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Using social media to boost internal comms

Laura Johnson

Using social media for internal comms

Connecting with your employees is essential for any organisation – but getting them to listen to you can be tougher than it seems. Laura Johnson asks if you can tweet your way into Gen Y’s hearts

Have your clunky intranet and boring briefing notes got Generation Y staff rolling their eyes in despair? In an attempt to engage this social media addicted group, more enlightened businesses are exploring new smartphone-friendly ways to communicate with their employees.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – they’ve changed the way we consume information and communicate. “We’re entering an era where two-way communication is increasingly the norm,” says Lee Smith, co-founder of employee communication consultancy Gatehouse. “People, particularly those of the Millennial Generation, expect content to be interactive. It’s rare to consume media without being cajoled to interact in some way – to Like, Tweet, Comment or Share. This expectation applies at work as much as it does outside the office walls.”

Tools like Yammer and Jive give businesses a way to turn their static brochure style intranets into interactive social networks where you can create groups, find and connect with co-workers, upload photos, post comments and start conversations. They’re delivering what internal communications professionals have been preaching about for decades – genuine two-way communication.

Traditional comms

The infrastructure may be available to make this happen but most organisations are siding with Generation X and clinging onto more traditional communications channels. This is largely an issue of control. “When you embrace social media, internal communications is no longer about crafting messages and sending them out – it becomes more about feeding conversations,” Smith says. “You’re no longer in the driving seat, your audience are. That’s very alien to a lot of people.”

The lack of control, provokes one of the biggest barriers to successfully implementing social media-style communication internally - the fear of misuse. Although some procedure is necessary, over-regulation will stifle conversations. It’s also an unnecessary complication. “Similar to what you see on Facebook and on Twitter, the crowd tends to regulate itself,” Smith says. “If people step out of line, generally they’re put back in line by other users.”

A bigger challenge than abuse can be getting people to participate at all. “Some organisations are hierarchical and the majority of people aren't used to having a voice,” says Simon Wakeman, joint head of communications for Medway Council and East Sussex County Council. “Just giving them a platform doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to use it. People have got to feel confident they can put their views forward without fear of looking silly.”

Wakeman launched the Councils’ Yammer sites gently by initially setting up cycling clubs, walking groups; things that people are comfortable talking openly about. Over time they started using it for more business focused purposes, such as monthly chats with leaders. The Councils’ employees now turn to Yammer to proactively post questions, knowing colleagues will readily pitch in with ideas and solutions. “It helps make connections across organisational silos which otherwise wouldn't be made,” Wakeman says in praise of the approach.

Staying in the know

Blurring team boundaries is definitely a strong business case for introducing social media internally, but it’s not the only reason. Social intranets can also help to tackle one of the biggest challenges to communicators – keeping pace with rumours. By taking water cooler type conversations online, the informal social networks across companies are opened up to anyone that wants to participate.

The rise of the social intranet, however, is just the tip of the iceberg – mobile is the future. Recent research by Deloitte revealed 72% of UK consumers now own a smartphone and in the Generation Y group this rockets up to 90%. In line with this, the trend for ‘bring your own device’ (permitting employees to use personal mobile devices to access company information and applications) is gathering momentum. “One of the big banks we work with has developed its own equivalent of the iTunes app store, allowing employees to use their own phone or a company phone to download apps,” Smith says. This allows employees to do everything from managing their HR information to accessing product demonstrations and company news conveniently from their own mobile.

Suggesting apps and social sites will replace overflowing inboxes and calendars jam-packed with meetings would be unrealistic. When it comes to sharing sensitive information or tackling a difficult issue nothing works better than face-to-face meetings or the discretion of a letter. Social media can however, support traditional channels by stimulating real-life conversations and providing a forum for colleagues to continue chatting after they leave the boardroom. 

Still think it can never happen in your office? Give it some time. Remember there was a time when people scoffed at the thought of email ever having a place in the professional environment. Imagine that.

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