Amy Dean recently tweeted about the US Marines decision to restrict the use of social media. Amy and I then exchanged a couple of tweets about why this might be, which reminded me of a great article called “The Propaganda Newspapers” written by Andrew Gilligan for the Evening Standard. In summary, the article argues that the rise of “free” local council newspapers in London is beginning to stifle and control the flow of news and opinion. Gilligan asks you to imagine that you are the Prime Minister:
You fill your newspapers with nearly everything people buy papers for – news, features, property pages, what’s-on guides, even crumpet – and you do it well.
Only a few things are missing from your newspapers – anything whatever that reflects badly on you, and any mention at all of your political opponents.
You offer taxpayer-subsidised advertising rates that your commercial rivals cannot match. You deliver your newspapers free of charge to everyone – unlike your competitor papers, for which everyone still has to pay.
One after another, they shrivel and die.
He suggests that whilst this may seem absurd in a national context, it is happening now across large parts of London. Nine London boroughs have already adopted this way of communicating with their residents. I really think the term should be broadcasting. Printed news is a uni-directional form of media which tends to encourage groupthink. Yes there are letters pages but their historic nature limits their effectiveness. The rise of social media, whilst not without challenges (see more by Amy Dean about ghost twittering for example), is a useful way of allowing information and opinion to flow quickly and independently.
Whilst working at BT, I started the Stop Doing Dumb Things to Customers experiment. The experiment encouraged people to share positive customer experiences and suggest ways to improve the customer experience. I broke with BT tradition by blogging inside and outside BT.
Very quickly hundreds, then thousands of people began to engage with, read, and contribute to the experiment. It began to feel like we were creating a movement. Some informal research showed me the people connecting fell into quite distinct groups, shop floor staff, and customer facing staff, new entrants (graduates etc) and customers. These people had lots of different views, but all focussed on the power of the customer experience. We were creating difference, without losing the difference. I made several, persistent, friendly, encouraging attempts to engage with top management, who in turn made very encouraging, supportive noises, but never really participated.
Prior to leaving BT I met with Ian Livingston the group CEO. I asked for the meeting in order to share with him some of what I had learned about BT whilst working there. We talked about many things, speaking up, engagement, leadership and communication among them. I asked him how he felt about the reluctance of his colleagues to engage in the open, two way debate that the experiment allowed. Why did none of the main board, or indeed the divisional board where I worked use blogging as a means of giving and receiving feedback? His response surprised me.
Whilst acknowledging that communications is a problem, a challenge within the organisation, Livingston was extremely dismissive of blogging. Turns out his preferred method of communication is BT Today, the bi-monthly newspaper delivered to employees at their homes. He justified this on the basis of its coverage, even though my experience shows that most folk just bin it, many without even opening it. His response surprised me at the time. Having delved a bit deeper I can’t help but wonder if it’s the groupthink, feedback free environment which he and others prefer? Less chance of having to field awkward questions that way, the reader gets the “news” that the organisation wants them to hear.
I’ve also noticed that when BT gets criticised in the media, it has a tendency to dismiss the criticism outright. There is an assumption from within that BT must be right, the other point of view is always wrong. I can’t help but feel that a more reflective, positive approach would be more beneficial to both the company and its customers. Next time I’ll focus more on how to substitute groupthink for the power created by dialogue. For now I would be keen to get your views on print v interactive, dismiss v reflect, and in particular any examples you have of these styles being reinforced or challenged, elsewhere.
Photo c/o striatic