With so many experts, gurus and “mavens” (that’s my favorite, by far) telling people how they should and shouldn’t build engaged communities online, I think it’s funny we often forget that solid external communities often start right within our organization’s four walls.
Yes, simple corporate communications strategies and tactics can go a long ways toward building the external-facing communities companies crave right now.
What am I talking about?
Think about the organizations that are successful online right now. Look at Zappos? What’s made them successful isn’t their Twitter accounts, it’s the trust and open culture Tony Hsieh has worked hard to build. And, it’s the fact that he purposefully trains and trusts his employees with the brand in a very open and public way.
Or, what about Southwest Airlines? By all accounts, a fun, exciting and fulfilling place to work. Management has fostered a culture that embraces many voices speaking on the company’s behalf. And, it’s an organization that’s aligned all the way from CEO to customer service.
Finally, as a curve ball, what about the U.S. Army? Here’s one of the most hierarchichal organizations on earth–and they’ve worked extremely hard to give their front-line soldiers a voice online. That didn’t happen without a ton of trust and communication internally first.
So, what corporate communication strategies can you take from these companies and start implementing at yours as a way to build stronger external communities?
Focus on middle management. We spend so much time talking about how executives need to support social tools before employing them across an organization, but we spend very little time talking about getting middle management’s buy in. And, I tend to think that’s just as–if not more–important. Why? Think about who really directs the work of any organization–it’s not senior leaders. It’s middle management. If these folks aren’t bought in, your grand social media plans ain’t goin’ nowhere. Work hard to make sure these folks know what’s up from the get-go. Include them in planning meetings. Make sure they’re in the room when you’re developing your social media policy. And, make an extra effort to get them involved in some way, shape or form. It will pay off in the end as employees will see them embracing the shift/tools (and as a result, they will, too) and senior leaders will take pride knowing their teams are executing their vision.
Open up the lines of communication. If you’re going to build truly engaged communities externally, why not start internally by opening up the communications floodgates. Give staff-level folks VIP access to executives and senior leaders (start an “Ask the CEO” section on your intranet, ask your senior leaders to attend monthly brown bags with staff). By opening up the lines of communication internally, you will be setting the foundation for how you behave and act as an organization externally. Employees take their cues from leadership, remember. You want them to mimic the right behaviors.
Coach your spokespeople–for social media. Sure, you coach your spokespeople for mainstream media interviews with broadcast and print outlets. But, what about speeches executives give at national trade conferences? Won’t nuggets from those presentations get picked up by journalists or attendees and passed along via blog posts, Twitter or notes in LinkedIn? What about meetings with customers or vendors? In today’s world, you have to almost assume people will share information externally after the meeting. So, you should think about training and coaching your management team appropriately.
Build trust (repeat…and repeat again). Without question the most important aspect of community building: Winning trust (great post about this issue from my friend, Ari Adler, here). Internally, within organizations, it’s no different. And, it’s just as hard. Problem is, there’s no easy answer or solution. But there are usually a slew of opportunities. Leaders build trust by giving their staff the spotlight instead of hogging it for themselves. Leaders build trust by looking for opportunities to give their staff chances for success. Leaders build trust by talking about “us” and “we” instead of “I.” Leaders build trust by caring about their employee (not just lip service–for example, a CEO sending a staff-level employee a personal note telling him/her how much he appreciates their efforts the last few months). Remember, actions are MUCH louder than words. The opportunities are everywhere–and sometimes, it’s the smallest ones that make all the difference.
Note: Photo courtesy of The Great Beyond via FlickR Creative Commons.