Again on one-company-one-voice: is it feasable? is it desirable? And how does one cope with social media?

A friend sends me the following: Your recent post on the idea of the one-company, one-voice concept becoming more obsolete as a result of diversity and social media is very interesting. In a recent conversation my big boss portended that the very idea behind the definition of corporate communication is that a company must be able to project itself with one voice. If I understand her point, then the “one voice” concept is practiced in part, to protect the organization, its brand, and more importantly its reputation….

While I agree with this logic, I am at odds with the idea of the “one-voice” concept and how it is balanced with delivering two-way symmetrical communication.If building a dialogue between an organization and its public is an accepted definition of public relations, then how can PR ignore the diversity involved when communicating with publics- of course by diversity I mean speaking for, with, and in diversity.

Why can’t you have many-voices, more-ideas??? My instinct wants to embrace and engage diversity using communication, yet I feel compelled to cover the negative impact that can occur to organizations who fail to speak with one voice. It seems contradictory and so I wonder if the concept of one-company, one- voice is applicable only to the goal of corporate communication. If so, then I can see that there’s a greater need to speak with one voice internally. What is the balance??? And, the idea for a new model of practice is indeed very interesting, and certainly warrants further research.

And here goes my reply:

Your boss stands for what most professionals have been attempting to do (with little success, may I add) for tens of years… Of course, there is a lot of logic behind this argument, but one question is…

is it feasible?

We all know that not more than 10/15% of communicative behaviours of organizations may be in some way governed by a, however powerful, public relations department. The rest (product advertising, sales promotions, sales pitches, employees in the community, investor chatter, supplier tales and most other stakeholder relationships are governed (when this happens.. and this is, in itself, rare) by other functions inside the organization well beyond what the director of public relations might hope or wish. In London last month Dr. Jon White, the highly respected british authority on these issues, said: communication accounts for less than 15% of an organization’s reputation.

A second question is:

is it desirable?

IBM used to think so and was by far the most planned and programmed monolithic corporation. All IBMers would be recognizable, they dressed the same way, wore the same blue suits, the same blue ties, said the same things and voiced the same messages…. Then, Steve Jobs came along with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and almost succeed in kicking them out of the market, until Lou Gerstner came on board and embraced diversity as the structural strategy (see the winter 2004 Harvard Business Review article on IBM and Diversity…very instructive). Another excellent case is that of Citigroup…unless this has recently changed, go and see their web site, access their diversity portal and read what they write about the one message one voice paradigm…

A final question:

how does you boss think she is going to cope with social media?……

There are, as you well say, many negative impacts which may stem from not speaking with one voice…this is certain, so you must acknowledge them as well as the practical impossibility of doing it any other way…

Summing it up, my friend, I am not sure that the one company one message/voice strategy was not the best possible pr strategy once, but I am doubtful if it is still viable. This is where the reflexive/educative aspects of the public relator’s strategic role come in. By listening to influential publics and enabling all organizational functions to develop their own relationship systems, the director of public relations brings the most added value to his/her organization. And this is clearly at odds with the old paradigm….

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2 Replies to “Again on one-company-one-voice: is it feasable? is it desirable? And how does one cope with social media?

  1. In the classroom I teach one-look, one-voice as a coordinating communication strategy. It seems to be inextricable from the way I and most other PR people think. I offer two perspectives that may provide clarity.

    First, the definition of communication is of course two-way. As inherent promoters I think we (well certainly I) seem to be lulled into the concept that we hold the corporate megaphone and we must send the messages that truly. This is simply outdated. What truly matters is what validates us. I am of themind that each of us want to contribute to somkething bigger than each of us. However, the workforce no longer has the patience for such foolishness that a commpany can “speak” for all of its members, and the customer no longer is naive enough to believe that an organization of a 100,000 or even 100 would or should want to communicate in one voice. The very benefit of diversity is to broaden the dialogue. That, however, does not mean we lose control. Just the opposite (more like control occurs in quantum physics, where patterns form and coherence replaces control as a coalescing factor). It is through dialogue that we construct the view of the organization that is truly authentic and congruent.

    Second, the nuance that I discuss with my students is the idea that a company must have “values” that are universal. Maybe we should begin to evoke the idea of “one company, one set of values.” Just recently we began a “values” discussion at one of my clients. We polled the entire population and asked each to tell us what they “valued.” Results showed there was a distinct difference between executives and front-line associates. Front-liners prized teamwork (for which they have little as it runs out) and the big shots most valued customer focus, which without teamwork is difficult to deliver efficiently. They were both in alignment on integrity and honesty.

    The value of bulding a credo from this foundation is, I believe, the most powerful tool an organization can develop to effectively compete in the environment we live in today. The idea that we all speak with one voice ironically results in Babel. However, the concept that we all commit to a set of values we are committed to is enormously freeing and meaningful for the individual and potent for the organization.

    Imagine if one of those “values” was that associates in the organization are free to speak without retribution. If leader’s truly “walked the talk” on this one, customers would see a congruent organization in tune with individual and organizational self-actualization. That is powerful.


  2. As I read Ned Lundquist’s Job of the Week (Dozens of PR jobs advertised, for free, mostly inthe US but also in many other countries) I noticed a Toyota reference.

    This is a company with many voices.

    In the USA now, it is makign the point that iut is very much an American company. It has cars running in NASCAR stock car racing, and it advertises where it has factories all over the USA.

    In Canada, it is much less obvious that Toyota is one of the largest car makers in this country, and the US focus on being a US company does not include references to the Toyota factories in Canada.

    And I suspect that Toyota is not mentioning the size of its US operations when doing PR in Australia or Europe.

    Honda used to make a car labelled ACcura (The EL) that was only available in Canada. Toyota makes some car-like trucks or truck-like cars (Scion) sold in the USA but not Canada.

    But leaving the cross-border differences aside, I certainly see companies with many voices, literally, inside one country, and also cross border.

    We make a big fuss over company blogs. At General Motors, Rick Wagoner is the voice fo the copmpany much of the time, but so is Bob Lutz, in a blog and in public when product is being discussed. In fact, Lutz would be annoyed by “product” and would say “cars and trucks.”

    I used to stress to my clients the importance of showing depth of management, and I still do.


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