager les autres – highly effective. You’re right, it’s impossible for a company to be 100% in control of the message – but there are ways that the company can get close to it.

      I totally agree that the external perception of the company has to reflect the internal reality – but giving employees freedom to post to social media is not the way to achieve this. A good internal comms programme – enrolling employees in the corporate goals and ethos and allowing them to understand why the messages are controlled, what the potential issues are and what the effects could be – is.

      I’m afraid that trusting employees to do the right thing is a beautiful idea, but in the real world it cannot work – not because they are inherently untrustworthy, but because they are human and therefore fallible. Even letting them operate ‘within a set of guidelines’ doesn’t work – guidelines are open to interpretation and – therefore – misinterpretation.

      I read somewhere recently that in today’s web-based society, a consumers’ relationship is no longer with the company or its brand, but with the company’s employees. I fundamentally disagree with this. The role of a company and its brands is to make money – for its owners, shareholders and employees and, through them, for the country/countries in which it is based. This is capitalism, this is the way of the world – let’s not get it confused with the new New Age that seems to be arising from the social media phenomenon.

      • Hey, Jeremy.

        It seems to me that the question here is not to tweet or not to tweet, but rather a question of the fundamental employer-employee relationship.

        You wrote: I’m afraid that trusting employees to do the right thing is a beautiful idea, but in the real world it cannot work – not because they are inherently untrustworthy, but because they are human and therefore fallible. Even letting them operate ‘within a set of guidelines’ doesn’t work – guidelines are open to interpretation and – therefore – misinterpretation.

        Trusting employees to do the right thing HAS to work. Who else would you ask to do the right thing? The PR department. They’re employees. The VP of public relations? She’s an employee. The CEO? Nope, still an employee.

        The question goes beyond just communicating with customers and other publics as an employee of the company or representative of the brand. How do you trust your employees to provide great customer service? To represent your brand fairly and in the manner you hope they do in all of their interactions with the public — online and off.

        Trust is absolutely essential in business.

        And so what if a company will distribute “briefing documents, position statements and Q&A documents every time a senior executive speaks to the media”? That doesn’t mean you control the message, and that doesn’t mean people believe what you say.

        Today’s media cycle is seconds long. We no longer get to take our time crafting an official message for the six o’clock news. Citizen journalists are everywhere and large media outlets like CNN are taking their stories and publishing them. And traditional media are embracing tools like Twitter to distribute information instantly.

        Also, your carefully crafted message can say whatever you want it to, but that doesn’t mean your publics buy it. The power of embracing social media is that it enables employees throughout the organization to communicate with massive amounts of people. And the publics are embracing the idea! Why? Because they trust the employees more than they trust the corporate spokesperson. They trust them more because their messages are not so carefully crafted. They’re honest and from the hip. So long as your company is ethical and fair and good, what’s to lose? (Please don’t say company secrets. If you your employees don’t know what they shouldn’t share, then you’ve done something wrong and social media are just one of a hundred channels through which you can lose those secrets.)

        Embracing social media isn’t about using something new and shiny. It’s about embracing the paradigm shift in communication. It’s about acknowledging that consumers want relationships with other people, not with brands and corporations.

      • Hi Dagan – and thanks for taking the time to post – debate is good. I’m afraid not too many people read my blog (yet – I have plans for world domination) so we’re discussing in a bit of a vaccuum, but I find the topic genuinely fascinating.
        I think we’re talking at a bit of a cross-purpose here. Of course I trust those I employ to do their jobs – that’s a given and it’s something that’s built into the whole interview process – But, in general, their jobs are NOT to be communicators. Some are accountants, some are post room boys (and girls), some are health and safety professionals, some work in legal and some are engineers. They are not communicators.
        The PR Department, the VP of PR, the CEO – all employees, correct – and all have communication in their job description. It is part of their skillset. I trust them to communicate, because they know how to do it. (On the other hand, I WOULDN’T trust most CEOs to deliver the mail.)
        So I don’t expect my employees to represent my brand, other than by smiling and wearing a uniform (if customer facing) and having learnt their script. I do expect them not to be tempted to go off-piste or stray from the script and I do expect them to understand WHY they shouldn’t do so.
        There is also a big difference between controlling the message and people believing what you say. Through my briefing docs, positions and Qs&As I can control the message – the spokespeople will not deviate – it is down to the WAY the spokespeople deliver the message as to whether the audience believes on not. If your CEO is a monotone, grey accountant, then no matter what the message is, no-one will be interested. If your CEO is – for the sake of argument – Richard Branson (Howard Schultz?) then people may not agree, or like it, but they’ll listen and make their own minds up. I can control the message – it’s what I do.
        The media has always been rapid reaction – that’s why you anticipate the statements and messages you’re going to need, and pre-prepare them. Oh – and if you’re a corporate communicator and cannot come up with a holding statement in seconds flat, then you’re in the wrong job.
        Finally, you’re suggesting transferring the ownership of the relationship between the company/organisation/brand and its publics from the body corporate to the employee. That it’s somehow about a one-to-one. It isn’t. Companies and brands are there to make money – for shareholders, for the owners, for the employees, for the economy – they’re not there to make friends. Consumers understand the nature of the relationship/contract that they have with their repertoire of brands – and mostly, they don’t want it changed. They don’t want the new New Age where everything’s personal and slightly soft round the edges. They want to purchase, take home and consume without someone following them around in cyberspace asking whether they’re enjoying the experience. That’s stalking.
        And – really finally, now – “as long as your company is ethical, fair and good – what’s to lose” – everything. Corporate reputation takes years and years to build up and can be destroyed by one careless comment – do you want to take that risk? I sure don’t. Oh – and show me a large organisation that’s “ethical, fair and good” and I will show you something that smells of rat.

  3. I agree, Jeremy. Debate is good. 🙂

    Unfortunately, I disagree with you about most everything else (at least pertaining to this discussion).

    Personally, I don’t think you have to be a good communicator to be an effective brand rep. You just have to be honest, personable (at least slightly), and proud of what you do. If you are those things, people will know. If a company is made up of people like that, people will know. And that is the kind of business they’ll want to do business with.


    • Disagreement is what makes the world go round – and I like disagreement.

      I’m afraid, however, that being honest, slightly personable and proud of what you do doesn’t make you (necessarily) a good brand or corporate ambassador. It does, however, make you Forrest Gump.

      People want to do business with people – yes! They do! But they also, like it or not, consciously or not, want to do business with a strong brand or organisation and that perception of strength comes from heavy and protracted investment in building corporate reputation. A reputation which is intangible, invaluable and which can be ripped apart in minutes by one well-meaning but off-message Forrest. It’s one hell of a risk to take, so that people can deal with people.

  4. Wow, I do disagree about blocking social media. Employees are indeed your greatest assets – and can be your greatest advocates. The huge danger in blocking is that people are doing it anyway – whether it’s blocked or not. Surely opening it up with some simple guidance is the safest and most beneficial route to take?

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