June 2014

office boardroom peopleInternal communication is an important piece of an organization’s brand reputation and, in the past few years, it has undergone a shift from being an HR function to becoming a crucial component of strategic communications.

Here at AHA, we develop communications plans for clients on a regular basis. During this process, one of the first questions we ask is about the organization’s current approach to internal communications – and how the external communications will be supported and reflected internally. This often results in an interesting discussion about employee engagement, how to best communicate with internal stakeholders, and the task of developing an internal communications plan in collaboration with both the communication and HR departments.

Internal communication provides an excellent opportunity for the senior executive or leadership team to move away from “top-down communication” and create channels that are open, direct, authentic, two-way and more personal. It also provides the opportunity for two-way dialogue – an important piece for an organization that wants to attract the best and brightest in their industry. Creating an opportunity for employee feedback, participation and involvement helps to promote engagement. When staff is engaged, they are more productive, morale is higher, and the organization is seen as a good place to work – which attracts talented professionals.

A solid internal communications plan also provides employees with the ability to tell the organization’s story. There are no better ambassadors for an organization than its employees, when they understand and believe in the brand story. No advertising or PR campaign will be effective if what is being said externally is not supported internally. Encouraging employee involvement in a range of internal and external communications initiatives helps to tell the brand story in an authentic way. The people who come to work each day can be exceptional assets in building and maintaining a good culture, in maintaining a positive brand reputation, and in communicating the organization’s values to each person they come in contact with during their workday.

In developing an internal communications plan, it is important to create a consistent approach – random or ad hoc communication doesn’t work. The communications efforts need to be planned out and delivered on a regular basis. The objective of the plan has to be clearly defined. If employees are asked to participate, expectations and reasons why the outreach is being done need to be clearly communicated. Two-way dialogue, including negative feedback, has to be encouraged and the feedback has to be acknowledged and respected. Staff members need to know that they are being heard – especially if your organization has challenges.

Strategic internal communication does take time and effort to plan and to implement, but the results can provide exceptional return-on-investment. Building relationships internally and ensuring the employees are informed, engaged and are provided opportunities to authentically participate in developing and sharing your brand story creates a strong workforce. It increases productivity, attracts good employees, improves morale, and develops a positive work culture – all of which support your organizational objectives. Should an issue or crisis happen to your organization, you have created credibility among your staff, which results in their support during a challenge. By focusing on internal relationships, you increase trust – one of the most valuable assets an organization has.

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http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-d-chat-bubbles-storm-cloud-blue-background-bubble-gradient-image34914082One of the latest tools being used by organizations is the social chat – an online dialogue via social media channels. A social chat can happen through a range of social channels including Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram and many others. Any channel with an interactive component can host a social chat, and which tool you use will depend on your objectives and where your stakeholder group or audience gathers.

We have been speaking with several clients about social chats, and our approach is always to take a good look at what we want to achieve with this type of outreach and to identify both the risks and the opportunities.

There have recently been several high profile social chats – and a few that have backfired – including a Twitter chat by the New York City Police Dept that created a huge backlash online.

The NYPD asked Twitter followers to post photos of themselves posing with officers – unfortunately, that’s not what followers posted. This campaign went sideways almost immediately. According to NYDailyNews.com, more than 70,000 people posted negative images. To their credit, the NYPD responded to this by saying that they were engaging in new ways of communicating with the community and that Twitter provided “an open forum for an uncensored exchange” that was “good for our city.”

If you Google “failed social chats” – you can see many examples of the failures.

If you think a social chat is something that would benefit your organization or brand, you need to ask yourself some hard questions that include:

  • Do you have an engaged social media community? You can’t just jump into social media and hold a chat without first building relationships and creating a following and a community. If you only have 50 followers on Twitter, is that enough for an engaging dialogue?
  • What is your relationship with this community – has it been contentious or hostile? Have you authentically built up this relationship so that there will be a dialogue or discussion?
  • Have you reviewed what could be challenging, what the tough questions might be, and how you will respond? Expect tough questions and be ready to provide information in these areas. If you open the door to questions, you need to answer what is being asked – even if the questions are challenging.
  • What is the objective of this initiative? You need to be clear on what you want to achieve. Do you want to share information, get feedback, and engage on certain issues or topics? Why are you doing it? Who else in your industry has done this or are you the first? Understanding what you want to achieve is crucial. While social chats can be an excellent way to connect with your audience, they can also be risky – even for organizations with a good reputation.

Realize that as much as you can try to manage the direction of the conversation – online, you can’t control it. If even a small group of people want to derail the discussion and move it to their own agenda, they may be able to do that. You need to see that as a possibility and put something in place should this happen. You need to be prepared. And you need to have a plan in place about how you will authentically and respectfully engage with both supporters and detractors.

I realize that in this blog post I have been focused quite a bit on the negatives – social chats can be valuable when they are done right and when they are properly planned out. Not only does a social chat build relationships with your community, it also provides insight into the public perception of your brand. If you listen to both the positive and negative, you will have a real time perception of what your customers, clients or community think about your organization or brand.

One of the challenges we have seen is that sometimes a client wants to hold a social chat or engage in some other outreach via social media because they read about another organization that did it. It is important to take a step back and decide to do something like this because it will support your overall business goals – not just because you can. Engaging on social media can provide excellent results, but you need to strategically plan it out and make sure you cover all bases – including what could go wrong.

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