It’s not worth going to jail for…really

Posted on February 16, 2011 by 2 Comments

We learned yesterday of the tale of two sales managers charged with misdemeanor crimes as part of an internal publicity stunt gone awry. To be fair, the sales managers in question are reported to have acted alone, not bringing in their company’s employee communications professionals. And as wacky as their activity was, it’s hardly the only example of bizarre attempts to get employees’ attention:

  • There was the company publication that announced a (fake) merger (it was the April Fool’s Day edition)
  • The employee competition with a fancy gold watch as first prize – too bad it was a fake
  • The executive who donned a coconut bikini on Halloween – the price for losing an inter-departmental sales competition
  • The senior leader who announced his departure by Tweeting it
  • The marching bands that paraded among cubes to announce a company milestone; and
  • The company who brought a Tina Turner look-a-like to headline a company party – she was wearing tights, heels and little else.

To be fair, some of these stunts were warmly received. But many of them fell flat, doing more harm than good. Knowing that hindsight is 20/20, the trick is figuring out what’s going to work and what isn’t before it happens. And that’s where internal communication professionals come in.

Employee engagement is a vital element of successful organizations. Yes, it can be fun. Yes, it can be whimsical. It also has to be approached as strategically as communications with customers, partners and even government regulators. After all, employees are the most impactful audience an organization has – and an employee population energized by unintended negatives will ultimately do more harm than good.

Here are three things you can do to make sure your company or organization avoids unintended negatives:

Make sure your internal communication channels break through the clutter. We can all sympathize with the sales managers who wanted to break through the information overload. Educate your department leads now on the internal communications channels available to them – and which ones to use in which circumstances. This will go miles toward heading off misguided attempts to get attention – something everyone wants to avoid. Teach managers how to work their network; make the CEO available for fun, appropriate stunts; collaborate on ways to de-clutter your current communication channels or invest in new ones.

Get out of your comfort zone. Strange as it may sound, being overly conservative can actually get you in this type of mess. Internal communicators who focus on managing the message and eliminating risk become known as the (pardon me) soul-sucking, straightjacket-lacing, bad cop. It’s assumed they will naysay any idea that is remotely “out there,” so they are left out of the decision-making loop. From time to time, go out on a limb. Good internal communicators know how to get employees’ attention. Because they are highly attuned to the culture, values and brand, they know how to get creative, pushing the envelope on tactics. I’m not suggesting you forget good judgment, but let’s try something other than “we’ll put it in tiny font on the intranet that no one reads.”

Train managers to use good judgment as communicators. Although it’s in our title, we don’t own the corner market on internal communications. Managers are the primary voice for any company – the ones employees look to for real-time direction, guidance and vision. So help them help you. Work with HR to build communications into all leadership training. Don’t assume managers know the best way to communicate in a crisis or get employees’ attention for a major product launch. Conversely, make sure communication is a required skill – and a competency that goes on each leader’s performance review.

If something does go wrong, be quick to communicate, especially with employees. Highly visible mistakes demand highly visible leadership to speed recovery and find the lesson in the embarrassment. No matter how severe the situation, the most important thing to do for your organization is to recover your composure and act with integrity in the aftermath.

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