Whether external or internal, business as usual for corporate communications has a whole new meaning, especially after what we learned from 2020 and COVID-19.
When I started working in tech PR more than 20 years ago, there were some simple rules to follow. Chief among them was advising your clients/executive leadership to never comment on religion and politics. The rule of thumb was that getting yourself involved in hot button topics opened yourself and your business up to negative scrutiny.
Fast forward to today and as my role has evolved from a junior PR practitioner to leading the corporate communications efforts for a publicly traded B2B tech company, so too has the world of PR and communications. Business leaders are being called upon to take a stance on sensitive subjects or potentially fall victim to social media trolling or worse, employee resentment. Simply put, neutrality implies complicity and it is no longer an option.
In the last year, we have experienced wide-scale racial injustice, political unrest and a global pandemic. I find myself needing to work with my team and executive leadership at least weekly to craft responses to social media or messaging to our employees on all manner of topics outside of our core business.
While challenging, it is also some of the most interesting and rewarding work I get to do. I’ve learned many things over the last year and while the world will continue to evolve as will the requirements for corporate communications, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned will undoubtedly carry over:
When engaging with the employee base, transparency is critical. People don’t want to feel ignored or that their employer is short-sighted. It is important to acknowledge what is happening, in the moment.
During the summer when tensions around social justice were high, our CEO did something special. He took it upon himself to send an email to the entire company in which he discussed his personal perspectives on the importance of inclusion and that the actions of the few do not represent the many. He encouraged an open dialog and the importance of listening to one another. That simple, spontaneous gesture was well received by many and is something that some employees still refer to when asked about the Progress culture.
Whenever we need to craft a message, whether internal or external, it is not only important to think about the audience you’re communicating to, but whether you’re communicating in an appropriate manner. When dealing with sensitive subjects, it is best to get insights from others to ensure you’re not pushing your own personal perspectives (especially if your communications team and/or executive leadership are from similar backgrounds). Diverse perspectives are the key to great decision making!
Not too long ago, I was asked to craft a message discussing our non-tolerance position on potentially discriminatory language in social media. After working through the initial draft, I asked a friend and colleague for her perspectives on whether the messaging would strike the right chord. Her input resulted in a much stronger message than I had originally scripted.
Just as important as providing the right types of communications is knowing when to not communicate at all. For example, we chose to participate in the month-long silence on Facebook to support Black Lives Matter and we silenced our social channels during the takeover of the U.S. Capitol building, just a few weeks ago. We did both because it was important to show we are not operating in a vacuum, insulated from what is going on around us and how these things may be impacting the people we work with.
This is probably the most basic and most effective way to communicate appropriately. When considering making any sort of statement, ask yourself whether your words could cause a negative reaction. Think about the perspectives of others, read what others are saying and what sort of reactions they are receiving. Lean on the experts within the organization to know which mediums to use and how to be most effective.
My team crafts a multitude of messages to customers, partners, the community and most importantly, our employees. The role of Internal Communications has risen in priority and become one of the most visible roles in our organization – from providing important updates on policies and practices, to finding unique and creative ways to keep our employees motivated and engaged.
One example of thinking creatively was an idea we “borrowed” from Jimmy Fallon’s hashtag segment. We created #ProgressTrending and each week we post questions to our colleagues and encourage them to answer on our Yammer channel using the #ProgressTrending hashtag. We’ve asked everything from Netflix binge recommendations to sharing pics of the best virtual meeting photo bombs. The goal was to take a couple of minutes to see what colleagues were up to outside of work and it has been a well-received exercise.
The above only begins to touch on how our world has and will continue to evolve and what we as communicators and leaders must take into consideration every day. This is by no means a perfect science. But my hope is that the lessons we’ve learned will help others facing similar challenges.
Erica McShane has more than 20 years of experience in high-tech public relations and corporate communications. With a focus on building awareness across the media, analyst and influencer communities, she has worked with all kinds of businesses—from startup to global tech giants—to build visibility, credibility and market awareness within the business, trade and online media. At Progress, Erica and her team are responsible for the company's global PR efforts, analyst relations, social media, content, customer programs as well as internal communications and corporate social responsibility initiatives.
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