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The Internal Communication function is changing dramatically, largely by necessity. And that’s a good thing. Much like peers in other communication disciplines (as well as more distant professionals cousins in marketing and advertising) IC pros are reinventing themselves in the face of tectonic shifts in technology, communications and consumer behavior.
The trends driving these changes are powerful and inexorable: pervasive social communications; ubiquitous mobility; popularity of digital (and immersive) content; 24/7 data analytics; and the growing influence of consumer advocates, citizen journalists and user-generated content, among others. With regard to the workplace itself, communicators face additional developments and challenges – including chronically low engagement, generational clashes and seemingly endless transformation and downsizing. Collectively these trends are causing deep soul-searching about the relevance and value of traditional HR strategies (i.e. performance management, reward and recognition, training programs.)
Given these dramatic changes, internal communicators need to play a very different role than a few years ago to remain relevant, credible and effective. Here are the key components of this new communication role…call it Internal Communications 2.0:
Integrator – By virtue of their unique position at the nexus of internal and external communications, leadership outreach and internal support functions (e.g. IT and HR), IC pros are in the best position to facilitate coordination across teams and regions to ensure goals, activities and messages are aligned and coordinated. This is particularly true with major cross-company programs like internal branding or M&A outreach that lack an obvious leader. This critical integration role is more than being an enabler – which is more passive – and assumes the IC pro will stretch beyond his/her functional mandate to fill a role that often isn’t well defined or staffed. Without this integration, however, most company programs will probably fail.
Data Analyst – It’s become a truism we are drowning in a sea of data. Big data. Small data. Consumer data. Even employee data. All communicators need to become educated, if not resident experts, in the gathering, analysis and communication of this information. This area is particularly ripe for leadership inside organizations, where many HR teams (traditionally the keepers of workforce data) lack the expertise of marketing/PR teams and are struggling just to update their surveying models. And relegating this role to IT teams, who often manage intranet and platform statistics, isn’t good enough, since those teams usually lack the skills the review the raw numbers for analysis and insights. IC pros should lead the process of collecting, aggregating, assessing and responding to the rich data available on their employees.
Content Curator – IC professionals use to be the primary authors of content in their companies. That role is still important, but it’s become even more important to act as curators of content, helping to blend and share news and information from leaders, external sources and the employees themselves. Some of the best stories and ideas come from employees, so IC pros must ensure there are channels to collect and post this content. There is still an important role to provide editorial guardrails to ensure all shared content is ‘brand safe’, but that’s where communicators need to be more curators than gatekeepers. There is also an important role to play in acting as interpreter for leaders, who are sometimes well intentioned but ineffective and reluctant communicators. Whatever the source of content, the emphasis on authentic, transparent and timely information has made the traditional one-way communication model irrelevant and ineffective.
Listener – One of the most valuable roles IC pros can play is simply to listen to their internal stakeholders; to uncover, understand and respond to the concerns and preferences of employees. Though many inside the typical organization are responsible in some way for listening and responding to employees – notably front-line managers – most usually focus on sporadic, face-to-face interactions and don’t strive to pull the input together into a coherent, actionable narrative. Internal Communication pros can and should play this role, and also steer the company’s response to the input (perhaps through new policies or programs.) This listening role can be formal (gathering data through internal surveys and audits), part of the daily role (community manager for internal social platforms) or mostly informal (lunch meetings with staff or local in-house reporters.) Whatever the approach the IC professional becomes the most accurate and current advocate for the employee community.
Innovator – In many companies no department has the formal responsibility to foster innovation inside the organization, save perhaps a small strategic planning function. Often, the marketing or PR function take on the mantle, but their efforts are usually narrow and may not consider issues like workplace technology and business or entertainment trends. Conversely, most HR and IT teams lack the desire and/or bandwidth to drive innovation inside their organizations. This innovation gap is an opportunity for IC professionals, who have visibility and impact across the organization. Even small innovations like new social platforms or communication content (interactive infographic) can send a strong message and spark more ambitious planning across departments. Two examples of how IC teams can drive innovation across the enterprise is through employee advocacy programs and virtual employee ‘jams’, which often spur the adoption of social technology across the company.
Expert Counselor – Many IC pros have garnered reputations inside their organizations as ‘go to’ experts on not just communication, but a range of related issues like employee engagement, corporate reputation and emerging technology. Given that IC staff frequently brief, interview and/or counsel leaders as part of their work, they are perfectly positioned to share their insights and counsel. The role of wise counselor is not easy to gain or keep, but it’s well worth the effort. Leaders today are looking for smart analysis and cogent guidance, particularly on emerging business trends, and those who provide that will gain in profile and credibility. A caveat: this counsel should be strategic, not just focused on tactical execution – a shortcoming which has eroded the credibility and standing of the IC function in the past.
Trainer – IC pros that gain expertise in new technology and current workplace trends can train leaders and peers to raise the acumen and strategic agility of the organization. Much of this work typically involves working with senior leaders to help them communicate and lead more effectively, but the mandate need not be so limited. Many leaders yearn for guidance in areas as disparate as blog writing, social interaction and cultural events – all areas where IC staff can lead. Companies with social platforms often rely on IC staff to facilitate the training on relevant policies and platform use. The training itself should be as contemporary and dynamic as the information (think e-learning and gamification rather than traditional face-to-face sessions or death by Webinar.)
Multi-Media Storyteller – It’s well documented that often the best way to share information is through a compelling, episodic narrative shared across media formats. Internal Communication teams are ideally positioned to drive this process internally, pulling together capabilities like writing, design, promotion, video, social technology and executive outreach. As noted previously, communication staff should be the ones who uncover, shape and help share the internal stories. IC teams also usually manage their company’s intranet, which can be a powerful multi-media delivery channel if used effectively – the Swiss Army knife of internal tools. Conversely, teams that stick to outdated communication channels (email) and styles (formal text) are missing an opportunity to break through the clutter and truly engage their audience.
Culture Ambassador – Though HR has historically taken the reins to promote culture inside organizations, IC pros are probably better positioned to help define, celebrate and promote a company’s distinctive culture. IC teams often have strong capabilities in marketing, messaging, social dialogue, digital content and even collateral – which together can pack a powerful, convincing punch. Furthermore, IC pros often take on the role of employee advocate inside their organizations, ensuring that the needs and aspirations of employees are heard and considered in decision-making. The purpose is not just altruistic, but an effort to ensure communication is relevant and credible. The emergence of employee advocacy, virtual meetings and crowd-sourcing programs only reinforces the role of internal communicators as keepers of the culture.
It’s true that taking on these new roles likely entails more work – or at minimum very different work – and certainly more risk and responsibility. And it assumes a great deal of research, networking, learning and adapting – and that never stops. But inertia is not really an option. Failure to proactively take on these critical roles – which too often go unfilled – will limit the function’s value inside an organization, and probably erode the team’s reputation and credibility. It’s taken years of effort for IC pros to get a place at the proverbial leadership table and gain the reputation of strategists, not just order-takers or tacticians. Now IC pros have the opportunity to not only secure their place at the decision-making table, but to expand their traditional role and enhance their reputation. It won’t be easy, but the effort is well worth it.
This recent post in Huffington Post on Hillary Clinton’s authenticity (or lack thereof) got me thinking about the evolution of authenticity as a paragon of communication. In recent years, the immediacy and transparency of social media has increased the premium on authenticity – being true to your identity or person and avoiding artifice, hype or self-serving promotion. Over the years I have worked with numerous leaders and politicians striving to identify and promote their identity and genuine brand attributes – to be authentic. The premise is that an informed and empowered consumer (or voter) will not accept a disingenuous or fabricated persona, or marketing message. I still believe that striving for an honest, credible portrayal of oneself (or a company or culture) is critical, but is it enough? I’ve concluded that being authentic, in of itself, is not enough to foster lasting relationships with your audience(s).
Let’s take Donald Trump as a prominent example. Trump is unapologetic about being himself – for better or for worse, whether he contravenes political correctness or not. He ignores political conventions and etiquette, he blusters (apparently without script) about any topic, and he liberally throws around vitriolic insults at anyone who dares criticize him or his persona. Throughout this process, Trump seems to relish in being Donald Trump – or the persona he has crafted and become in the public consciousness.
At least for now, Trump’s recipe seems to be working. In fact, Trump’s very popularity seems largely based on his unscripted, honest and blunt commentaries and policy positions – which often contravene GOP orthodoxy. He is the consummate outsider (at least in political terms) and the opposite of the typical poll-driven, predictable and deliberate candidate. Other candidates seem to be either trying to ignore him – with varying degrees of success – or to emulate his dogmatic, no-holds-barred style. (On the democratic side, one could argue Bernie Sanders is benefiting from a similar wave of support for his direct style – albeit a more polite and humble version. Other pundits suggest Joe Biden, who has not declared his candidacy, would have the most equity on the authenticity meter.)
While Trump has garnered the headlines and the support, the cautious, reactive campaigns of other GOP candidates have generated more credibility problems than excitement with the public. Politicians like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, along with Hillary, are the anti-thesis of Trump. In fact, all three of these candidates have suffered due to their lack of candor, sincerity and accessibility on contentious issues. Based on polls I’ve seen, most Americans seem to question the authenticity – or trustworthiness – of these candidates. Their outreach seems designed not to share candid personal views or insights, but to sell a proactive electoral platform and carefully crafted persona. These candidates may at their core have real beliefs and policy ideas, but we’d be hard pressed to judge which ones are entrenched and which are promoted for political expediency or to avoid controversy. In other words, they are having difficulty making the case they are authentic.
But there is another side to Trump’s transparent “deal with it” persona. Yes, he certainly appears to be a distinctive personality and has carved out his own unique style. He is, in short, authentic and entirely original. But what of the view that he is also a bigot and misogynist? Or woefully ignorant of political minutiae and world affairs? Or laughably egotistical, thin-skinned and petty? All of the those criticisms have some strong proof-points and cogent advocates. In other words, he may be real, but is he a positive, effective candidate to be president of the country or is he a self-promoting clown?
I would posit that by itself authenticity isn’t enough if the person or brand being featured doesn’t align with the values, beliefs and aspirations of his/her supporters (or consumers.) In other words, you also have to be relevant, credible and yes, even likeable. What is the true value in an authentic narcissist or bully?
I would also argue that beyond an authentic personality, there needs to be authenticity for the actual ideas being promoted by candidates like Trump. Indeed, there is likely value in having passionate, consistent and convincing ideas (and content) rather than chasing polls or simply tossing out bumper-sticker slogans with little intellectual or empirical heft.
The focus on authenticity has also obscured the reality that politicians (and companies) need to do more than talk about themselves – they have to listen. And respond. And presumably also accept the ideas and criticisms of their followers or consumers. One could argue the implicit contract with fans or consumers – on social platforms but also through traditional media channels and political settings – is that the discussion should be civilized, with a measure of decorum, fairness and balance – like any reasonable conversation. That’s the basis of code of conducts for public communication in many organizations, and what keeps discourse on the web from becoming a troll free-for-all.
I’m not certain Trump is willing or able to show this level of civility, humility and empathy. Being elected, or selling a product, is not a one-way conversation or license to be obnoxious under the guise of being honest and unfiltered. Even if you are an authentic original. For these reasons I think Trump’s wave of popularity is not sustainable. Will he actually be the GOP presidential candidate? The jury is out, but my guess would be no.
For the past few months there seems to be growing buzz in social media (and communication) circles about employee advocacy. Companies like IBM, Target, Dell and Starbucks are sharing positive updates about their programs. Employee advocacy is clearly being pitched as the next big thing, and with good reason – as you can see later in this post. But despite the huge potential benefits to companies (and employees), staff advocacy programs are not a magic bullet, and not for every company. Like any other social media program, you need to be smart, realistic and deliberate about your approach. So I’ve developed a checklist of issues communication pros should carefully consider before they embark on an advocacy program.
Before I get to the checklist, let’s review a quick definition and look at the rationale for employee advocacy.
Employee advocacy is mobilizing trained employees to share company-approved content through employee-owned social channels to engage consumers, peers and family. (Italics are intentional, underlining critical elements of an advocacy program.) Advocates typically do not have social outreach as a formal part of their jobs (like subject matter experts who blog on the company’s behalf.) In essence, advocacy programs allow your employees to tell your company story.
As for the potential benefits of employee advocacy, they have been well documented and are backed by robust research and results. At its core employee advocacy helps amplify your marketing efforts, increasing the credibility, reach, audience and engagement well beyond levels for typical corporate outreach. This can translate into a boost in online profile, reputation and fan base. But the bigger payoff is through the potential for an increase in sales leads, revenue and profits. Enlisting your employees in an advocacy program can also help drive staff engagement, and given the stubbornly low engagement levels, that’s a very good thing.
Beyond the profile boost for your branded content – the explicit messages you are sharing – advocacy programs send powerful symbolic messages to both consumers and employees. For employees it says: your ideas matter, we trust you, we believe in our company and we support your personal brand. For customers it says: we’re part of the conversation, we live our values, we’re proud to tell our story, we trust and value our employees and we’re a leader.
So with all this promise, why shouldn’t companies start an employee advocacy right now…if they haven’t already? The short answer is they may not be ready. The list below provides a good template for readiness for an advocacy program.
- Can you be authentic? – To be effective long-term, employee advocacy programs must authentically align with their culture, brand and employee interests. Authenticity is a central ethos of social media, with a premium on transparency and responsiveness. That means no hype, no fluff, no dishonesty and no hiding. Does your companies’ marketing and PR content truly align with these values?
- Is your culture toxic? – Very low employee morale or engagement is not a good foundation for an employee advocacy program. Ask yourself if your employees are likely to be positive and supportive as online ambassadors? If you’re not sure, you need to fix your culture before you think about advocacy. It’s true that many companies start with small pilot programs, but author/pundit Jay Baer said it best: “If your employees aren’t your biggest fans, you’ve got bigger problems than social media.”
- Do you have social infrastructure? – Though there are good technology platforms that companies can easily adopt to manage their advocacy programs, companies with limited or no social capability and/or cultural acceptance will have a much steeper learning curve and a tougher time driving adoption. It’s also important to have internal systems that allow (even foster) multi-directional dialogue and content sharing.
- Is your social media policy overly complex or restrictive? – No matter how well you design and execute your advocacy program, it will lag if your social media policies confuse or inhibit your employees.
- Is your content compelling? – Perhaps the biggest barrier to a successful advocacy program is stale, self-serving content. Boring is bad. Leading companies use a formula that emphasizes industry and employee-generated content (multi-media of course) over typical marketing content. In other words, treat this as a conversation and not a pushy hard sell – which is anathema in social media.
- Do you recognize and value your employees? – Good advocacy programs do a great job of recognizing and rewarding participants. (IBM even ranks the most prolific and popular advocates.) Do you already have credible programs in place to recognize your staff? Are you willing to make your employees the stars of the program?
- Will you be social in good times and bad? – Any social media program requires sustained commitment to be credible and relevant, and advocacy programs are no exception. Shutting down during a crisis will create a backlash and erode your credibility. Furthermore, your staff will likely want to have their voice heard in tough times.
- Are you good at listening? – Beyond the marketing boost, a big advantage of employee advocacy programs is the acquisition of content-related data and insights on your customers and employees. If you are not already in the mode of listen-learn-adapt, however, these benefits will be lost on you.
- Do you trust your employees? – The most important litmus test of any advocacy program is whether you trust your employees. The best programs assume their employees have good intentions, and give their staff plenty of leeway – including choosing the role and content that fits their skills and interest. Programs that are dictatorial or stifle creativity will not be successful. Monitoring and discipline should be a last resort, not a default out of the gate.
It’s likely true that a good advocacy program can actually help fix many of the issues listed above. But I would suggest you start with a strong foundation. Walk before you go social, as it were.
Over the past few years, I’ve often questioned why so many communication professionals – both in-house and in PR agencies – were slow and hesitant to adapt to the dramatic industry changes sparked by social technology. There are many logical explanations for this lag: caution about legal issues, concern about a public misstep, fears about rogue employees, a distaste for real (and potentially negative) interaction with consumers…the list goes on. But based on recent research I’ve seen the explanation may be more basic: most PR professionals simply don’t have the social media skills and expertise to be effective (or confident) advocates for change.
This excellent post by friend and former colleague Richard Binhammer provides a good summary of the skills gap in marketing and across the general US employee population. Indeed, the problem is not limited to communication professionals. However, this is where the problem is most acute and noteworthy, since our jobs dictate that we provide cogent, informed counsel and support on digital engagement with both external and internal audiences. By some estimates in these studies, only about 10 percent of workers truly understand digital technology well enough to incorporate that knowledge into their work and planning. For more background on the PR skill gap see this article and this study.
Even millennials, who tend to be much more tech-savvy than older workers and use most major social platforms every day, have their blind spots. Though younger workers have grown up with the mobile Internet and have likely posted most of their lives online, they lack the strategic savvy and broader perspective required to use their knowledge in a business context. Put another way, they understand the technology, but not the PR business. This article in Fortune provides a good snapshot of the millennial strengths and weaknesses.
All of this evidence reflects what I’ve seen over the past 10 or so years as both a communication executive and consultant. We are falling behind in a digital world. Badly. Events like SXSW, the tip of the spear in digital innovation, suggest that everybody is fully immersed in digital media and driving cutting-edge social media strategies in marketing, advertising and communications. But I don’t think the folks at SXSW reflect the average PR professional, or company – particularly outside the tech havens of Silicon Valley, Portland and similar global outposts.
Leaders who are socially savvy and proactive are extremely rare, the proverbial unicorn. A surprising number of communication teams seem to rely on one or two in-house digital gurus – typically social media managers, digital designers or marketing experts – who are often over-taxed and overwhelmed. Lacking adequate depth and breadth of critical social skills, many communication teams rely on a range of outside experts ranging across digital disciplines to cobble together programs: web design, platform vendor/technology, visual/video content, editorial content, social community management, research and analytics, and so forth. I’ve rarely seen all this requisite expertise housed within a PR agency or team, much less inside the same organization. Though the outsourced virtual “best team” approach may be effective in the short-term, it doesn’t support the efficient, dedicated work required to plan and execute a robust digital strategy.
There is urgent need to address this social skill gap; the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of the communication/PR business are at stake. The solutions are obvious, if not easy or inexpensive: training in social media history and skills; built-in time to participate in relevant seminars and meetings; progressive BYOD and social media policies; reverse mentorship programs; recruitment of tech-savvy professionals; mandatory boot-camps on digital metrics; and, alignment with related disciplines (i.e. digital design, intranet technology, social analytics, CRM.) Smart communication leaders will take steps to ensure they – and their teams – become the social media experts their clients expect and need to be successful in the digital age. Without making progress in the social skill gap, I fear PR may simply be pushed out by smart marketing or technology firms (and teams) who pull together the requisite social capabilities.
Every year I watch with interest as new technology trends and tools are introduced and discussed. Beyond the impressive innovation and creativity – and yes, the occasional false start and tendency towards hype – my favored activity is digging into the expected and potential applications for marketing and communication disciplines.
The recent CES conference provides plenty of fodder for discussion. The coverage I’ve read and seen focuses on a number of exciting trends:
- The Internet of everything – There is a marked trend towards having access to the internet from anywhere, anytime to do whatever we want. We can buy a product using only our iPhone, access the Web in our cars through voice commands, change the temperature of our home remotely, access (or record/save/share) content from a range of mobile devices…you get the drift. It’s all about connectivity across all platforms, allowing us to perform a huge number of activities that require, or are helped by, access to the internet.
- Technology gets personal – With the boom in wearables, including sophisticated smart watches, you can now connect with your doctor remotely (with real-time sharing of your vital signs) and track every second of your life. Of course, this also allows you to share or use that data with a wide range of appliances and applications.
- It’s still about content (and data) – This year’s CES had the usual improvements in dazzling ways to share digital content, ranging from virtual reality to curved ultra-high-definition TVs. On the data side, many of these applications require or encourage increased use of data – notably personal data from wearables. The trick is how to collect, organize, analyze and use all the information across all the potential access points.
So what does all this mean for communication professionals – if anything?
My first reaction is: with all this focus on internet everywhere connectivity, why do so many workplaces still have limited social and mobile capability? I see plenty of room for improvement for many organizations (except perhaps the usual suspects in the tech world) to deploy and mobilize a mobile strategy to inform, engage and support their employees. Forget high-def digital screens; many are still working to allow use of BYOD smartphones and tablets among their staff, while others are struggling to ensure their intranets have responsive design for mobile users. One example of potential innovation is using smart cars for employees who spend most/all of their time on the road.
I also see a gap – or to be more positive, a major opportunity – around the trend of personalization, notably personalizing content and communication outreach inside organizations. This need not involve wearables like smart watches – which for many companies are likely years away – but can start with more agile, smarter segmentation of outreach and increased use of personalization on existing platforms like intranets or email networks. Most intranet platforms allow for considerable customization to allow users to focus on feeds and content that is most relevant to them. Communicators can also easily increase the ability for employees to opt into content, of feeds, that are most interesting to them rather than pushing mass distribution. Another simple improvement is making full use of so-called rich profile tools (like My Site) that allow employees to partially shape their own employee profile information.
I think the biggest contrast between the cutting-edge of CES and the average workplace is around data. Where one of the main topics at CES was around the push to collect, track and analyze all manner of data (like those smart watches) for many companies the very concept of data is nascent, limited mostly to cumbersome annual surveys, rudimentary tracking statistics and profile information. Some forward-thinking companies are showing progress in this area; for example, using real-time, regular online culture surveys, and using analysis to match employee engagement data with other metrics like customer satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Others, however, still struggle with old-school issues like updating staff directories (if they are even online) and integrating disparate, disconnected systems.
Ironically, all the hype and excitement from CES serves as a good reminder that it’s not all about technology. Though it’s become a well-worn truism, internal communications still has to include, if not feature, people in the communication mix – notably managers and leaders. But even here, the dazzling new technology offers fertile ground for innovation. Surely we can find better ways to inform and mobilize managers so they can in turn communicate with their teams more consistently and effectively. The real lesson for CES is that communication professionals should always be learning and listening; new ideas and improvements can come from anywhere.
I recently had the chance to have an informal videoconversation with my good friend and e-learning guru Anders Gronstedt, CEO of The Gronstedt Group, about employee communication trends and opportunities. We cover a fair amount of ground on topics such as social media (inside the enterprise), staff training, employee engagement and emerging communication technology. One of the themes emerging from our conversation is that despite the hype and promise of social media, many companies are still hesitant to embrace new collaborative and social technology in the workplace. Please share your questions and comments.
Over the past few months I’ve attended (mostly virtually) a number of webinars and conferences focusing on social analytics and business intelligence. The latest was the Social Intelligence Summit put on by the W20 folks in London. (Here is a good blog post on the session.) I always come out of these sessions really impressed, even dazzled, by the advances in technology and intellectual leadership at the cutting edge of social business. The big lesson for me from these sessions is that the digital world is – with few exceptions – transparent, observable and measurable, and we’re coming up with increasingly smarter ways to find, package and use the digital data.
It’s difficult to pull highlights from the sheer volume of notable observations and insights, but here are a few I’ve noted:
- There are now a wide range of sophisticated, user-friendly tools to help organizations monitor, aggregate, analyze and report activity on the Web – including multi-media discussions occurring on social platforms;
- Analytics software can now provide complex, real-time data and insights that allow organizations to monitor and adapt their outreach 24/7;
- Smart companies have gone well beyond listening and engagement and are now using the data to understand their audience (and how their brand is performing) and gain intelligence to drive their business;
- Powerful analytics are being used well beyond the basic objectives of marketing – to drive brand or product awareness, consideration and hopefully purchase – and are now helping to guide activities as varied as health planning, product development and even predictive consumer research;
- There seems to be a shift in what companies measure, with some focusing well beyond the usual reach/share of voice/tone to issues like identifying and mobilizing small groups of influential advocates, or determining highly customized and protean media channel strategies;
- Some of the most interesting and advanced analytics work seeks to link social data and insights with specific business processes, transactions and outcomes – and using the insights to adapt and improve related business results.
My initial thought coming out of these events is euphoria (and humility) at the incredible innovation and intellectual sophistication in social media circles, and appreciation so much of this information and technology is readily available for all to use. But inevitably there is a thud when I return back to reality with my own observations, projects and clients. The reality is what I hear in these conferences and webinars still seems like rarified air in my consulting environment, with most clients or peers I see still grappling to understand and implement even the most rudimentary social platforms and strategy. If anything, I feel the gap between the analytics gurus and many of the corporate leaders (and communication pros) I work with is getting wider. In effect, I see a few pioneers with one foot in the future, but many others with one foot firmly placed in the past.
Perhaps the largest gap, and opportunity, is inside the organization. Most companies have at least some commitment to monitoring external social conversations and using the resulting data and insights to direct their social strategy, if not their broader business. But it’s much more infrequent to find companies that deploy social technology inside their enterprise and actually monitor, measure and analyze all the data generated by their employees. And leveraging Intranet traffic metrics or annual engagement surveys does not count as a real-time, robust analytics strategy.
Think of the potential outcomes if companies started to aggregate and interpret all the data on or from their workforce. Those kind of insights would not only help to track and drive engagement – the priority for many HR leaders and employee communication executives – but also provide valuable information to positively impact business outcomes such as productivity, retention, safety and even customer service. I’m personally hoping the analytics gap closes soon. Otherwise leaders and communication professionals are leaving a lot on the table.
A few months ago a good friend and industry peer asked me if I had any employee engagement plans. I had to think a minute, but as it turns out in over 25 years in the communication business I’ve maybe worked on one or two plans that could be considered comprehensive engagement programs – either for my own own company or a client. How is this possible? Isn’t engagement a virtual obsession among corporate executives and a mantra for internal communication pros?
I concluded this void – at least in my own experience – reflects a lack of understanding and commitment among many organizations that claim to seek sustained engagement. Though engagement is the holy grail of internal communications (and related fields like HR) most companies – though well-intentioned and determined to drive engagement – seem to take a piece-meal approach that only addresses one or two aspects of an employee’s workplace experience.
But the reality is it takes a holistic, sustained and integrated approach to ensure employees are informed, motivated (even passionate), productive and loyal. Many factors should be considered and working in strategic alignment to encourage engagement. But in today’s matrix, decentralized organizations the teams responsible for these functions rarely collaborate on that level, and in some cases their siloed activities may even be sending mixed messages to employees. I’ve seen this particular formula several times: spend energy and resources to ensure employees know exactly what they have to do and why they should do it, but don’t engage other functions (like HR) to ensure these same employees are actually trained, supported, recognized or rewarded for said work. Too many companies seem to think an annual survey (to measure engagement) and a few high-profile fixes (to address prominent issues) is the necessary exilir for employee engagement, but that’s only a start.
One approach I’ve used that seems to drive relevance and alignment in engagement activities is to use the employee’s perspective; what are the employee questions and needs that need to be addressed – and answered cogently and consistently – to shape a positive, productive workplace experience? Take a look at the attached presentation for additional details.
Whatever the strategy for engagement, the lesson is that there are no shortcuts. But without concerted action companies risk not only stagnant productivity and attrition of talent, but also lose the opportunity to mobilize their employees as advocates. Given the increasing profile of social media platforms in recent years, what employees say – good or bad – about your organization can have a huge impact on reputation and even sales.
For more information check out this presentation.
Over the past year, I’ve witnessed and engaged in several discussions – both online and in person – that explored the mandate and modus operandi of the employee communications function. Though the topics vary, a recurring thread – or really more of a question – relates to who “owns” content developed for an employee audience.
In one online polemic, for example, a participant suggested that a key role of internal communication (IC) practitioners was not only to create most of the content for employees, but also to control, or filter, all content reaching staff to ensure they were not overwhelmed or confused by irrelevant information. Many other discussions seemed to support this position – which suggests a traditional role where the development and delivery of content is directed, if not rigidly controlled, by the IC team.
Though I agree that in many organizations there is far too much frivolous or irrelevant content dumped on employees, I am struck that this “we know what’s best” attitude is badly out of sync with the prevailing ethos of social media, where the power of creating and vetting content and determining editorial agendas has shifted to the “crowd” – or individuals.
Looking from another angle, however, it’s clear that the answer isn’t a free-for-all where individuals and functions are able to generate and share content as they see fit. Employees in most companies often complain of being overwhelmed by the volume of emails and other content – most of which has little relevance to their job or interests. Even accessing simple social platforms (such as Yammer or Chatter) seems to be a stretch for busy employees. So more is not better.
It’s true that some content or communication tools created organically can be useful and get traction; I can think of several examples where social tools or even more traditional e-newsletters created by teams or offices are successful (in terms of reach, ratings and impact.) The problem with a largely decentralized, informal approach is that in aggregate the communication can lack quality, focus, structure and purpose. It can also be very difficult in these noisy, informal environments to find the most urgent or important content; even critical leadership announcements can get lost in the mix.
In this context, I suggest the answer lies in a balanced approach where the communication team becomes a content curator – or a light-handed editorial manager. In essence, ownership of content is shared. The IC team should still play a robust editorial role – creating critical corporate content, counseling functions and teams to encourage value and quality over volume, and limiting what gets broadcast through main corporate tools and channels – but also foster and amplify content generated by employees and internal experts. Whether content is valuable and relevant should be determined jointly by all parties – with the ultimate measure being whether users access, use and share the information. This curator model also allows for rich peer-to-peer communication through social platforms and collaboration tools.
In reality, internal communication has always been a balancing act between communicating what the company wants and covering what the employees want to know and talk about (usually more personal and local issues and “what’s in it for me” questions.) Positioning the IC team as a curator – rather than a self-appointed editorial gatekeeper – builds on that tradition and provides leeway to take advantage of user-generated content, organic storytelling and social or collaboration platforms. It also reinforces the reality that employees – like external consumers – have ideas, interests and information that bear as much consideration as those of senior executives. This new construct may not please traditional CEOs or communicators who favor a top-down approach, but it’s a better recipe for success in this evolving environment.
I haven’t really talked about the evolving nature of content – with the growing emphasis on storytelling and trans-media digital content – but that’s a story for another day.
During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.
But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.
So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology? While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:
- Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
- Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
- Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
- Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
- Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
- Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.
Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.