Where Sharing Can Shape Strategy

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Frank Ovaitt

That crumbling sound you hear might be the ultimate information silo falling. Are there any C-suite secrets left that can’t be shared with employees? If ever this barrier was breaking down, it ought to be today. Maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s social expectation of greater give and take.

Whatever the case, the gap continues to narrow between what “they,” the C-suite, know and what “we” (employees) don’t. So how do top executives decide and what counsel do top communicators provide about what must be shared and what can be held back? According to Bruce Berger, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, there are three areas where nobody wants to go out of bounds in terms of information sharing:

  1. Proprietary knowledge, or the types of secrets that could send an offending employee to jail.
  2. Material information, subject to Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure regulations.
  3. Individual information protected by privacy laws.

Everything else should be evaluated as an engagement opportunity. Still, it’s difficult work to sort out what is a critical secret, what provides an opportunity to engage with employees and what will soon be public anyway. What do senior communicators look for, and what tips do they have for convincing the C-suite to share more?

“Timely employee communication is built into every major announcement we make,” said Stephen Thomas, group head of corporate communications for AIA Group.

He added: “Our earnings results are clearly sensitive and cannot be divulged until we have informed the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. But our CEO is very cognizant of the importance of sharing this news with employees. So the moment the Exchange announcement goes live, a message is sent to all staff with a video discussing the results.”


There was a time when the ability to see across business units, business functions and even industries gave the C-suite special knowledge that yielded important secrets.

Today, with inside and outside parties having a broader vision of what’s going on, it’s often better to disclose and interpret this knowledge for employees.

Disclosure to employees can even be a strategy for dealing with complexity.

The harder it is to make business decisions based on complex knowledge, the more you may want to share knowledge with empowered employees so they can help figure it out.

Some communicators even push the blurring boundary between internal and external.

“If we tell great stories internally that do not contain sensitive, competitive information, we regularly repurpose that storytelling for external use—as YouTube videos, blog posts, tweets and media relations pitches,” said Oscar Suris, executive VP of corporate communications at Wells Fargo. “This trend is accelerating in our profession—I believe—with the expanding practice of so-called ‘brand journalism.’”


Suris acknowledged that while compliance with disclosure regulations goes without saying, secrecy isn’t a top-of-mind consideration when mapping internal communications strategies or counseling the CEO.

“Our focus is on culture,” he said. “That’s what ultimately matters on the internal communications front. How can communications—appropriately delivered and focused—help drive the culture a CEO wants to empower people to live the company’s mission and execute its strategy?”

Transparency can inoculate, of course. If there’s greater potential damage from holding back than from spilling too much, then get the information out. Don’t get charged later with having sat on information that could and should have been shared.

In a social environment, more voices can work to your advantage. Rachelle Spero, Brunswick Group partner, stressed that employees who are active online should be considered part of your enterprise-wide engagement process.

“Increasing employees’ familiarity with the company story and empowering them to be ‘part of the solution’ can reduce risk and improve engagement online,” Spero said. “There are many B2B companies that have been using their employees to build trust, earn respect and drive engagement with key audiences online for years, including IBM Corp., ExxonMobil, Pfizer, Unilever and Caterpillar.”


But it is not just social media that engages the engagers, said Rita Men, assistant professor at Southern Methodist University and research editor for the Institute for Public Relations Organizational Communication Research Center.

“I surveyed 400 employees from different medium-sized and large corporations across more than 20 industries in the U.S.,” she said.

She added: “When employees are engaged, they feel empowered, involved, emotionally attached and dedicated to the organization, and excited and proud about being a part of it.”

While social media is a piece of that, Men added that her results “show that traditional channels of face-to-face interactions (such as employee meetings and communication with direct managers) and emails strongly influence employee engagement.”

She added: “These two-way forms of communication facilitate the exchange of information, listening and conversation.”

A culture of sharing fosters a culture of working more effectively, together.

Optimizing PR for Employee Engagement

Organizations should optimize internal platforms to engage savvy employees, according to Dr. Rita Men, Southern Methodist University, assistant professor of public relations at Southern Methodist University. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but these research-based tips can get you started.

  • Understand each medium and what works where.
  • Align multiple media to business and communication goals.
  • Be open-minded and embrace up-to-date technology.
  • Identify internal thought leaders who are authentic, transformational and charismatic; help them develop communication skills.
  • Reward “social” employees and foster culture of collaboration, community and learning.
  • Enforce a social media policy on what is and is not acceptable.
  • Develop metrics to evaluate effectiveness.


Frank Ovaitt is president and CEO of the Institute of Public Relations. He can be reached at frank@instituteforpr.org.

This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.