4 corporate communication tips that will help build engaged communities

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.

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17 comments on “4 corporate communication tips that will help build engaged communities

  1. Ari Herzog says:

    Great points, Arik, but perhaps your subtitle should focus these on large organizations. When you single out shoe manufacturers, airlines, and the U.S. Army, those are hardly examples your downtown restaurant, car dealer, or dry cleaner can emulate. And it is because of this lack of scale (along with limited time, staff, and money) that mom-and-pop stores' websites (if they have them) are not updated, Twitter and Facebook accounts are created and shortly abandoned, and socialmedia adoption is lost on them.

    And, I don't blame them.

  2. krusk says:

    Great points and it's true, great communities are born out of great culture, and great culture is built on trust and openness. Many are eager to skip to benefits of a community, but that only happens if all the other pieces are in place.


  3. Thanks for this great post. I think the benefit of social media and engagement with communities of prospects/customers really comes when done at the workgroup level.

    Actually, it's to me the major shift. Now a product team working on a software security product can go and engage with a few 100's to 1000s of people that are reachable out there, organized and ready to provide feedback, test product, help in sharing information about your product aso.

    In corp, the challenge is clearly to support these workgroup (product/product line level) with coaching – one does not become a PR person overnight-, rules and policy, and productivity and learning tools.

    So I would as you said focus on Middle management .


  4. Arik Hanson says:

    Thanks for the comment, Dominique. Your example is a good one–and a big opportunity for many companies these days. Using your customers to help you improve your products. However, that's a shift that doesn't come easy to many companies–culture change is behind that one, too!

  5. Arik Hanson says:

    Much like many things in life, those who are the most committed win, Ari. I think that is especially true when it comes to social media. This isn't something you can expect to spend 10% of your time on. You either commit or you don't. Not a lot of middle ground there. I definitely understand the challenges for small business–I work with a few. But, in the end, they all make a business decision–is this worth my time? If not, they usually fall off and try something else. But, if they end up committing, you can see success–oftentimes, substantial success.

  6. Some great ideas and thanks as well for linking to my post about training spokespeople.

  7. Shane Jacob says:

    Thanks for sharing this, the struggle is getting middle management to buy in to support social tools. Its clear that whatever a company/organizations wants its not going to happen until everyone gets on board. The challenge here is figuring out ways to get them involved, excited and sustain it. Thats where trust and open communication comes in I guess.

  8. Ari B. Adler says:

    Great discussion points here Arik. Especially the one where you point people to my blog. 🙂

    Seriously, though, it's so frustrating to hear company leaders talk about th need to engage with customers and to have open, transparent relationships to help build brand loyalty, blah blah blah — and then have them turn around and stifle creativity, interaction and open dialog with their own employees!

    They all need to learn that you can't clean up the neighborhood when your own front yard is a mess.

    ~ Ari

  9. jaybaer says:

    So good. So right. Focus on middle management should be a post unto itself.

  10. heatherwhaling says:

    I have a new slight obsession, focusing on company culture. It's important — whether you're Southwest Airlines … or me and my (little but growing) team. Not only will strong culture create a better social media experience, but building a culture where people emphasize teamwork and collaboration, where they want to work (not just *have* to work), etc leads to better client services, more creativity and stronger results. I love your ideas and think you can expand on them beyond the social realm. Smart post, Arik!


  11. Terri says:

    Great article -definitely worth the read!

  12. @patgermelman says:

    Yea!! Social media starts at the heart of the organization and radiates out like so many ripples…I could go on with the tired cliches but there's truth in them thar words.

  13. Arik Hanson says:

    Indeed–and it's in the works. Thanks for stopping by, Jay.

  14. Arik Hanson says:

    Love that last line, Ari. What can we do, as communicators, to help leaders realize when message alignment is off (the example you gave above)? I think that happens more than we want to admit.