A word with the boss: communicating with employees in the social media age

Social media is transforming the way businesses interact with their customers. Yet in many companies, the dialogue with staff hasn’t changed to anything like the same extent. Could this be time for internal communications to move confidently into the social media age, if so, what is the best way forward?

There has always been a formal (e.g. annual appraisal) and informal (town hall meetings, water cooler conversations etc.) element to the dialogue between management and staff.

In many companies, there is a rich and healthy dialogue between management and staff, though communications from the board can often err towards the formal, be they letters to staff or messages in the annual report.

Both common sense and research (including studies carried by leading internal communications bodies) underline the importance of telling it how it is, even if this means being the bearer of bad news about company performance or potential job losses. The alternative is a vacuum, which will inevitably be filled with rumour, most of it either wrong or potentially malicious.

Social media has changed the conversation between companies and the outside world, as communication moves from one-way messages to 

two-way dialogue. Employees are very much part of that conversation, with their views both shaping and being shaped by the social media exchange. As such, the lines between internal and external communications are more blurred than ever.

With some prominent exceptions, business leaders have been slow to embrace social media either as users or in the shift to the more open two-way dialogue it has precipitated across all forms of communication. A survey carried out by ceo.com in 2014 found that only around 30% of the leaders of major international corporations have a social media presence. Of these, a fair amount of the output is still ghost-written by PR and is generally outward rather than inward facing. Reasons for the reluctance range from lack of time to concerns about coming across as either flippant or egotistical.

Cultural change

To what extent could and perhaps should internal communications make more use of social media? Well, if we start from individual appraisal and work our way up to communications about the strategic direction of the business, we find that the new communications can’t replace the old entirely and require something of a cultural change to be effective.

Feedback and appraisal

From 2008, PwC has been carrying out regular surveys exploring what millennials thinks about work and what they want from their careers. The findings show that they would like more frequent feedback from managers in keeping with the ultra-connected lives they lead. But most actually prefer the really important conversations to be held face-to- face rather than communicated digitally. The conclusion is that texts and Twitter-style feeds to the team can help to keep everyone in touch and up-to-date with developments. The annual appraisal may also need to give way to more frequent dialogue. But human interaction is still what people most prize.

What it’s like to work here

Investing in glossy corporate videos can help to present a positive image of the company. But what staff really value is authenticity. Randstad has just carried out a series of interviews with organisations that have scored consistently highly in its annual Award survey (Standing Out 2015), which asks people to rate the companies they would most want to work for and why. When seeking to judge and convey what it’s like to be part of the organisation, the companies consistently highlight the importance of letting employees speak with their own voice. This includes giving them the chance to speak to camera unscripted about their thoughts and aspirations and placing the videos on websites and social media. 

This preference for authenticity very much chimes with a social media age in which people want to have a voice and expect this be heard by corporations. Employees can, of course, give their views about their employer directly over social media. This feedback could be positive or negative, although if it’s damaging it can quickly spread. It’s therefore important to listen to this social media conversation, as this may be the most honest appraisal the company receives. It’s also important to think why an employee would want to vent their frustration in public – could their concerns have been better heard and addressed within the organisation and, if so, how can internal dialogue be improved to facilitate this? A crucial part of this evaluation is thinking about how social media fits into cross-channel communications and what can cause a message to go viral.

Speak to your audience

Twitter and Facebook enable business leaders to reach a much wider audience than conventional PR and investor relations, of which staff are a critical part. If done right, this is a chance for board members to speak candidly and convey the real them. Once again, the key is authenticity – tweet as you would speak. Anecdotes and stories can have more impact than dry figures, so it’s important to develop story telling skills. It’s also important to think about the audience. For example, earnings per share is a useful indicator of performance overall, but may mean little to someone on the shop floor, especially if they neither have company shares or bonuses linked to shareholder value. It’s much better to talk about what financial performance means for investment in the company, pay and training (i.e. how they can benefit). It’s also important to focus on the environmental policies and social impact of the organisation, as this is the sort of information staff will want to tell their friends and social media network. In this world of authenticity, they can be the best ambassadors for the organisation.

As with all social media, it’s important to recognise that the conversation is two-way and that board members will need to enter into the dialogue and address feedback. This may be a cultural leap for many executives. A study by McKinsey highlights the importance of what it calls ‘intelligent filtering’. Rather than seeking to reply to every response – there simply isn’t time – either the executive or their social media team should seek to gauge the overall tenor of the conversation and make carefully selected replies and interventions.

One of the most useful roles for the CEO on social media is in providing a channel for other content as their presence can help to give authority to the material and its message. For external communications, this would include highlighting particular reports being produced by the company. For internal communications, this could include pointing staff to interesting articles and research that could prove beneficial to company performance or help to start a conversation about strategic developments and priorities. Employees want their leaders to be ahead of the curve on the developments that will eventually affect their jobs and livelihoods.