Thornley Fallis' new Online Communications Policy

Simple works

For the past four years, Thornley Fallis has had a simple, two sentence online communications policy: “Be smart. Cause no harm to any person.”

This simple policy has served us well. We had only a few bumps – and we learned from each one.

This policy worked because we have many people who are active in social media and they are steeped in the blogging culture. They understand the importance of transparency, authenticity and generosity. They also understand the power of search and the permanence of what we put on the Web.

New people. New needs

A few months ago, we updated the Thornley Fallis and 76design Websites. In doing this, we introduced new Twitter feeds for both Thornley Fallis and 76design. We also created a page on our corporate Website that displays the current conversations our employees are having in social media. Each employee has their own page on which they can display whatever social media and information they want to share. They can add their personal blog feeds, links to their Facebook pages, Twitter streams, LinkedIn profiles – whatever social media they wanted.

I soon realized that our employees are generating much more social media traffic than I had been aware of. I also realized that not everyone spends as much time thinking about social media best practices as Dave Fleet or Terry Fallis might.

So, it’s time to take a second look at our online communications policy to be sure that it provides basic guidance for new employees and others new to social media and our perspective on its culture.

Under the hood

In refining our policy, I wanted it to be written in plain language. I also didn’t want to be so prescriptive that people would feel the need to refer to it constantly. And, bottom line, I respect the intelligence of the people I work with and trust their judgment. So, how to draft a policy that provides essential guidance but still puts the onus on people to exercise good judgment?

The answer, in my mind, is to ground the policy and guidelines in a clear statement of our objectives – why we are active in social media. Having stated this, I’m comfortable encouraging people to post freely if they know that their actions contribute to the achievement of our objectives. If they aren’t sure or feel that their posts/actions may actually detract from those objectives, then I suggest that they don’t post it. It in doubt, I ask people to consult a colleague before proceeding. Having spelled out this general framework, I needed only a handful of specific guidelines.

I posted the policy on our Internal Wiki and asked for comments. I received some good feedback from several people, including Jeremy Wright, Dave Fleet and Bradley Moseley-Williams. So, here’s the first draft of our new online communications policy.

What do you think of it? Have we missed something important? Would it work for your organization?


Thornley Fallis Online Communications Policy

This policy is intended to provide us with practical guidelines that we can apply to ensure that our online actions and communications will make a positive contribution to our reputation as individuals and members of the Thornley Fallis & 76design team.

You’re always one of us

Each of us represents the company to the world and the character of the company is defined by our beliefs and actions. We must be mindful of this when participating in social media and any kind of online communications.
You may be active in social media on your own account. That’s good. But please remember that whether you are on your own time or company time, you’re still a member of our team. And the judgment you exercise on your own time reflects on the judgment you exercise at work. There’s only one you – at play and at work.

Our Objectives

First, when participating in social media, please always be mindful of why we are involved in social media. Our company’s objectives are:

  • To educate ourselves.
  • To contribute to our community by sharing our knowledge with others. (We believe in the culture of generosity and recognize that we should contribute more to the community than we take out.)
  • To attract talented people
  • To attract sophisticated clients

As a first step in deciding whether to write or post something online, ask yourself if doing so would contribute to the achievement of these objectives. If so, then publish away. If your post would be at odds with these objectives, please do not post it.


Of course, sometimes, it’s nice to have some simple, plain language guidelines to point the way. So, here are some basic rules for day to day conduct.

  1. Cause no harm to any person.
  2. Be respectful and civil in your tone. (After all, that’s the kind of people we are.)
  3. Respect our clients’ right to decide for themselves what they want to make public. Unless they specifically grant us permission, do not post about client wins or client assignments.
  4. Be transparent. If you are posting about a client or commenting on a client competitor or posting about anything in which we may have a material interest, disclose the relationship or interest.

Still in doubt?

If you’re still in doubt, seek out the counsel of one of you colleagues. Two sets of eyes are better than one.

You have to trust people

It should be apparent from the series of posts about Michael McDerment ’s and Saul Colt ’s session at Third Tuesday that Freshbooks is a very social media savvy organization.

Not only does CEO Michael McDerment blog, but at least five other employees also blog. And there will likely be more.

So the obvious question: What will you do if one of your employees messes up and gives out a company secret or does something to hurt the company? Do you try to curb your employees’ blogging?

Michael McDermont: “It comes back to hiring. You’ve got to find people with shared values. And at the end of the day you have to trust people. … That’s the best you can do.”

It strikes me that this is a problem for large organizations which, by their nature, lose the ability to ensure fit between employees and company culture. But having acknowledged that, for organizations that still are of a size where this is practical, McDerment focuses on exactly the right place – management’s hiring decisions and attitudes.

Other clips with Freshbooks’ Michael McDerment and Saul Colt :

A Fresh(books) approach to social media by Dave Fleet

Building a Winning Team

Your next great business idea may be staring you in the face

Freshbooks: Don’t talk about the product. Talk about what it means to people

Freshbook Execs listen and respond to customers

Online media deliver results. But traditional media still add legitimacy

There’s no shortcut past setting realistic expectations

Reality Check: For some things, you've still got to be there

One of the great benefits of social media for me is the way that it has allowed me to extend my networks. I have developed working relationships with people several time zones and thousands of miles away. We rountinely exchange information and collaborate. All without the need to travel or be in the same physical space.

And I spend a lot of time exploring the potential for social media to extend my capabilities even further.

However, Jack and Suzy Welch’s column in the April 16 issue of Business Week (registration required) provided me with a reminder that remote work has a very real limitation in companies and organizations. The Welch’s argue:

“…what you can’t do very well from home is lead. To lead, it’s no good blowing into town for important meetings and showing up at retreats. You have to muddle in the muck in between.”

Out of the officeAs the CEO of a PR and design firm with offices in two cities, I am regularly confronted with a fundamental challenge. How do I manage to stay connected enough with my employees that I can understand them and their state of mind and also convey a sense of the organization’s overall vision, direction and purpose?

At one time, I used to try to make efficient use of my time by scheduling back to back meetings during my visit to the office in the other city. I’d arrive in the morning and have meetings scheduled right until the end of my trip. Lots of material covered. Lots of decisions.

And how did that work out? Some people came to dread my visits to the office. They knew that they’d be dragged away from the things that they wanted to get done in order to participate in one or more meetings with me. They also knew that these meetings would yield even more work as we decided on new initiatives and assigned responsibilities.

Eventually, I realized that while I was physically in the office, I was missing out on what was really going on with the people in the office. The water cooler chatter. The easy going banter about things that people cared about outside of the office. The things that would give me insight into the people I work with and what’s really important to them in their lives. (Remember, most of us work to live. Only a few really live to work.)

So, I changed my routine. I started to spend two days in the office on every trip. I scheduled fewer and shorter meetings. The rest of the time, I set myself up in a spare office and just spent my time working there – just like I would work in my own office in my home city.

Leading by being thereThen I watched my relationship with people begin to change. They saw that I was sitting there with an open door and they started to drop by to chat. Sometimes, it is just small talk or gossip. Other times, they raise work issues that are important to them. They pick the times that are best for them to raise issues with me. Things that I used to schedule in formal meetings began to move off my agenda and instead are raised in one to one meetings on the initiative of the people involved.

On top of this, I had the chance to join the brown bag boardroom lunches. To be part of the general discussion. And to just participate as one of many. A great leveller. A great way to learn more about people.

And that leaves me free to pick and choose the times when it is appropriate to convey information about the vision, direction and priorities that I see for the business. In the context of discussions. When they will make a contribution to moving things forward. With a greater likelihood that people who are already talking about something of importance to them will give me honest feedback. Honest feedback. The oxygen of intelligent decision-making.

So, yes, I try to get a great deal done via social software. But Jack and Suzy Welch are right when they say, “… for anyone who has dreams of leadership in any meaningful way, telecommuting can get you only so far. The road to the top is paved with being there.”

Creating a positive culture and a winning team

I’m a big fan of David Maister’s approach to creating a successful professional services company. Effective leadership is an essential ingredient to his approach.

Real leadership is earned, not bestowed as an byproduct of one’s position in an organization. Many managers have discovered that the technical skills that have propelled them into management are not the skills they need to be successful as leaders.  People vote with their feet every day, especially in an organization that is staffed by knowledge workers with highly valuable expertise and skills. If these people don’t have confidence in the leadership of the company they work at, if they don’t trust them or like them, they can easily take their talent elsewhere.

That’s why today is a happy day for me. Today I was able to recognize one of those true leaders people choose to follow, who inspires loyalty and encourages people to excel.

As I try to walk the talk myself, I thought I’d share with you the email that I sent out earlier today announcing the promotion of one of my colleagues, Keelan Green. I hope that it conveys the right signals to the people with whom I work about what is important and what is valued in our organization.

You’ve probably noticed that the Ottawa office has been on a real roll during the past year. We’ve added some great new consultants (you know who you are!!!), done great work for clients who not only continued to place their trust in us but also provided positive referrals to other clients, and won additional business through straight-ahead competitions. Equally important, the sound of laughter and the sight of smiles is a regular part of the work day.

Every person working in Ottawa has made a real contribution to this success. And I thank you for this.

Today, I want to recognize the particular contribution of Keelan Green. Keelan has been our leader in many ways for the past two years. He leads us literally in being the first person in the office most days. He leads us in showing how to use our work time effectively to get results for clients. As a colleague, I know that Keelan can always be counted on to pitch in when I or someone else needs help. And when the chips are down, he won’t give up until we’ve achieved what we set out to do.

Keelan can also be counted on to show us how to maintain a good balance in our lives (because it’s not only about work.) He taught us that summer Thursdays are for golf. And beware the person who tries to cut into that time!

But most important, we know that Keelan always cares. He cares about our company, the people who work here and making sure that together we are successful. Because if we are successful we can all realize our dreams.

So, I am absolutely delighted to recognize Keelan’s achievements and place in our company by promoting him to General Manager of our Ottawa office. (sound of applause, whistling, foot stomping)

This is not an end, but the beginning of an even more exciting year that lies ahead. In the coming days, Keelan will be working with both the Thornley Fallis Communications and 76design teams to lay out plans to continue to excel in each of our practice areas while also exploring the potential synergies that can be realized by combining our different areas of expertise. I know that he’ll be talking to each of us about the opportunities for us individually to grow and contribute to our collective success.

Congratulations Keelan! It’s your time.

* Thanks to Hugh McLeod for the great drawing. Always a source of inspiration.

IABC International Conference – Jody Humble

FedExJody Humble, regional manager of corporate communication for FedEx Canada, argues that storytelling is an effective way to communicate and shape corporate culture.She opened her presentation with a video narrated by individuals reflecting on how FedEx employees has rallied to help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and Louisiana.“That explains the kind of company we are trying to be.” And the company clearly is doing something right ait ranks number four on Fortune’s list of most admired companies.Key drivers of culture at FedEx include a recognition that “Our product is our people.” Layered onto this is the evolving portfolio of companies (e.g. Kinko’s) and increased competition. Finally, there is a recognition that expectations of the company are changing. For example, in the post-911 world, the company must play a role in ensuring the security of it clients.

FedEx has introduced “The purple promise: Pledge. Attitude. Behaviour.” to shape and sustain its positive corporate culture.

Pledge: I will make every FedEx experience outstanding. Experience includes experiences between employees, with customers and with anyone else the company deals with.

Behaviour: A personal checklist for action. How will I satisfy my customers today? Have I treated them in a professional, competent, polite an caring manner? Have I delivered the highest quality service? Have I processed information with 100% accuracy?

The Purple Promise is an essential business strategy. It provides a basis for empoyees to compete collectively and provide optimal customer experiences, thus improving customer loyalty.

Four elements of embedding the culture:

  • Policies, practices and tools – must be established at the outset.
  • Leadership by example (storytelling) – provides a basis in fact.
  • Communication (storytelling) – delivers and sustains
  • Recognition & reward – At the end of the day, people need a personal reason to change their behaviour.

Storytelling is a principal vehicle for propagating a positive culture based on the Purple Promise. Our world is a social place. Our view of it is created by social interaction more than facts. We listen to people we trust.

Through the intranet, employee videos, an in-house television network, face to face meetings and other vehicles, FedEx attempts to deliver a constant stream of stories that embody the Purple Promise.

For this to work, it requires an enlightened human resources director who is prepared to work closely and cooperatively with the communications department.

Performance measures have been realigned to service performance, including a bonus based on the company’s service results.

This is backed up by both monetary and nonmonetary recognition and awards. A tiered recognition program empowers managers to acknowledge positive contributions on the spot. A more formal selection process is used to select recipients of Purple Promise Awards, which carry both recognition and remuneration.

In fine David Letterman, form Jody closed with a list of the Top 10 benefits of storytelling:

10. It can be inexpensive – a great deal can be accomplished at relatively little cost

9. Adds endurance ot the message

8. Encourages listening – we all listen to stories.

7. Infiltrates ‘water cooler’ conversations.

6. It is highly persuasive – You’re more likely to believe something in the context of a story.

5. Inspires trust – increased interaction through storytelling enhances familiarity, comfort and trust.

4. Forges the bonds of common experience

3. Simplifies the complex via metaphors

2. Appeals to emotions – a good story moves you emotionally.

1. Captures and leverages institutional knowledge – a great way to share knowledge with your workforce.

In the question and answer session, one participant observed that The Purple Promise is working because it is a way of life, not merely a communications program. For a culture program like this to work, everybody must be part of it – executives, human resources, frontline service deliverers, every part of the organization.

This was a good, practical advice section that had the corporate communications people in the room taking notes.


IABC International Conference – Tuesday afternoon sessions

Lynne LancasterAt this year’s IABC Research Foundation luncheon, Lynne Lancaster will speak about Minding the gaps: Engaging four generations in an info-saturated world. “Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers, and Millenials … Each of these generations has unique expectations for how messages should be delivered, and which hot buttons are most important to hit. … savvy communicators need to know what’s important to each generation of listeners and how to make an emotional connection.”

Both of the afternoon sessions I’m planning to take in focus on employee communications.

First, David Grossman will discuss Making the most of leaders through effective leadership communication. The programme promises that the session “will explore a proven four-step leadership communications model and teach the skills necessary to coach leaders to drive business results and improve performance through effective leadership communication.” Something which I know that the folks back at my office would like to teach me! Later, it’s back to the online world: Intranets on the cutting edge: A look at what’s possible now and probably tomorrow, with Donna Itzoe and Jerry Stevenson. A look at “one of the most technologically advanced intranets on the planet – Verizon’s Digital Workplace.” Hmmm. I’m not sure it’s in this fiscal year’s budget. But I can always dream.


IABC International Conference – Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey GomanCarol Kinsey Goman provided an overview of research that she recently completed comparing the grapevine with formal communications channels.The Grapevine is a powerhouse communication medium in every organization.The grapevine is pervasive. It is present in every organization.According to Goman’s research, when confronted with a major difference between messages delivered by in a speech from senior leadership or the grapevine, 47% of employees would believe the grapevine compared to 42% who would believe the leadership statement. 11% would attribute a blend of credibility to the two sources.Looking at a major difference between a message delivered in an official newsletter (online or print) or the grapevine, only 40% would believe that grapevine compared to 51% who would believe the official newsletter. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people trust the written word – “Ïf it’s written, it must be true.”

74% indicated that they would choose to believe a direct supervisor compared to 24% who would believe the grapevine. It all depends on the quality of the relationship. People will believe supervisors with whom they have a good relationship. Other supervisors will not be credible.

Finally, 89% would trust a trusted co-worker over the co-worker. Trust is the operative word here, “I don’t gossip with co-workers I don’t trust.”

We can’t stop the grapevine. It is pervasive. It has speed. And now blogs are like the “grapevine on steroids.”

While formal communications are effective to an extent, the grapevine should not be ignored. It will play a role for some people much of the time. Seen this way, the grapevine could be a powerful vehicle to align the company around communications.

The grapevine accelerates

  • When there is a lack of formal communication.
  • Anytime there is an ambiguous or uncertain situation
  • When there are no sanctioned channels for venting
  • When change is impending, and
  • When there are heavy-handed efforts to shut it down.

There is a gap between senior and lower management. Lower managers are more likely to recognize both the existence and the effectiveness of the grapevine.

Managers can influence the grapevine by

  • Understanding the conditions that increase grapevine activity
  • Respecting employees desire to know
  • Increasing participation and influence
  • Sharing the bad news as well as the good,
  • Monitoring the grapevine, and
  • Acting promptly to correct mis-information.

The grapevine may in fact be a powerful tool for communicators.

  • There is some information that people can only get from the grapevine. Soft information about people’s predilections and propensities.
  • Spot problems early and prepare
  • Seize opportunities
  • Build a reputation. The grapevine will boost better performers, but be harsh on others.
  • Bond with co-workers. The grapevine is an embedded survival mechanism. We learn the rules of engagement.
  • Weed out cheaters and liars. They will be exposed by the people who have been directly affected by them.
  • Let off steam
  • Gain power and control. People who are connected to the grapevine gain knowledge and influence.

Look at the grapevine not as a competitive communication channel, but as an additional resource to be monitored and harnessed.

One study has suggested that people receive 70% of their information from informal networks vs. only 30% from formal communications. Yet, most employee communications programs focus almost exclusively on the formal communications, ignoring the informal networks.

Organizations that recognize the value of informal communications get people together. For example,

  • Caterpillar created a Piazza in their European Headquarters to provide a gathering point for informal gatherings and conversations.
  • PARC Xerox wired the coffee pot to people’s desks, providing prompt that would draw people to the coffee maker when there is a fresh pot of coffee. They installed whiteboards beside the coffee pot.

Every company should ask, “Where is the ‘water cooler’ in our organization? E.g. Smokers gathering spot. A van pool for commuters.

The law of the few: If you want effective, sustainable communication in any organization, you must reach a small number of people who are responsible for most communication.

How do you find the small number of employees who are really influencers?

  • Self-selection: Pitney Bowes (PB Voice): Employees volunteer to be ambassadors for communication.
  • Nomination: Disney’s Communication Ambassadors
  • Identification: Social Network Analysis.

Social network analysis starts with a survey of people in a network, asking who they rely on for information, who they find most credible, who they trust, etc. This information is mapped to identify the key influencers who are connectors at the centre of nodes. Once the social network is mapped, it provides the basis for analysis of the nature (positive vs. negative) of the communications, the nature of the influence and other factors.

To influence the influencers,

  • Find out what they think, feel and are currently saying about the organization.
  • Train them to maximize their communication skills
  • Inform them upfront about the back story (what got us to this place)
  • Solicit their opinions, ask their advice and utilize their feedback.
  • Influencing the conversation: “You must encapsulate the spirit of your organization, package it in strategic statements and then emphasize those statements repeatedly – so the message becomes part of the conversation.” Paul Danos, Dean, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

The question for communicators: How do we engage the grapevine around conversations that matter?

  • Have your senior executives talk about the elephants in the room – the big issues that execs hope nobody will notice or bring up.
  • Future forecasting: talk about trends and what it might mean for your company.
  • Business literacy: You can’t have a conversation about the organization if people don’t know what it takes to make a buck in business.
  • Change communications: facts – fast – frequent
  • Starting rumours: The most powerful rumours are those based on executive behaviour that is symbolic and authentic. So walk the talk.

Carol Kinsey Goman packed her presentation with insights and practical advice. A great session.

IABC International Conference – Rajesh Subramanian

FedExRajesh Subramanian received the IABC’s the Excel Award for his work as the President of FedEx Canada.

His remarks focused on The value of reputation in strategic leadership: Inspiring trust through communication.

He opened with a video clip from “The Big Switcheroo,” a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) program that followed Raj as he switched places with a front line employee and returned to the “shop floor.” In explaining why he did this, Raj pointed to internal FedEx research that showed a disconnect between management and employees. The CBC program was part of a larger communications outreach program that management was using to overcome this disconnect. Trust is essential to both employee and stakeholder relations. It can provide companies with some leeway and latitude so that the corporate positions can be understood and worked with.However, trust in corporations continues to erode. Both among external stakeholders and employees. And this decline in trust can lead to increased scrutiny, oversight, regulatory hurdles and delays that will damage competitiveness.Communication is fundamental to building trust. Communicators have a unique role as the corporate conscience – emphasizing honesty, consideration of stakeholder views and interests, and ensuring that promises made are promises kept.

Communications, as the corporate conscience ensures that what is said is what is done. They bring the community’s concern to the management table. And they ensure that the corporation’s commitment to do the right thing is brought home to the community.

But the communications function cannot do it alone. CEOs must play a role.

Trust must be built over a span of time by listening, talking and walking the talk. CEO’s can ensure this happens.

Employees also embody the values of their employers. And in the era of blogs, they have unprecedented opportunity to speak their mind.

Employees must be inspired and persuaded, not coerced, to embody positive values. This requires sincere, effective commitment to those positive values by senior executives.

“As president, I realize that people will take their cues from me. The values I have. The actions that I take. And that is why I believe strongly in the importance of communication.”

Raj noted that FedEx conducts ongoing annual employee surveys. Executives are held accountable in their performance reviews for the actions they take to address issues that emerge in those surveys.

A few years ago, FedEx revamped their performance review process. At that time, communication was integrated into the criteria on which executive performance is judged. Employees also rate managers annually. Over time, this has provided valuable information on what is important to employees.

Additionally, managers are required to participate in quarterly town hall meetings to provide employees with an opportunity to speak their mind about issues without intermediation.

Through this emphasis on communication and delivering action on commitments, asserted Subramanian, FedEx has created a trustworthy environment.



IABC International Conference – Monday morning sessions

Monday’s program kicks off with Think Tanks at 7:15AM (breakfast not included!) I hope that others are ready to do my share of the thinking – at least until I’ve managed the first couple cups of coffee.I’m hoping to attending John Gerstner’s E-collaboration and online communities session. Gerstner plans to discuss new tools, trends, best practices and solicit feedback for further IABC Foundation research in this area.

Next, it’s off to the morning’s general session, featuring Rajash Subramanian, IABC’s 2006 Excel (Excellence in Communication Leadership) Award Winner.

I’ll dip into employee communications for the final session of Monday morning. Carol Kinsey Goman’s I heard it through the Grapevine promises to examine how informal grapevine communications compare with more formal employee communications.  

Losing a valued colleague: A Peril of Blogging

David JonesDavid Jones is leaving Thornley Fallis. He has been recruited away from us by another firm that wants to upgrade their expertise in social media.

That’s a bummer for Thornley Fallis. David is a good friend and a very smart guy. We will miss him.

Dave, Terry Fallis and I have spent the past year exploring the possibilities of social media. We have learned by doing. We have learned a lot from one another. We have learned by meeting and talking to others who are on the leading edge of developing social media. 

And as we have exchanged views and learned from other practitioners of social media, our own profiles have been raised. We have come to “know” and “be known” to people we have never met in person. This really came home to me when I first approached a fellow blogger at a conference. As I was about to introduce myself, he said, “I know you. I’ve seen your picture on your blog and I read you all the time.” (Nice compliment; totally unexpected)

So, I should not be surprised that another firm has swooped in and made David an offer he could not refuse (It’s all positive; no severed horse heads involved.) In exploring and engaging in social media, David has raised his profile and engaged in conversations with respected bloggers and podcasters like Shel Holtz, Neville Hobson, Joseph Jaffe, Colin McKay and Robert French. He has acquired a positive reputation beyond our traditional geographic area of operation and, in our small world, an element of celebrity.

Our experience defines the new normal for PR practitioners who engage in social media. Every time a consulting firm like Thornley Fallis encourages its employees to share their experiences and smarts through a blog, we increase the likelihood that we will lose those people to other opportunities. David’s not the first blogger to be scooped up by a bigger firm. He follows a path that in the past six months has been well trod by other high profile bloggers like Jeremy Pepper and Steve Rubel.

So, will Thornley Fallis stop encouraging our consulting team to blog and explore social media? Heck no!

We’ll accept that this increased risk is just part of the entry fee to engage in social media. And we’ll understand that it’s better to spend a year learning and exploring with a guy like David Jones than it is to spend a decade of the safe same old, same old practise of techniques we long ago mastered.

For PR consultancies, it’s grow or die. And we must learn to grow. We will learn to deal with this aspect of blogging.

And after all, one of the great things of consulting is that we get to hire or join our friends. And Dave’s a good friend. So, you never know what the future may bring…

Dave, I and all the gang at Thornley Fallis wish you every success at your new gig!