Companies invest enormous amounts of effort in communicating with external stakeholders and with their employees, but the message is usually little more than a sequence of optimistic platitudes. You never get to hear the two sides of the discussion that the board were preoccupied with when they made a decision and you never see any account (let alone the warts and all version) of why something went wrong. Contrary or heretical opinions are exercised from the official record.
Isnâ€™t this a bit odd? One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the right to speak freely, and yet most companies offer no such liberties for their employees. Corporate communications end up looking more like an article from Pravda in the 1980s, or a tract of Orwellian Newspeak than something you would find in Western newspaper.
The result of such a desperately conversation line on corporate communication is entirely predictable.
Take a typical â€œbad newsâ€ story such as plant closure. The company releases its press release, or acknowledges the closure in its annual report. At the same time or usually before the official story the rumor mill grinds out its unofficial version of events, corrupting it in the process; parts of the story get leaked to the press, who then put their own spin on it; and cynical employees gather around the coffee machine, sniping at their senior managers and wondering why they are not better informed.
The internet has magnified both the severity and the reach of this â€œrumor millâ€. First came the anti-company websites such as microsoftsucks.org and walmartsucks.org which created a convenient forum for embittered employees and aggrieved customers to share their gripes. The rise of personal blogs subsequently gave even more power to individuals to tell the story their way. And while the first wave of Blogs came from outsiders taking pot-shits at a company, they were quickly followed by insiders â€“ company employees putting their own spin on the official story, often with very little regard for corporate etiquette (example, scoble.weblogs.com).
We also see collective efforts to challenge the official corporate line As an extreme case, Friends of the Earth published â€˜The other Shell Reportâ€™ in 2002 a carefully researched but highly one sided analysis of Shellâ€™s record on corporate responsibility from the point of view of those living in the shadow of Shellâ€™s operation around the world.
All of which accentuates the need for some real innovation round the message and the mode of corporate communications. The benefits of honest grown up communication are enormousâ€”it generates buy-in, it stimulates productive debate, and it reduces the risk untrue rumors spreading. And the risks are minimal, as the truth has a habit of coming out anyway. Of course there are boundaries here especially for publicity traded companies that face strict rules on corporate disclosure but most companies donâ€™t get anywhere near danger zone in terms of what they talk about, how they say it.
IBM held a â€œValues Jamâ€ in 2003 where employees from all over the world could tap into a live discussion forum on its websites about the companyâ€™s values. Despite many highly-critical postings (they only value in IBM today is the stock price) CEO insisted on letting the full range of viewpoints emerge, and the no holds barred discussion that followed led to a much more persuasive and widely accepted value statement than anything a committee could have come up with.
The Guardian publishes an annual â€œsocial auditâ€ to review its record on environmental social and ethical issues, which an independent auditor then comments on. And the results are not always positive: The 2006 review showed that Pearson Plc, not the Guardian, had the best record on environmentally-responsible paper sourcing; and the auditor, Richard Evans, criticized the Guardian for its report only refreshingly honest, they are also an expression of commitment to improvement.
These examples just scratch the surface of a deep, untapped well of opportunity in generating meaningful corporate communication.
Just pick up any newspaper or magazine outside Cuba or North Korea for inspiration: How about appointing an independent editor to write your company newsletter? A few corporate companies in India have already done this. How about encouraging employees to set up their own blocks? Microsoft has over seven hundred such people.
Of course, there are limits to this exercise â€“ you do not want to create unnecessary grist for the criticsâ€™ column, and you donâ€™t want to encourage law suits. But the acid test is simple: if the other side of the story is going to emerge anyway, wouldâ€™nt you like to have some say in how it gets out?