Want to Quash the Rumor Mill? How About Joining the Conversation?

The age-old employee communication challenge for organizations has been how to contain the employee rumor mill. It’s an issue that predates formal employee communication programs and it’s even more vexing with the prevalence of social media.

These days, instead of gathering around the water cooler or hitting the local bar to gripe about their bosses or workplaces, employees often take to Facebook or Twitter, which of course gives greater reach to those complaints. Employees can do a lot more damage to organizations by hitting “send” than they ever could do over a beer.

As a result, many organizations have created social media policies that seek to restrict what employees say about them in social media. That seemed to put a little muscle behind employers’ expectations of their employees’ online activities. However, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that there is a limit to which organizations can restrict employees’ free speech. (Hat tip to Les Potter, integrated marketing communications instructor at Towson University, who blogged about this issue at More With Les.)

According to The New York Times, which covered the rulings, the NLRB “says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook. … ‘Many view social media as the new water cooler,’ said Mark G. Pearce, the board’s chairman, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. ‘All we’re doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology.'”

Smart companies have learned that in order to rein in the wild-west atmosphere of social media, it’s important to engage with consumers and members of the news media covering their industries and organizations. However, it seems fewer companies have discovered how to engage with employees via social media. I’ve heard of some companies that try to do so, even creating Facebook groups where employees can share information and knowledge. But that’s still company-sanctioned media (like the newsletters and intranets of days gone by). What about engaging employees where they are? That would be risky, for sure, but could also go a long way toward taking some steam out of the rumor mill.

When it comes to the principles of effective employee communications, I’ve always believed there’s not a lot new under the sun. Communication should be two-way and symmetrical, meaning both the organization’s leaders and employees can initiate it. It should be open and transparent and it should focus on helping employees engage in the business. But when it comes to best practices, we still have a long way to go. Engaging with employees where they are — online — just might be the brave new world.



Social Media are Stressing Us Out!

As if managing the expectations of friends and family in the real world wasn’t enough, a study from the University of Edinburgh School of Business in Scotland indicates that the more types of friends we have on Facebook, the more stressed out we are.

Our anxiety increases because of the greater potential to offend someone, according to the study. Specifically, we’re afraid that our swearing, partying, smoking, drinking and engaging in other embarrassing or activities will be looked down upon by our co-workers, bosses, neighbors and parents.

“Facebook used to be like a great party for all your friends where you can dance, drink and flirt,” says Ben Marder, a marketing fellow at the university and the report’s author. “But now with your Mum, Dad and boss there the party becomes an anxious event full of potential social landmines.”

So, what is a Facebook over-sharer to do?

That’s what I talked about in an interview on the funny new weekly podcast, “Constant Crisis News & Opinion,” hosted by fellow communicators Chuck Hansen and Hamilton Holloway. (If you haven’t checked out their podcast, you should. As their tagline indicates, they poke fun at a world gone nuts, taking the ridiculous things we humans do and deconstructing them in an entertaining and often thought-provoking way.)

Chuck and Ham asked me to talk about how we can keep our sanity while continuing to be active on social media. As I said in the interview, it comes down to turning on that internal editor that social media have an inexplicable yet effective way of shutting down.  I confess during the interview that not many people overshare on Facebook better than I do. Some of my more introverted friends are horrified at the things I choose to share, though to me, crowd-sourcing my problems is cheaper than therapy.

Now, it’s not like I engage in risky or potentially career-ending behavior and post the evidence for all my 250 friends to see. But I do share my triumphs and heartaches, some of them quite personal, with my friends and family on Facebook — some of them professional colleagues. I don’t believe doing so has stressed me out, but I like to think I know the boundaries pretty well.

Some folks don’t think twice about posting what-happens-in-Vegas-worthy details of their lives and then wonder why their parents look at them disapprovingly at the next family dinner, or why they suddenly were disqualified to receive that promotion.

There’s more to the story than that, so go take a listen to the podcast. The entire episode is great, so if you have about 40 minutes to spare, grab a cup of coffee or listen to it over lunch like I usually do. If you’re pressed for time, or if you just can’t wait to hear what priceless pearls of wisdom Chuck was able to salvage from our conversation, jump to the 20:40 mark.


Like-A-Hug: Happiness is a Warm Laptop

The day is coming when human beings will no longer need actual physical contact. If trends continue, we will be able to get it all from social media.

Three MIT students have created the Like-A-Hug, a “wearable social media vest” that inflates whenever someone “likes” a photo, video or status update on your Facebook wall,  “thereby allowing us to feel the warmth, encouragement, support, or love that we feel when we receive hugs,” according to inventor Melissa Kit Chow.

Since hugs are intended to go both ways, the students also developed a means for users to return the favor by squeezing the vest and deflating it.

This development comes on the heels of the Kissenger, a device that — despite its decidedly unromantic-sounding name — allows long-distance lovers to send virtual smooches.

What’s the next logical product to emerge from this line of thinking? I don’t think I want to know.

I’m also not sure I want a hug every time someone “likes” one of my Facebook posts. And no offense to my Facebook friends, but I’m not sure I want to give all of them the ability to give me a hug, virtual though it may be. I mean, I’m an affectionate guy, and I’m choosy about the people to whom I grant Facebook friend requests, but couldn’t we develop something a little less intimate? Say, a virtual chest bump or high-five?

I’m no Luddite — I appreciate all the good things that social media can provide — but I believe I’ll stick to real hugs from real people, and only for worthy reasons. Not for posting a picture of what I made for dinner.


Gen Y: TMI

The lines between personal and professional life continue to blur in the world of social media.

A new study by Millennial Branding, a consulting firm based in Boston, finds that Gen-Y workers (people aged 18 to 29) “are inadvertently sharing too much with co-workers,” according to founder Dan Schawbel. Based on data mined from 4 million Gen-Y Facebook profiles, the study reveals that while these young workers primarily socialize with friends and family online, they also average 16 co-workers in their group of “friends.”

Yet, when identifying themselves in their profiles, 80 percent of Gen-Y workers list a school while only 36 percent list a job. This, according to the study’s authors, indicates that the nature of their updates is not primarily intended for professional contacts, but that’s who sees them — profanity, lewd photos and all.

This may or may not be the big faux pas that the consulting firm makes it out to be. Most of the Gen-Y workers in the study toil away as servers in Starbucks, cashiers at Wal Mart and other such jobs, and they don’t stay very long (the average tenure is just over two years). It’s not like the VP of research is sharing trade secrets with all her Facebook friends. But once again it raises the question: Do you know what employees of  your company are “inadvertently” saying about their workplace, their co-workers or their boss? And does anyone at your company care?

Social media have entirely changed the nature of public relations and branding, and they have elevated the importance of employees as brand ambassadors. What used to be a limited event of bitching about one’s job at a backyard barbecue now has the potential to go global in a matter of minutes.

If your company doesn’t take seriously the potential for disgruntled employees — whether Gen Y, Gen X or Boomer — to damage your brand, it should start doing so. Right now.

Employee Communication: Help for a Disengaged Workforce

While doing some research for an employee communications class I’m teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, I ran across some compelling information about the mindset of many people in today’s workforce.

I’ve already shared data from a 2010 Maritz Research poll that found only 10 percent of employees trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. The same poll found only 14 percent believe their leaders are ethical and honest, and 12 percent believe their leaders listen to and care about employees.

According to the Gallup organization, 72 percent of employees are not engaged in their work. Basically, they’re going through the motions.

Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study in 2010 found that during the 2008-10 financial crisis, 72 percent of U.S. companies reduced their workforces. Seven out of 10 employees say this negatively affected how they feel about their work and employers.

Engagement matters, too. Three years earlier, Towers Perrin (the predecessor firm) found that return on assets in high-engagement companies was six times higher than low-engagement companies. High-engagement companies also had an average 19 percent increase in operating income and an average 28 percent growth in earnings per share year-over-year. In low-engagement companies, operating income dropped an average of 32 percent and EPS dropped an average of 11 percent year over year.

If you need more proof that engagement is important to a company’s success, here are all kinds of statistics on the subject.

Roger D’Aprix says employee engagement is “unleashing the energy and talent of people in the workplace.” Companies need engaged workforces to drive innovation, to ensure customer satisfaction, and because today’s society — not to mention today’s workers — expect it. Besides, considering the power of social media, would you rather have engaged or disengaged employees firing up Facebook and Twitter at night?

Employee communication plays a vital role in helping companies keep employees engaged and working for rather than against them. Consider some of the ways employee communication can help:

  • It helps keep everyone focused on the same things by explaining business goals
  • It helps build a sense of community among workers so that they feel they are a part of something important and good
  • It helps explain policies, procedures and culture — the way things are done around here
  • It helps demystify the complexities of the company
  • It helps explain to employees why they should want to be involved in the business and how they can be
  • It connects people with others in the organization who can help them accomplish things
  • It helps create a sense of trust between management and employees

Unfortunately in lean times like these, employee communication is often one of the first things to have its budget and resources reduced. Yet, these are the times when employee communication is needed most — to help engage a battered and disenfranchised workforce.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Choosing Social Media

In my research preparing for a presentation at PRSA West Virginia’s recent seminar on social media, I came across some interesting data about social media’s explosive growth. The numbers have probably changed already, but they’re still staggering:

  • Facebook claims more than 500 million users of it service. The average user is connected to 80 pages, events or other communities.
  • More than 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month.
  • Twitter has 175 million users; 56 million follow eight or more accounts.
  • LinkedIn has 100 million registered users and is adding 1 million per week.
  • There are more than 7.5 million Foursquare users.

There’s no denying that social media have attracted huge numbers of people. But, as I cautioned the folks who attended the seminar, you need to seek the relevance in the numbers. Astronomical numbers don’t make social media a communications panacea.

Before choosing social media as part of a communication plan, you need to ask yourself some questions, including:

  • How many of these registered users are active?
  • How often do active users log into the service?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do while they’re there?
  • What groups do they join?
  • What brands do they interact with?
  • To what extent do they share their brand experiences with others?
  • Perhaps most important, are these people your target audience? And once you reach them, do you intend to engage with them?

I’m a big believer in social media as another way to reach people. Just as with any media, however, it’s critical to know if social media platforms will help achieve your organization’s communication goals. Primarily, social media are an effective way to reach your organization’s target audiences in order to engage in conversations with them. And those conversations should have a purpose. They must advance your plan’s communication and engagement goals in some way.

The Egyptian Revolt, the American Workplace and Social Media

Did social media fuel the open revolt that’s taking place in Egypt as I write this post?

Observers and pundits are making some interesting points about the power of social media in the popular uprising in the world’s largest Arab nation. I tend to agree with blogger Mathew Ingram at GigaOM, who writes:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Networked communication has indeed changed the world. It has changed the way in which, and the speed with which, information flows. It has put more power in the hands of the masses, so those in power have no choice but to pay more heed to the people they lead (or over whom they rule).

When I read Ingram’s analysis, my mind immediately leapt to the closest thing to an autocracy I know: the American workplace. I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch to compare the workplace to Egyptian society. People are led by someone they didn’t choose to lead them. The elite are only as benevolent toward the masses as they have to be. When the people perceive too much of a disparity between their own circumstances and those of their leaders, they tend to make some noise and, if not satisfied, to openly revolt.

There’s another similarity that business leaders ignore at their own risk. Employees have access to networked communication — until the elite shut it off. Even then, employees find a way to stay networked (using the Internet at home, for instance).

I laugh every time I hear of a company imposing a social media policy on employees — especially one that seeks to govern or even restrict what employees do on their own time with their own electronic devices. Future court cases may prove me wrong, but I believe it’s foolish for a company to think it can totally control employees’ social media activities — to keep them from complaining about their bosses, talking about the new benefits plan, discussing the company’s stock performance or giving their opinion about the latest product. I believe after things shake out a bit, we’ll see that companies can provide guidance, that they can advise employees about what are and aren’t appropriate topics of discussion on social media, but unless trade secrets are being revealed or slander is being broadcast, companies won’t have much of a legal leg to stand on when it comes to controlling social media in the off-hours.

Companies can either decide to engage with employees on social media — just as they should with customers and other stakeholders — or they can continue to live in the dream world that says they have the ultimate power when it comes to communication.

The real power is in the networked communication itself, to paraphrase Ingram. To try to control it is a mistake.