Is it time to turn your digital corporate communications inside out?

The leaders in the Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence 2020, published today, are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to share with the outside world, says Jason Sumner.

‘Radical transparency’ is having a renaissance. Hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio got things going in 2017 with his self-help memoir, Principles. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been extoling the virtues of extreme openness in the streaming giant’s workplace, from ‘sunshining’ mistakes to very public ‘360-degree’ employee reviews. Over the years, the concept has been applied to politics, government and business, and has roots in 1990s internet culture, with predictions about tearing down ‘corporate firewalls’.

There is a utopian thread running through the many incarnations of radical transparency, even today, which sits uncomfortably with how we know the worst aspects of the digital revolution have turned out. The radically transparent digital public square has been more pessimistically – and perhaps more accurately – compared to a Pandora’s Box by Stephen Fry, the British actor and writer. Mr Dalio admits that radical transparency isn’t for every company and some have alleged that Netflix’s transparent culture has a dark side.

And yet… there are signs that a version of radical transparency is indeed taking hold in corporate digital communication, not for lofty utopian reasons – far from it – but for hard-headed commercial ones.

Inside-out communications is one of the big trends that we’ve identified in the 2020 Index of Online Excellence. The leading companies in the Index are using their digital channels to share more about what happens inside the organization with the outside world.

Bernard Looney, the CEO of BP, the Index leader, frequently puts his notes to staff on LinkedIn and the corporate website. He also communicates with employees on Instagram and responds to critical comments on the channel. Verizon, the highest-placing US site in the Index at seventh, has an ‘Up to speed’ podcast and video series which is fronted by professional presenters, who interview employees about what life is like behind the scenes at the company.

Why are companies adopting this approach and would it work for your company? First, corporate audiences and society are demanding more authenticity and transparency from organizations – including companies. Inside-out communications is an effective way of addressing these demands. Second, what is inside the company can easily leak, and there are entire digital channels such as Glassdoor dedicated to revealing company secrets. Third, companies have positive stories to tell, often based on the good work that their employees are doing, which help to build employee morale and attract jobseekers.

There is a personal side to inside-out communications too. CEOs are getting more adept at sharing human and authentic snapshots of their lives on social media. In addition to Mr Looney at BP noted above, Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon, has been posting candid glimpses of his day-to-day life during lockdown. Outside the Index top 30, Walmart CEO Doug McMillion uses his Instagram account to talk directly to employees, during normal times and in response to crises.

‘Radical’ is not a term often associated with corporate communications, with good reason. Plenty of companies are doing the same old thing with their digital communications – unconvincing marketing-speak, canned executive pronouncements, stock images, content produced seemingly only to fill space or satisfy the CEO’s ego – as we know from reviewing the tepid digital output often produced by many of the world’s 200 biggest companies. Corporate secrecy has not gone away.

But the inside-out approach being adopted by many of the Index leaders – more transparency about successes, failures and difficult choices; more willingness to share stories from real employees; in short, more humanity – is definitely different, and yes, even ‘radical’.

Download the Bowen Craggs Index 2020 to see which companies are the best at corporate digital communications, plus the key trends, including inside-out communication; the new corporate journalism; and companies speaking out on Covid, climate and inclusion.

First published 29 September, 2020
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