All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Signal and Noise

Blackout Tuesday taught us something about Instagram.

During the BlackLivesMatter “Blackout Tuesday” protests last week, many of us saw the following admonition in our various social feeds and in the comment section of Instagram posts:

Unintended Consequences

Why did these most earnest of social justice warriors want us to stop using #blacklivesmatter in our posts? Wasn’t solidarity and the spread of a movement the whole idea? 

The Signal

When these concerned organizers saw their own feeds become clogged with one blacked-out image after another, they realized that their messaging was lost in a sea of black. Organizers, who ironically tried to police Blackout Tuesday, were being frustrated by both the nature of social participation and how Instagram works. 

Instead of letting the protest form organically, these organizers wanted to disseminate specific messages and information using Instagram. To them, the critical thing was the signal. By focusing on their messaging, they missed the beauty of the noise. They began tamping down the participation they had encouraged. The “don’t use #blacklivesmatter” scolds started trending and became one of the predominate messages of the day. I think the simple blacked-out screen shot was more artful and positively impactful.

Blackout Tuesday

The Noise 

What the organizers perceived as noise was, in fact, the most important thing—participation. Blackout Tuesday was a success because it got millions of people to express themselves on behalf of an issue when they  might otherwise have stayed silent.  

When we participle in any social media campaign, we incrementally move from being spectators to stakeholders. This shift is gold to companies who spend millions on influencer marketing, interactive media and direct response advertising. Converting a passive consumer to a co-creator for any brand is a major step in creating lasting brand loyalty. 

No individual post listing real injustices, “important” Netflix docs, or local meet-up times is as important to the success of the movement as having millions of people do something, even something as seemingly insignificant as posting a black screenshot. Each of those little blacked-out posts represents buy in from a fellow citizen and voter. Marketing gold.   

The Platform 

Why wasn’t Instagram effective for disseminating information in the way conceived by Blackout Tuesday organizers? The easy answer is always the algorithm; that mysterious artificial intelligence that determines who, what, when and where a post is displayed on Instagram or any social media platform.

The algorithm is easy to blame, but hard to understand. Actually, it’s impossible to understand because it’s always changing. First, the algorithm’s output is always changing due to exigent conditions on the platform—like millions of black screen shots using #blacklivesmatter. And secondly, social media platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms to make the user experience better and to increase ad revenue.

Probably the easiest way to understand why the algorithm is a necessary evil is to consider your own social media feed. First, look at the size of the feed space. Depending on your device (Instagram is a mobile phone app), you’ll see one or two posts at once. Interaction is limited to that space and by how much time you spend scrolling and interacting with each post. 

Let’s say you follow 500 people, brands and hashtags. If half of those post every day, it will take some time to get through all of those posts and stories, especially when you factor in the fact that the rate of ads in your feed might be 1:3 in prime viewing times. So, how many of those 250 posts do you actually interact with every day? 

You may think your posts reach all of your followers. They don’t. If you don’t interact much with your followers, the algorithm pushes your post down the queue, behind that follower’s more relevant interactions and behind paid content. And as time goes by, your post becomes less relevant. Even when you make it into your follower’s feed, if they don’t look at your post in a timely manner, it slips further and further down their feed. 

Consider the millions of users and companies vying for space in your feed and you’ll get a picture of how ineffective Instagram is at timely messaging. Instagram is better for branding and low-touch interaction with user-generated content. Other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, can be more effective dissemination tools due to certain affordances like groups, direct messaging and content structure. But they also are limited by algorithmic control over the vast torrent of content generated each second. 

Complementary Media

Many try to use social media as a broadcast medium without recognizing how the media shapes the message. Consider the following simple diagram explaining user relationships to the messages via different media. For the user, social media is not like watching a single television channel, or connecting to a website. It’s like having 500 channels streaming in all at once. 

Social Media overloads the user.

Social media is a complementary media. The most effective strategy for social media–based information dissemination is to use social media to draw users to an information rich website. There, users can engage with your messages and information and action strategies. They can also up their commitment by signing up for future email, texts and other vital updates from your organization. 

As in all communication, the media matters. Understanding the limits of social media will help you determine how it fits into your quiver of options. While I can help with ways to think about and use social media, I can’t help turn it into something it’s not. For that, you’ll need to sign up for my $5,000 a month newsletter. LOL

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Together We Remember

Considering Common Memory Spaces

Memorial Day 2020

Usually Memorial Day unofficially kicks off of summer with picnics, beaches and parades. Covid-19 restrictions will likely make this Memorial Day a bit more muted and reflective. That might be a good thing. Taking time to remember together is healthy for a culture.

Reflectively, Memorial Day is our most sober National Holiday. We set it aside to honor and recognize the men and women who’ve died in military service to protect our freedom. Such great sacrifice is worthy of a national day of remembrance and honor. 

On Memorial Day, we look backward on fallen heroes to express our shared gratitude, values and vision. Memorial Day isn’t only for those families who’ve lost loved ones. It’s a common memory space, a day when we remember the cost of freedom together. Common memory spaces are valuable because they unite us, reinforce our values and give us direction as we face new challenges. 

Common memory spaces aren’t only for nations. They are for any group—friends, families, religions and companies. Recognizing and positively cultivating our common memory spaces can also help infuse an organization’s communication and culture with those specific touch points that make the organization unique. 

Memory and the Organization

Organizational memory is like an individual’s memory. It happens organically; it must also be created and nurtured to be useful. Left to its own devices, shared memory will shape the organization in unintended and often undesirable ways. 

Organizational memory is also unlike an individual’s memory. It’s shared collectively (though not universally) by the organization. Organizational memory is formed through experiences, but those experiences aren’t equally distributed. What helps one person may hurt another. And many people weren’t even part of the organization when the memory was formed. 

This is most visible when new people enter an organization. We’ve all experienced coworkers who wax nostalgically for “the way things use to be (before you arrived).” New arrivals may stumble across taboo subjects, or off-limit ideas and initiatives, based on lingering memories of past failures. It isn’t all negative. Best practices are often memories that have been transformed into effective actions. And the new business that a company pursues is driven by a collective memory of what has worked up to this point.

Organizational memory is potent. These collective memories are sticky and they direct our actions. They’re always shaping our experience, even if we aren’t always aware of it.

Short-Term Memory 

Short-term memory gets a lot of attention in most organizations. It’s almost invisible, yet critical to day-to-day functions. If our short-term memory were to malfunction so would we, and our organizations would cease working. Much of our business technology (from sticky notes, to file cabinets, to the cloud) is there to augment short-term memory. We tend a lot to short-term memory, sometimes neglecting the lessons that it is providing. 

There is a trap in short-term memory. It’s critical to the moment, but not much more. Beyond addressing the immediate need, short-term memory can’t decide what’s most important. It can help us achieve, but not prioritize. To be predictive and proactive, we must know where we’ve been and what happened. That is a more complicated calculation than simply accessing the data. It involves reconciling data to long term outcomes and goals. 

Backward-Looking Memory

Looking backward can seem like a waste of time. Consider these bits of well-worn wisdom against spending time in the past:

  • Don’t dwell on the past.
  • It’s water under a bridge.
  • You can’t go back and change things.
  • Don’t look back; you’ll miss what’s in front of you. 

Naturally surfacing, backward-looking memory can take on the dark hues of rumination and nostalgia. This makes sense. The strongest memories often result from trauma. Trauma is a great teacher; one seldom touches fire twice. Focusing on some past pain point can create fear and paralysis. 

The past teaches, but the best lesson isn’t always the one that’s learned. Left uninterpreted, organizational memory can often be tainted by bad events and difficult times. Failed restructuring, mergers that led to drastic layoffs, and other traumas can linger in the collective memory. These can negatively affect employees. Actions and attitudes, with no basis in the present or the future, can weigh an organization down.

Unfortunately, the sticky residue of bad memories is often unrecognized. Therefore, it is difficult to root out and address them. A better option is to be strategic about creating memory spaces that are inherently positive and proactive. 

Strategic Memory

American culture in general, and business in particular, prefers to be forward thinking. Many call that optimism, though there is a distinction between boundless positivity and optimistic realism. An effective optimist doesn’t just look forward. She also reexamines the past to cull the good from the bad. She conducts a reckoning to move forward unencumbered by the past and hopeful about the future. 

Looking only forward actually creates a blind spot leading to bad expectations, decisions and unease among those who’ve been burned before. What we need is a plan to remember and frame what’s important—bring the best of the past to the present as a window on the future. 

Positive, proactive memory is strategic. It requires thought and work. A group of individuals don’t automatically become of one mind. Ideas must be articulated to win collective agreement. It takes leadership and communication to introduce and maintain a good memory space. 

It also takes an honest evaluation of where the organization has been, the good and the bad, to be believed about the future. If an organization attempted a new venture and failed, owning that mistake is critical to sharing the important lessons learned. Simply changing leadership and brushing the mistake under the rug doesn’t instill confidence for the future. 

Strategic leadership builds common memory spaces that can contain the organization’s ups and downs. “We are bold and innovative, and sometimes we get it wrong.” “We are competitive survivors; that means we had to restructure.” The past isn’t ignored. The past is reconciled to an organization’s values system—one that includes successes, failures and commitment to forward vision. I see this at work in Memorial Day. 

A Healing Memory Space

Memorial Day is a strategically created common memory space. It was not formally a National Holiday until 1971. When it was created, it merged separate traditions in the North and the South that emerged after the Civil War—now honoring all those who died in service from the Civil War forward. 

In 1971, the painful memories of the Civil War were significantly past, and the divisive trauma of Vietnam was an open wound. Remember, soldiers returning home from Vietnam were often castigated and reviled publically. Memorial Day helped bridge those two massive chasms, creating a way for all of us to honor those who sacrificed, even when we may be greatly divided politically. It’s worth noting that in the wars fought after creating Memorial Day, including the unpopular Iraq War, soldiers have been honored and treated with the care and respect deserved.

Memorial Day reconciles the past to the present, but also it paves the way forward by reminding us of our shared values, shared sacrifice and shared vision—many died to preserve American freedom. What then should we do?

Together we remember.
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How to Reassure Employees

Keys to effective crisis communication

Because of COVID-19, many corporate communicators will be writing contingency and crisis communications for employee audiences.  Such communications serve many purposes within a business continuity plan, from advising employees on ways to minimize risk and access health resources, to creating temporary remote offices and workflows. While details differ with each organization, communicating in a reassuring manner will smooth the way in difficult times. 

Leadership and, by extension, internal communicators must instill confidence among employees as they face disruptions to normal routines and levels of certainty. Ideally, your organization has contingency planning that serves as a roadmap to help you navigate a variety of situations—financial crises, scandals, natural disasters, etc. The goal of this planning is a process model encompassing all phases of your response before and after a crisis hits.

Assuming you have a process in place, there are certain established practices that will help reassure employee audiences. Together they help build voices, tone and content that employees will trust and follow.

Keys to success

Prepare before you communicate. Before you begin messaging, inform yourself as much as possible. Understand the parameters of the crisis:

  • Emergency information from trusted sources
  • How this will affect your business
  • How this will affect your employees
  • Projected timeframe
  • Steps being taken to mitigate impact
  • Costs to stakeholders

A complete picture will help you determine what needs to be communicated and when. 

Integrate with other planning. If you have a crisis communication plan, integrate these communications into that process. Don’t freelance or wing it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, make one and stick to it. When you get new information or new contingencies, integrate them into the flow you’ve established. A disciplined approach builds confidence in your audiences.

Establish a face to the crisis. A CEO should offer assurances that a plan is in place and a high-level overview of that plan is ongoing. After that, if you have the resources, designate an information officer for the crisis. If not, appoint a spokesperson personifying leadership to employees and with experience in communicating to handle day-to-day messaging. If the crisis persists, this person can become an important and comforting presence to employees.

Create a vehicle for listening. Employees will have questions and concerns. Often these are things you haven’t considered, or concerns that are shared and need to be addressed. Internal social media platforms, audio and video conferencing offer many ways to create meaningful feedback mechanisms. Make these open. Set a tone that there are no stupid questions, while making sure conversations are managed by informed facilitators. 

Be honest. Tell your employees what you know and what you don’t know. If you’ve gathered information from important customers, partners or other sources that are opaque to employees, make those transparent. Also, share details of leadership’s response plan. You’re all on the same team and employees want to sense that they too are informed. 

Show empathy to employees. The unknowns of a crisis create a lot of stress and concern in employees. They depend on their jobs to feed and shelter their families, which makes the health of the company among their highest concerns. Demonstrate that you are aware of these concerns and show empathy for employees’ situation. If you have material ways to reassure them, express those. In any case, let them know that leadership is concerned with their well-being.

Communicate consistently. Make sure your messages are consistent in content, tone and frequency. News flashes and warnings may sell news media advertising, but they aren’t reassuring. Make sure each message is built on the previous content. Even if the situation shifts, make sure you are building on the precepts and contingencies you established initially. 

Don’t over promise. People will want guarantees of positive outcomes. Other than general assurances that the company is committed to working through the crisis, don’t promise specifics that are uncertain. For example, a temporary remote working set-up might evolve into a permanent situation, so don’t promise employees that they’ll be back in the office soon.

Keep on communicating. For the duration of the crisis, keep the information flowing and maintain a positive and hopeful tone. Repeat your key messages early and often. Let employees know that you are monitoring the disruption and that you will be their partner until it ends. 

Time to shine

You can turn a crisis into an opportunity. When your team successfully combines these strategies you will reassure your employees. As a result, levels of trust will rise between management and employees. Overcoming obstacles builds resilience in people and organizations. Companies that lead their employees through both good and bad situations build an organization of seasoned, flexible and capable employees. 

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Most Trusted

The emerging employer voice

Trust in government and media has been declining for the past twenty years. Conversely, trust in employers is at an all time high. This situation has created opportunities for employers to have a larger voice and to become a trusted source of information for employees and other audiences. 

Declining Trust

Two decades of wars, a major economic disruption, bitter partisanship and a fragmented media landscape have eroded public trust in both government and the news media.  

Both 9/11 and the Great Recession were cast as governmental failures to know, understand, regulate, prevent or warn the people about these catastrophes. Fairly or not, political parties have used these serious disruptions (along with more trivial issues) to relentlessly attack the other party’s governance. All of this has caused Americans’ trust in government to fall to historic lows.

The news media is also suffering from very low trust metrics. Many factors are dragging their trust numbers down. 

  • Media fragmentation has replaced a single news narrative with a diversity of voices, sources and opinions. 
  • Partisan-focused news outlets like MSNBC , CNN and Fox News mix commentary and news.
  • News as entertainment has blurred the lines between the trivial and serious.
  • “Fake News,” encompassing everything from made up stories to media bias to foreign intervention, is undermining all media.

It has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for news consumers to know if the stories they’re getting should be trusted. 

2019 Edelman Trust Barometer p. 23

Rising Voice

Standing in relief to this decline, people’s trust in their employer is rising to unprecedented levels. This is fueled by a general hunger for reliable information and trustworthy institutions and by a shift in the role employers are playing in employees’ lives. 

The employer/employee relationship is established and well understood as both interdependent and mutually beneficial. Employees know that their company views them as a human resource, but they also understand that their company places a high value on that resource.

New approaches to Human Resources, especially benefits administration, have turned employers into information repositories on key issues like:

  • Healthcare consumerism
  • Wellness
  • Education
  • Financial planning
  • Retirement

The information companies provide is accurate and balanced because legal and fiduciary responsibilities lead to careful vetting of all information. Reliable, non-biased information is what the public is craving and what employers are increasingly providing. 

Opportunities and Responsibilities 

This convergence creates opportunities to build on this moment of trust. Employers willing to fill this trust gap can gain a competitive advantage. But this is not a trivial exercise; becoming a trusted source of information is not only an opportunity, it is also a responsibility.   

Provide Clarity. By providing useful, vetted information, employers create real value and comfort for their employees. 

Consider the current Novel Coronavirus outbreak. The spread of this disease is real and will likely affect workers in the U.S. over the next two years. However, news surrounding this outbreak is often sensationalized and the issue is being politicized in an election year. This serious issue needs clarity.

This article from SHRM (Society for Human Resource Managers) is a good example of sharing relevant information. It encapsulates the issue and provides links to many sources of (presumably vetted) information. 

Information like this is fairly easy to assemble and incredibly useful. Employees are provided with reliable information that goes far beyond what they would get from the evening news and that would be difficult to gather on their own. Employees are empowered and prepared because they are informed. 

Create dedicated channels.  Employees need to know where to go for information. Depending on employee populations and budgets, information channels can range from printed newsletters to email distributions to dedicated websites to mobile apps. The type of channel isn’t as critical as accessibility and consistency. 

Keep the channel clean and flowing. Avoid the temptation to use the channel for other messaging. A dedicated channel is more effective and more likely to be read than one that becomes a hodgepodge of unrelated messages. 

Information must be current and archives need to be maintained. It’s critical to use your dedicated channel frequently. It isn’t necessary to create daily content, but at least once a week will keep the channel relevant.  

Facilitate peer networks. One of the reasons employees trust employers is that they are both working on the same team. Information flows should mirror that sense of community and cooperation.  

ESM (Enterprise Social Media) is an excellent platform for employees to interact around the information provided by the company. Having a voice encourages engagement and adoption of critical ideas.

Many employers have concerns about social media within work environments. They worry about divisive voices, discontent and other negatives. Facilitating social media interactions around specific information can mitigate these concerns. 

Peer-to-peer communication around specific articles and channels can be easily and effectively managed. The information at hand guides the discussion, not the whims of users. Conversations on serious platform around important information will naturally be more focused than anonymous public social media. Within a company’s intranet, these platforms can also be managed more energetically. 

The upside is really high. Users who engage with content are typically more informed than those who don’t. These users become partners with your content. They help to explain, curate and promote understanding on social networks. Social media influencers make information dynamic through their advocacy. Look for these people and encourage them. 

Avoid bad information. Carefully curate and vet any information your company disseminates. You won’t have a story about everything, and that’s ok. Your content flow won’t have the punch of mass media, and that’s a good thing.

The aim is confidence. Provide information that is reliable, well sourced and actionable. This is more important than timeliness, entertainment or sensation (all hallmarks of today’s news media). The goal is providing a regular source of information for your specific audience. 

Don’t overreach. Controversy and politics may sell newspapers, but they harm work environments. Avoid taking any political position that cannot be clearly and specifically be connected to the wellbeing of your industry, company or employee population. 

There will be those inside and outside the organization who want to use your informational platform to sway employee opinion. These interests act for their own purposes, not necessarily the organization’s. Their goals are short term. To become a trusted resource, an employer must act responsibly and steadily over the long term.    

Build on the Moment

That employers have become a trusted institution is surprising until you look at the reason behind the rise. Employers are more and more an important information source for their employees. Those who understand where we are and who become intentional in their approach can build on this moment to form lasting partnerships with their employees. 

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