8: Managing the Organizational Voice

The biggest draw of social media is as a broadcast channel for firms to communicate with their constituents, primarily to customers and prospects. Social is seen as a channel to the customers, far less expensive than other media, in which firms can engage with customers in a casual and direct manner to build or sustain profitable relationships. However, social media was not intended for corporate use, and firms and participants alike can find it awkward. The typical "corporate voice" is an unwelcome intrusion, and firms have learned the need to humanize themselves in order to draw and maintain an audience.

In some instances, companies allow their employees to engage in social media as individuals, albeit representing the firm for which they work. In other instances, firms seek to have an "organizational voice" in the social media, such that communications are "official" - they are from the firm itself, which carry the authority of the organization and ensure that any relationship or loyalty is to the brand, not to the individual employee.

Some examples where the organization's voice is often used are: providing answers to questions about products or services; when communicating about the brand, to build customer loyalty; when providing corporate information to investors; when announcing new products or services; when engaging with other companies; when releasing any "official" news or statements; and when building the firm's public image.

The notion of a corporate voice is not new: it has been used for years in press releases and company advertising, or letters sent out by the company. With the advent of the Internet, the corporate voice was used when an e-mail was sent from the company rather than an individual employee's e-mail account. And now, it is also speaking in social channels: corporate sites, blogs, and organizational Facebook pages.

The corporate voice can be seen as a fictional character that represents the human embodiment of the firm: its tone may be formal or casual, plain-spoken or grandiloquent, humorous or deadpan - but most importantly, it should be consistent with the image of the firm. A stodgy and traditional firm that attempts to be cheeky and irreverent to impress the young audience of MySpace seems hokey and dishonest.

While the corporate voice can be casual, it should be carefully managed to ensure that it remains professional. A person can be forgiven if they make a typographical, grammatical, or a factual error, but a company should be embarrassed by such.

Getting People to Listen

One of the problems of social, and the Internet in general, is that audience participation is voluntary. You can talk, but that doesn't mean that anyone will listen. And even if you do get some initial attention, people will walk away.

Especially given the amount of data that gets pumped into social media, people are discerning about whom they give their attention - they will friend/follow you only if you say something they think is worth hearing, and will break their connection if you are abusive of their attention.

The author provides a handful of random tips on building an audience:

(EN: The last two points lead to a phenomenon that some companies fear: when its followers seem to be taking the lead, communicating about them to others. However, that's the value of SM - building a community of enthusiasts who create buzz. If you attempt to dissuade "unauthorized" communication, you will harm your success in social and quite possibly offend some avid customers.)

There is also a snowball effect in building an audience: it will be difficult at first, but as you gain more friends/followers, others will want to join, and word spreads.

Personal Speech versus Company Speech

The firm has (or should have) control over most official channels: the blog, social media profile, and other venues where communication is seen to be coming from the company itself should be carefully controlled - only certain employees should have access and the ability to use the corporate accounts.

But what of employees who communicate using private accounts? Even when they act as private individuals, they can have a significant personal following. Especially when they make a comment about the company or its products, or communicate to a customer, or are known to be an employee of the company, their voice carries more authority than they realize, and there is potential to damage their firm.

It's important to set expectations that clarify when an employee may be crossing the line between speaking as a private individual and speaking on behalf of the company. When they use the name of the company, they are stepping into a gray area. Using the name of the firm to grant authority to their personal statements is a common mistake ("As a job-title at firm-name, I think ...") or suggesting that what they are saying is the opinion or policy of the company ("At firm-name, we ...") are clear instances when the person is making a statement that will be construed as their having been authorized by the employer to make such statements.

Managing Employee Participation

For employees who are authorized to speak to the public, tone becomes important: they are representing the company. This is to say that they should use institutional speech, which tends to be condescending, full of buzzwords, and devoid of humanness, merely to behave professionally - which can and should be warm and friendly, but is in line with the company's image and culture.

(EN: The author belabors this point, unnecessarily I believe. Employees are accustomed to professional communications - when they place or accept a business call on their office phone, they know how to interact with the other person "as an employee" versus how they would speak to a friend who called their home.)

The author refers to documenting the aspects of the voice: indicating the tone and characteristics the company wishes to project, including examples of the right/wrong way to say something to a customer or professional contact. For those who will have frequent customer contact, a reference sheet is not sufficient: training should be provided.

A list of random tips is provided:

As with any skill, some employees will excel, and others will struggle. While you should strive to nurture these skills in every employee, certain ones will emerge as "social stars" in whom company/industry knowledge and people/communication skills combine to make them exceptionally suited to the task.

What Has History Taught Us So Far?

Social is new and experimental, but we have already seen start-up firms leverage social to build their business rapidly and large and established firms shoot themselves in the foot. Firms that leverage social well are able to touch millions of users in a very short amount of time with little investment - it can have a large impact, positive or negative.

One lesson is to consider the needs and interests of the community, rather than just your own. Firms want to reach as many people as often as possible with messages that result in revenue, and fail to consider that people are annoyed by their constant badgering.

Another lesson is that if a firm doesn't create valuable channels of information, it may find that other people create channels for them. There have always been "clubs" and "owners groups" of individuals who gather to share information about products they own and use, and support one another when a firm does not provide them with the support they need. (EN: From my own work experience, the "official" brand may find itself unwelcome when it attempts to step in and snatch the microphone out of the hands of people who have been doing it as a labor of love.) On the other hand, there have also been groups, especially on the Internet, who gather to commiserate, share stories of woe, and bash a brand that has mistreated them.

Another lesson comes from employees who, out of enthusiasm for their brand, speak up to personally defend it against detractors when the firm fails to do so. This seldom helps out in the end, as the employee gets drawn into a flame-war with disgruntled customers, causes their firm further embarrassment, and damages their employer and their own careers.

Yet another lesson is to keep expectations reasonable. It's not uncommon for firms to enthusiastically launch a social presence, then lose interest when they don't have millions of fans and friends overnight. Sometimes, a company gathers steam very quickly, but more often it takes a great deal of time, effort, and patience to build and audience.