Why (and how) your internal comms channels must compete with social media

The likes of Twitter and Instagram aren’t something HR should fear, says Ian MacRae – they can benefit the profession if used in the right way 

Approximately half of the UK population gets their news from social media. Social media is becoming ever-more influential as a source of information and opinion: 80 per cent of the UK population uses social media which can shape attitudes and opinions about work.

Customer complaints are often taken to social media. Political and ideological debates are taken to social media platforms. Human resources processes are no different. When employees have a question, concerns or complaints, social media will be the first place they search for or share information.

People managers must be aware of how this affects the workplace information ecosystem and adapt to the ways people communicate and problem solve in increasingly digital lives and workplaces.

Social media platforms that used to be about sharing personal and family lives are now firmly embedded in workplace culture. Apart from work-specific social media sites like Linkedin, other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Slack and Teams have all become integrated into workplace communication. 

The level of engagement with social media varies significantly by company and sector, but employees are far more likely to take their workplace concerns to social media. The problem is that social media is not always a reliable or accurate source of information, but many people find it cathartic and instantly available. 

The research shows it’s extraordinarily difficult to combat misinformation – HR departments and people managers don’t have the time or the resources to combat online misinformation. However, what they can do is ensure that people managers are trusted and valued sources of information within the company, and that informational resources are easily accessible and reliable within the company.

Combating common misconceptions about HR

One of the most common and persistent myths about HR is that it is about protecting the company, not employees. This is not a new idea, nor will it ever disappear. People managers have to consider a range of stakeholders, interests and potential consequences. The vast majority of people managers are well-intentioned but cannot always give employees the outcome they are looking for at work.

Yet, this misconception about HR existing only to protect the company is common online, and many negative attitudes about the profession that can be found online tend to be variations on this theme. The best way for any company to dispute this is for people managers to have open communication channels, and share how they advocate for employee interests within the company.

Another problem with the wide world of social media for people managers in the UK is that English-language social media is dominated by American users. Attitudes about the workplace, HR and people managers can be highly influenced by American working culture and workplace legislation, which is significantly different from the UK. When people take their complaints online, discussions will often be influenced by American perspectives and users.

Again, it’s not realistic to expect people managers in the UK to shape or change the overall discourse on social media – instead, the most effective strategy must be for the company to become the most reliable, trusted and easily accessible source of information for people within the company. Trust in people managers, along with information that they provide should be a valuable resource for all employees.

Furthermore, people managers need to create, maintain and support communication channels that align with people’s current information-seeking behaviours. Whether it is realistic or not, people expect to receive quick feedback, rapid responses and immediate information in response to their concerns. When these are not available internally, many employees will take their concerns to outside social media platforms. 

To achieve results, especially when it comes to digital communication, people managers need to create communication channels that align with people’s current behaviours. Some people managers would say they already have plenty of avenues for people to express their concerns. And that may well be true, but an important part of managing people is understanding how and when people communicate about various issues.

What to do about it

  • Ensure channels are available, accessible and trustworthy

    When trying to communicate information to employees, find out what platforms or channels employees are already using, and how to integrate your current communication strategies into that platform. Making information convenient and easily accessible will lead to more people accessing and using those resources. Make sure that information sources specific to the company are easily accessible and more useful than the general information (or misinformation) that is available online.

  • Ensure communication and culture is deliberately developed and maintained

    The more people use a channel, the more likely their peers and colleagues will be to use that channel. Keep these open and encourage active participation. Slack or Teams channels for HR discussion can be useful, keep it open for frank discussion, and remember to have channel moderators.Have various channels (levels of informal vs. formal) for different types of discussion and information-seeking. Make sure those that bring up specific or series issues in a general channel are directed to the most appropriate other channels when needed.

  • Use social media for transparency and open discussion
    When feasible, open up HR policy discussion to employees. Post about key issues that people managers are discussing that will affect employees. When employee input will be considered, open it up for comments or feedback, help people to understand the complex issues that HR must manage and the different stakeholders that are being considered.

People managers and those responsible for the communication and culture within an organisation must have a reliable, accessible and trustworthy information ecosystem within the company. The alternative is to let communication and perception of workplace culture be shaped by external influencers and platforms.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of Dark Social, published by Bloomsbury in November 2021