Don’t block access to social media. Invest in a good policy instead.

27 January 2010

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

I presented yesterday to the Conference Board of Canada’s Council of Public Affairs Executives as part of a panel discussion on effective internal communications. My part focused on internal communications in the era of the wired worker and asked – how equipped are your employees to be guardians of your brand?

It is always interesting to learn how few companies actually have social media policies or guidelines in place, and how many continue to debate the range of access to social media tools or networking websites. Those conversations are always lively and illustrative because, as I pointed out, it doesn’t matter if your company is blocking access to facebook or personal email accounts. If employees have cell phones (and who doesn’t these days?), then facebook is accessible on just about every enabled phone, as is twitter and the internet. Phones have cameras and video-recording capacities, and with a quick link to youtube, anything can be uploaded and distributed in a matter of minutes.

The point being, that even if companies aren’t providing access to social media, employees have their own networks and don’t need a company’s computers to communicate.

This isn’t to say that since you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and crank the gates open. What I am advocating for is the creation of social media policies that are easy to comprehend and clearly outline the responsiblities placed on every employee who enters into the space, whether as a representative of the company or on their own time. It is completely within a company’s rights to determine how their brand and reputation is discussed and to place restrictions on who can do so or what can be said.

The general feeling with yesterday’s group of seasoned executives is that the majority of employees are respectful when it comes to using social media. It would be egregious to think that it is not possible to use social media responsibly inside a company. However, it would be foolish not to have a policy in place that clearly outlines the rules of engagement and the consequences for not following them.

Just some food for thought!

I want to be a multi-tasker, too

13 November 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

It’s amazing thing to behold: when what I try to communicate (natch, when what I think I am communicating) to clients suddenly appears in print and becomes…credible. After all, if the Wall Street Journal says that managers have to get hip to social media or risk being alienated by the next generation of workers, it must be true…

On Tuesday, the Globe & Mail published an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Texting + social media = better workers?” and it was interesting to see the link that was made between being hyper-socialized and a multi-tasker. It’s reminiscent of me being told a decade ago when I was trying to make my first career move that companies preferred hiring people from agencies because they could multi-task more effectively than people like me, who worked client-side. (As an aside, I totally disagree).

Multi-tasking seems to be a strange but valued job requirement that is not usually laid out in black and white but is constantly prized as a skill set that workers must have and even excel at. And now we can thank social media instead of agency experience for helping people become more adept.

(Although as an aside again, what happens when it’s agency people who use social media – does anyone know of any examples of spontaneous combustion due to hyper-social multi-tasking?)

But back to the article, which is examining some of the issues that come with having a very wired and very social workforce. Studies now show that online social networking at the office negatively impacts business productivity (according to Nucleus Research), and strangely, there have been reports that some kids have figured out how to text with their hands in their pockets, which is raising concerns about how they’ll deal with work environments that haven’t completely let go of the old-school notion of proper or approved channels of communication…when they get there.

This is a debate that will keep going for awhile. Social media isn’t a fad, and the reality is that more and more companies are trying to figure out how to jump on the bandwagon, if not quite embracing it openly. Managing multiple conversations isn’t necessarily a detriment. It’s just ensuring that while all those conversations take place that the focus and attention is still on the tasks at hand. Really, we’re just creating a new generation of multi-taskers who are unsurprinsingly being influenced by the tools that they use on a daily basis…to communicate.

And on that note, I’m going to refresh my facebook update through my Tweetdeck via my BlackBerry.

A false economy

22 September 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

It seems that we’re barely a day into the fall season and I’m already hearing stories about company Christmas or holiday parties being cut. Groan. I thought we learned from the last recession that even if you end up holding a potluck in the boardroom, it is still important to gather staff together and thank them for their efforts during one of the more trying years in recent memory. And who knows – have you asked them if they’d be willing to pay $20 to underwrite some of the costs? The point is, there are always other options when it comes to events or activities that have a direct relation to employee morale instead of just eliminating them.

Today’s Globe & Mail has an article that follows in the same vein – companies, still looking to cut costs, are getting rid of education budgets. So the opportunity for additional training and development that employees, especially the more ambitous and motivated ones, actually seek is gone, like the holiday parties of yester year.

Is there really a point in a career when an employee stops learning?

Let’s not even talk about what it does for a company’s competitive edge when it reduces or cancels training as a “cost-cutting initiative”. In this economy, looking for new ways to invest in your staff seems like a no-brainer. Fine, the MBA at Royal Roads is out, but how about some e-learning classes? Or getting a trainer in-house for an hour a week? The reality is that talented employees will recognize when they are no longer learning, or even worse are falling behind the development curve. And they will leave in order to enhance their skills and experience elsewhere.

Being an employer of choice, which companies like to use as a marketing tool to recruit talent, will also be hard to demonstrate without a learning and development program that the company remains committed to providing.

Some investments are worth making. The economy shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat to do away with everything.  So before you kill a program, how about asking your employees if they can’t offer solutions for how it could be done differently. That way, the company and the talent both win. The company lowers costs and the talent still feels like the company (yes, I’m going to say it) cares.

Really, what value can you place on a motivated high-performer? Let’s hope it is at least the cost of one course or conference, or business-class plane ticket…

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, 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.

Creative communication – and our new secret sauce

24 June 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

IABC’s CW Magazine often contains some excellent articles, and today I read one from Steve Crescenzo, whom I’ve been following for the better part of a decade now. Steve’s article is about the need to start adding creativity to communication – essentially, replace the “corporate” part of communications (and all of the dreadful corporate-speak it represents) with “creative” and start sticking up for not doing the same old things the same old way.

And oooh, boy, did it ever stir up memories of communications materials being derailed by executives who thought themselves better equipped to write or edit then their own communications team.  Jargon, acronyms, really, any sentence involving the words “synergies” or “leverage” or “cost effectiveness” sticks us all back in the dark hole we’ve tried so hard to get out of. Problem with holes is sometimes the effort involved to climb out is just not worth it…

What is making all of this so interesting is social media. Now, everyone gets a voice. An opinion. And guess what? Some of the user-generated content is better than what the official news release or note to staff say. More targeted, relevant and heaven forbid, easier to understand. As Steve so rightly points out in his article, podcasts do not exist for the CFO to read, verbatim, the most recent earnings statement. With all the tools at our disposal, can we not be more creative than that?

David Jones, Vice-President of Digital Technology and I are in the early stages of pulling together a smart and engaging offer for clients that encourages them to come talk to us about their change & internal and digital points of pain (more on that later). We understand that sometimes it’s hard to get out of the hole. Or even figure out where to start. So we want to provide our clients with what David calls our “secret sauce”. Time well spent with us so that we can assist in putting the “creative” back into communications and open the flow and exchange of information.

What we will be offering may not be a panacea, but should hopefully help people find their voice, speak up for changes, and start considering new tools that will allow for better cooperation, coordination, collaboration and yes, even communciation. It needn’t be a dirty word!

Don’t be afraid to embrace collective conversations

12 June 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

One of the most fearless internal, corporate uses of social media I’ve come across in a long time came to my attention thanks to an article in Business Week - Nokia: Bring on the Employee Rants.

As the subtitle goes on to reveal, with faith that smart ideas will prevail Nokia urges workers to say what’s on their minds – and pours money into their concepts. Talk about putting money where your rant is!

And talk about brave! Nokia allows employees to post anonymously, under pseudonyms, and be as savage as they want.  Nothing is sacred and everyone is allowed to express an opion. The caveat, I assume, is that as you tear apart a questionable purchasing decision, you are also taking the time to offer a construtive suggestion for how the same process could be done more effectively or efficiently the next time.

This gutsy free-flow exchange of angst and ideas has been credited by insiders for the company’s growth.

I feel that I am lecturing until I’m blue in the face these days about the need to pass more accountability on to employees for the growth and success of the company they work for. Visisonaries are always needed, but sometimes checking in with the shop floor is not such a terrible idea.

Empowerment is a wonderful tool to engage and motivate employees. But it can’t be at face value. If you ask for feedback, you need to be prepared to act on it. Not every idea will be groundbreaking. But I bet some of them will have signficant value to the bottom line. We are living in a business environment where accountability is an absolute and nothing can happen until the ROI can be proven. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you share this responsiblity with employees?

I’m not suggesting that every company will be comfortable going hole-hog like Nokia, but kudos to them for not being afraid of the tool or the outcome. It’s a terrific example of how a collective conversation can be harnessed for the benefit of everyone who participates. And no, that’s not a plug for this blog. It’s just the truth.

Invest in your managers – you will need them if a crisis hits, and every other day too

27 May 2009

By Amanda Brewer, ABC


One of the biggest challenges facing organizations is how to reach all employees – yes, every single one of them – especially when a significant number don’t sit in front of a computer all day. We do largely default to email to send urgent, important information out, but how do you reach staff working in stores, or in factories, or underground in mines, or in a suite editing a story for the evening news?


It is tricky, no doubt. Part of what makes social media such an attractive tool is its impact on the immediacy of communications. Anyone with a Twitter account can instantly share information with the push of a button. Facebook is a broadcast network. It’s no surprise to discover that more and more print journalists are becoming bloggers. It’s almost as if we have tacitly agreed that the world became wired for communications purposes and we are now defaulting, automatically, to online tools.


But when it comes to reaching employees, I am still counseling a number of clients who are grappling with how to communicate to their workforce as a whole. This is a necessity for the course of regular business to be sure, but if you think back to my most recent blog on crisis communications, when you need to reach your staff and timing is of the essence, a direct channel becomes an absolute imperative.


For now, two of the best solutions to this problems require investments. One is in the managers or supervisors of a company, the other is in digital tools.


First, managers.  Front-line managers in any organization are the opinion leaders. They set the climate and modes of behaviour for employees. During times of crisis, there is still an instinct to put the CEO front and centre (and they need to be), but sometimes it is at the expense of managers. Invest in your managers and make them a resource. Tools and training (The Manager is the Medium is an excellent program offered through Hill & Knowlton) can help companies equip and prepare their managers to take ownership of communications responsibilities. Think of what an incredible channel this could be if it is opened and maintained. 


Second, tools. If you are not looking to invest in training, then put your money in a tool that does have the ability to reach as many of your employees as possible. This can be a toll-free conference call number, a portal, a Twitter flow, and yes, an email system – do all your managers carry BlackBerries? If something happens, can information be sent to them immediately, and would they know what do with it? Would they know how to gather their teams and brief them?


And as I’m always fond of saying – if you don’t provide a channel for your employees, they’ll provide it for each other.


Just some more to think about as you’re reviewing your internal communications. Take a long, hard look at your managers, and another one at your channels. These are two areas were money will be well spent. The H1N1 threat may have passed, but that’s not to say it won’t be replaced by something else.

Employee Communications Boot Camp

21 May 2009

Maybe it was the long winter– but something possessed me to sign up for a two-month long exercise “boot camp” to swing myself into a renewed level of fitness.

Now, I like hard core exercise about as much as the next person – barely at all – but for the first few sessions, I felt the time flying by and I began to look forward to the next session. As I found myself sweating through the grueling pace of the near-sadistic exercises, I realized I was actually kind of enjoying myself.

I wondered why. Typically, with any kind of group exercise my eyes start to glaze over and I check my watch about 15 minutes in. Then it occurred to me. Our instructor is a great communicator.  

I also realized that organizations can learn from my “Drill Sergeant” in making employee communications meaningful and effective. I see many parallels between the two.

Here’s what works well at Boot Camp, and what should happen regularly in workplace communications:

·         Start with objectives up front and continue to refer to them. (“We’re here to get your booty bikini ready in eight weeks. Keep going; you’re going to see results. We’re here to work.”)

·         Set up a plan and stick to it. (“Today, after a warm up, there is 15 minutes of strength work; then we’ll do drills, some kickboxing and some core and stretching.” “I will never tell you to take a break – you know your limits. I expect you to take your breaks when you need them.”)

·         Ensure there is message clarity and consistency (“I want you guys always tight and strong. Get very low when you do your squats.”)

·       Make your points relevant. (“Have a great long weekend – and remember each glass of wine is 100 calories.”)              

·         Be aware of tone, energy and voice.  She is loud enough for us to hear (when we are doing group relays), quiet when we needed her to be (to get through the dreaded plank).

·         Use constant examples, demonstrate and make it “real” (“Not like this, like THIS”. “Pretend you are sitting in a char.”)

·         Link concepts together. (“This is working your core and your quads. We’re mixing cardio and strength here.”)

·         Set up and manage expectations early on (Kickboxing. “If you’ve never done this before, you’re going to feel ridiculous. Don’t worry about it, it will feel more comfortable the more you do it.”)

·         Be frank and honest. (“This one is really hard. You’ll feel this tomorrow.”)

·         Walk around and demonstrate. (She adapts her style for different participants and provides alternatives for different fitness levels).

·         Use humour. (“There are no “girl” push- ups. There’s from the knees and there’s from the toes.”)

·         Encourage without being condescending. (“You guys worked hard today.”)

·          Provide a constant feedback loop (“How does that feel?  Were you sore yesterday? Good.”)

·         Mix up tactics. (We get one on one time chat time after class, she sends us emails, has handout material and refers various web links and articles).

·         Makes yourself available and always follow up. (There is always clear verbal notification of any class changes, followed immediately by a timely email with the details. Oh, and she often also includes little reminders when we most need them.)

They are simple things, mostly. But the Sergeant does them consistently and she does them well. We believe she cares about us and our success and we want to work hard for her. Judging from the sign up for the next session, she is also keeping us coming back for more.


Kellie Major


Pandemic threat means time to evaluate your employee channels

05 May 2009

Companies are not having an easy time this year. As if the economic crisis wasn’t bad enough, now we get to toss the H1N1 virus (swine flu, though we’re moving off that term to protect pork producers) into the mix.

If there’s ever a time to test the strength of a company’s internal communciations practices, it is during a crisis.

With all the continuity planning that is taking place – because if a pandemic hits, the effects will be immediate and financially crippling – are equal considerations being taken for employees?

This can range from the most basic infrastructure needs (can you communicate with all of your employees if they are not working in the office, and do they know how to access whatever phone or web system your company uses for these exact instances?) to actively addressing misinformation that will spread and that may unnessarily worry or panic staff. It will be up to the company to provide accurate information, mitigate concerns and provide clear direction.

Employees will want to know what business contigencies are in place, and what the triggers will be to activate them. They will want to know what the company is doing to protect them, and protect the business. They will want to know how the company expects them to do their jobs if they’re not at the office. And they will want to know when it is safe to return.

What this means is that dedicated channels to provide continuous updates are needed – but starting now, not when the pandemic hits. Begin using your traditional in-house channels and test out your crisis ones. Because if you need to throw the switch, everything has to be up and running instantenously, including a direct line to employees.

A reminder too that we live and work in a digital age. The speed at which information can now be shared throughout the world presents both opportunites and challenges to companies dealing with crisis planning. It is safe to say that a key strategy will involve social media, as it’s not just your employees that you’ll need to reach. Your clients and customers will also want to know what your plans are, and how you are managing the crisis.  You may need your employees to reach key accounts during the crisis – how will you update them with the latest information?

You will also want to take a moment to review your social media protocols, as you will want to ensure you provide clear direction to employees so that those who are partial to blogging or exchanging information on social networking sites know precisely what is acceptable and not in terms of talking about the company.

The time to build new communications channels or invest in social networking platforms is not during a crisis – it is now. We may never see a pandemic emerge for H1N1, or we could be lucky to have a few months in order to prepare before we see a resurgence in the fall. Whatever the case, and whatever the issue, ensure that you have a direct, open and operational line to your employees, and whatever continuity planning you’re doing involves telling them exactly what you need them to to.

Rocks, Eggs and Hostage-Taking: New Employee Communications Tactics?

29 April 2009

Ouch. How embarrasing. I was seconded to Coca-Cola for almost three months and working out of a different office and with a different computer system, so guess what happened to this blog? But I’m back, and determined to pick things up.

Speaking of picking things up, I have been carrying a Globe & Mail article around with me for a month. The article that caught my eye appeared on the first page of the Report on Business section under the headline of “Unemployment” and shows a large photo of a man replacing a pane of glass in a house that had been vandalized. The house belongs to the former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin. The article went on to describe how employees were taking matters into their own hands when it came to letting executives know exactly how they felt about the economic turmoil, job insecurity and management salaries.

Tactics are no longer relegated to angry online postings and pickets. They are in fact getting more pointed and more violent. Holding managers hostage, breaking windows with rocks, pelting bosses with eggs – sound surreal? It’s not. It’s really happening. I was initially concerned about writing about an issue that appeared in the papers a month ago, but yesterday’s Globe & Mail picked the trail up again, talking about the increase in business for security companies who are now being hired to keep the C-suite safe – the implication being from their own employees, although it’s safe to say you could probably throw disgruntled or downright unimpressed shareholders into the mix.

One of the paramount issues that companies are facing today (and we’ll agree to set aside issues related to the bottom line right now) is keeping employees motivated and loyal. Because the reality is that most companies are probably doing things TO their employees that they wish they didn’t have to. Things like cutting back shifts, laying people off, asking for pay cuts, eliminating bonuses or some benefits…none of these make employees feel happy and valued. But they can be absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of a company.

So what I wonder as I read these articles is how were these decisions communicated to employees? The perception seems to be that management is retaining salaries and bonuses and the concessions are coming from the shopfloor.  How open and transparent has management been about how the global economic crisis is impacting the company? Sales of products? Renewed customer contracts? Ad revenue? When tough decisions need to get made, how are employees being informed? Do they understand how everyone in the company is contributing (or sacrificing)?

Keeping employees engaged and motivated during the best of times is never easy, so my sympathy and professional concern go out to managers during these worst of times. But it must be done or you risk having a workforce that becomes disenfranchised from the goals that the company is working towards – and in some cases, must meet in order to keep doing business.

There are tools out there that can help, but the first step is to realize that any issues relating to the economy or to employment are emotional. And it’s unlikely that will change any time soon.