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Blurred lines: the communications nightmare when the internal and the personal goes external

Tim VaughanTim Vaughan·

The ultimate communications nightmare – when the lines between employee communications and external communications become blurred.

We can take it as read that Robin Thicke was not thinking about the world of Internal Communications as we know it in his controversial hit song, Blurred Lines.

Despite the title, if you were one of the many millions who saw it on YouTube you would quickly have realized there was nothing vague about its offensive core message. There was nothing at all blurred about the misogyny in the lyrics, but that didn’t prevent it being a massive international hit three years ago, despite protest campaigns.

But we are living in a time when communication lines and messaging are blurred like never before, when we carry around smartphones and tablets with both personal and work emails, where social media policies are effectively useless in terms of reputational damage when an employee goes rogue on their company Twitter feed.

The blurring of communication lines makes life especially challenging and difficult for internal communicators who are nowadays expected to live by, and encourage, the corporate philosophy du jour of transparency and openness with employees.

Which is all very fine and to be admired in theory, and indeed is a tenet that underpins some of the most successful companies in the world, but it comes with some crucial caveats. The most important of which is that it always has to be remembered that every internal communication has the potential to become public, with vastly varying degrees of consequence. Everything: emails, newsletters, posters, videos, social media postings.

Everything must always be written or verbalized with that critical question in the back of your head: how would I feel if this appeared on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or if I got a call from a journalist asking me to explain it?

Too cautious, too careful, too old-school? If you think so, it might be worth recalling Sainsbury’s internal comms debacle in 2014. A poster intended for the staff room was instead displayed in a Sainsbury’s shop window and quickly went viral on Twitter.

Unfortunately for Sainsbury’s, whose corporate promise is Live Well For Less, the poster encouraged staff to try to get customers to spend an additional 50p on every shopping trip between September and the end of that year.

The ‘50p challenge’, as it became known, turned an ill-conceived internal comms campaign into an external comms PR disaster, attracting negative publicity for Sainsbury’s brand all over the world, in a matter of hours. An employee communication meant for the confinement of a staff room instead going viral globally just underlines the need to really think through the potential impact of every internal communication.

That thinking doesn’t need to take up a whole lot of your time – the quick and simple test of asking ‘would I be happy to see this in a newspaper headline, on social media or television’ doesn’t take long and generally suffices. If you’re unsure, ask a sensible trusted colleague for their view.

Of course it’s always been the case that information meant exclusively for internal consumption sometimes leaked, accidently or as a result of more malevolent intent, causing reputational embarrassment or damage to companies. But without social media, mobile phones and instant video, the risks were fewer and the means and speed of dissemination were nothing like they are today.

In a previous incarnation I edited a newspaper and, as any journalist knows, getting your hands on internal emails or documents which show the publicly stated positions of companies or organizations to be misleading, dishonest or false, is gold dust.

The journalist might know the true position and that the company or organization has been spinning, misleading or even lying, but is not in a position to publish because of lack of provable evidence. That deliberately leaked or carelessly handled internal document can make all the difference, creating real trouble for the organization concerned, potentially plunging it into crisis with long-term reputational damage.

While maliciously leaked information or disinformation, invariably by disgruntled employees, is very difficult to prevent, fortunately for internal communicators the same does not apply to carelessly handled or ill-conceived communications. Keep the ‘would I be happy to see this on Twitter’ mantra in your head and you mitigate against communications going bad. If the brains behind Sainsbury’s 50p challenge had asked himself or herself that question would the poster have been created or distributed? I don’t think so.

Of course internal documents are also leaked from organizations, by employees or whistleblowers, due to genuine concern about their contents. These are usually, but not exclusively, related to Government-related or public authorities. A classic case occurred yesterday when an internal memo from the Irish health service authority was leaked to the national broadcaster RTE and caused public uproar. Incredibly, the memo described patients who refused to move from acute beds as ‘trespassers’ and outlined how staff could use force to remove them.

Whoever decided to circulate that internal email most certainly did not consider the risk of it finding an external audience and the firestorm that would create. In addition to putting thought into the content of internal comms, it is imperative that organizations have sophisticated IC software such as Newsweaver’s Internal Connect which allows highly targeted, personalized and segmented employee email distribution and analysis.

Sometimes, of course, a company’s internal or external communication is so obviously going to be a car crash that it’s difficult to understand how it got any further than an embarrassing, and very brief, brainstorm.

Take the PR disaster of Coca Cola’s 2015 anniversary campaign for Fanta in Germany. It’s usually a good corporate idea to take advantage of leveraging publicity from a significant anniversary, but Fanta’s 75th is a case study in how not to do it.

The ad campaign said that in Germany 75 years previously the resources for producing Coke were scarce, but the clever clogs came up with a brilliant idea – create a new drink. Fanta was born.

The campaign referred to the time when Fanta was created in Germany as “the good old times”, and consequently caused uproar and huge offense.

The “good old times” was 1940 and Nazi Germany was wreaking havoc in World War II. Coke quickly apologized, but when part of your apology reads: “Fanta was invented in Germany during the Second World War but the 75-year-old brand had no association with Hitler or the Nazi Party” you know you’re on a loser.

While PR disasters such as this are as a result of advertising campaigns or other forms of external communications, corporate communication gaffes also have very real consequences for internal communicators. In the case of Coca Cola, the company’s own employees would have been as offended as anybody else and best IC practice would have demanded that they be fully briefed and kept informed during and after the crisis.

And in any crisis, the number one rule is to take ownership of it and deal with it quickly, honestly and authentically. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your fault or you’re not directly to blame, if it’s on your doorstep or on your watch, deal with it. Everything else can wait until later.

Quick decisive action, even when it means a radical and embarrassing reversal of a major strategic decision, is more often than not the most effective course of action. In October 2010, after much research, planning and investment, the American clothing company Gap launched a new corporate logo and identity to signify its transition from “classic, American design to modern, sexy cool”.

Roll on a few days, and this Wildean gem from journalist Julie Weiner, writing in Vanity Fair: “The new Gap logo, which was unveiled last week to a chorus of caustic criticism, died yesterday at the age of one week. The logo passed after a brief and ignominious battle with stage IV banality”.

The best that can be said about Gap’s ill-advised disastrous new logo is that they cut their losses and killed it quickly.

Finally, the type of situation that can put a shiver up the spine of even the most experienced, calmest and most confident IC practitioner – unauthorized or unintentional postings on a company’s social media account.

This can truly be the stuff of nightmares, but it need not always be the case, and while the previous advice of taking ownership of a problem and acting quickly applies, it’s also worth remembering that carefully deployed humor, in situations which are not grave, can also work brilliantly.

A case in point was the American Red Cross when a staffer accidentally tweeted a personal message on the charity’s official Twitter account. Instead of a funding plea for some natural disaster somewhere, the tweet read: Ryan found 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzered.”

But instead of panicking, the Red Cross responded with perfectly pitched humor, defusing any embarrassing escalation. “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

And to show how a potential social media problem can be turned on its head to end up being something positive, the makers of Dogfish Head’s beer got in on the act, taking to Twitter and urging people to use #gettngslizzerd to donate to the Red Cross.

What can be said after that except #alessontoallofus!


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