Co-authored with Mike Klein
In the later part of the year that ends today, much attention has been paid to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But another wall seems to have been definitively torn down this year with much less brouhaha: the distinctions between social, political, commercial and employee communication. The Public Relations model of defensive “representation” is thus beginning to give way to the political campaign model of proactive “mobilization”. Whether this will be obvious today or worth celebrating tomorrow is anyone’s guess, but that makes it no less true.
Two related drivers have brought us to this point: 1) recognition that corporations and other organizations cannot hermetically seal their internal world from the external one and 2) technology developments, including social media, mobile communications, internet telephony and others.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a fairly stable and structured conflict with a limited number of players and priority issues gave way to a multitude of smaller, often more nebulous conflicts and rear-guard actions. From a communications perspective, something similar has occurred. “Contained” issues once could be managed through a limited number of official points of contact and only after considerable refinements and controls. Now, many of those issues are no longer contained, and access to the corporation no longer is fully controllable.
Some of the traditional corporate walls have been physical–firewalls that block suspect internet and social networking sites. Some have taken the form of policy–such as strict instructions to call the Corporate Communication department with “press” inquiries under threat of penalty.
Most are attitudinal–the company’s belief in the authority of its own, often disembodied corporate voice, the demands that white collar employees do “real work” instead of “spending time on the Internet”, the idea that the blue collar workforce is a beast to be tamed through aggressive and adversarial labor relations, and that government relations is of such sensitivity that it can only be entrusted to a small group of professionals lunching with politicos and bureaucrats in the capital.
Even more broadly, corporations are now under increasingly intense pressure to think beyond their internal processes and functions and consider how they impact society and the environment, leading to the generalization of expectations commonly incorporated under the corporate social responsibility rubric.
In most cases these firewalls and policies remain in place, but growing recognition of the complex interrelatedness of nature, the economy and people continues to chip at the illusionary factory wall. Moreover, the walls based on organizational attitudes have been well and truly demolished in the past year. For starters, company firewalls are no match for the personal iPhones and Blackberry devices employees carry into HQ. Not only does this mean that employees are capable of connecting externally during their workdays, they are also visible and reachable from the outside.
To find any internal decisionmaker, an outsider can send out a “tweet” on Twitter, or do a very quick search on LinkedIn, and in the process, perhaps establish a third-party personal connection with said decisionmaker. And a conversation, when it occurs, is not likely to occur as a “press interview” but as something normal and routine, only perhaps to become problematic hours later with the contents revealed in a broadside in a specialist blog.
But this is not just about blogs and Twitter and their decimation of centralized corporate spin control. More seismic and brick-breaking is the democratization of corporate government and stakeholder relations.
Employees are routinely asked by their friends and neighbors what their businesses do. “Does your company get its palm oil from rainforests?” “Are your shoes made in sweatshops?” “Do you have call centers in India?”
When what companies do is controversial–socially or environmentally–they can come unto scattershot or coordinated political pressure from individual citizens and NGOs, enabled by the rapid circulation of stories and arguments through various social media channels.
The implications of these changes are naturally quite profound—even if they are still less-than-obvious for corporate and agency communicators still trying to focus on meeting yesterday’s targets:
- Organizational communications are no longer be separated into convenient little boxes and cannot be managed as such. Internal and external communications are like yin and yang: they are aspects of the same entity. Indeed, as employees are an ever-more-important and not-fully-controllable external communication channel, the very mindset of “internal communication” is essentially being overthrown as we speak in favour of dialogue and education with employees about internal and external issues and their implications.
- Top-level communications managers therefore need to have a holistic approach to organizational communications, which requires a wide range of constantly evolving skills and an appreciation of the extent to which corporate communication is becoming devolved and (dare we say) democratic.
- In the absence of such an approach, organizations which continue to pursue centralized message control run the risk of having no credibility when matched up against mobilized opposition, and also run the risk of having their messages mangled or upended by employees who don’t know the corporate view or understand the sensitivity of certain practices.
- In industries that are highly exposed to regulatory intervention or to grassroots political opposition, the benefits of shifting focus onto employees—as political assets and as human voices for the organization can be immense, and can dampen perceptions of the corporation as overfed and (often foreign) fat cats, while raising employee awareness of the extent their own success aligns with the organization’s ability to secure the best possible operating conditions.