In the dynamic of social media-fueled conversations, modern business communications has become a game of tug of war, with management teams on one end of the proverbial rope, and various stakeholder groups on the other. Perhaps the most aggressive of said stakeholders is employees—a group that, when it flexes its collective muscle in unison, can topple the strongest opposition.
“Pushing information is easy,” says Tim Keefe, first vice president of internal communication at Chase Card Services, the credit card division of JPMorgan Chase. “It’s the pulling that’s difficult.”
Which is why social media is so crucial to internal communications, both for facilitating collaboration across widely dispersed networks and for engaging employees and cultivating them as brand ambassadors. When both of these things are done effectively, the outcomes begin to drive overall business strategy.
“When you take this approach, internal communications becomes a primary vehicle for advancing the organization’s business objectives,” says Michelle Rios, vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. “It begins to align and integrate across all departments and platforms.”
TAKING A LEAP OF FAITH
Social media development and implementation is a process of trial and error, as much so internally as it is externally. For McDonald’s, a brand that transcends borders and is a household name worldwide, that trial and error is all the more daunting.
“It’s far from being figured out. We are just scratching the surface with what’s possible,” says Jason Greenspan, strategic communications director for McDonald’s Corp. “But we have to experiment, we have to test. If we don’t get the penetration we want, that’s OK—it’s a lesson learned.”
And, since social media channels began driving internal communications strategies at the company (more recently than he’d like to admit, Greenspan says), a number of lessons have been learned already. Take the company’s experience with “Station M,” an online portal for employees in the U.S. division.
“There was a lot of noise out there around our brand and the issues [it faced]. Our original intent was to find a way to connect with our crew so we could create brand ambassadors,” Greenspan says. “We wanted to change perceptions and create a dialogue around important issues like nutrition and employee practices. We also wanted to give them a platform for discussing non-McDonald’s topics, which actually didn’t work that well. It turns out that employees didn’t want to talk about things that weren’t work related on this platform, in this way. It was a lesson learned.”
What did work well, though, was empowering employees to manage content and discussions themselves.
“We have 15 crew bloggers who we have labeled as the official moderators of the site. They are the ones who post topics and start discussions,” Greenspan says. “It has helped us get insights into employee experiences, which has shaped some of our external employment image campaigns. We’ve also gotten feedback on training ideas before officially rolling programs out.”
As for where the ideas for blog topics come from, Greenspan says, it’s a collaborative effort.
“[Bloggers] are the ones that post topics and start discussions. That being said, we do subtly help them think about the kinds of things they may want to post,” he says. “We felt like, if there is going to be a business intent, the topics needed to be steered in the right direction.”
KEEPING THE FAITH
Few senior managers would be comfortable with the idea of completely laissez-faire governance of internal social media platforms. That said, they must be willing to allow conversations to begin and grow organically without censorship.
“The assumption is that employees will talk, so give them something positive to talk about. Create messages that inform, influence and inspire” Rios says. “Communications must be honest and transparent. Two-way dialogue is essential.”
Essential, but also intimidating. For example, when GE completed a massive redesign of its intranet, it opened up commenting features and decided that no comment would be anonymous.
“Surprisingly, even with names attached, there are a lot of negative comments [from employees] on our intranet site about our company strategy,” says Susan Bishop, director of employee marketing for GE. “But only once has compliance called me and said, ‘How do I get that comment taken down?’ The truth is, when you report a comment, it reports it to us and automatically takes it down. Then, we can override it and put it back up [if we want to].”
Having a policy in place that dictates the rules for engagement is the best way to empower employees without losing control over messages gone awry. “You can—and should—create and communicate company ground rules or codes of conduct for use of new social media tools,” Rios says. Sean Williams, CEO of Communication AMMO, seconds this, adding, “Intranets function best with distributed content and centralized guidelines.”
SPREADING THE FAITH
Once you have mechanisms in place for engaging employees through social media, give them a means of taking those messages outside the organization as well. Plus, you can also take what you learned from listening to employees’ internal dialogues and using it to shape external strategies, as Greenspan did at McDonalds.
Either way, creating a brand that is more of a dynamic culture than a static entity will facilitate every communications endeavor, regardless of the targeted stakeholder group.
“There is no internal brand versus external brand. It’s one in the same,” Rios says. “A brand is a promise, and employees can help deliver on that promise. When employees act as good brand ambassadors, business objectives are advanced.”
Companies of all shapes and sizes are seeing the effects of their internal branding and communications efforts come to fruition externally.
“We’re seeing it again and again,” Bishop says. “We [are asking ourselves], ‘Where can we personalize and humanize this company? Where can we take stories that are told by our own people and then use them to support the press releases we send out, and the stories we are telling our share owners and analysts?’”
Currently, GE is personifying this storytelling approach with its “Reel Interns” program, in which 72 summer interns were given flip cameras and asked to capture some of their experiences.
“The blurring around internal and external is getting stronger. We are going to take those [videos] and put them on our external Web site as well,” Bishop says. “It’s the GE story being told from the inside out.” PRN
Michelle Rios, firstname.lastname@example.org; Sean Williams, email@example.com; Susan Bishop, firstname.lastname@example.org; Tim Keefe, email@example.com