Integrated communications and the permeable enterprise

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Humans like boundaries.

We like maps that show clear borders between nations. Organizational charts that tell us who belongs in Marketing and who reports to Finance are soothing touchstones. And when something challenges a border we’ve become comfortable with, we tend to resist the new reality.

The communications boundary between employees and the public, once a metaphorical stone wall, now more closely resembles a chain-link fence. Social media makes it easy for messages from within the corporate compound to pass through to the outside world from any point, not just the C-suite or communications team. We’ve entered the era of the permeable enterprise. 

LinkedIn’s Executive Editor Daniel Roth recently wrote about the power of the collective employee voice for leading brands. In his article, he revealed that on average, the employees of a company have ten times the social following that their company has, and enjoy much higher engagement. Roth goes on to reveal that LinkedIn data suggests "While only about 2% of employees reshare the content their companies share, they’re responsible for 20% of the overall engagement (views, likes, comments, and shares) that content receives.” (italics mine) What are the implications of these data points for your communications team?

  • You and your leaders are not the most interesting, credible, or even most visible sources of information about your organization anymore. As Mr. Roth puts forward, if your employees are not talking about your company on social media, you might as well be invisible to the social web.
     
  • If your employees do not know, understand and are actively engaged with your strategy and brand, your organization is going to get off-message, or at least be vulnerable to well-intentioned but ill-informed social media activity that can hurt your reputation. Doesn’t that give a strategic mandate to internal communicators to act in this area in order to get more positive outcomes or at least reduce risk?
     
  • As has been written many times since the social media boom began, you don’t have a single spokesperson anymore. You have hundreds. Or thousands. And you also have an equal number of potential detractors. Just don’t forget, being off-message online may be protected by law for all those unofficial spokespeople posting on their own time.

Almost every communicator I know will nod wisely and at least give some lip service to the importance of this phenomenon, but I’m not sure that the full implications of the permeable enterprise have really sunk in with senior communications or organizational leaders. If so, I think we’d be having a lot more conversations about integrated approaches to communications that wed the internal, external, and social, rather than fretting about the evolution of one or more siloed specialist roles. It’s been in fashion online lately to talk about PR’s demise or whether or not Internal Communications as a profession is “dead,” or speculate on the future of this or that function. (Confession - I’ve contributed a bit to that chatter myself) But I think the more interesting conversation is the birth of truly integrated communications approaches and teams.

Here’s a thought on the potential for integration:

Social media monitoring may be the new black, but in the permeable enterprise, internal communications just might be the new public relations.

What are your thoughts on what integrated communications should look like in today's permeable enterprise? Feel free to comment with your views.