Today, thanks to the Internet, communication between an organisation and its audiences can no longer be one-way: everyone has a powerful voice through which they can share their opinions. This means that anyone can also publicly criticise and be a 'brand vandal'.
This is the subject discussed in #BrandVandals by Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington. The book examines the impact that social media-empowered individuals can have on organisations, and proposes some answers for the future of organisational communications.
I had the pleasure to meet and interview Waddington for a recent article on simply-communicate. On the occasion, he kindly gave me a copy of #BrandVandals which I read with keen interest.
For the readers of Marginalia on Engagement, I chose to focus on the chapter 'Pigs and lipstick' which brilliantly points out that every employee is now a spokesperson.
Brand Vandals are not just members of a company's external community, but they include workers too. "Now employees communicate freely online and everyone is a spokesperson irrespective of whether they mark up their social media profiles with a note about personal disclosure," writes Waddington.
The author notes that social media does not subscribe to the rules of traditional hierarchies within an organisation. Connections have always been created across boundaries and departments through information networks (e.g. the smoking corner, the football team, the squash club). However, "now internal organisation has been flattened thanks to technologies that allow instant communication and social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Yammer."
To illustrate the point, Waddington shares his and Earl's personal experiences. Both of them changed jobs recently and joined large companies. In the period between their appointment being announced in the press and they each beginning their new roles, staff from each organisation made contacts with them directly through social networks such us Twitter and LinkedIn. "These new introductions and connections occurred spontaneously without the support of the human resources department or management interventions." That meant that on the first day in their new job they had already developed internal networks.
According to Waddington, despite the huge shift made by organisations to communicate more openly with their staff, "we are a long way from a nirvana of organisational transparency." Whistle-blowing is an indication. "Whistle-blowing has always happened in organisations and will continue to do so; it can't be stopped just as an organisation cannot control what people think or say about it, either privately or publicly." It is not going to disappear as a result of social media; in fact is more likely to increase. "Social media makes it easier than ever before for employees to leak information about an organisation's errant behaviour." This is why communicators need to be aware of and deal with this phenomenon as they do with other forms of communications.
To elucidate the relevance of the last point, is the story of HMV. Last year the company went into administration and thousands of jobs were put at risk. Some members of the staff with access to the Twitter account of the company, @hmvtweets, started to share news about the redundancies. Several tweets were posted before HMV could regain control of the account. Waddington observes: "The lesson from this story and others of its type is that organisations must have robust governance and risk management in place so that when an employee leaves a company the username and password for branded social media accounts aren't leaf open to abuse."
When employees turn to social media for sharing their grievances a company has some major issues to deal with. This can be perceived as a threat by those organisations that are not prepared and willing to listen to their people. On the other hand it can be a big opportunity for proactive companies that care about their employees' voice, want to engage with them more and encourage an honest working environment.
"One of the best outcomes when whistle-blowing happens is the review of internal processes when a company admits it got things wrong and takes steps to rebuild and openly communicate with employees. It is a healthy means of rebuilding trust."
Are there any 'brand vandals' employees stories or personal thoughts on the topic that you would like to share?