An encouraging economic sign is the number of senior-level communications roles available at big companies.
It seems a week doesn’t go by without one or two CCO, SVP or VP level communications roles appearing in social media or email.
The position descriptions show how the reputation and impact of corporate communications have grown in recent years.
Common characteristics are “key member of the leadership team,” “contributing to competitive advantage” and “creating growth and sustainable shareholder value.”
One aspect that puzzles me, though, is the continuing demarcation between internal and external communications.
Position descriptions describe responsibilities such as “telling the strategic narrative of the company internally and externally,” “handling internal and external communications” and “focusing globally on all internal and external communications.”
Perhaps the intent is that there’s extensive integration between internal and external stakeholders – with employees on the internal side and customers, consumers, shareholders, government leaders, community members and more on the external side.
Yet it almost feels like a traditional church-and-state separation between employees and customers at a company or between editorial and advertising at a news outlet.
Oh sure, there are plenty of references to integrated communications among internal and external audiences, or stakeholders. And the lines are blurring between stakeholders, given the transparent and tech-enabled world we live in.
But I would argue that what’s internal is external. And what’s external is internal.
There is no longer any line, any barrier or any boundary separating them. There is no way to message only to a single stakeholder group.
All audiences must all be considered in developing an integrated communications plan. And while one audience may take precedence over another in any given sub-plan, they all must be assessed, considered and prioritized.
When a leader holds a town hall meeting with employees, it’s an internal communication, right? Well no, actually, if employees are tweeting content during the meeting or posting event photos on Instagram.
When a leader does an interview with a major news outlet, it’s an external communication, right? Well no, actually, because employees will be listening and reading too.
The natural reaction would be to focus on the negative implications in this.
What if an employee is tweeting sensitive company information during that town hall or posting inappropriate photos of it?
What if a leader is talking with a media outlet about business strategy that may come as an unsettling surprise to employees or customers?
And while those things could certainly happen, they can be and usually are mitigated by considering all stakeholders in those communications.
Beyond that, there’s a tremendous amount of upside potential in the convergence of stakeholder groups.
Employees can be the company’s greatest advocates and brand ambassadors outside the company.
They can attract new talent with their passion about why the company is an amazing place to work. They can share feedback on recruiting sites like Glassdoor, which posts an annual list of CEOs who are the most highly rated by their employees. And they can tell current and potential customers from firsthand experience what a great product or service the company provides.
Coverage in traditional media and social media can reach well beyond the primary audience too.
Employees are consumers of news and social media just like any other audience. They set Google alerts, watch news and form opinions from a variety of external sources. And they are content creators and reputation builders as well through their participation in social media. This can either help or hurt your company’s reputation and its ability to grow and create a competitive advantage.
One holiday season when consumer orders spiked and UPS had a hard time delivering packages on time, a driver posted a response to a customer complaint on Facebook. He talked about how hard he was working to get packages to people on time.
In the process he put a human face on the company and connected with customers in a compelling way. That humanization of the company is also apparent in its marketing – its wishes delivered campaign being one example
It can work in the opposite direction, showing the transparency with which we all work. Who doesn’t remember the infamous cable company call, when a customer recorded an employee’s egregious attempts to retain the his business?
This underscores the importance of building trust with all stakeholders over a long period of time, one interaction at a time. It speaks to the primary purpose of corporate communications to build a strong and positive corporate reputation, based on a balance of the best interests of those stakeholders.
It’s also important to remember that feedback can come from a variety of places – from practically anywhere these days.
Driving home from a family dinner this weekend, my daughter was checking out Yik Yak as we were near my office. Yik Yak is a geography-based social network, where you can see what people within a few miles of you are saying.
She read a comment from an employee at my company, who said they weren’t aware of a big external event the company was involved with.
It was a timely reminder to me to be thinking more broadly and more expansively, all the time, about what’s newsworthy from an employee perspective, and how we bring “external” messages to our “internal” audience.
Sure, staffing resources and such determine a certain priority to communications plans and messages. But by taking a fully integrated audience approach to planning and messaging, the positive impact of communications can by multiplied many times.