Internal Communications – Here Be Debate!

This is a follow-up to the post in which I suggested that it would be an act of near-criminal lunacy to advocate (like Ford and Coke seem to be doing) giving employees of large organisations the freedom to post to social media sites, without any corporate control. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyway, here’s another reply:

“Yes, employees need to be briefed. And the article you quote (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124925830240300343.html) 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: http://www.awpagesociety.com/images/uploads/AE_Summary_4.pdf

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!”

Great reply – and worth responding. 

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 described 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.

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