Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Managing Little Miss Chatterbox in Your Communications

There’s a new phrase that’s going around and I’m not convinced that it’s a good thing.

“That’s my personal view”.

I choked on my coffee when I heard a very senior and very experienced public relations practitioner use the phrase on a political panel discussion over the weekend.

“The organisation’s position is x, my personal view is y”.

The PR guy that triggered my gag reflex was in-house, skilled, and in a very high profile and politicised role. He was a guest on the show as a representative of his organisation.
To be fair to the PR guy, the interviewer accused him of fence sitting, and he replied that he wasn’t because, “ The organisation’s position is x, my personal view is y”. Basically he tripped over his ego.

Once upon a time, this would be considered dissent in the ranks and you would be packing your desk. So why has this become acceptable and, more importantly, should it be?

Tools of the Cat Herding Trade

I’ve worked in both corporate and public sector communications (brand and media) and the ‘herding cats’ metaphor is still the most accurate. Communications plans, key messages, brand guidelines, protocols, sign offs and media training of approved spokespeople. All tools to retain control so that some wally doesn’t say something that they shouldn’t. Singing from the same songsheet and being ‘on message’ and all that. One message/in volume/over time. I’m sure you’ve sat through that PowerPoint presentation.

Work Life Balance Has Changed to Work Life Integration

Our job is part of who we are and social media tools such as blogging, FaceBook and Twitter have given employees a soapbox to preach from. As we take increased ownership over brands at a personal level, it’s hard to leave out the place where we spend 40 plus hours per week. We have plenty to say about our employers and inside information is valuable currency in social media transactions. Personal views are given more credibility and perceived as being untainted by paid media and organisational spin.

“ I work for Japasonic and I’ve spent all day processing returns of the Japowave 3000-the doors all fall off LOL!!!”

There goes your 600k ad campaign. And aren’t you pleased you hired that PR company to write key messages and press releases about the Japowave 3000?
It’s a complex area and over the next few months, I’m going to attempt to come up with some practical ways to minimise the risk and disruption that social messages can cause to your top-down messaging. In the meantime, make it very clear to employees that:
  1. There are certain areas of the organisation that they are not suitably skilled or do not have the authority to comment on,
  2. Approved spokespeople are in place (or should be!) to provide comment for the organisation,
  3. Public comment whether in mainstream media or social platforms that the company deems to be inappropriate will result in disciplinary action or possible dismissal.
Big guns. Yes, but necessary. I’ve seem some very well intentioned individuals create huge public relations disasters simply because they didn’t have an organisation-wide view. It’s easy to get out of your depth. It’s easy to unravel all the good work that the rest of your teams are doing positively representing your organisation.

Individuals can’t get bigger than the organisation they work for and represent
Suitably experienced people should be trained as ambassadors. In my personal view, ‘in my personal view’ has no place in relation to organisational comment and needs to be stamped out.

If you’re wondering about point 3 ‘deems to be inappropriate’, don’t worry, so am I. This is where things start to get ethically very complex! More to come!


David MacGregor said...

I can't see any reason why an organisation should set out to stifle remarks by employees, internally or extenally.

In fact if the doors are falling off the Japowave 3000 people have a right to know. Frankly, if the emperor has no clothes, then someone has to say before customers get hurt. Let's face it, if that happens the organisation will take a bigger hit. And the whistleblower who blew the opportunity to speak up with suffer exactly the same outcome. No job.

Organisations that make pronouncements about process without considering the wider picture are doomed. The flood gates have burst and there is nothing they can do about it. If I bring a serious product flaw to the attention of my colleagues and they will no listen then the problem will be theirs sooner, rather than later - especially if my integrity is likely to be negatively affected.

It would make more sense for firms to learn to listen and respond, rather than strangle and control.

Control has always been an illusion. The web manifests that on the roughly the same formula as Metcalf's Law.

Happy employees making products and services they are genuinely proud of are the best advocates, beside end users themselves.

Stephen Collins said...

Of course, we should all be entitled to our own views. I'm also very much of the view that we ought to express those views, even if they are at odds with a corporate view. Being able to do so is indicative of an openness and corporate cultural maturity I'm very supportive of and do my level best to encourage with the clients I deal with.

So, arguably ego, yes. But also perhaps needed, and often right to do. It's a matter of the differentiation between corporate brand and personal brand, amongst other factors.

That said, there are times, and roles, in which sometimes, it's just not appropriate to express your view, and in spite of how mealy-mouthed it sounds, you have to say, "my view isn't relevant, the company line is X".

There's no black and white. And way too many shades of grey to make it an easy choice.

Stephen Collins said...

And, in reference to your numbered points:

1. Correct. Thus rules of engagement are needed.
2. Absolute bollocks. Everyone has the right to comment and will. Somewhere. Get used to it as it already happens. Whether you want them to or not. It happens online and off. It's now your job to make sure that everyone simply knows what's expected of them.
3. This shouldn't happen if your organisation is appropriately mature. Look at companies like Zappos where everyone is empowered and expected to participate. Even when they had layoffs and there was negative commentary, it was well and appropriately managed.

The (r)evolution has already happened. Now it's time for organisations to catch up and jump on the Cluetrain.