Does internal comms have a role in a failing business?

This month the Great British high street has taken another thorough beating. After weeks of negotiations and speculation, retailing giant GAME and it’s subsidiary Gamestation both collapsed under the weight of the company’s debt, forcing hundreds of stores to close across the country, and sending a large percentage of their workforce back down to the job centre.

GAME’s troubles seemed to spiral out of control in a fairly short space of time, with major publisher EA’s refusal to supply them with stock leading rapidly to store closures. It would seem that the company’s ambitious expansion plan for the past few years has also been to blame, with their huge debts contributing significantly to EA’s decision and GAME’s eventual dip into administration.

From ‘troubled to closing’, the whole sequence of events has taken around a month but what struck me was the uncertainty and confusion that emanated from every one of the chain’s stores. No member of staff that I talked to knew what their fate was going to be, nor what problems their employers faced. Obviously the company’s efforts would be focused on crisis management, but surely there should have been an strong of internal communication as well?

Internal communications can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. At it’s heart it’s a way of making sure all of the publics involved in the running of the business are singing from the same hymn sheet, pulling in the same direction and generally behaving in such a unified way as to inspire the use of even more tired teamwork clichés. Obviously this includes the standard strategies such as corporate literature, bulletins and meetings (either with groups or individuals), whichever methods are best to reach all levels in the most effective way. Unfortunately for all involved, the GAME situation was largely played out in the trade media, with MCV.com providing a large amount of breaking news whilst the staff were kept in the dark, still unsure of their fates the day before the store closures were announced.

It goes without saying that in a perfect world such confusion and uncertainty would have no place in such situations. Aside from reinforcing key messages and promoting brand ideologies, internal comms is meant to deal with mergers and closures but in such rapidly changing circumstances is there really any point in pretending that comms teams can adequately equip all publics with up to the minute knowledge? And more still, have strategies in place to deal with every eventuality? I suspect not.

In such a rapidly deteriorating business it would be naive to expect any large organisation to be holding near constant cascade meetings with all of it’s staff. Internal Comms then is as it’s best when planning and implementing strategies for the longer term. One would hope however that those at GAME, and other struggling retailers, will have treat this past month as a learning exercise, and one that will better equip them to act in the future. More importantly though, I hope that GAME’s internal comms doesn’t forget about the 40% of it’s workforce that were lost in the aftermath, if they were kept in the dark during the uncertainty then they surely deserve to be enlightened now.

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Blogging: Putting Yourself Out There

Anyone and everyone with access to the Internet can now set up a blog; using blogging platforms such as WordPress, Typepad and Blogger, the process has never been easier.  However, once you know what you want to write and how you are going to write about it, it’s not just a case of cracking on with it – you need to consider a multitude of options as to how you are going to make your blog as effective as possible.

In his blog, PR professional and lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, Richard Bailey, shares personal tips as to how he reads blogs created by PR students and practitioners alike.  Perhaps the first thing to do is update your ‘About’ entry.  It’s the first thing any visitor to your blog will look at and therefore it should be one of the first things you complete when creating your blog.  The ‘About’ page should give an overview of you as a person, your aims/the purpose of the blog, as well as informing readers about what they can expect from your forthcoming posts.  After all, people will only get into the habit of returning to read what you want them to read if they know what you’re going to be writing about.

Remember design is less important than content. Some people use Google Reader and RSS feeds to read blog posts.  In this case, posts appear as plain text, and if the reader wants to find out more, they can then click through to your blog.  So, relying heavily on pretty pictures and attractive artwork to get your message across does not work in these circumstances; you need to make sure there is significant substance to your content, clearly getting your message across to your readers regardless of what platform they use to read your post.  Commenting on this element of Richard’s blog, Shonali Burke says she also reads posts using Google Reader, and so, […] the headline and first few sentences of a post are really what determine whether or not I will click through, comment, etc.”

As well as the content of your blog, Richard says he may also look at how many comments a post receives. Allowing comments to your blog shows you are engaging with online debate, getting to the heart of issues within your chosen field and are encouraging thought sharing around a topic.  Having said this, collecting as many comments as possible per post is not the be all and end all of blogging success; American marketer Seth Godin has a very impressive blog, yet he receives no comments – because he does not allow them.

According to Richard, blogging is like tending to a garden; you need to cut the grass regularly to keep it looking tidy.  With regards to blogging, the question to ask yourself is how often do you post?  There are no hard and fast rules to blogging etiquette but less frequently than monthly and your blog looks untended.  Furthermore, co-author of Online Public Relations and PR lecturer at the University of Sunderland, Philip Young, says in order to create effective content, your blog needs to be topical and timely.  Therefore, blogging less frequently than once per month would suggest your content is perhaps slightly outdated and ‘old news’ to your readers.

Finally, perhaps the most important on the list is to start networking and start sharing.  In order to encourage people to your blog, you have to let them know you’re out there in the first place; it seems blindingly obviously but surprisingly so many people don’t actually publicise their own blog.  Richard suggests putting the link to your blog on your Twitter profile page, as well as commenting on other people’s blogs as this will embed a hyperlink back to your own blog.

To sum up, if PR is about saying the right thing, to the right people, at the right time, you need to be out there amongst the right crowd in order for your message to be heard; as Richard surmises, through effective blogging you can gain attention, merit interest and earn the trust of your audience and therefore communicate effectively.

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A Brave New World for PR

Over the past decade PR and online communications have become virtually synonymous with each other.  The question is no longer to what extent PR is an online practice.  Rather, how has PR adapted to this Brave New World of communication? I’ve looked at a couple of the key game-changers for PR where social media is concerned.

The world at our finger-tips

Social Media gives our messages a global reach.  Of course, in PR you are working to enhance the reputation of a brand so it stands to reason that reaching as many people as possible is a positive thing. However, as the famous HSBC ‘your local bank’ campaign is at pains to point out, a one size fits all approach to business (or communications in our case) can alienate people. It is unlikely you would ever want to say the same thing in exactly the same way to absolutely everyone.

It is aslo true that the more people you reach online, the more likely it is that you lose control of your messages.  Online anyone can be a content creator and your messages can be distorted, mis-interpreted and mis-used as well as promoted. We need to be aware of the limitations of the media, as well as the significant opportunities and mitigate accordingly.  The ‘#McDstories’ twitter  incident  is a good example of a company using social media to reach a global audience but not necessarily understanding to the risks you take in terms of loss of control  when talking to the whole world. The graphic below shows just how quickly your messages can be distorted and dispersed when looking at a global reach:

We Can See Right Through You

As organisations extend themselves online they become transparent in a way we have never seen before.  Where company ‘information’ was once a closely guarded secret, it is now online, available to customers and competitors alike.  There are many who argue that increased transparency produces truly ethical businesses, afterall organisations with nowhere to hide are far more likely to play fairly.

An organisation that is open to scrutiny will need a communicator that is able to lend a human voice to its online profile, create a positive dialogue around the brand and respond to any negativity. Bruce Daisley, sales director at Twitter argues that it isn’t enough to merely be present online, organisations must “say something with substance – give them a reason to talk back or great  content.”

Unfortunately, this is not yet always the case.  Organisations are missing an opportunity to capitalise on their transparency. Apparently 70% of online customer complaints go unanswered even though 83% of customers who do receive responses feel positively about the brand following the dialogue! As organisations increase their exposure online the need for effective communication through social media becomes evermore important.

These two examples alone show how the landscape of PR has changed, and presumably will continue to shift as technologies advance. While relationship mangement remains at the core of Public Relations, the context in which it seeks to achieve this has shifted fundamentally. Embarking  on a career in Public Relations we will almost certainly need a sound understanding of online communications and social media. This knowledge will have to extend beyond the inevitable trawling of Facebook profiles and the occasional ‘artsy’ photograph of a pub lunch on Instagram. We will have to find new ways to communicate successfully in this ever-changing environment.

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Managing your online footprint

In public relations, probably more than any other profession, it’s important to have a handle on what the internet says about you. After all how can you be expected to look after the reputation of a client if you can’t even look after your own? While Googling yourself used to be the past time of the internet savvy narcissist nowadays it’s expected that you’re not only aware of what pops up when you search for your own name, but that whatever does appear is positive too!

Apparently 78 per cent of recruiters search your name online before deciding whether to hire you or not and why wouldn’t they? An impressive CV and crease-free suit may create the right initial impression but your tweets say more about the real you and that’s what potential a employer really wants to know. Even existing workers would do well to remain more guarded about their true feelings if they want to keep their job…

I can think of better ways to hand in your notice

Okay, that’s an extreme example. Not all of us are daft enough to vent our spleens in such a manner, but even the odd drunken photo can land you in a spot of bother should the wrong set of eyes wander across it.

So what to do? On the one hand you don’t want to come across as unemployable, but at the same time one of the great things about the internet, and social media in particular, is the ability to project your personality across various accounts and connect with others. A small number of people may suggest avoiding the internet altogether, but while the lack of a web presence certainly wont out you as a serial partier there’s every chance that it’ll make you look like a luddite instead.

The easiest way to avoid anything unseemly, embarrassing or offensive from appearing on the web in your name is to engage your brain before you post. If it’s something that you wouldn’t want your own mother to see then the chances are it’s not going to help your career either. If you are dying to make that risqué joke for all your mates to see then make sure your privacy settings reflect that fact that it is just for them.

Treat every social media platform differently too. An obvious example would be LinkedIn and Facebook – two very similar tools with very different uses. If you want to create a professional and personal persona for yourself then do so but make sure to keep them separate. I no longer connect LinkedIn to my Twitter feed after it was helpfully pointed by a connection of mine that some of what I broadcast may not be relevant or even acceptable for a professional profile.

Still not sure I’m right? Then don’t just take my word for it – digital marketing experts KBSD have came up with this nifty infographic to highlight the importance of keeping your online presence in check as well as giving you suggestions on how to manage it.

Right, I’m off to purge Facebook of all photos in which I’m holding a drink and whacking my privacy settings up to 11. I suggest you do the same. When you’re finished why don’t you share some of your own tips for keeping an eye on your online footprint?

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