How developments in social media might impact internal corporate communications

Internal corporate communications often put a positive spin on news stories, and often include only stories which portray the organization in a positive light and highlight recent success stories. Reasons for this can include thee organization’s leadership wanting to motivate staff, emphasise strategy, and direct the development of the corporate culture, as well as possibly also highlighting successful leadership.

As such, the style of presentation and choice of content can include an element of bias, and in some cases might even be factually inaccurate or misleading (eg, if the leadership feels that this can be in the best interests of the organization, or if the leadership is dictating the internal communications in order to justify it’s own existence or overstate its own performance). This is natural – in any communications or discussion, most people tend to put a positive spin on their own performance.

Recent technological developments, in particular Web2.0/Social Media, are however limiting the effectiveness of what can essentially be ‘corporate propaganda‘.

Wikipedia includes a definition of propaganda given by Richard Alan Nelson (in ‘A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States’, 1996):

Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.”

Propaganda was something that was typically renowned for being heavily used in dictatorships and during military conflict (in order to ensure support for the country’s cause, or at least the leading political party’s cause), but it can also happen on a much smaller scale, in corporate organizations, or even between individuals.

Technological developments which can be ‘game changers’ for corporate communications

Tools such as Twitter search (or similar twitter search tools like Tweefind), Ensembli, Google Reader, Lazyfeed, etc. (links to all of these are available in the left column of my blog) are making it much easier for people to become aware of references being made about a specific name/topic (eg, a company name) and feed back details of the reference (related story), while Google search allows individuals to quickly search the web with little effort.

Of course, in the past one could always keep an eye out for news stories in newspapers, televised news shows or trade-press, but typically only the most significant stories were announced, and assumes also that you happened to be reading/watching when it was announced.  One could also talk to friends and business contacts, and learn from them what they knew, or what their contacts knew (subject to the view being passed on and remembered).

In comparison, today’s social media networks give one has access to global opinions and news updates and opinions in real-time, or on request, and not just from official news sources, but also from anyone who wants to share a view, thought, fact, opinion, or rumor (even if they are starting the rumor).

Twitter search is, in particular, useful since it presents a regular stream of off-the-cuff, real-time thoughts (in many cases not censured or even carefully thought through whether such disclosure/opining is authorized or sensible), as well as the very latest news references. Twitter allows you to hear the ‘word on the street’ (in fact the word everywhere) on what you preferred topic is, whether it is your firm’s own performance, how others perceive your firm or how it compares with regard to competitors, etc.

There is however a risk with many online sources with regard to their accuracy (in particular Twitter, given that many of the results from a Twitter search might be from individuals who are not the original source of the news, or that person possibly having his/her own agenda/bias).

What you might learn online

Things that you can learn about yourself/your company online:

  • mention of (and links to) news articles that you weren’t aware of (eg, more negative news, or news that somehow crosses some border/boundary or other – eg, relating to another country, division, etc.)
  • what individuals find interesting, shown by what they tweet about (ie, each Twitter message) or retweet (forwarded tweets), and how often similar stories are being discussed (this might be different to what you think they are interested in, or indeed what you want them to be interested in)
  • who is talking about you/your organization (which media organizations, individuals, etc.)
  • opinions and perceptions of your organization (is it really consistent with what you think yourself?)
  • your own organization’s social media communications

Upsides and downsides to corporate propaganda

Upsides for positive spin in internal corporate communications:

  • it is difficult to be certain of maintaining confidentiality of messages, and documents published internally within an organization (and to the extent possible organizations want to limit their competitors becoming aware of the organization’s weaknesses)
  • to the extent that such positive news filters into the marketplace, it can aid in attracting and recruiting the best talent, win customers and challenge/scare competitors
  • can improve confidence and motivation, as well as highlight best practice, by focusing on positive stories

Downsides for positive spin in internal corporate communications:

  • can hide, or downplay the underperformance of leadership or internal processes (failure to meet goals, mistakes made, inefficiency, politics, etc.), resulting in failure to initiate change early enough
  • can result in over-optimism by employees, possibly impacting management decisions
  • can be embarrassing for employees, and reduce their credibility, if employees are not aware of matters that the external parties are aware of
  • can limit an organization’s ability to learn from its mistakes and address it’s weaknesses
  • employees can become distrustful of leadership if they find that they are not hearing an accurate or complete version of performance
  • employees might consider inaccurate rumors to be fact given the lack of an official internal statement

Conclusions

Given the unavoidable impact of society’s greater access to more information via social media and internet search, it is important for organizations to be aware of the pro’s and con’s of putting positive spin on internal communications and decide how they will respond.

Some options, in increasing levels of ‘corporate responsibility’ include:

(i) no change – those that consider that the risk of employees finding out alternative views is low, or that it is not a concern of they do become aware of alternative views

(ii) maintain the current approach to internal communications, but actively encouraging employees to themselves be more active with regard to using social media and recent technological developments to understand market developments, how the organisation is perceived, etc. (this means that only additional publicly available information is shared, limiting the risk of

(iii) become more open and honest in their internal communications – while not necessarily needing to be too negative, one could use the opportunity to give the true facts around less positive news, explain mitigation actions/reasons for the developments and announce the learning points and resulting action that was implemented as a result. Indeed, if this is not announced, one loses the accountability of leadership.

Organizations that currently chose to communicate internally information that is more one-sided in nature might continue to do so, but are potentially naive with regard to what their employees can now learn elsewhere.  Even if these organizations continue to have an easier or louder ‘channel’ to their employees, they might later suffer adverse consequences when their employees are able to compare the facts to what they see online, hear alternative views, and learn of new events which they were previously not aware of.

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One Response

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lazyfeed: RT @matthewdbenson: New blog post: “How developments in social media might impact internal corporate communications” http://bit.ly/6csTne

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