Social media isn’t synonymous with losing control of internal communications

24 July 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

A colleague sent me a short blog posting this week called “In the Digital Age, Internal Messages Don’t Stay Internal for Long” which linked to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Remembering the previous column I wrote about Google’s exit interviews becoming fodder for public speculation, I was interested to learn whose security had been most recently breached.

Turns out Yahoo and several big law firms have been hit. In both of the cases cited in the newspaper article, the issue triggering the reactions was layoffs – always difficult, usually contentious, and it doesn’t get any easier when instead of trying to talk to your staff, your phone is ringing with a reporter on the other end of the line trying to verify the number of people who have just been fired – because they will never respect the language you use and say “left the company”!

When it comes to communicating bad news, it’s clearly a priority to control the dissemination of the information. A key tenet of any internal communications program is to ensure that employees find out about changes occuring in their workplace from managers or the CEO and not from the morning news report. But it also goes without saying that some employees will be willfully disobedient when they hear news that is not to their liking, so it’s no surprise when sensitive internal information finds its way outside – most often onto a blog or into the hands of a reporter.

To that end, what was amusing to me about the Wall Street Journal article was this sentence: “Still, at 9:11 a.m. on June 15, just 41 minutes after the first employees were notified of the layoffs, the law firm received an email from AboveTheLaw.com, a legal Web site.”

In my CBC days, I think there were instances were the time elapse mentioned above could have been cut in half…

But I sense the means and ways to address this issue – of internal company information getting posted on social networking sites – goes beyond just ensuring that internal communications are integrated with external ones, as suggested in the blog posting. In addition to the usual audit of checks and balances when it comes to the channels of communications in any company, I also think it calls for a careful review of internal codes of conduct as well as looking to see if there is technological assistance that can be provided to protect sensitive materials.

By no means will this stop all the leaks. If employees are mad or upset or savvy enough, chances are that company memos will still find their way outside. But if employees begin to realize that filters can and will be used, and that there are consequences for breaching codes of condut, an investment in awarness and education may also help.

Of course, any internal communicator worth their salt knows that you always assume that any piece of written material will eventually become external, and you tailor it accordingly. The difference now is instead of it just being emailed to a journalist, it can be posted on a discussion board and viewed by thousands.  At least with the journalist, you have a hope that they will call to fact-check.

Just another reminder that in this day and age, we are all living in glass houses.

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