The Savagery of Social – implications for internal communication

This, I suspect, may get me into trouble. Let’s talk about the nastier side of social media for a moment, and then let’s consider the implications that arise for internal communication and the already established trend of using enterprise social networks like Yammer, Workplace by Facebook and, well, Sharepoint. (There are others, clearly – like Slack and Unily – arguably collaboration tools, or bespoke intranets, but as it’s all about ‘sharing’ – and odds are on that ‘conversation’ is also being mentioned – they’ve got all the characteristics of the established social media channels.)

And that’s the issue, really. Here’s a piece from The Irish Times (written by Jennifer O’Connell) which says ‘social media has shown us that when humans gather with no rules, savagery prevails’ and goes on to say ‘there’s a brutality now in the way we communicate with one another that did not exist before social media’. The article, which is definitely worth a few minutes, starts out looking at Ed Sheeran’s decision to leave Twitter, touches on the Orange Mussolini in the White House and uses personal experience to further illustrate the point. And it’s all demonstrably true.

Quite some time ago, I attempted to categorise this phenomenon. (If you can be bothered, you can find my original post here.) It’s ‘an ailment that afflicts a small but significant proportion of the population when they are presented with the opportunity to post whatever they like to a public forum’ – appearing to be compulsive and involuntary. It can take the form of simple intolerance of anyone else’s point of view, or extreme bad language, or posting of inappropriate material (visual or written), or racial harassment or career-threatening stupidity. That it’s a small proportion of the population is important – although the Brexit ‘debate’ has shown that the proportion may be larger than first imagined – however, as is always the case, it only takes one.

So – what does this mean for enterprise social networks? First, let’s go back to the Irish Times piece (above) and note the words ‘with no rules’. Social media have no rules, and anyone can say whatever they like, hiding behind a blank avatar and an anonymous username. Obviously, in the workplace, there will be rules governing the use of corporate intranets, collaboration tools and how employees represent their employer on external social media. Won’t there?

Well, actually, not necessarily. From personal experience, there are companies that have not thought about a code of practice. That do not have a Use of Social Media Policy. That – and this is terrifying – won’t implement guidelines because they don’t see them being at one with the spirit of social media. It’s all about sharing and collaboration and conversation, apparently – placing guidelines on how you do it would stifle its very essence. Hang the potential consequences.

Again, quite some time ago, I did a piece on my experience of implementing a very early version of an enterprise social network. (And again, if you can be bothered, you can read the whole thing here.) The conclusion was – ‘give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable, given half the chance.’

There are many companies (three that I know personally) – no names, no pack drill – who use enterprise social networks. There are consultancies who offer to implement an enterprise social network in your business. My experience is that they do not work – amongst the workplace as a whole – as they were meant to, generally because a busy workforce does not have the time to add an extra layer of complexity to its day-to-day and also – obviously – because not everyone wants to share their work. Because it’s theirs.

So what happens is that the expensive tool becomes a means for the few to blow their own trumpets and a further few to ‘like’ the fact that they’ve done so. And there is always the risk of wholly inappropriate, reputation-damaging content – although, in fairness, there is a less of it than I envisaged, way back when. But still, the expensive tool is a reflection of the shiny object that it imitates – faint, but a reflection nonetheless. And if social is becoming increasingly savage, thoughtless, stupid and radical then – without the policies, guidelines, checks and balances in place – so must your internal network.

From all of this, there are clear take-outs:

  • If you have an enterprise social network, govern it with a strict policy
  • Have a corporate ‘Use of Social Media’ policy in any case – you never know when you’ll need it
  • If you haven’t got an enterprise social network, think carefully – do you need one, or is it Shiny Object Syndrome?
  • Remember, the role of internal communication is to keep the workforce appraised of the organisation’s successes, vision, values, strategy, policies, procedures and its corporate religion, thereby generating a sense of belonging, belief and purpose. It is not to encourage free debate around these things, as Google has found out.


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Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)


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Corporate Reputation: Not enhanced by Gurus, Black Belts, Ninjas or Masters

Way back when – 1985, to be precise – a gentleman called Nick Graham founded an underwear company called Joe Boxer, and appointed himself Chief Underpants Officer. And why not? It was irreverent and amusing and – this is the key element – it reflected what the company actually did, and his role in it. His claim that “The brand is the amusement park, the product is the souvenir” provides insight into his thinking and an interesting take on customer relations, not suitable for all, but worth a moment’s consideration.

The point is that it is possible to break away from the conventions of job titles and role profiles – Chief Executive Officer, Sales Director, National Accounts Manager, Head of Human Resources, IT Analyst – and, in so doing, enhance corporate reputation and make a clear statement about strategic direction.

This piece, by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester for the BBC, provides a couple of further examples. Let’s hear it for the Captain of Moonshots at Google, who heads up research and development (and whose name, brilliantly enough, is Astro Teller). And take a bow, Berkshire Hathaway’s Director of Chaos, who manages the organisation of the company’s annual shareholder bunfight. From the ridiculous to the sublime, let’s not forget the sandwich artists at Subway.

There’s a point to all of these and even Captain of Moonshots is sufficiently evocative that it’s clear what the job entails and, perhaps more importantly, why it needs/merits an extraordinary descriptor. However, there is a newer and perhaps slightly worrying trend towards ‘differently naming’ roles and positions, and Sir Cary’s article goes on to discuss it.

Coming from the private sector, and having worked in environments where ‘process efficiencies’ and ‘continuous improvement’ (read cost saving and downsizing) had become central to the culture of the business, I am no stranger to people with ‘guru’ in their title. I have met those called ‘ninja’. I have held meetings with ‘commercial black belts’ – people whom, I suppose, will cripple you on price.

Sir Cary says that incomprehensible job titles are an elitist affectation.  All of this stuff surely adds value, but not knowing what the job title means, it’s difficult to ask the right questions about the job, and not asking the right questions means not getting the right answers, and thus not being certain of the value added. But, and going back to what the Chief Underpants Officer said, an organisation which allows incomprehensible, and above all unfriendly and slightly intimidating, job titles – for whatever reason – is not going to have the cultural mindset to be an amusement park for its customers.

For the record, the latest examples appear to be the job titles of ‘scrum master’ and ‘agilist’. The first, ‘scrum master’, gives little clue to what it might be, save (for me anyway) a vague sense of foreboding that it might involve large, sweaty men tearing each other’s shorts. The latter, ‘agilist’, for which you can train and obtain a qualification, is someone who promotes agility in an organisation (I think). And – as an aside – for anyone who’s ever spent time in a large organisation – well, I don’t have to tell you how well that’s going to work.

So what does it all mean for the Corporate Affairs/Corporate Reputation manager? Well, it’s an object lesson in how reputation enhancement and good public relations start at home. An internal view is as important as an external one. It’s no good focusing on overall customer experience and corporate image if – to over-extend the metaphor – your publics cannot relate to those who run the amusement park. And if the corporate culture allows for ninjas, black belts, gurus and masters – then it’s probably about due an overhaul.

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No Measurement, No Value

One of the things about being an old communicator is that you’ve seen such an awful lot of it before – and never more so than in the field of evaluation and measurement. Without wishing to bore the pants off of anyone, in the nigh on three decades that I’ve been a jobbing spin doctor, no-one – but no-one – has come up with a robust and meaningful method of measuring the results of communication/public relations activities.

There have been attempts, sure, some more successful than others. Six years ago the Association for Evaluation and Measurement of Communication formed to address the issue, led by some of the biggest names in the global communications industry. Credit where credit is due, they made a good fist of it and, for those who want to have a look at the results, here’s a link for you.

Problem is, I’m afraid, that it is unutterably complex and, unfortunately, carries with it considerable cost – even if it is just the cost of the human resource that you have no choice but to allocate against it. You see, complexity and cost are the downfalls of any half-decent attempt at cracking the evaluation and measurement conundra.

The communication function has never enjoyed the budgets that are allocated to the marketing/advertising functions and thus the proportion of total budget that meaningful measurement would suck up is far greater. Given a straight choice between greater levels of activity or a nicely-produced report measuring the effectiveness of much lower levels of activity – well, rightly or wrongly, it’s more activity, every time.

And did I say that meaningful measurement is also very complex? Meaningful measurement, simply put, revolves around understanding the impacts of your activity against your varying target audiences and aligning the impacts against the various goals that you agreed at the beginning of the campaign.

And that’s in its simplest form. Never mind – should you wish to examine your return on investment – putting a price on the attainment of those goals (which won’t always be increased unit sales, or net promoter scores, or share price increments) and then balancing that cost against what you paid for the campaign. And it is, I am afraid, an eternal truth that the more complex it is, the less time the intended audience (senior management, of example) will spend trying to understand it.

Which is why, for so long – and still today – Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) is many communicator’s measurement of choice. Even I have used it – albeit apologetically, and with a full disclosure of the system’s inherent limitations and less-than-robust nature – because when you can’t afford anything else, something is better than nothing. If you don’t show some form of evaluation, you don’t get accorded any value and if you’re not accorded any value, then you’re not going to be top of mind when the FD’s divvying up next year’s spend.

So I was interested to read about Earned Media Value (EMV) – via Stephen Waddington’s excellent blog – which is, to all intents and purposes, AVE brought up to date. Or at least, AVE for the PESO media environment. (OK, OK – Paid, Earned, Social, Owned.) It’s still hogwash, it’s still fatally flawed (some might say meaningless) and it’s still chock-full of limitations. But – if you’re all out of alternatives…………..

Let’s be clear. Right at the beginning of the planning cycle, we need to ensure that we (or our client, dependent on whether we’re in-house or agency) are lobbying for a budget allocation that allows for proper measurement and evaluation.

Very, very simply put – we need to explain what proper measurement is and get the blessing of the exec directors and the board. This will be difficult first time round and then progressively easier as it becomes accepted. We need to shield them from the complexity of it and present the results to them in top-line findings aligned to the agreed goals – which, clearly, should be, or should closely mirror, the overall corporate objectives.

The problem is – if you’re not successful in this course of action, what do you do? I am not advocating listening to the snake-oil salesmen who would make AVE or EMV industries in themselves and money-spinners for the unscrupulous.

But you might look at them and think – without any form of measurement at all, no matter how flawed, what we’re doing is simply tactical, not strategic and of little perceived long-term value.

But that’s another can of worms.

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Not so much scaffolding, actually.

What I’ve got in mind is the sort of thing that used to come up in EVERY SINGLE creative ‘brainstorm’ (why does my computer desperately want to correct that to ‘brianstorm’? Are they building these things with senses of humour these days?) that I attended in the heady days of agency and then when I scored my first in-house job.

The brief would be something along the lines of ‘no holds barred – we want a really big idea – one that’s going to translate across marketing, advertising and PR – doesn’t matter where it comes from – simply has to be big and attention-grabbing – yes, yes, if it’s good enough, we’ll find the money, never you mind about that – we don’t want anyone to be negative – no ideas are bad ideas’ etc etc. This would be followed by a sort of free-form bunfight as the various different functions, including serried ranks of consultants and agency bods, all tried to out-creative each other, the ideas getting more and more ludicrous and spiralling further and further out of control.

And, no. Before you ask, there was never any money for the big idea. A small fortune would be spent on getting everyone to the brainstorm – remember, the agency bods and consultants are charging by the hour – but when the sparkledust and dreamtinsel had settled, there was never, actually, the enormous pile of wonga we’d been promised. Maybe the ideas weren’t the right ones. Who knows?

But I digress. In every brainstorm – for a while, part of the zeitgeist I guess – the idea was put forward that we should get ‘those guys, you know, the installation artists – the ones who wrapped the Reichstag – Christo et Jeanne-Claude‘ to wrap a building in corporate colours. Overnight, obviously. To ‘surprise and delight’. (That combination of words still makes me shudder.) The choice at the time was usually either the Empire State Building or One Canada Square. (Yeah, overnight.)

So. I’m going to have a go at curating this blog. Make it easier to find stuff. Get rid of some of the self-indulgent twoddle (don’t you be telling me that I’m not self-aware) and get a focus on the stuff that might be useful in some way. Crisis Management. Media Training. Language and Writing. All that good, good stuff (as a rather strange ex-boss of mine would have had it.)

So – in the meantime – while I do a bit of bumbling workery on it – just imagine that, overnight, it’s been wrapped in thewordmonger’s corporate colours. Money no object when it comes to you, dearest blogsnorkellers.

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Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 1

2009 Research by Burson Marsteller (a PR company) into European companies’ level of crisis-preparedness revealed that while 60% of companies polled had encountered some sort of crisis, 53% didn’t have a plan in place to deal with a crisis when it happens to them. Just so the full horror of this has time to sink in – I’ll repeat it in slightly different terms.

Over half of European companies, it would seem, are wholly unprepared for the ‘phone call at 3.00am that tells you your factory’s on fire, or one of your planes just came down. The Monday morning call from the Department of Health to say that hospitals up and down the country are stuffed to the gunwales with patients, poisoned by your range of ready meals. The sight of two of your workforce plummeting past the window, having been issued with badly-maintained harnesses. Your CEO shooting himself in the foot, describing your product range as ‘off the record, real shit, know what I mean’, or your CEO simply shooting himself, having realised that the whole fraud game is up.

Do I need to go on? Everyone knows that a good crisis – or sometimes just a minor issue – can destroy a company, brand, organisation, or person’s reputation overnight if it’s not handled in the right way. Think of the examples. Hoover and the flights debacle, Ratners, Nestle and the baby milk, Coke and Dasani, Thierry Henry, Goldman Sachs, Britney Spears, Enron, Exxon Mobil – the list is, quite literally, endless.

And still, over half of European companies do not have a crisis plan in place. Without labouring the point, a crisis can happen at any time, and it’s one of those strange serendipity things that at any time is exactly when crises do happen. There’s no warning and it will be the middle of the night – that much is guaranteed. It is tantamount to malpractice for any communicator daring to describe himself or herself as professional to ply their trade in, or on behalf of, a company that doesn’t have a plan in place. Think about that for a moment.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you’ve not created a plan before it might, understandably, seem a bit daunting – and it’s not made any easier by the fact that there are a million conflicting opinions on what a plan should look like and what it should contain.

It’s also all to easy to put off, or ignore. Hey – your company, or your client’s company has never had a crisis – why’s it going to start now? Anyway, how difficult can it be? And just think of the cost, time and effort involved in putting a plan together! All perfectly good arguments – until such time as you are bitch-slapped by the big, wet, metaphorical haddock of crisis. At which point you are going to be really, really, abjectly sorry. Trust me.

In a perfect world, one would expect the industry bodies, or the industry’s ‘bible’ (copyright PRWeek 2009), to provide a handy cut-and-out-keep guide for the benefit of their members and readers – something to get you started. But it’s not a perfect world, and they don’t. In fact, as far as I can see, during the lazy and brief trawl of t’internet I conducted earlier today, there’s not much out there that doesn’t have a price attached to it.

So, for the good of mankind, I’m going to do a partwork here, just for you, my faithful blog snorkellers. Over the next few days – could be weeks, depends how deeply I dive into my subject – I shall, I hope, give you enough information on the key aspects of crisis management for you to develop your own skeleton plan. I shall deal with what constitutes a crisis, when issues become crises, who is responsible for the various facets of a crisis, preparing for a crisis, communicating during a crisis, business continuity and getting back to normal after a crisis. And, most likely, one or two spin-off topics.

So – tomorrow, in Creating A Plan 2, I’ll deal with What Is A Crisis.

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Now I’m a Remoaner……..

I guess I should get this out of the way at the very start. I am what I believe is now termed a ‘Remoaner’. Yes, I lost, suck it up, don’t get in the way of the will, stop talking it down, it’s like I don’t want it to succeed and if it doesn’t, it’ll be because I questioned the magic.

To my mind, of course, and I’m vaguely paraphrasing and appropriating from another source, I find it strange that Brexit – such a generally fabulous idea – could be derailed by simple questioning of its finer points. I mean, you’d almost think it was lacking substance, wouldn’t you.

Again, to paraphrase and appropriate, many of those who voted for Brexit, when asked about how it’s going to work, seem to fall back on ‘oh – it’ll be OK’. So there’s not a real understanding of what Brexit is, and what it’s going to look like post the negotiations in two years’ time. And there doesn’t appear to be any idea of what the impacts – economic and social – are going to be either.

But far worse than all this – because without the lies I suspect we wouldn’t be in this position in any case – of the three reasons why most voted to leave, only one still stands up. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating.

The UK parliament has always been sovereign – this was acknowledged in the government’s white paper on Brexit – there is no £350m a week to be spent on the NHS (or anywhere else) – however we might be able to assume greater control of our borders. (Xenophobic and short-sighted though that may be.)

So – there you have it – the ‘will of the people’ is based upon a desire to see less foreigners entering our country. Sorry – I am aware that putting it like that is to imply racism, and I am not doing that. Paraphrasing and appropriating again, not everyone who voted ‘leave’ (on the basis of the immigration thang) is a racist. But there is little doubt in my mind that all the racists that voted, voted ‘leave’.

And let’s get back to that ‘will of the people’ thing again. 33.5m people voted. That’s 72% of the electorate. Incidentally, Theresa May, in that same White Paper on Brexit, claims that 65m people are ‘willing (her) to make it happen’. As that’s almost 20m people more than the total number of eligible voters, I’m not quite sure how she arrived at that number, but hey, we live in Trumpian times.

The number of Leave voters was greater, by some 1.3m. Which, if my math is no more than usually cock-eyed and cack-handed, means that if 650, 000 more people, from those who cast a ballot, had voted remain, rather than leave, it would have been a tie.

Again, I’m not trying to be deliberately provocative here, but doesn’t that mean that this much vaunted ‘will of the people’ which shouldn’t be questioned and should be carried out slavishly, not to do so would be treason, suck it up, don’t question it, liberal elite etc etc etc is in fact the will of 650,000 people? 1.3% of the electorate?

And, let’s be clear, what’s being done in the name of the will of the people is permanent. There’s no cooling off period, or a chance to voice the will of the people again in four or five years time. In fact, this ‘will of the people’ thing, is a little too near the ‘voice of the people’ – the vox populi.

Of course, we all know that ‘vox populi, vox dei’. The voice of the people is the voice of God. But of course – it isn’t. That’s not what Alcuin of York, in his letter to Charlemagne, in 798, actually said. He said, and with apologies to Alcuin, I’m paraphrasing and appropriating, ‘do not listen to those who are accustomed to say that the voice of the people is the voice of God, for the tumult of the masses is often close to madness’. Seems like Alcuin was advocating against the idea of letting the people have a say.

But regardless, the people did have a say and more of them said Leave than said Stay. But, triumphant Brexiteers, this does not mean that you, in some way, ‘won’ something. It was not a first past the post. There was nothing to win. It was a yes or no – leave or remain and the majority voted to leave.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it’s being viewed. Apparently – and getting back to the idea that Brexit will somehow be derailed by the questioning of those who are concerned by it and how it is to be carried out – to voice doubt about Brexit is to be in denial about being a loser.

Thus we have the Remoaners – a derogatory epithet coined by those with their eyes firmly fixed on the sunlit uplands of Brexit rather than, perhaps, on the road immediately in front of them. It is dismissive and denigratory and diminishing – and as such attempts to belittle and suppress any sort of contrary point of view. It is almost as if those who see themselves as ‘winners’ now believe that, as the people have spoken and ‘vox populi, vox dei’, that any opposition should simply melt away (in the sunlight from the sunlit uplands, I suppose).

And it’s a shame. Because the most vocal proponents of the idea that Remoaners are somehow betraying the people and therefore betraying the country itself seem to be those with an apparently limited understanding of the incredibly complex process that is Brexit and the very many unpleasant and detrimental outcomes that are ranked alongside any positive outcomes as being the possible results of that process.

And the very first of those outcomes? The one that arrived the moment the results of the referendum were announced? A division within the UK itself – a division that spawned the Remoaners and the Brextremists, that set people against each other and made (makes) the UK look like some vision of a dystopian world as imagined by Suzanne Collins.

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