Monday, February 4

Convincing Employees: Public Relations' Ugliest Public

Ten years ago, when you mentioned internal communication to most public relations professionals, the best you could hope for was a blank stare. (A blank stare was still one step up from any reaction at the mention of social media.) But it wasn't really their fault. Many of them were taught it was hands off.

"Oh no, we handle all external communication," one might nod in agreement, emphasis on external.

Conversely, internal communication was generally overseen by corporate communicators, internal communication teams, strategic communication professionals, employee relations experts, personnel from human resources, or someone from management. Public relations was rarely part of the equation, which was a bit ironic, especially in larger organizations.

As much as the media felt that public relations was a barrier between the organization and the media, many employees felt the opposite was true. Public relations professionals were the barrier between employees and the media (and sometimes the organization), especially when they asked all media calls be diverted to their department. Otherwise, the only time public relations might be in contact was when the pro needed a briefed subject matter expert for an interview or someone to sign off on a quote.

With some public relations professionals including social media within their sphere too, some people say the same thing about social media. Employees on social networks ought to refrain from writing, speaking, or talking about work. Really?

If the company thinks that employees don't get "the message" then why would they think anyone does?

In some cases, the employees know "the message" better than public relations professionals. Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean "the message" that has been carefully crafted in strategic planning meetings. I mean the message as it hits the streets.

Consider some of the BlackBerry messages out now. People are voting about it. Most reviewers are hedging their bets about it. And public relations is already weighing in with Alicia Keys. Really?

Do you know who has the real story on the likelihood BlackBerry has a chance? Employees. No, not the scripted kind. The kind who will tell it like it is — which elements were rushed, which coworkers felt pressured, what might have been said as the first round was passed around in house, and whether or not Keys is a demanding global brand guru.

Sure, most of them will keep their lips sealed for good reason. But that's the point. Any time employees can't be trusted to speak plainly about the new product, it's probably because they didn't buy into the communication that marketing and public relations developed. In some cases, they didn't even hear it.

I'm not saying that's the case for BlackBerry. My guess is most employees are hoping the hail Mary works out. If not, it's anybody's guess how long the organization can sustain itself. But for most organizations, the experiences it delivers — in terms of product performance or customer service —tell the real story.

For example, have you asked an employee if they saw a story about their story? Some are clueless and disinterested. Some are surprised and very interested. Some are knowledgable and ready to embellish it at the expense of the organization. Others will enthusiastically puff the company up. The same holds true for new product launches. Will employees secretly advise waiting for the updates? Will service plan providers wave people away from the sale? Is the message migrating from the inside out or are just a few people trying to convince the tech media market to take up the banner?
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