Are Social Media Disclaimers for Employees Really Necessary?

Are you as surprised as I am when you encounter “opinions my own, not my employer’s” disclaimers on social media accounts?

Many companies still ask that employees write disclaimers into their social media profiles whether the accounts belong to the employer or they’re the personal pages of the employee. Here are 5 reasons why employers need a better way to explain who’s allowed to say what on which social media accounts.

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: I’m not a lawyer and even the lawyers I quote here would like you to know that this post should not be considered legal advice.

1) Disclaimers don’t protect a company and may even make a company liable
Corporate legal departments don’t like risk, and social media – with its free and easy access, instantaneous publishing, and wide scope of influence – seem like major risks. What companies are concerned about, notes corporate-practice lawyer Robert McHale, author of Navigating Social Media Legal Risks, is preventing:

  • disclosure of proprietary or regulated information,
  • display of photographs that give away trade secrets or invade privacy,
  • erroneous or negative statements about the brand, the company, its leaders, and competitors, or
  • inappropriate, discriminatory or harassing comments about company employees, vendors or customers.

But a disclaimer won’t stop risky (or risqué) information and images from getting out if someone is bent on sharing or doesn’t know any better.

In this excellent post on the HR Examiner site, employment and labor law attorney Heather Bussing writes, “understand this fundamental principle – the more you control [employee accounts and employee behavior on social media], the more you will be legally responsible for everything that happens.”

In other words, it’s wiser to back off when it comes to personal Twitter feeds and Facebook or Pinterest profiles. When employers leave personal accounts to employee discretion, “then the company generally will not be liable for things said and done in employees’ personal accounts,” Bussing explains. “This is because the employees are not acting in the course of their employment, and the employer is not controlling or implicitly approving the actions of its employees” outside of work.

2) Disclaimers create their own legal risks
There are clear and established laws regarding employee rights when it comes to privacy/monitoring, being a member of a protected group, speech that discusses wages and working conditions, and whistleblowing. Disclaimers, social media policies and disciplining employees for social media activity must not conflict with these laws.

Bussing notes that having employees write disclaimers on their private accounts requires a monitoring process by the employer to ensure consistency of enforcement if employees are caught violating company policy. And monitoring or, worse, accessing an employee’s personal social account – even when that account is sometimes used for company business or promotion – “carries significant risk,” writes McHale. Under federal and state laws, employees are entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy away from work.

McHale recommends absolute clarity instead: “Companies should adopt social media policies that squarely address issues such as the distinction between personal and business social media accounts, who owns the accounts, and who is authorized to speak on [the company’s] social media sites.”

As for what employees are saying on social media sites, Bussing warns that employers risk “liability for retaliation under discrimination laws” when they discipline employees for using social media in a way that relates to a protected status, such as an “employee’s race, religion, marital status, national origin, gender, pregnancy, age, disability” and quite a few other categories, as well.

Similarly, the National Labor Relations Act “prohibits employers from disciplining employees for discussing working conditions (such as wages, benefits, and the like), regardless of whether or not the employee is a member of a labor union,” notes McHale.

Bottom line: Never assume a disclaimer or policy gives a company the right to monitor, reprimand or fire an employee over their social media activities – whether private accounts or those owned by the business.

3) Disclaimers don’t add clarity around account ownership
Does the company own an account? Does the employee? And who has dibs on followers? Disclaimers only make this kind of traffic control more confusing, and the last thing a brand or company should do is confuse the people it wants to engage.

Forget disclaimers. Personal social media profiles belong to employees. Companies need to own their social accounts, creating specific ones for each employee officially tasked with using social media on behalf of the company. Account names should be clear and include both company or brand name and the name or initials of the employee. Customer service departments use this approach to provide customized responses and track issues.

National Public Radio does the same for its anchors. They aren’t their own brands – Scott Simon, Audie Cornish – they’re @nprscottsimon and @nprAudie. This is a smart move that acknowledges the credibility the correspondents bring to NPR and vice versa. It also speaks to the very real fact that people change jobs and retire. When they do, their NPR Twitter accounts will close, and fans will choose to follow them to new accounts, follow their NPR replacements, or both.

4) Disclaimers hurt the brand
Does requiring every employee with a social media profile to include a disclaimer match your brand’s personality or your company’s mission?

“To the contrary,” Bussing says, “it just looks like the company is trying to control what gets said.”

Pre-emptively censoring employees doesn’t much impress fans and followers; it dampens any sense of transparency and honesty in company communications. It sends exactly the wrong message about your company and what it might hope to do in the social arena.

5) Disclaimers are based on fear, not strength
What are companies afraid of? Yes, companies monitor employee online activity, including the websites they visit and the emails they send. This usually gets a brief mention during orientation, when a new recruit is overwhelmed with information.

While Bussing advises against social media policies – because “if you are directing the conduct of employees in social media, the company will be liable for everything that is said” – others, like McHale and Christopher Barger, author of The Social Media Strategist, recommend comprehensive and ongoing training for employees.

Rather than a one-time, check-the-box training, Barger advocates “teaching the organization to fish,” a three-level education program that:

  • covers the legal and technical basics,
  • provides additional resources for learning and networking,
  • shares the company’s purpose for being on social media, its goals, strategies and marketing and customer service approaches,
  • offers an opportunity to participate in company social media, and
  • encourages taking what’s learned and dispersing it throughout the company.

Fear is never a good starting point for technology or the activities employees use technology for. And disclaimers don’t substitute for clear, fair policies and a solid education program to support employees in their social media practices.

Do you use a social media disclaimer? What do you think they offer companies and/or employees? Will they become more common or disappear as social media evolves?

Why “What keeps you up at night?” Is a Bad Question and What Communicators Can Do about It

Full moon photo by Gregory H. Revera. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m at an employee meeting where the CEO is speaking, I always cringe when a staff member raises his or her hand and asks, “What keeps you up at night?”

You might not care what I think, but would it make a difference if you knew the CEO considers it lazy and cliché?

Perhaps that’s why this question never stumps CEOs. They hear it all the time, from employees, from reporters and shareholders. It’s so ubiquitous that the communications person supporting the CEO (cringing at the front of the room) always prepares an answer to this question.

So, I was thrilled when a friend, who co-wrote the excellent book Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, dedicated an entire chapter to the CEO’s view of “What keeps you up at night?” (Note: This is an unpaid endorsement of the book, which I received as a free copy to review.)

The authors talk to the chief executive of North American operations for a multinational corporation about the problem: “It’s a terrible question,” he says. “Overused. Clichéd. Stale. And worst of all, lazy…They thought that by posing that question I would – as if by magic – immediately volunteer to tell them all about my toughest issues.”

And, really, what employees asking this question want to know is: Are there going to be layoffs? And, specifically: Am I going to lose my job?

The executive is clear that no smart CEO would divulge something like that, or be involved so directly in day-to-day issues management. CEOs, he explains, are “focused on growth and innovation, not operational problems.”

Laying the Cliché to Rest

Okay, it’s a bad question, but employees probably aren’t going to stop asking it, so now what?

As the communicator, you could recommend the CEO turn the tables. Instead of responding with a standard talking point, have the CEO ask the employee what keeps him up at night. (Gently and kindly. The CEO doesn’t need to be Mike Wallace here.)

The employee will be so stunned, he’ll probably give the CEO a raw, but honest answer. Your job is to make sure the CEO responds to the answer.

How do you manage that without being a mind-reader? How do you know what an employee might ask?

Solicit employee questions before the meeting – if you already do this, but have a tendency to weed out the negative ones before you show them to the CEO, make sure you review all of them. If people are angry or upset, prepare the CEO to address such issues with concrete solutions.

Talk with functional communicators – these folks are closer to the day-to-day operational issues in each department. They should know what’s causing concern among employees in the business units they support, whether it’s that new initiative in Manufacturing or cutbacks in perks for Sales or rumors of layoffs among Administrative staff. If there’s a major issue brewing, work with the comms person to get the senior leader in charge to the employee meeting – prepped with talking points – to address the problem head-on. The CEO can introduce the leader and she or he can take it from there.

Look at what employees are saying on social media – study conversations about your company in the social channels and on industry forums. Has the tone changed? Is something particularly concerning employees?

Find out what customers care about – check in with Customer Service to see if there are any concerns that are having an impact further up the supply chain.

Address market and competitive issues – these frequently drive internal efforts at efficiency and product development, so make sure the CEO has talking points on external drivers of change in your organization.

It takes a bit more prep time, but changing the dynamics of a dull, heard-it-all-before employee meeting enables more helpful information to reach employees and creates greater transparency and respect between employees and the CEO.

Change Is a Good Thing, Right?

Stray cat  Photo by Vickie Bates

“When are you gonna get me out of this driveway and find me a home? Cuz that’s the kind of change I can embrace.”

When I got back to Hollywood after three months in New Hampshire, a lot had changed.

Streets were blocked off for repairs, changing normal routes into confusing detours, snarling traffic. A wonderful neighbor in my triplex announced he would be moving to the westside in October. And there was a new and insistent change, making immediate demands on all three of us in the building. (Yeah, that guy, up there to the right, batting his baby-blues at you.)

From the timing of his appearance in our driveway, we think he was abandoned when someone moved out of a nearby apartment at the end of August. My soon-to-be-departing neighbor reported that he was so hungry, he tried biting into a lemon that had fallen from a tree. So distraught that he sat on my other neighbor’s doorstep and cried all night. Here was a young cat, used to living indoors, out on the streets, dealing with traffic and, yes, even in central Hollywood, wildlife – the kind that tends to fight with neighborhood pets. This little guy seemed unprepared for all that and dazed and distressed by his new circumstances.

By the time I returned from the east coast, both neighbors were leaving food and water for him. But due to allergies and peripatetic lives, none of us was prepared to adopt him. And so he remained on the street, exposed, which gave me a week’s worth of sleepless nights.

My contribution was lots of cuddles (he was starved for affection, too) and immediate outreach (for some reason, my neighbors hadn’t thought this far ahead). I figured my social media network probably wasn’t wide enough, but I knew two friends – both with extraordinarily kind and generous hearts – who had substantial numbers of friends, acquaintances and followers. I reached out with a kitty profile and photos (hooray for smartphones) and, as it turned out, one of them didn’t need to share across her network – she was looking for a pet.

Now he has a loving home, a hoomin to talk over philosophy and the state of the litter box at 4:30 in the morning, and a new name (Io, after one of Jupiter’s moons).

And I went back to losing sleep over who my new neighbor is going to be and whether he or she will smoke and party every night and leave suspicious things in the laundry area. Y’know, the usual stuff I stress about.

That Darn Cat

I also was left to reflect how far outside of my comfort zone this little fellow’s desperation had placed me.

How, before I got emotionally invested (darn that cuddling!), I could feel myself balking at even acknowledging the existence of a stray cat who’d taken up residence in our driveway.

How annoyed I felt at the intrusion into my work.

How my mind kept racing with questions: What if he got run over? What if a raccoon gave him rabies? What if he was already sick? What if he belonged to someone who was looking for him? What if I took him in and he turned out to have the kitty equivalent of Mr. Hyde lurking inside him?

And how – after he left our driveway for his new home – all three of us confessed to missing him terribly and worrying about him even though we knew he was in a far better place.

You see, usually I’m the one inflicting change on other people. But it reminded me of something we used to say to each other, over and over, on one of the facility-closure change teams I served with: “You never want to get so good at this that you forget what it feels like for the people losing their jobs.”

As professional communicators, we’re dealing with change management 24/7. So it’s probably not a bad thing to take stock, when change hits home, and see – no, feel – what it’s like when our own emotional ball of string gets unwound.

Fear, cynicism, unwillingness to let go, anger, blame, excitement, acceptance, and all the other emotions that experts chart on the change curve, don’t arrive on schedule or follow a neat, sequential line. No, typically they pile up on top of each other, like bad L.A. traffic; they honk our horns and change the pre-sets on our radio dial. They’re the busted car alarms that keep us awake all night.

I’ve learned it’s valuable to remember that we too balk at change, feel uncomfortable in our own skin, and toss and turn all night. It doesn’t mean we’re terrible at change. I think it makes us more effective change managers if we recognize that talking points and trainings and lunch-and-learns often barely scratch the surface of what people are experiencing when their lives are upended and that our feelings about change don’t stop just because we’ve happened to reach that final milestone on a change plan.

What do you think? What important emotional experience – in life or at work – have you learned from?

Related posts:

Just the Facts? How to speak to the emotional concerns of audiences dealing with change
Is It Possible to Speed Up Change Management?

Engaging Audiences with Storytelling

Running rings around Saturn. The Cassini mission explored the rings and moons of the gas giant.

Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and hear from two of JPL’s master storytellers about engaging audiences’ imagination through the wondrous possibilities of space exploration.

My inner science nerd spent the whole time doing cartwheels while the professional me took lots of photos and some notes to share with you.

The organizers – the Los Angeles chapter of IABC – made the excellent choice to include both external and internal storytelling on the agenda, which opened up the topic and the perspectives in a big way.

Our speakers were Stephen Kulczycki, deputy director of communications and education at JPL, and Teresa Bailey, information science specialist and the JPL FIOA liaison in the Library, Archives and Records section.

Connecting with Hearts, Not Just Minds – Storytelling to External Audiences

Just as you’d imagine, we needed to submit our names to JPL several days prior to the event and there were security checkpoints throughout the Pasadena campus, which has more acreage than Disneyland.

The next Mars rover (which successfully landed Aug. 6, 2012) is Curiosity, and it’s the biggest machine in space. Curiosity reminds me a bit of WALL-E!

Still, there’s a large public-facing component to this organization, including a visitor’s center housing a museum on the history of space exploration. Thousands of students come through each year, learn and discover, and are treated to a number of communications designed specifically to encourage their sense of wonder about “amazing places,” as Stephen Kulczycki says.

His office produces short films about JPL’s work that have the quality of Hollywood trailers with quick cuts, dramatic orchestral music, and lively graphics. The scientific language is pitched to “smart 8-year-olds,” which makes these mini-movies perfect as press releases, for the general public, for online platforms, and as footage in science programs, such as PBS’s “Nova.”

“Every good story takes a protagonist with a dream and a set of obstacles they need to overcome,” Kulczycki says. “We get the mechanics and explanations out of the way and get to the heart of what people feel.”

“We’re creating relationships here, person to person, house to house,” he adds.

JPL has one of the Apollo mission moon rocks. Note the giant padlock (back, left) securing this sample!

If you work in an organization with plenty of proprietary information to protect, it’s possible to give in to the restrictions on information-sharing and lose sight of how you can use communications to create those relationships. The JPL storytelling event demonstrated that even in a restricted environment, you can find innovative ways to engage, educate and enthrall your audiences.

One of the coolest ways JPL involves children is in the naming of spacecraft. Schools across the country are invited to submit names and, in the case of the latest moon orbiters (now christened “Ebb” and “Flow”), the winning school gets to take the first pictures of the moon. Brilliant!

We saw a video of the Skype transmission from the winning science classroom in Montana. All the kids were cheering while the teacher beamed and jumped up and down. The 8-year-old in me, who spent most of her Saturdays at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, knew exactly how they felt. The communications professional recognized that one day, one of those students may grow up to become an astronaut, a spacecraft designer, an astrophysicist, or a politician who makes decisions about funding space exploration.

JPL uses communications and involvement to invest its audience. “The value we put on communication is the way it enables us to connect with the human soul and heart,” Kulczycki says. “We represent hope, otherwise we’d be machine-makers instead of dream-makers.”

Storytelling that Builds Community

Meanwhile, inside JPL, there’s been another kind of storytelling, and it’s been happening at the library for the last dozen years.

“Community-building is a common thing for libraries to be involved in,” notes Teresa Bailey, who developed monthly (now every other month) hour-long speaker programs after “puzzling over how to incorporate storytelling without making it sound like something happening at a children’s library.”

“Ground Control to Major Tom.” This is mission control at JPL, where they monitor all the data sent back from spacecraft studying the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond.

But, she had a strong belief that the best way to transfer knowledge is face-to-face and launched the storyteller program in 2000. Bailey helped connect and engage her internal audience by encouraging speakers to share personal stories with insider details – “what makes your work meaningful to you? Only you have walked in your shoes.”

Scientists can discuss research from the past, current projects, even their dreams for the future.

Bailey preps the storytellers in advance, allows more than one scientist to share the stage (because research generally involves large groups of scientists and engineers), encourages the use of visuals, and handles internal publicity. The stories are filmed and made available on the intranet, as well as through the library’s archives site.

Bailey sees storytelling contributing to a knowledge-sharing culture. Storytelling, she says, supports:

  • mentoring
  • socialization of new employees
  • building relationships and bonding
  • learning lessons from past or present projects
  • organizational identity
  • community

“It’s very contagious being here because there’s always something new,” she adds. Storytelling spreads that “contagion,” enabling employees to learn, ask questions, get involved, be inspired, and reach for the stars.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, speakers and tour guides at NASA JPL. You can check out the stunning videos and learn more on the JPL website.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Space. The final frontier.”
~ Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek”

Employees on Social Media: Have Fun Storming the Castle

The following is a true story. Could this still happen in the age of social media? If your company wants to remain competitive, let’s hope not.

Once upon a time, a company was struggling to regain market share. After trouncing all comers for a decade, it lost its punch as new competitors and more exciting products entered the ring.

The entire company was reorganized to focus on marketing. Despite decades of award-winning work, the old advertising agency was let go. A hip new one was hired. Product lines were brought somewhat up to date, but they didn’t function as well as the market leaders. Consequently, they received poor reviews from press and consumers alike.

And what of employees inside the hallowed halls of this once-great company?

The daily grind was pretty grim. Employees coped as best they could with successive reorgs, changes in leadership, mission rewrites, OPEX reductions, and the launch of one new initiative after another. It was hard to generate excitement when every move the company made seemed to lead to a new round of layoffs.

But try they did. At employee meetings, they sat politely as marketing unveiled the latest products and plans. When asked for input, they gave it. Intelligently, clearly, poignantly. They wanted this stuff to work its magic and they were fully invested in its success. But, because they were closest to the front lines (manufacturing, quality, sales, customer service), they also knew it wouldn’t and, like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, they felt obliged to tell the truth before the company threw good money after bad.

What did they get in return?

They were told repeatedly that they didn’t understand all this newfangled marketing because they weren’t the right demographic. They didn’t like the new products because they weren’t the ones who were going to buy and use them.

And the “right demographic”? What did they think of the new products and marketing? They turned away in droves.

Was there a Happily Ever After for this company? Sadly, no. Remember, this is a true story, not a fairy tale.

The only thing that kept this saga from getting any worse was the fact that it took place in the days before social media. Imagine if employees – treated like that – had access to Twitter, Facebook and blogs!

What’s the moral of this story?

Dismissiveness discourages engagement (and encourages mutiny)
What exactly are employees supposed to do with insults, such as, “You don’t understand because you’re not the right demographic?” (A lot of them might think about taking their revenge on Twitter or Facebook or in industry forums.)

Effective marketing is all about relationships. Launching a campaign calls for engaging key stakeholders to help build enthusiasm. It starts inside a company before the very first ad airs on TV or the first tweet goes out. If a company can’t build solid, positive relationships with its own employees – natural allies because they share the same goals – how can it expect to create them in the world, where people are far more suspicious of brand messaging?

And if morale is bad inside a company, it’s only a matter of time before that negativity seeps into the social world where it influences key audiences and customers.

Employees aren’t the “right demographic,” they’re the “first demographic”
Engagement must start inside the gates with internal audiences because they are a company’s ambassadors during good times and bad.

“Your people are your best assets,” notes Christopher Barger in The Social Media Strategist. “In an environment in which trust is a key currency, it is your people and their personalities that will sell an audience on your brand as much as your product.”

In this age of social sharing, even with limited or no budget, a company can still create word of mouth around its products if its social media strategy includes having employees use their expertise and enthusiasm to engage customers.

This is doubly true in a crisis, when employee goodwill is shared in social circles, reinforcing official communications. Effective crisis communication is no longer simply about “putting a coin in the good karma bank in case you need to make a withdrawal,” as crisis experts used to describe it.

Companies that value employees and empower them to engage with audiences in social channels on a regular basis have a host of vocal advocates ready to put their influence to work on behalf of the brand’s reputation when barbarians are at the gate.

It’s important to understand how employees relate (and are related to) your customers
Think about a company that makes toys for toddlers. The employees probably range in age from early-20s to early-70s. Clearly, they are not the target user of the toys they manufacture.

But, do none of these folks have children? Grandchildren? How about parents who buy toys for grandchildren? And cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and professional colleagues they meet at industry conferences, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, employees are customers. And, if they’re not direct consumers, they encounter customers in all walks of life and have the potential to be ambassadors for the brand and influence purchase across networks of family, friends and professional associates.

Companies don’t own their “story” any more
Companies no longer control messaging about their brands, leaders or dirty laundry in social channels. (Just ask Yahoo!)

Sure, companies can restrict access to social platforms on the corporate network and create HR policies that forbid mentioning the company in social channels after work. But brands that want to excel take a different tack.

Christopher Barger recommends “teaching the organization to fish”: “Not every organization or company will empower all of its employees to engage in social networks. All the same, it’s a good idea to build a social media education program for all employees anyway.”

Barger’s approach enables employees to learn everything – from social media platforms to publishing tools and company policy. It also gives employees insight into how the company – both marketing and corporate – shares messages and builds relationships in social circles.

This kind of immersion in social media best practices, based on teaching and trust, goes a long way to building a strong base of employee ambassadors who understand the vision and strategy and are well-versed at engaging with the audiences companies most want to reach.

Companies don’t always know how to build a better mousetrap
“Great leaders…know that if they come up with all the answers, the chances of having anyone else buy into the solution are next to zero,” write Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas in Power Questions. “But if their employees come up with the answer – if they feel ownership of it – there is a good chance it will bear fruit.”

Many social media experts predict that smart companies will create iterative processes that allow feedback from social media fans and followers to inform the design of better and new products. Both consumers and employees are in prime positions to contribute expertise in this scenario.

Some companies are already doing this. So, when an employee figures out a whole new way to use a product, simplify consumers’ lives, solve a problem, streamline a service, or just make customers happier, give that employee a blog. Why restrict access to social media? Heck, let them share their personal story with as many people as possible, and watch how customers get engaged.

Now that gives employees and customers something to tweet about!

Do you have examples of companies that encourage employees to use social media channels? I’d love to hear about them in the Comments.

Corp Comm Needs Some Sympathy for the Devil

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer. What I’m convinced of is that every Corporate Communications unit needs a kind of sacred space to challenge the messaging, communications approaches and accepted wisdom created by the department.

If what’s puzzling you is the nature of my assertion, let’s be clear, I’m not a gadfly, contrarian or naysayer.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m what’s known as the Devil’s Advocate.

So, if you meet me, have some sympathy, these days I often find myself surrounded by cheerleaders. And, unless you’re one of the teams going to the Superbowl, cheerleading rarely does a profession like corporate communications any good.

But, I hear you saying, it’s our job to enhance the company’s reputation and support leadership with effective communications. It’s our job to develop the best communications strategies, plans and messages to promote and share news with our audiences. It’s our job to help employees understand changes in business direction, policies, procedures, and ways of working by being clear about what’s expected of them.

You’re absolutely right. But, we don’t accomplish this by cheerleading or telling audiences how they’re supposed to feel about the information we deliver, especially when the news may be met with differing opinions. We do it by presenting the facts clearly and by being open, honest and timely in our communications.

Devil’s in the Details

There’s nothing wrong with genuine pride in the company we work for, the way it conducts itself in the world, treats its employees, and rewards its shareholders. But, if “school spirit” interferes with communicating effectively, that’s another story, especially when the news isn’t so cheery.

Remember BP leadership’s repeated insensitivity following the explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig that cost 11 workers their lives and caused an environmental disaster across five states? How about Philip Morris’ spin on smoking deaths? Or when the Big 3 automakers flew private jets to Washington, D.C., to ask the taxpayers for bailout money (an unspoken message that was heard loud and clear)?

It’s Corp Comm’s job to prepare executives and spokespeople and manage reputational issues. How do we protect them from tone deaf talking points that become PR nightmares?

Corp Comm, meet the Devil’s Advocate.

It’s time to shine a sharp, bright light on your communications plans and messages and see whether they hold up to scrutiny. This is an important exercise for any communications plan – whether you’ve got positive or difficult information to share.

Reporters – and many employees – are seasoned skeptics. Journalists are trained to ask the kinds of probing questions that can dismantle messaging if it hasn’t been pressure-tested.

Would you rather have your CEO’s messages fall flat in the privacy of a company conference room or publicly at a press conference?

The Nature of My Game

Here’s how it’s played:

  • You’ll need two teams. The first created the communications plan and messaging; the second is given a situational overview and reads the plan and messaging in advance.
  • Team 2 plays Devil’s Advocate and prepares questions for Team 1 from the point of view of key audiences: media, critical advocacy groups, employees.
  • Set up a physical space, like a conference room, that can serve as the setting for a press conference, a meeting with constituents, and an employee meeting.
  • Role play the scenarios, pressing hard on both sensitive issues and areas that Team 1 might think were unimportant. Make sure Team 2 stays in character; after all, it’s their job to bedevil Team 1 to help them create a better plan and stronger messaging.

The Rules of Devil’s Advocacy

When it’s not so much a crisis, but an annual plan or approach, it’s just as important to do some pressure-testing. Rules apply:

  • Set clear boundaries for the team who’s written the plan and the group playing Devil’s Advocate. You probably can’t rewrite a company policy or the 2012 goals, so don’t solve for world hunger. Focus on pressure-testing the communications at hand (not the new company policy).
  • Agree to keep everything said in the session confidential. After all, these are drafts; the work you do together may change the language, tone or direction significantly in the final, approved version.
  • A good rule of thumb is to focus first on what works in the plan, then on what can be improved. Comments and suggestions should always relate to the plan and its improvements, rather than at individuals.
  • Everyone in the room agrees to participate, providing both positive feedback and recommendations for improvement. Everyone must play Devil’s Advocate at some point. You can’t allow just a few brave souls to put their feet to the fire.

The Deadly Sins (Things to Avoid)

  • Despite the focus on playing Devil’s Advocate, this is not a bashing session. You’re not there to rip the plan apart or shout, “King me!,” at every mistake. One of your colleagues developed these strategies and messages. Someday your communications plan may be center stage. Even devils can play nice.
  • If the rules are followed, there can be no repercussions for Devil’s Advocacy. Remember, the purpose is to ensure the company and its representatives don’t seal their fate in some awful way in front of important audiences. Speaking up to improve communications and protect the company’s reputation can’t burn anyone later. (If it shows up on a review, for example, you’ll never get any productive feedback from that employee again.)

Good leaders will recognize a sub-rule to the last rule, which is that people who step up to help challenge and make messaging better and strategies and plans more successful deserve to be thanked for their forthrightness. This sends its own message to the department about the value of open and honest communication.

Pleased to meet you, Corp Comm. Hope you guessed my name. Feel free to tell me what’s puzzling you in the Comments.

Messaging Layoffs

Since I’ve been discussing messaging and talking points over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to share this chilling story from Marketplace Radio on the jargonizing of layoff language.

A reporter from Financial Times noted that Nokia, when putting 17,000 employees out of work, described the act as “managing them for value.”

Companies have downsized, rightsized, outsourced, delayered, OPEX’ed, and RIF’ed their way through the Great Recession as lawyers, HR and finance tried to spin the news for Wall Street. If communications professionals were involved in the creation of this sort of messaging, then, quite frankly, shame on them. Doublespeak always backfires.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of working for companies faced with the difficult position of laying off employees, yet they had the compassion to insist that the process – and the communications around it – be done with integrity and respect.

All told, I’ve communicated layoffs that affected the lives of more than 25,000 individuals and their families and communities. And I’ve had the job of rallying internal audiences and keeping them focused and productive once layoffs and facility closures were through.

The reason telling Wall Street that managing 17,000 people “for value” always backfires is that Wall Street isn’t the only audience. There are employees. They’re listening and, trust me, they are not impressed with “Up in the Air” glibness. That goes double if two separate departments are handling messaging, one spouting “managing for value” externally, and the other trying to ward off plummeting internal morale with compassion or simply by providing economic facts around a struggling business.

One of the most basic tenets of corporate communications is synching internal and external messages. No amount of compassion and respect in internal communications can combat hearing “managing for value” on TV.

If you do this right, you are hyper-aware throughout that layoffs are about human beings, not numbers. Compassion rules your heart and nothing blurs your vision of how this is done with integrity. Your credibility and your company’s rests on messaging – external and internal – that is respectful and, above all, consistent.

Clearing the Air around Firing

A side note about the misuse of language regarding layoffs: Isn’t it time we all – corporate communicators, reporters and HR people – stopped confusing layoffs with firing?

Firing is something that happens for cause, because an individual violates a policy, rules of conduct, or simply doesn’t perform appropriately in a job. Layoffs typically involve groups of employees and, while one or two might have made the list for cause, no one (especially not HR) will ever admit that.

Confusing or, worse, conflating “layoff” with “firing” does an enormous disservice to those who’ve just lost their jobs (and don’t particularly want to hear on the news that they’ve been “fired”) and the job-seekers who are trying to position themselves for new work (and don’t need the added pressure of having to answer an interview question like, “Why were you fired from your last job?” when in actuality they were laid off).

The Elevator Speech: Approach with Caution

There is a moment I dread, perhaps above all else, at the beginning of a project, and it starts with an innocent-sounding request like this: “I need an elevator speech, so that when I go out and talk to stakeholders, I can explain what we’re doing.”

Elevator speeches, as you and Wikipedia know, are intended to “quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition.” The goal is to deliver your prepared speech in the time it takes to ride an elevator from, say, the lobby to the 6th floor.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing, by definition. It’s practice where we can falter.

5 Tips to Elevate Your Elevator Pitch

When you’re supporting a project, you can improve the impact of communications by offering a quick bit of coaching. Remember, your team was chosen for their expertise in business process development, HR, change management, and IT, not communication. Some may be project – and elevator speech – newbies.

Help them out with these five tips for effective communications:

Time It Right, Part 1: Don’t Play “Beat the Clock”
Do you know how long 30 seconds is? That’s not a trick question. Unless they’ve worked in radio or racing, it’s unlikely most people have a sense for how many words fit into 30 seconds. Wikipedia gives elevator rides a generous 30 seconds-to-2 minute time span. The reality, unless your stakeholder is traveling from the lobby to a skyscraper penthouse, is more like 30 seconds. After exchanging greetings and inquiries about your health, that leaves just enough time for a tagline about your project. You’ll help your team immensely by keeping the elevator speech to one or two sentences, at most.

When you send it out to the team, append it with answers to a set of questions they can expect to get in response. And, for those used to receiving a paragraph-length or longer elevator speech, remind them that brevity is more likely to invite further questions: it leaves the stakeholder wanting more instead of feeling overwhelmed by a long, verbatim speech.

Make It a Natural Part of Conversation
Corporate initiatives struggle under enough weight – from awkward acronyms to flagging sponsorship – so give your team a fighting chance by helping them sound natural, not canned. This, of course, starts with the style and tone of your writing, but depends on the person delivering the elevator speech, as well. Memorization is key, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. If IT phrases things a little differently, let your IT lead change it up for her or his constituents. Most important, encourage the team to listen first.

Has the other person in the elevator (or cafeteria) said “Hi” just to be friendly or are they really starting a conversation? (Hint: Avoid launching into the elevator speech with everyone who says, “Hi.”) What are the conversational indicators that someone wants to know what you’re working on? (Hint: It’s probably not asking, “How are you?,” after saying, “Hi.”)

Really big hint: Someone is more likely to ask what you’re working on if you’ve invited them to talk about their work and expressed real interest in what they do. If that takes up the entire elevator ride, suggest a lunch (if appropriate) or catch them up on the elevator speech next time.

Don’t Corner Your Stakeholder
Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” with the Close Talker? Elevators, small conference rooms, stairwells, and most especially bathrooms are tight quarters and not your stakeholders’ natural habitat. Also, other people frequent these spaces; they may be less receptive to hearing an elevator speech.

Suggest to your team that effective communication is what they’re going for, not communication-at-all-costs. They should be aware of their surroundings, what the stakeholder is attending to, and the appropriateness of delivering the elevator speech there. (Hint: You’d be amazed how many folks need to be reminded not to talk business with stakeholders in the bathroom.)

Time It Right, Part 2: Be Aware of Social Signals
Did that VP of Sales really want details when she asked, “How’s work?,” or is she just being polite and simply want an answer like, “Work’s great!”? Is he looking for space to think? Is she only riding the elevator up to 2? Is he making a private phone call? Late to the next meeting? Deep in conversation with a boss, customer or direct report? Encourage your team to trust their instincts. The elevator speech won’t get a good reception if someone from your project has just interrupted a conversation or stalked a stakeholder from the elevator to a meeting.

Know When It’s Time to Listen, Rather than Speak
After all, stakeholders are the audience most critical to the success or failure of projects. Now do you see why that request for an elevator speech concerns me? It’s because the focus is on what we, the project team, need to say. When we focus so hard on messaging to stakeholders, we tend to forget to listen to what they have to say.

If this is the case, then we have it backward. We need room in our communication plans – and within tactics like elevator speeches – to listen to key audiences.

Our “value proposition” is only as valuable as the audience believes it to be. It’s our stakeholders who give the project credibility among their constituencies. If we want to earn their genuine support and buy-in, so that they go out to the rest of the organization and help us as ambassadors, we need to engage in two-way conversations.

Write it into your plans and help your project team understand that delivering what we need to say shouldn’t get in the way of listening to what audiences have to tell us about how to ensure the success of the project.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Don’t speak!”
~ Dianne Wiest to John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway”

Transparency Equals Credibility: Communicating What You Know When You Know It

Communicating is tough when the news is difficult for your audience. It’s even harder when details aren’t fully baked.

I’ve fallen victim to holding back – for example, waiting till all of the content was developed before launching an intranet site with only a few months left to go on a large-scale change project.

I look back on that experience and cringe. Sure, intranets were brand new then, and most of us were trying to make them look and function like external websites, but the main reason I delayed was fear that stakeholders needed more content. So, they waited while we created.

Doing Better than “I Don’t Know”

Recently, I wrote a post about communicating a new Pay & Rewards system for warehouse employees (“They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?”). That post was about getting my foot in the door and learning an entirely new functional area – heck, understanding a whole different culture – at the company. I promised to tell you the rest of the story as a kind of case study for communicating difficult information, even when all the facts aren’t available.

For many years, change communicators were advised to get comfortable (and get leadership comfortable) with saying, “I don’t know.”

The fact is, “I don’t know” doesn’t work for most audiences. They suspect you do know something; you’re just not telling them.

Let’s face it, they’re usually right.

Instead of trying to make “I don’t know” work, it’s a lot better and creates far more credibility for everyone involved (leaders, the change team, Corp Comm, and your communications vehicles) to establish regular milestones for communication.

That’s the mandate our warehouse Pay & Rewards team started with. But, instead of providing regular updates, they sequestered themselves while rumors filled the information vacuum.

Rebuilding Credibility

Before I was ushered in to meet the Pay & Rewards team, the facility leader advised me he’d appointed warehouse employees to this team for a reason. He was adamant that, unless there was absolutely no other way, they needed to deliver the communications. This wasn’t going to be some slick communication from HQ. The credibility of the team and the pay system depended on it.

Sitting in on my first session with the team, it was easy to recognize their expertise. They’d been through weeks of training to understand pay systems. They’d spent months formulating and reformulating a design they thought was appropriate when employees moved from the old warehouse to a new distribution center where they’d be expected to work with a massive robotics system and computers.

The team was determined to do right by their colleagues. And that’s where they foundered. Concerned about creating a fair system, they were afraid to communicate a half-developed design – and air their debates as the design took shape. The risk of misunderstanding seemed too great.

Early in their deliberations, they began taping paper over the little window in the conference room door to keep people from peeking at anything that might be on the white board. That didn’t sit well with the warehouse.

Good News or Bad, Be Honest, Clear and Consistent

As we worked together, I realized the new design was good news for the majority of employees: most would see a pay increase when they moved to the new distribution center, and the process for earning bonus pay would be standardized, making it clear and fair for everyone.

(Now, I can hear you thinking, “But, you had good news to communicate. Just go out and tell employees, and the team’ll be fine. It’s not like employees were losing money. That’d be a lot harder to explain.” True, we were lucky there, but six months of silence is a hard act to follow. More to the point: I would have taken exactly the same steps if the new pay system had meant smaller paychecks and fewer bonuses.)

The first thing I did was have the team explain the new pay and rewards design to me, the timetable for its approval, and how it would work as employees transitioned to the new facility. This took a while, but in the confines of a private conference room, they presented the information like the experts they were.

Facing their co-workers was quite a different story. Up until their appointment, the Pay & Rewards team members worked in the warehouse; they’d never had to speak in public, and they were nervous and wary. We spent hours on presentation training, while I worked with a graphic designer back at HQ to bring their design to life.

The team had three critical goals for the presentation:

  • re-establishing the Pay & Rewards team’s credibility
  • explaining the new pay and bonus system clearly, so that everyone walked away with a solid understanding of where they fit in the new pay scale
  • establishing the equity of the new system

When It’s Okay to Bury the Lede

Together, we created a presentation that addressed each of the critical needs and used models (i.e., without actual hourly pay) to explain the pay scales conceptually before sharing the actual new pay and bonus rates.

The presentation went something like this, with each team member taking a turn:

  • the team’s training in pay design
  • the core value of developing a pay system in-house, rather than having one imposed from the outside
  • an objective overview of pay scales in the regional economy
  • benefits of the new pay and bonus system
  • models of the new pay and bonus system
  • expectations of employees: how they could be successful within the new structure
  • the new pay and rewards system
  • questions and answers

This wasn’t a crisis – and we were delivering complicated information that every single employee cares deeply about (“How much am I going to get paid?”) – so, we had good reasons to delay sharing the actual pay rates. If the team had shared the new pay rates at the beginning of the presentation, no one would have heard a word they said after that.

Despite jitters, the team delivered heroically, communicating to every employee in the facility within a 24-hour period and staying late into the night to present to third shift to ensure the information was delivered in a timely and consistent manner.

There were lots of questions, but very little confusion – the audience heard and understood the messages – and the team answered every single query, further re-establishing their credibility.

By the next morning, we’d placed thick notebooks with the full presentation, a long list of Q&As, and a schedule of regular Pay & Rewards team communication updates in the cafeteria and common areas. The team made themselves available for questions and we updated the Q&As whenever there was new information.

There were certainly concerns and questions for a couple of days following the presentation, but before the week was out, everything was back to normal and the old rumors had been put to rest.

Ultimately, the new design gave employees a positive incentive to move to the new facility, so they could work within the new pay system. And our change team moved on to other pressing issues of the transition, such as employee technophobia and business-stakeholder management.

Is there anything we would have done differently if the news had been bad and pay went down? The key indicator for that message was the pay scales in the regional economy and how our facility ranked in relation to other companies. Given bad news, you’d still follow the same order above, ending with a series of small group or brown bag lunch sessions to continue the discussion, reinforcing key messages and answering questions. Then, make all of the information available, as we did, in an open and transparent way. Ongoing communications from the team and their willingness to answer questions frankly and on the fly would help maintain their credibility over the long run.

They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?

It might surprise you that one of the career moments I’m most proud of didn’t involve handling a crisis or securing a talk show for a client. It was a brief event, lasting all of five minutes, when a conference room full of clients couldn’t stop laughing at me.

I promise this isn’t a painful-to-read story about learning from failure or an embarrassing tale that ends with me being remembered as “that woman who mooned Atlanta.”

Back when I worked for a large apparel company, I was assigned Logistics & Transportation as a client group. All I knew, at the start, was that our warehouses held three brands’ worth of men’s, women’s and children’s fashion.

The Logistics & Transportation guys (and they were mostly guys, in those days) knew their stuff. They knew their people, too – the ones who picked, packed and shipped product for hourly wages – and they understood how to talk to them. They had to. For a long time, Logistics was in the shadow of larger functions, without their own communications person.

So, my assignment wasn’t exactly greeted with a round of hearty cheers. Like most folks who work in remote locations, they had a healthy skepticism of “experts” from HQ – those pampered few with carpeted offices, who’d never walked the cement floors of a warehouse or had to make things work no matter how limited the resources out in the field.

Understandably, they were a bit aloof when we met, but in the politest manner possible. The one thing those tough exteriors never hid were the true gentlemen beneath.

I knew their work and lives were different from mine, and that I had a lot to learn about this key part of our business. I freely admitted it, studied hard, asked questions at every turn.

I’d like to say that hard work won the day. It might have in the long run – certainly, a strong work ethic is something they respected. But, the day I truly got my foot in the door went like this…

There was a pressing communications issue over the pay and bonus system at one of the warehouses. The facility leader knew it was a heated topic and decided, what the heck, give this supposed HQ expert a shot.

How we communicated the new pay and bonus design is a story for another post (which you can now find here). But, the employee team was gracious – and probably worried – enough to accept my help. Before the team could deliver communications to employees, though, the facility leadership team needed to review the design, approve it and give the go-ahead for an employee meeting.

You do the math, I’ll handle the words.

The Pay & Rewards team – all regular warehouse employees who’d received special training in pay design – brought deep knowledge of their subject matter; I provided messaging, organization and graphic design support. The one thing the team, with all their expertise, hadn’t been able to do by the time of the leadership meeting was explain one of the mathematical formulas so that I could convey it graphically in the presentation. It had been a bit like a game of telephone, with the team trying to help me understand, and me, via emails, conveying my impression to the graphic designer back at HQ.

Laughter the Best Medicine

The Pay & Rewards team, who’d never done public speaking before, overcame their nerves and gave an excellent presentation to leadership. When I advanced the PowerPoint to the slide with the math formula, though, it still wasn’t right. Before the leaders started asking, “What on Earth is this?,” I jumped in and said, “This one’s my fault. The team has worked valiantly to explain this to me, but I’m mathematically challenged.”

The tension in the room evaporated as everyone laughed.

They laughed a lot harder than that line deserved – laughter wiping away nerves over public speaking, concern about how the pay system would be received, doubts that an outsider would usurp the warehouse’s way of doing things.

Normally, when a room full of people laugh at you, it feels rotten, but I was over the moon and couldn’t help but join in. It was deliriously contagious.

This was the moment when it all changed, and it happened not because I played the fool – self-deprecation isn’t about being foolish – but because I didn’t insist on being the expert. And that can be a hard thing to let go of when our job is to provide communications counsel.

Once I’d demonstrated a willingness to learn from the people in Logistics & Transportation, no matter their position on the org chart or how much they were paid, my clients relaxed, welcomed me and gave me the chance to work with them and support their communications needs going forward.

When the conference room quieted, I quickly assured them I’d get it right so they could sign off on the communication. Then, I delivered on that promise and kept delivering. Because in the Logistics & Transportation world, delivering is what really matters.