With so many experts, gurus and mavens telling people how to build engaged online communities, it’s funny that we often forget that solid external communities often start within an organization’s walls.
Think about the organizations that are successful online right now, like Zappos. The company isn’t successful because of its Twitter accounts—it’s because of the trust and open culture CEO Tony Hsieh worked hard to build. Hsieh purposefully trains and trusts his employees with the brand in a very open and public way.
What about Southwest Airlines? It’s a fun, exciting and fulfilling place to work. Management has fostered a culture that embraces many voices who speak on behalf of the company. It’s an organization that’s aligned all the way from the CEO to customer service.
And, as a curve ball, what about the U.S. Army? It’s one of the most hierarchical organizations on Earth, and it has worked hard to give front-line soldiers a voice online. That didn’t happen without a lot of trust and internal communication first.
What corporate communication strategies can you take from these companies? Take a look:
1. Focus on middle management.
We spend a lot of time talking about how executives need to support social media tools, but very little time talking about getting middle management’s buy-in. It’s just as important, if not more so.
Think about who really directs the work of an organization. It’s not senior leaders—it’s middle management. If these folks aren’t behind you, your grand social media plans won’t get anywhere.
Work hard to make sure middle management knows what’s up from the get-go. Include them in planning meetings, and make sure they’re in the room when you develop your social media policy. Also make an effort to involve them in some way. It will pay off in the end because as employees see their managers embrace the shift/tools, they will, too. And the managers will take pride in knowing their teams are executing their vision.
2. Open the lines of communication.
If you’re going to build truly engaged communities, why not start internally? Open up the communication floodgates.
Give employees VIP access to executives and senior leaders through an “Ask the CEO” section on your intranet, or ask senior leaders to attend monthly brown bag lunches with the staff.
When you open up the lines of communication internally, you set the foundation for how employees should behave and act externally. Remember, employees take their cues from leadership. You want them to mimic the right behaviors.
3. Coach your spokespeople for social media.
Sure, you coach your spokespeople for mainstream media interviews. But what about the speeches executives give at national trade conferences? Won’t journalists and attendees pick up nuggets from those presentations and pass them along via blog posts, Twitter or notes on LinkedIn? What about meetings with customers or vendors?
In today’s world, you have to assume people will share information externally. Train and coach your management team appropriately.
4. Build trust.
The most important aspect of community building is winning trust. (Read a great post about this issue from my friend, Ari Adler, here.)
It’s no different within an organization, and it’s just as hard. There’s no easy answer or solution, but there are usually a slew of opportunities. For example, leaders build trust when they:
- Give their staff the spotlight instead of hogging it for themselves.
- Look for opportunities to give their staff chances to succeed.
- Talk about “us” and “we” instead of “I.”
- Care about their employees. (For example, a CEO could send a staff-level employee a personal note telling him how much he appreciated his 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.