Forget the Controlled Town Hall, Employees Have the Social Floor

Once a bastion for static corporate intranets, staid monthly assemblies and stale quarterly—or yearly—print publications, employee communications appears to have jettisoned bland and gone grand. And much of the improvement can be attributed to Web 2.0 and social media.

In an IABC / Prescient Digital Media study released in December 2011, 61% of companies reported at least one social media tool available to some or all employees. The most popular intranet 2.0 tools are blogs (75%), discussion forums (65%) and instant messaging (63%), while social networking for employees and microblogging are on the rise—at 43% and 42%, respectively.

These are findings that Wendy Watkins, VP of corporate communications at Delaware North Companies, can confirm from experience. When she joined the hospitality management company in 2000, there was nary an internal communications platform. “They had an quarterly employee magazine the year before, but by the time people received it, it was old news,” she says.

In the last 11 years employee communications at Delaware North has grown from a monthly pub to a biweekly e-mail, then a weekly e-mail to a current social media destination (created in-house)called BlueSquare. The impetus for this evolution to social media? Internal communication has evolved to mirror how people consume news in their personal life. “Can you imagine getting a quarterly print pub now?” says Watkins.

It’s not likely, according to Erin Grotts, director of internal communications at grocery and pharmacy company SuperValu.

“Employee communication has evolved to mirror how people consume news in their personal lives. Can you imagine getting a quarterly print publication now?” — Wendy Watkins, Delaware North Companies

“We need to start embracing the concept of being community managers versus building out more traditional communications plans,” says Grotts. “This is the direction we’re heading in. Once you open the gate you can’t go back.”

It’s a direction that Steve Halsey, senior VP at Gibbs & Soell Public Relations, finds clients very interested in. “Companies are really starting to embrace digital and social as a new means of internal engagement,” he says. “I get a number of e-mails from CEOs asking how they can use these platforms internally to create value.”

Indeed, social platforms appear to be exploding internally just like they did a externally a few years ago. But if you’re interested in taking the social leap with your employees, Halsey offers three points to consider:

1. Set your engagement strategy. Why are you deploying social media? Will employees be compelled to engage? What are senior management’s expectations, and do they really want an open dialogue? How will you measure success?

2. Enlist IT. Due to network security issues, firewalls and standardization, there are hurdles to clear in digital and social media integration.

3. Balance participation with productivity. How much time will employees spend on a social platform? “This ties in with strategy,” says Halsey. “Is your effort an HR push, an engagement initiative or something that fosters collaboration?”


Indeed, the idea of promoting employee collaboration via social platforms resonated in the IABC/Prescient study. The leading need or reason behind intranet 2.0 implementations was employee collaboration (78%), followed closely by employee engagement (75%).

“We need to start embracing the concept of being community managers versus building out more traditional communications plans.”
— Erin Grotts, SuperValu

At SuperValu, collaboration is achieved through the popular enterprise social network Yammer. SuperValu uses Yammer to crowdsource ideas, says Grotts. The platform gives the 9,000 SuperValu employees who use it access to company leaders via regular one-hour chats.

Delaware North uses its BlueSquare platform in a similar fashion, making collaboration a snap for employees around the world, including regular chats with leadership, plus an annual chance to ask the company’s owners questions. “BlueSquare makes things much more interesting than just having a live audience,” says Watkins, adding that the ability to show videos during the meetings makes for a deeper learning experience.


Yet collaborative goals are just one part of the equation. Halsey says social media is effective internally for pure employee engagement. For one client, Halsey helped created a “global video challenge” competition, asking employees to make videos about a passion they have, and how that passion makes them better at doing their jobs. 

“I get a number of e-mails from CEOs asking how they can use these social platforms internally to create value.”   — Steve Halsey,
Gibbs & Soell

Despite initial concerns about low levels of participation, the viral nature of social media inspired about three-quarters of the company’s employees to participate—workers spanning the plant floor up through middle management. “It was a combination of employee-generated content, bragging rights and popular voting,” says Halsey. And winners spanned the globe—from Los Angeles to Mumbai.


In using social media to engage customers, communicators often feel a lack of control—and rightly so. The same concerns apply to employee communications, says SuperValu’s Grotts. “Management will have anxiety about deploying social internally,” she says. “It’s a matter of them understanding how to use the network.”

And part of that understanding is taking a leap of faith. “You just have to jump in,” continues Grotts. “There’s nothing wrong with launching something socially and seeing how groups respond.”

There will be hiccups, adds Watkins. “But we ask employees to follow the company values we’ve established—including integrity and respect for others,” she says.

Therein lies the risk of employees’ ability to converse with peers in real time—yet internal communicators are beginning to see that the benefits of social media greatly outweigh the risk. PRN


Wendy Watkins,; Erin Grotts,; Steve Halsey,