Web Turns Working World Inside Out

Social Networking Continues to Transform Corporate Communications

By Katti Gray Jun 9, 2009

Gray-haired guys are straddling Harleys in photographs posted on the same in-house, employee-driven web site where any among the 165,000 professionals of Deloitte can query a colleague—anywhere worldwide—about this or that aspect of transacting business.

They are doing so by posting to D Street, the intranet site Deloitte launched in 2008 after its worldwide study confirmed that the company would be wise to meet the generation that ushered in Facebook and Twitter on its terms and hope that the older set—like those Harley dudes—would come along for the ride.

“We thought our [longstanding] partners would be our biggest challenge,” said Cincinnati-based Patricia Romeo, who oversees D Street for Deloitte. “Many of them still have secretaries who were printing out their e-mails. But their [high] participation in this has been totally a shocker. … Our [older] partners are using this much more than even some of our interns are.’’

Web Turns World Inside Out

While Deloitte professionals can engage each other about their favorite pastimes, Deloitte is still a business with its eye toward the bottom line. “And, in terms of the workplace gains, D Street is connecting people to ideas,” Romeo said. “This is taking people’s tacit knowledge and putting it in one [readily accessible] spot. I can retrieve [what a colleague posted] and immediately know what that colleague knows about a certain topic.”

What even those seasoned Deloitte partners are realizing, she added, is that it’s often far more efficient to send a specific post to a specific person about a specific topic than to fling out a blanket e-mail to everybody, regardless of their insight or a pertinent interest in the topic—or the lack thereof, said Romeo, a presenter at the Conference Board’s mid-May 2009 confab on the transformation taking place in corporate communications.

“This trend has been happening for a while,” said consultant Elliot Shreiber, a clinical professor of marketing at Drexel University and previously a marketing executive at Nortel, among other firms.

“We noticed, with Web 1.0 in the late 1990s, that these things were beginning to happen but mostly in more high-tech companies, places like Nortell and IBM,” added Shreiber, who was a presenter at the conference. “Employees who were literate on the Internet started looking at whether the outside world was seeing the same thing they see inside the company. We tended to believe employees knew nothing about management’s desire until we told them; we had this belief that the CEO was the ultimate authority. … That train has already left the station. We used to have companies at the center and the information flowed out. Now the corporation is part of the molecule.”

​“Human resources plays an enormous part in corporate public relations in terms of internal communications. HR needs to say ‘Look, we can’t really control you but you need to do this in a smart way.’”

​-- PR Expert Chris Johnson, founder of Ontario-based DNA13.com


In its annual global opinion leaders study, the Edelman Trust Barometer concluded that rank-and-file corporate types are more likely to trust their peer’s analysis, opinions and declarations than the bosses, Shreiber added. “People trust people who are like them,” he said.

What is taking place among intranet-wired companies is nothing short of a revolution. It is, said Peter Debreceny, a public relations strategist for Gagen MacDonald, a Chicago consultancy, the wave of the future, particularly for large firms. Where, in the past, those companies might have been used to a sort of one-way communication—manager to subordinate—these days they require a form of engagement that is much more multilevel.

“Companies must recognize, more than ever, the spirit of dialogue, especially dialogue with employees,” said Debreceny, a panelist at the May 2009 Conference Board meeting. “… The more there are tools like instant-messaging, tools similar to Facebook and Twitter, inside the enterprise, the less e-mails that are going around. People correspond, one to one, faster than by sending out e-mails.”

Risking Your Reputation

In addition, in the freewheeling Facebook age, when reputations are made or broken at the speed of a keystroke, it is essential that employees be clear about the potential power one tiny posted missive possesses, whether on a corporate intranet or the wide-open Internet outside of company walls. Who hasn’t heard of the employee fired for insulting their boss while blogging, “twittering” on Twitter or posting furiously to Facebook? How much damage is done to a company’s image at Internet speed, when it’s easy to get the wrong message out there but harder to retrieve or amend it?

In Deloitte’s 2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey, which examined reputational risk and the implications of social networks, 74 percent of the Americans surveyed said it was easy to damage a company’s reputation on social media. Furthermore, the study revealed, while less than a quarter of companies surveyed said they have formal policies on the medium’s use among their employees, nearly half (49 percent) of employees said defined guidelines would not change their behavior online.

“If companies ever were in control of their messages, they are not now,” Debreceny said. D Street, as one example, reflects the best practices of companies that know that their stability depends, in part, on how their employees perceive the firms where they are on the payroll. That word of mouth extends from the inside out.

As companies new to this arena eye models similar to D Street, the big question that company captains must ask themselves is: “Is the organization prepared to loosen control over the content” of their internal communications, Debreceny said.

As Chris Johnson sees it, companies hardly have a choice not to ramp up their communications protocols, internally and externally. A former public relations executive for Bell Canada, Johnson is founder of DNA13.com, an Ontario-based developer of software that links public relations with human resources, marketing and other corporate departments in a company. Companies can no longer afford, logistically, for those separate entities to be even marginally disconnected from each other, said Johnson, another panelist.

HR: Get Involved

“The Internet [presented] companies with a major pain point,” he said, “and that is the fact that the corporate brand no longer lives within the company walls but on the Internet with the millions of people who are talking about corporate brands today.”

To help shape those messages, “Human resources plays an enormous part in corporate public relations in terms of internal communications. Human resources must be part of the workflow so that employees are better informed and are more informed about the company. HR needs to say ‘Look, we can’t really control you, but you need to do this in a smart way’.”

That means HR must use the intranet to equip employees with relevant facts, whether involving, as examples, a pay equity dispute or union negotiations at a given workplace. Employees “would be apprised of the official position: What’s going on, what’s the background, and how did this issue erupt,” Johnson said. “Then they can interact with the issue, even if they want to disagree, and add value to that issue. It means working with them in real time to manage the issue more efficiently and effectively.”

I​n an era when corporate recruits are prone to deciding where to send their resume by sending a free-floating query across Facebook or Twitter, those kinds of dialogues are all the more crucial.

Employee recruitment and retention factored into D Street’s launch. The average age of a Deloitte employee is 28, Romeo said. “It wasn’t just a question of ‘how will we get them here,’ but also how will we keep them. The decision was made to have the workplace of the future.’’

New York-based freelance journalist Katti Gray’s work has appeared in Newsday, Ms., Essence magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She can be reached at katti@kattigray.com or www.kattigray.com.


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