Corporate v social, or: how can the boss be “off message”?

June 19, 2010

Social media is about people. It’s about individuals and communities.

When communities form they are made up of a mass of identifiable individual voices (“the human shape”). Communities form spontaneously and when a group voice emerges it tends to be quite flexible – a voice which is constantly up for debate by the individuals in the community itself.

Organisations, companies and corporations are also groups of people. While sometimes they start small and spontaneous (e.g. “I’ve got a great idea – I’ll form a start up”) they tend to have fixed boundaries around purposes, money and results. And these fixed boundaries lead them to be more closed and controlled.

If it’s true that it’s difficult to have a meaningful relationship with more than 150 people than any organisation bigger than this is going to start have difficulties communicating to its staff.

One result of this is the corporate line: a fixed statement not designed for debate, usually anonymous, which is supposed to represent some kind of communal view of where the organisation is at the moment on a particular subject.

Therefore if organisations wish to use social media successfully for corporate communication they have to:

– adopt a more personal tone across the board

– give their employees more freedom to communicate directly about their work

– be more open and transparent – if corporate spokespeople were identified by name that would be a start

– accept that not all their employees at every level including bosses necessarily agree with everything their organisation is doing – and be very clear about how far they want this exposed in public, and if possible be more relaxed about it

– try not to put out “lines” as responses to social media activity

I’m very interested in the communications business. I think I work in it, kind of.

But when I go to conferences about corporate communications and public relations it strikes me that comms people often spend a lot of their time managing executives and trying to keep them “on message”.

But how can the boss be off message?

The boss surely is the message, he is the corporation, the organisation, or at least knows what the organisation is about and what he wants it to be.

If the boss is not the message or driving the message, or bosses cannot agree among themselves to have a level of “cabinet responsibility” i.e. we disagree in private but support each other in public, then a vacuum starts to emerge where the communications people start to decide what the organisation is about. But they don’t see the full picture. You would expect the boss or leader to know and understand more about the organisation or the thing his teams are doing than a Comms person does.

There are exceptions. Some people I know who work in the BBC for Comms know the organisation very well. So sometimes they act as a kind of conscience, not so much advising on how something might look but also saying “this looks wrong because it is wrong – so don’t do it”.

If there is too big a gap between the public message about the organisation (i.e. what the Comms person thinks) and what the organisation is actually doing then people usually spot this. And if this gap is exposed via social media channels or platforms then people will usually challenge this directly via their own social media. And if these are not responded to then this will be a negative experience for the user – their expectation is around dialogue not one way communication.

So if you want to use social media for corporate communication – you have to be less corporate.


One Response to “Corporate v social, or: how can the boss be “off message”?”

  1. Jon Jacob Says:

    Nick … I think the most basic rule about social media remains. It is social. It’s personal. And if exponents use it to reflect their personal take on a business or corporation then there’s every reason to see that as a good thing. Warts and all. It’s all good. Because it’s authentic. Genuine. Real.

    That’s always been the rule about social media. And so it should remain.

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