Have More Walls Come Tumbling Down?

 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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25 Replies to “Have More Walls Come Tumbling Down?

  1. Here’s an interesting case in point: European Commission employees making a case to the bosses in an open letter that the institution should embrace web 2.0 as a priority for interacting with citizens. In addition to its value as a case study, the letter makes a clear and compelling case for ANY organization and highlights some of the key issues that will need to be addressed during implementation. http://dicknieuwenhuis.wordpress.com/2010/01/12/please-use-web-2-0-for-europe/

  2. Kristen, we should exchange views – however robustly, but always respectfully, put. But we should not seek to spread our own prejudices so much as to test and to modify each others’ views with the spirit of an open questioning mind. I have not yet encountered one thinker on this site – or anywhere else – who is right about everything. Moreover, I know that I have had uncommon foresight on lots of issues in the past. But I also know how wrong I have been on other things and how certain I was regardless that I was right on!

  3. Paul:

    Hippie commune?

    That’s not what I’m thinking at all–if anything, I think workplace relationships will become more transactional rather than less–but that when one dons a company “uniform”, one will need to be expected (and damn well, briefed and cleared) to represent the company rather than just deliver discrete tasks or services.

    Will look at the research now.

    Best from Brussels,


  4. Thanks, Paul. That’s very interesting and adds a new dimension to the inside-coutside concept.

    Just for the record, I also find useful research that contradicts my opinions if it provides new insights that allow me to evolve! 😉

  5. Paul, I don’t think anybody means to imply that either of these walls coming down created/creates “unity”. Rather, just as the Berlin Wall coming down meant the (ongoing) need to address stark differences between East and West Germany (and the wider regional divide), the crumbling of the corporate wall means that we have to come to grips with the inconsistencies of how relations have been/are being conducted with internal and external publics.

    Second, while society has always structured itself, it is disingenuous to claim that the current organization has always existed. Until the Industrial Revolution, the family was the dominant economic organizational unit. Factories required a different organization that took people out of their homes for the better part of their waking hours (with implications not just for work, but also families and society as a whole).

    Sociologists have already observed measurable changes in economic organization as a result of improvements in communication technologies, particular the internet/cloud and the ability to connect from virtually anywhere. A growing number of office workers are now able to work at least part of the time from their homes (or elsewhere), which is changing the balance between work and private life yet again. Among other things, it means people are clawing back family time, but also that the home is being invaded by work. The clear line between when I am an employee and when I am not an employee is breaking down. So, again, it becomes even more difficult to say at which point I am a target of/creator of internal communication and when I am a target of/creator of external communication. Again, I stress, this is not just about social media, which is only one factor in a much wider shift.

  6. Mike, I don’t know what to say except to advise you to read German research of public opinion, German sociological analysis and to talk to more Germans from East and West about their attitudes toward each other. Knocking down walls is relatively easy, so is reuniting a country. But forging a unity in the progressive sense, in the sense of making one out of two parts, is much more difficult to achieve. As of today division reigns in Germany politically, socially and economically, despite good progress in some areas (you might ask yourself why North Korea still survives and the answer might partly lie in South Korea’s reluctance to follow in Germany’s footsteps).

    Moreover, the future of business will not resemble the anarchy of a hippy commune in which organisational paradigms have no meaning, no existence or relevance. Institutions, structures, order, departments, processes, systems and bureacracy etc. are the building blocks of modern life and they have been since – well, since human life got socialised. Social media will hardly make a dent to those principles and realities – and the benefits of social media within the enterprise will be more IBM and McKinsey driven than many commentators realise.

  7. Paul…

    Thanks for these comments. Having worked a bit in Eastern Europe, I understand your comments about the “wall not really having come down” but don’t agree with them.

    The Berlin Wall did come down, physically, symbolically, politically and economically.

    In its collapse, however, it left behind a population of middle-aged adults, particularly middle-aged managers, who were incapable of dealing with the changes wrought by the changes wrought by the introduction of a market system and the collapse of the state enterprises where they spent their whole working lives.

    These changes were not simple changes of mindset–they blew apart supply chains, forced enterprises to attempt to learn marketing and sales under pain of imminent collapse, while bleeding these organizations of talent who went to work for Western-owned companies for higher pay.

    My reason for citing the Berlin Wall in this piece was to posit that the changes (and opportunities) we are facing now are of both a similar order of magnitude and a similar nature.

    Organizational assumptions are being blown apart, and soon will organizational structures and even perhaps whole organizing paradigms. Social Media is not the cause–but it’s what fire brigadiers call an “accelerant.”

    Will these changes all happen overnight, or even at the same speed? No. Will there still be a place for traditional PR? Probably for a while. Will things become more devolved and democratic? You bet.

    Happy to take this over to your blog…

  8. We should live in the real world. The Berlin Wall never came down in Germany. Ask any West German about East Germany or visa versa and you’ll find a country that is still divided to a large extent (knocking down symbols was the easy bit).

    Now let’s look at social media. I find some of the comments here off-focus. In my view we’re headed for a world in which multi-enterprise collaboration and innovation will take place through real-time social media that boosts productivity – worker output per hour – across the value chain. However that does not really have anything whatsoever to with the democratic transformation being discussed by some contributors here. Rather it is about execution across networks each of which will still be accountable for their own space. Or to put it more clearly, managing the future corporation calls for managing interdependencies and for agility. That might well be achieved at the expense of stability and security and even individual worker empowerment in the workplace (this is where the true challenge for social media lies – not with Facebook and Twitter and conversation)….what’s being called silos here might well still exist but in new forms around new interactive hubs of commerce, and for good reasons of accountability, responsibility and management control (some basics remain sound and necessary – but there’s a major balancing act involved that as yet we don’t know how to manage effectively).

    However…..we are only embarking on this journey and there is a long way to go – and I too might be dreaming. What I am pretty sure of, however, is that most what considered important in today’s social media world such as dialogue and conversation or the new age of engagement is blah blah.

    I shall post something on this on my PR blog. It is a good discussion – let’s continue.

  9. Bill…

    As you know, the comms world does not live in a vacuum–and as the Wall came down in Berlin, very quickly did the walls fall in Prague, Budapest, Sofia and Tirana.

    The speed at which this is all happening is either breathtaking (if you see opportunity) or alarming (if there are models or assets you are holding on to).

    About 10 years ago, as an MBA student at London Business School, I went on a study mission to an auto parts plant for a week in Jihlava, a backwater town in the Czech Republic.

    What struck me then was how there were two types of people–those who acted as if nothing had changed even after thousands had lost their jobs there, and those who were willing to throw all assumptions in the air to save some semblance of the enterprise.

    I think 2009-2010 may well prove to be our “Walls came Down” moment–and that the struggles they saw in plants like the one in Jihlava will be very similar to the ones we encounter today.

  10. Kristen and Mike: If anything, your list of walls that are coming down—or more accurately, need to come down—is too short. We need to think in terms of melding not just internal and external communications . . . but corporate communications, marketing, HR, IT, the executive office and business operations. The interdependencies are huge, and we’re all competing for the same screen space and mindshare. What worked in the analog world will not be competitive in the digital world.

  11. Quite a fascinating discussion here, in particular the concept of flattening the organizational silos around individual stakeholders. In too many organizations, employee communication reports to one department, media relations to another, customer relations to yet another, Marketing to another, and investor relations to a fifth.

    Scattering the communication infrastructure in this way is not only disintegration, it’s a huge barrier to coordination. Some organizations rely on message architecture to foster some kind of coordinated effort, figuring that if we enforce the macro messaging, it all will flow together.

    But that ignores the substantive differences in objectives and audiences that are present in virtually all organizations (beyond the sales message). The Southwest case is fascinating for Herb Kelleher’s dictum, “If we take good care of our employees, they’ll take good care of our customers, and we won’t have to worry about the shareholders.”

    Of course, having a lower cost structure than all the mainline carriers, and flying under a totally different strategy helped make that possible. That said, SW just a year ago faced a possible strike by support and groundside workers, who had been without a pay increase since 2005. SW flight crews get paid less than others, but have great flexibility in scheduling and routing. The staff assuredly are mobilized, as long as the behavior of the business remains congruent with employee objectives.

    Banking in the US suffers from enormous turnover in primary client-contact staff, which complicates greatly any effort to enlist them in brand ambassadorship. Add a relative lack of education and lack of vision of the bank as a long term employer (and why would they think otherwise these days…?) and we’re in the soup.

    Branch bank communication is very tactical, and very driven to sales effectiveness, service provision and speed of transaction — move the lines, be absolutely perfect in your bookkeeping, sell what we tell you to sell and smile all the while. Yeesh. I did every branch job from teller to new accounts to loan officer and branch manager (briefly), and it sure ain’t easy. I don’t think I had a clue about the company strategy, or even who was running the place. I had enough to do in my 32 hours a week.

    The participation of employees is discretionary, and much of the asymmetrical communication that occurs in organizations is attempting to coax a bit more effort for no more compensation (not just monetary, either). The business depends on this effort. If we add the responsibility to be a champion, we’d better make sure we get more on the outcome side than we put in the input side.

    Excellent topic.

  12. Joao…

    I am a firm and fervent believer in the concept of autonomous judgement–even if it has presented some major challenges with stakeholders during my internal communication career. Indeed, I recently wrote a piece you may find interesting: http://bit.ly/82TLAV

    That much being said, I still stand by the idea of “from representation to mobilization”. It is possible to mobilize–and the secret of doing it effectively is to acknowledge the ultimately voluntary nature of relationships, whether they are in the workplace, marketplace, political sphere or religious sphere.

    All the best from Brussels,

    Mike Klein–The Intersection

  13. Joao — I love the terminology you put forward, especially “autonomous judgment” (which, of course, would also need to be linked to action to be pertinent). And yes, there has been a trend in this direction, but I think 2009 was a tipping point, with many examples that could be cited, like the Dominoes Pizza employees uploading the shocking video to YouTube and the crisis that hoax created for the company.

  14. Kirsten and Mike thanks for this fascinating discussion which touches on many, many interesting topics. I would however emphasize your points about a change in paradigm (from “representation” to “mobilization”) and about the fundamental need to have an integrated view (Internal and External communication).

    For many years too many companies (and PR professionals) refused to understand their employees outside of the organizational context. We (or at least a vast majority of us around the world working in big multinational companies) would most often think about employees and their colleagues or employees and their families(a concern shared with HR departments)and then about employees and colleagues from other companies. Failing to understand that the sphere of influence of employees has many other layers like employees and their communities; employees and their affiliation groups; employees and the greater world.

    I think this is a symptom of how much PR was focused on messages to the expense of “the publics”. But things are changing and the fundamental evolution is to acknowledge the central role of employees as active publics on many issues (and not just those regarding the organization). This goes beyond employees as ambassadors of the organization: it’s about employees as decision makers and influencers of decisions and it’s about the positive effect of engaged employees to the bottom line. I believe this is an argument in favour of a greater integration between internal and external stakeholder management.

    As for the change in paradigm, I would prefer to see it as a move towards a paradigm of autonomous judgment, quoting my good friend Prof. Mafalda Eiró-Gomes. The purpose cannot be to simply to mobilize (according to a specific organizational interest) but to offer the possibility of autonomous judgment and rational decision to involve or not. This is the challenge that we face in ethical terms but also in terms of credibility and, ultimately, reputation. We have to acknowledge that the traditional balance of power may shift and that employees will legitimately want to se their new role recognized in the future.

  15. Mike, you are headed in the wrong direction. BA is or was the most politically correct of all the world’s airlines. It was never like Ryanair – not until recently. It was BA’s keenness to satisfy too many stakeholders that led to its current malaise. Ryanair in contrast doesn’t give a damn (that’s not what I recommend, but I do admire it) and focuses instead on running an airline.

    You don’t spell out what BA’s later actions were. I say simply that BA tried to run a premium service with premium staff in a commoditised market that was moving toward no frills. In the process BA came unstuck and – oops – it made promises to everybody – customers, staff & activists – that it couldn’t keep (but I, unlike you, think BA will overcome this crisis – just).

    BTW – I loved both of Kristen’s last remarks on BA and Google – light touch and robustly put and, yes, some very sound arguments!

  16. Great reply, Kristen.

    Want to delve further into the BA fiasco. The Mexican Standoff at BA is not only a disaster in traditional labor-management or even employee ambassador terms.

    It is also a disaster in that it has heaped a firestorm of public scorn both on labor and management at a time when the political viability of a UK-based network carrier is in doubt.

    Currently, UK airlines–and BA in particular–face key political decisions about runway capacity and “green” taxes on airline tickets.

    Amassed the other side are Greenpeace and well-mobilized citizens ranging from leftist environmentalists to middle-class homeowners who would like to sleep more restfully. Waiting in the wings are competitors in France, Germany and the Netherlands who have abundant runway capacity and (currently) more compliant neighbors.

    In my view, BA is likely to lose this fight not because they empowered their staff to act as ambassadors, but because of later actions, the staff has chosen to seek the overthrow of their regime–even in the face of existential threats to the business (and to their own jobs).

    Indeed, by acting so negatively, and in such a public way, both BA and its flight crews have helped galvanize public opposition. If anything, this substantiates rather than refutes the idea that employee behavior can have serious political consequences.

  17. Paul — I don’t want to dismiss BA. I would rather say it supports our point. Because employees are outward-facing — whether employers like it or not — incoherencies will come to light, one way or another.

    It really comes down to the authenticity of the brand: if you are trying to sell something externally that doesn’t ring true internally, it won’t fly (no pun intended). To me, it sounds like the error committed by BA was trying to make employees into ambassadors in a cosmetic way, which is not what Mike and I are talking about.

    Through no fault of its own, BA can never be my favourite airline: I do anything possible to avoid Heathrow, so I am a Skyteam or Star Alliance flyer, but rarely on a One World airline.

    One point of clarification: although social media is a driver of the trend we’ve highlighted, it is NOT the only conduit for the sort of inside-out advocacy we are talking about.

    A keyword search of “Apple social media” turns up some interesting views on that particular debate. And one of the points that comes up is that Apple as a company doesn’t need to engage in the chatter because the fans do it for them (cf my point about the cult). I’ve always strongly believed that indirect 3rd party endorsements are VASTLY more convincing than official pronouncements.

  18. Kristen, you are right to say that there are examples which support contradictory trends which we can both select to highlight our respective arguments. I don’t doubt that what you say is relevant in some quarters. My main point, however, is that your take is an outlier.

    I can’t agree with you about Apple. Apple is a dictatorship internally. It does not do social media. It has a fan base which is mobilized autonomously against Microsoft. There is no be nice agenda among its fans and there is nothing inclusive about its fan base either; rather it is an arrogant, opinionated, committed and authentic force. That’s fun – a bit like following a football team in which you don’t pick the team and manager manages and the supporters demand results. Apple’s strength is the perception of innovation it delivers and the difference it represents to its users when it comes to defining who they are. That’s what people attach themselves to. It highlights how conversation and dialogue is for the likes of Dell which has nothing innovative to sell. GM loves SM because it is bankrupt of ideas and money. Meanwhile Google is more like Apple than Dell or GM etc etc. …do companies really want to be known for pursuing the losers’ route to winning friends and advocates?

    I cannot let you dismiss BA too easily. BA pioneered using its employees as brand ambassadors. It put them centre stage. It created its own monster. I’m not against getting over messages to staff or to keeping them onside – but we should study BA carefully if we are to help our clients avoid falling into the same trap as BA (it may yet destroy the airline, which claims to be the world’s favourite…but not mine because it is on my blockheads list…as in Ian Dury).

  19. Paul,

    The trends that Mike and I have tried to highlight here have not necessarily taken hold everywhere yet, and even with trends that are widely recognized, it is always possible to cite counter examples.

    What I find interesting about your list is that at least three of the companies mobilize their customers as advocates. In the case of Apple, it’s quite cultish and most certainly cultivated (Apple providing e-mail accounts, photo/card printing, and other services in order to provide opportunities for its users to advocate on its behalf). So I don’t think it is accurate to say that they have a traditional top-down advocacy model. Instead they have mobilized the wider customer base rather than simply the employee base.

    As a counter example to British Airways, think of Southwest Airlines. Their cabin crew are most definitely among their most effective ambassadors. Crucially, the fun and very human attitude of their crews is central to the company’s overall culture.

    The point we are trying to make is not about token employee spokespeople. Rather, employees and customers are talking about the company, whether you like it or not. Our external communications models can either acknowledge this truth and try to harness this energy or try to fight it, which is likely to be self-defeating.

    The problem at the moment is that employees are not automatically equipped to be good advocates, so external and internal communicators need to work together to improve their capacities. This is where the concept of democratization becomes clearer. Simply telling employees what decisions have been made is likely to trigger about as much acceptance as expecting teenagers to behave “because I said so”. Helping employees understand the strategy and WHY certain decisions have been made will help them both to accept specific decisions and to understand how to apply the principles of their knowledge in their daily life and work, not just in a limited number of carefully scripted scenarios. This is a process of continuous education that must begin during recruitment and continue throughout the employee’s tenure.

    In order for this to work, there needs to be alignment between personal values and company values…something that does not happen when corporate values are randomly issued from on-high. It happens when company values are articulated around a shared culture and then translated into terms that reinforce the positive facets of these values.

    This is what we mean when we talk about moving away from a PR model of defensive representation to one of mobilization. There is still a role for PR professionals, but unless we manage (by which I do not mean to imply “control”) internal and external communications as two sides of the same coin, official proclamations run a much higher risk of being undermined by dissident employees and/or customers.

  20. Paul–appreciate your defense of the status quo here; it will be very interesting to see what the trends Kristen and I describe will do to Apple and Google in particular. I suspect their further resilience will be based more upon the extent to which they mobilise their staff as advocates instead of demanding they hunker down and keep them quiet as their opponents attack the more controversial elements of their respective business models.

    As for banking, defense and pharmaceuticals, I’d argue that these are actually three of the sectors most heavily exposed to these trends, as all three are among the biggest consumers of taxpayer money at this point.

    While banking, defense and pharmaceuticals have been among the most defensive communicators among industry sectors so far, they are also likely to come under increasing attack from the political sphere for their business practices (bank bonuses, erectile dysfunction advertising, outsourcing of military hardware production). An excellent example has been the battle between Boeing and EADS/Northrup Grumman for a contract for tanker jets–where an initial decision to award the contract to EADS on technical and financial ground provoked a firestorm of public opposition at using a European vendor: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0408/9635.html.

    To be sure, the companies and sectors you have mentioned have been able so far to conduct their business and political agendas largely on their own terms. While this decade is young, I’d posit that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

  21. I’m afraid that the unity of points one to four collapses because the weakness of point three.

    Here’re some examples from successful companies in the media and IT worlds whose approach to controlling their business operations and their communication-chain contradicts point three fundamentally:

    Apple – sector leader IT and new media.

    Bloomberg – sector leader wire media.

    Ryanair – sector leader airline.

    Google – sector leader internet.

    If we were to examine banking, defence, pharmaceuticals and many other industry sectors the list of such examples would be very long indeed.

    Moreover, the weakness of point four should be clear to all those who have studied the dispute at British Airways. Its cabin crew are rebelling and demanding their piece of flesh in return for embodying the company’s reputation to the rest of the world.

    On another tack, the big news in politics in the UK is not social media but the introduction of TV debates in its general election as a 21st century innovation.

    My counter-intuitive punch is that social media’s existence makes keeping control of what you can more important than ever.

    As always, I urge us to examine real-world examples and trends.

  22. I really like your article especially “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.”
    As an organization, we are exactly at that point. I have had successful conversations with our senior leaders about the neccessity of arming our workforce with the best information … their families and friends must ask them questions all the time … the worst case scenario would be for them to shrug their shoulders and say they don’t know the details of some of our key business activities.
    I’m going to read your posting over over a few more times and then I’m planning to do a posting on my own Leader Communications blog and send some readers your way.

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