Bridging the Communication Gap

Social media can help employees get the message — and spark engaging conversations.

For organizations where the weekly or monthly newsletter is still the gold standard of internal communications, here's something to ponder, in fewer than 140 characters, no less: social media can be a highly effective way to develop ongoing, engaging dialogue with employees.

It's not that the "dead-tree" newsletter has completely gone — or should go — the way of carbon-paper copies and electric typewriters. But to more effectively communicate with employees these days, particularly younger workers, organizations should consider augmenting their traditional methods of reaching out with social media like micro-blogs, Wikis and Twitter.

A recent survey performed by the Society for Human Resource Management estimates that 20 percent of companies use social media for internal communications. As such, there are plenty of organizations that are "ripe for the social-media picking," says Amanda Laird, a consultant at Maverick PR in Toronto, Ont.

"Social media is not a silver bullet to cure communication problems, but it can be used in conjunction with other methods, from newsletters to bulletin boards in lunchrooms," she explains. "Better isn't necessarily a good word to use, but social media can help bridge some gaps and complement more traditional means of communication."

As an example, Laird points to a former client she worked with where research showed employees were not reading a 1,200-word weekly newsletter. But when the organization complemented the newsletter with a micro-blogging platform — sort of like Twitter, but based inside the company's firewalls — to communicate internal messages, employee engagement increased.

"Employees found it easier to digest when they received one or two lines of high-level, pertinent information," she says. "We used it for everything from communicating sales wins to asking employees not to eat other employees' lunches to promoting the next 'town hall' meeting."

Bottom-up, not top-down

One of the primary benefits of social media is that it provides an alternative to top-down communication, where an executive or the human resources department sends messages from on high to employees. For example, micro-blogging, in which small pieces of digital content are posted on a company's intranet, makes it easy for employees to weigh in on topics and share information.

"It empowers everyone to communicate and makes employees feel more engaged," Laird says. "When a former employer of mine introduced Chatter, which is sort of like a cross between Facebook and Twitter (see for details), we saw more people submitting content to our traditional newsletter.

"We also saw more employees conversing with each other, and not just with their buddies," she continues. "It generated more interdepartmental communication ... broke down those silos. Sometimes it was just simple tips and tricks, but we'd never seen that kind of interdepartmental communication before. People communicated within their teams before, but it wasn't cross-functional."

Laird says the employer also encouraged collaboration via a so-called Wiki, which is an internal website developed for a community of users that allows them to easily add/edit contributed content.

"You can build one inside your firewall on your intranet or an internal server," she explains. "It's dynamic, so if you update it, everyone else that has access to it sees updates in real time. It's a great way for teams and people to work together."

Blogs also have a place in the social media toolbox. But since they more resemble an intranet or Internet version of a weekly newsletter, they're considered a one-way form of communication and not as collaborative as Wikis, Laird says.

Keep content fresh

On one hand, social media is just like any other form of internal communications, in that it shouldn't be used just for the sake of using it. It should have a clear strategic focus, and implementers should be sure their workplace culture provides fertile ground for acceptance. If the general workforce doesn't have access to smartphones or computers, for instance, social media won't fly, Laird notes.

But once an organization commits to a social-media communications program, it's important to factor in the time it will take to keep the digital-content pipeline full, she warns.

"The great thing about social media is that the only barrier to entry is time, plus it's free and easy to adjust your strategy," Laird says. "But if you don't have time to update a Wiki, or blog regularly, or update this week's podcasts, then it won't work. Consistency is the key to success. So often, people forget to think about the time aspect."

Moreover, implementers should remember a simple rule: content is king.

"It's hard to get around the fact that health and vision benefits aren't sexy subject matter," Laird says. "But using social media, like a blog post, won't help at all if it sounds completely robotic. If there's no imagination or personal voice to it, people won't listen. There's a reason people call it social media. It needs to be social.

"You really need to tap into people's personalities and let them show through in communications," she continues. "Or try something as simple as adding a picture or an audio clip to make things more engaging."

Employees crave contact

Another compelling reason to use social media: If organizations don't give employees a place to communicate with each other, they'll create one on their own, either at the water cooler — or something much more sophisticated and widespread. As an example, Laird points to a large, well-known electronics retailer whose employees developed a website to complain and gossip about things.

"Luckily someone found the website and had the foresight to harness employees' appetite for connecting online," she says. "They launched their own internal forum that eventually led employees to shut down the (negative) website. The company realized they had to tune into employees and listen to what they had to say."

Using social media for internal communications is also a useful recruiting tool for attracting younger employees, Laird points out, noting that social media has become an integral part of how they live.

"As younger people seek jobs, they're going to seek out organizations that communicate the way they understand communication," she says.

In other words (and in less than 140 characters), let the micro-blogging begin — and get the conversation started.


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