Live-tweet Q&A. What could possibly go wrong?

https://twitter.com/KaiFarrell_/status/390831340582477824

While there have been a number of recent, notorious social-media fails in the past few years, this one with British Gas feels especially case-study worthy.

The day they announced a sizable rate increase, BG pushed out Twitter hashtag #AskBG to field questions from the public.  Online Q&A, live.  Following a very negative announcement that impacted millions.  I guess they were thinking people would queue up at the virtual mic and ask penetrating but civil questions—you know, the way they do at town-hall meetings.  Well, have a look.

Predictably / sadly, BG circled the wagons on this one.  Apparently someone made a calculation that the perception of transparency was worth the snark-infested waters  (note the metric of 11,000 tweets sent as of the first day).  Or they thought that, since someone would probably have created a nega-site, anyway, better to get out in front of it by sponsoring it.  These would be sensible if you don’t factor in the possibility of looking ridiculous.

Two temptations here.  One is thinking that any channel can be shaped to contain any message.  Another is thinking social media are especially adept at creating credibility no matter what.  But no communications technology or platform has its own aura.  The same platform that can seem to create intimacy can also seem to create distance.  The new meta-problem this creates is that perception of your communication IQ now becomes perception of your business acumen or of how you view your employees and customers.  Examples abound (I’ve seen all these and more):

  • Scripting your outsourced customer service reps with appreciation and empathy sentences
  • Having an emcee moderate a live Q&A session with the CEO
  • Blast emailing a PowerPoint deck to explain the rationale behind a merger
  • Separating an employee via a phone call
  • Waiting to discuss anything related to a crisis until Legal signs off on everything
  • Robocalling customers with a pre-recorded message about a service interruption
  • Introducing a new executive with Too Much Information about their personal life

One blogger thought BG could have tweaked their approach by using Twitter better.  Even then, it would be important to know the context of BG’s social-media reputation to date before heading toward a tactic like this.  Clearly, the very next thing BG does in the social space will demonstrate whether they’ve gotten smarter from this experience.

How can you tell in advance what will work and what won’t?

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What is this great culture of which you speak?

Mind the gap

It’s a day of awards and recognition and being a “best company” and thrilled-employee videos.  Appearing on lists, cake in the break room, “top 100” logos on Careers pages.  It’s all good.  If nothing else, there’s a lot better benchmarking going on between companies and daylight into each others’ best practices or pitfalls.

Good for everybody, except the people who aren’t feeling the love.

In one company, our communications function became so effective at garnering external plaudits for our work culture that we got concerned about the new problem of alienating people, especially—and most critically—managers who were having a hard time delivering the goods.  That’s what prompted our team leader to return from a trip to London with the ubiquitous Tube sign above.

“Mind the Gap” became a mantra for us.  How can we bring everybody along?  Not just the 20% in the 80/20 rule, but those whole pockets of people who can be left out even in an awesome culture—sort of the corporate equivalent of those cut-off soldiers still fighting World War II.  Aside from disengagement, in this environment of easy trolling, dissatisfied and overworked employees can find the time to post blistering reviews of company life online.

And those managers, who are supposed to mediate the culture to their teams—even to the point of being evaluated for it.  One manager is truly struggling when all of his team’s empowered women professionals are out on mat leave at the same time, and he’s now lobbying for a revised maternity policy.  Another has drained her L&D budget, swamped by requests for tuition assistance.  Another had team members reading about the benefits enjoyed in another department, and the lateral-move defections have begun.

This kind of problem really ratchets up the need for the communicators to do audience segmentation and targeted outreach, with just the right metrics for results.  The communications metric can’t be did everybody click on the benefits brochure?  It’s got to be a smarter assessment of how the situation should change for the team or the office or the beleaguered business unit.

Winning the award is Part One.  Follow-through is Part Two.  How is your communications function acting as a trusted advisor to move the culture forward and not merely promote it?