December 23, 2008
Who speaks for your business? Who represents you in public?
Is it top level management? The public relations team? Nominated business spokespeople? Or everyone?
Who should it be?
It is standard practice for a corporate website to provide an archive of interviews, speeches and other presentations made by senior staff – some as documents available for download, some as webcasts.
Some of the better corporate websites link to these speeches from the board biographies, so that it is easy to find out, for example, what the Strategy Director thinks about future trends in their business (see Microsoft).
Often, the main contact for journalists on the corporate website will be the public relations team, who have phone numbers, email addresses clearly and easily available (see British Energy for a good example). Sometimes, there will also be contact details for nominated business spokespeople, with some explanation of their area of expertise (see Scottish Widows for an example). This is good – we like to see experts within the company available to speak.
On the other hand, the business conduct guidelines for most major companies play heavily on the idea that all employees are representing the company, and require individual employees to behave in an appropriate fashion. And this is quite right: employees, particularly those dealing day to day with customers, do represent the company, and their actions significantly affect the brand and image of the company.
Yet often, these employees have been taught to refer all requests for comment upwards, or across to the PR department. So are they only representatives in the way they look and behave?
For some companies the nature of the spokesperson for the company has been changing, and has become more devolved. As people within the company embrace social media, and blog, tweet or otherwise engage with people outside the company, these people are increasingly representing the company by what they say (or write), not just by their behaviour or dress. They are becoming ‘accidental spokespeople‘, and as a result, there is potentially a loss of control by the company.
So, how should you deal with that?
One option, of course, would be to ban employees from social networking at work … either completely or partially, leaving the official social media team to do all such activity. Cutter Consortium point to some interesting tactics of permissible hours for such activity. This keeps you safely within the old pattern of ‘refer upwards or call PR’, but may mean that you miss out on some of the benefits of social media.
Another option is the Zappos approach, which seems to work well for them:
For our culture, we just want to make sure that our employees are always exhibiting our core values. As long as that’s happening, we don’t really see the need to “police” what employees are saying, which is why we encourage our employees to Twitter and publicly post what employees are twittering at: http://twitter.zappos.com
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, quoted at Pierce Mattie
And there’s the approach taken by IBM and Intel, of providing clear guidelines on the corporate website, and tying these in with the code of conduct. (I notice that IBM has separate guidelines for behaviour in virtual worlds).
… we believe social computing can help you to build stronger, more successful business relationships. And it’s a way for you to take part in global conversations related to the work we are doing at Intel and the things we care about.
The choice to participate in social media is yours. If you do, please follow these guiding principles:
- Provide unique, individual perspectives on what’s going on at Intel and in the world.
- Post meaningful, respectful comments – in other words, no spam and no remarks that are off-topic or offensive.
- Reply to comments quickly, when a response is appropriate.
- Respect proprietary information and confidentiality.
- When disagreeing with others’ opinions, keep it cool.
(from Intel – IBM’s available here)
Both these are good summaries of how to behave, and it is commendable that they are published on the corporate website.
Notice how Zappos, IBM and Intel all bring this back to the corporate values, ethics and codes of conduct. This demonstrates the importance of the corporate culture – if the culture of the company is such that you can trust your employees, then you can trust them to represent you in public in all aspects: in what they say or write as well as in how they look and behave.
And if you don’t trust your employees to interact appropriately with people outside the company, then I suspect you may be facing bigger issues.