Business Class: Improving Communications in an Era of Customer Conversations

By: Grant McLaughlin
Oct. 1, 2019
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Social media, flat organizational structures and ever-evolving business strategies have expanded our role as corporate communicators. 

Instead of focusing on distributing company messages, interacting with media and managing crises, we now also have to align social media, brand journalism and content marketing to engage audiences and increase trust, The Conference Board, a business membership and research organization, noted in its July 2018 report, “45 Truths About Corporate Communications.” 

Rather than just conveying information from the top down, brand messaging now often starts with customers. Communicators may need to coordinate a variety of other efforts, including communications policy and strategy; employee and executive communications; and media relations and public relations, including crisis communications and reputation management. That’s in addition to functions such as search engine optimization to help people find companies online; and “social listening,” which means monitoring social media for mentions of our brands so we can measure and moderate audience sentiments.

Helping audiences relate to the organization behind the brand allows companies to engage those audiences, retain employees, increase productivity and protect brand reputations. Yet how can we ensure a cohesive strategy? The answer is to integrate internal and external communications through technology. 

Shape the conversation

To begin, we need a solid message framework. Stakeholders must be aligned around the company’s purpose, strategy and goals. Communicators should work with teams such as legal and marketing to get their perspectives, and then develop plans to manage online engagement.

Invite your employees to co-create the message. Rather than dispensing a final plan, try holding a town hall to invite feedback. And once the message takes shape, we can then use it as a keystone to build a corporate culture that demonstrates sound values and exemplifies the brand’s mission and personality. 

As communicators we need to find a consistent thread that will make the brand identity hold true, whether it’s for an important communication or an employee celebration.  

Once we have the message, we can then share it through brand journalism, with eye-catching stories that are interesting and relevant. Employees can be tapped for creative ways to keep stories fresh. And to move sales forward, those stories can then be turned into content marketing by adding helpful information about the company’s products and services. People will always be more receptive to friendly, useful information than to blatant sales pitches.

Integrate internal and external messages

It’s easier to ensure internal and external messages are connected when you realize they already are. As Amanda Guisbond, director of communication for Recursion Pharma, writes in Forbes: “What employees hear, everyone hears.” She explains how General Electric Co. informs its employees of big changes first, giving them a context which they can then share with friends, suppliers and communities. 

With digital channels, messages spread quickly. Through social listening, you’ll be informed for next steps. 

Empower employees to share stories 

The public is far more willing to believe “a person like me” (60 percent) than a CEO (37 percent), the Edelman Social Trust Barometer found. Employees are our best allies to increase audience engagement and trust. Stories with compelling brand purposes capture their attention and encourage them to share their own perspectives. 

Passionate employees can also be recruited as spokespeople. For example, Kirk Borne, a principal data scientist at Booz Allen, is a thought leader with a personal mission to educate others. Rather than incorporate company talking points into his work, we simply promote what he is already doing. We recently helped arrange a “featured contributor” status for Borne with GovLoop, a news and networking site for employees of the federal government. He wrote a series of articles on data science, analytics and artificial intelligence — thereby extending his reach to our target audience.

Other employee voices, like that of Booz Allen’s Lisa Bishop, can also build trust more powerfully than any corporate message. After hearing her story of service — four years in the Army and 25 years at Booz Allen, where she is now a vice president — a colleague encouraged her to share her story on LinkedIn.

The result was a compelling article about how the firm’s people supported her through challenging times, becoming like family. The post has been viewed thousands of times and has inspired others to share their own stories. 

Measure and prove business impact

Companies often see communications as an expense, rather than an investment. As communicators we need to show that by increasing audience engagement and trust, we are business advisers who improve the company’s overall value. 

Digital tools help us increase our impact and prove our results. For example, data collection and analysis reveal the interests of stakeholders. Those insights help us better connect with their interests and engage them, thereby creating metrics which help us prove our business contributions. 

Communicators might consider building a team of digital specialists to provide sophisticated analysis, insights and tactics. Audiences are driving today’s business conversations, and we want to be with them at every stage of the journey


5 Storytelling Tips 

  1. Encourage employees to tell stories, and watch their authenticity and passion inspire others. 
  2. Before posting messages, ask questions: Will the story catch the audience’s attention? Will it be relevant?
  3. Personalize stories for different audiences. The more targeted the story, the more relevant it will be for them.
  4. Connect narratives to the organization’s culture. 
  5. Include a mix of stories for different points in the audience’s brand journey: awareness, consideration, purchase and retention.