Democracy: a reason for communications and HR folks to party together

I recently finished the new book Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications, by Paul Argenti and Courtney Barnes. I must admit, I’m allergic to many Web 2.0 books. This book does have some of that social media handbook feel, but I was excited about it because co-author Paul Argenti, a professor of communications at Dartmouth, is someone whose ideas about communications have really influenced my thinking over the past few years.

Paul was one of the masterminds behind The Authentic Enterprise, a whitepaper that may be one of the most compelling looks into the future of the communications field I have ever seen. I’ve written about it previously here, here, and here.

The following paragraph highlights the point of view from which this book approaches digital communications strategy:

“The business of managing relationships– and therefore, business itself– has changed dramatically in the last decade. Stakeholder empowerment, as it’s come to be known, has shifted the corporate hierarchy of influence from the hands of elite business executives to those of their once-passive audiences, including employees, consumers, media, and investors.”

This paragraph does a nice job illustrating what we might define as the democratization of corporate communications.

Democratization of Corporate Communications:
person communicating about any company at any time.

A company’s own communications professionals can no longer expect to be the only communicators of the brand message. Employees are communicators. Customers are communicators. Even former employees and former customers can now communicate on behalf of brands. Scary stuff or exciting stuff, depending on who you are.

One of the things I really liked about this book is that it has an entire chapter highlighting a favorite subject of mine: the need for closer ties between the human resources and communications function. Why? Simple:

In a world where everyone is a communications person, everyone needs to be on brand.

Human resources departments are usually in charge of new employee orientation, leadership training, company meetings, the hiring process, and a bunch of other tools that can help get people on brand and on message. But in most companies, the corporate communications and HR departments aren’t closely aligned (one exception is my former employer, Red Hat, where I used to be part of a actual group called People & Brand that brought the two functions together).

In the old world, it was mostly OK that HR and communications people didn’t party together. Many companies have human resources training and communications activities that simply go through the motions. Orientation is where you fill out paperwork. Recruiters simply set up interviews and fill out more paperwork. Internal communications people send out emails about holiday parties and company meetings.

But in a world of democratized corporate communications, the two functions must collaborate closely to ensure that every employee is a good communicator of the brand message.

Orientation is where you are introduced to the brand and learn how to speak in the brand voice. Recruiters keep careful watch for potential employees that embody the brand attributes already (and they also keep careful watch for those recruits who have the potential to destroy the brand).  Internal communications people constantly reinforce the vision, mission, and values of the organization by telling stories, creating shared experiences, highlighting positive examples, while providing context and relevance.

The book includes two interesting quotes from Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, who frames the challenge of the democratized organization nicely:

“It’s about culture and how decisions are made. For IBM today, being [one company]… means figuring out ways for 370,000 IBMers, expert in virtually every industry and working in 170 countries around the globe, as well as literally millions of business partners and other members of IBM’s global ecosystem, to exercise their own judgment and imagination… but at the same time produce work that is consistently and recognizably ‘IBM’.”

But he also provides some answers:

“[Becoming ‘one company’]… is accomplished through the common sense of empowering the population. And then producing consistency and turning ideas into value. It’s not about what we own. But what we can co-create… The way you achieve consistency is through openness and transparency. It’s embedded in the values. It’s not through process and structure, but a shared understanding.”

A shared understanding. A common culture. An empowered population, producing consistent work. All catalysts in a democratized organization. And all things that corporate communications and human resources folks can create so much more effectively when they work together.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.



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