Internal social media (ISM), also referred to as enterprise social media, serve as critical communication channels for employees to share information and build internal relationships across organizational departments and geographical locations (Madsen & Verhoeven, 2016). Drawing upon previous research on social media and enterprise social media, Madsen (2017) defined internal social media (ISM) as “a user-friendly and visible web-based communication arena” in which employees can communicate to make sense of their organizational life (p. 3). The visibility that employees can achieve through the appearance of their names, pictures and comments on ISM has drastically changed social interactions within organizations. Previous research has examined a wide range of topics on ISM, such as how the adoption of internal social media contributes to increased multi-directional communication, workplace productivity, organizational collaboration, information sharing, employee engagement and decentralized organizational power structure. Public relations scholars have examined ISM as an emerging trend in internal communication. For instance, Neill and Lee (2016) conceptualized seven distinct roles and specified specific responsibilities associated with managing social media in public relations. ISM can help socialize new employees, increase employees’ knowledge of an organization’s culture and enhance affective commitment to their employers (Gonzalez, Leidner, Riemenschneider, & Koch, 2013). Despite the increasing attention that public relations scholars and practitioners have paid to ISM, little research ever examined internal social media from an integrated marketing communication (IMC) perspective. For instance, which department(s) oversee(s) the ISM function within an organization? How does ISM management work with other organizational functions to accomplish organizational goals? How can an organization best manage its internal social media to achieve employee engagement in ISM? How does an organization expect its employees to use ISM in conjunction with external platforms to communicate on behalf of their employers?
These are important questions for practitioners and researchers to think about. Despite the scarcity of the body of literature to address these issues, researchers have investigated the challenges of introducing ISM within organizations. Some key arguments/conclusions include:
- Organizational culture and management style significantly influence employees’ use of ISM (Baptista & Galliers, 2012).
- Cultivating a trusting and supportive organizational environment is essential to encouraging employee participation in ISM. Employees need to understand why and how they can get involved (Denyer, Parry & Flowers, 2011).
- Top management’s commitment and direct involvement is correlated with successful ISM management and high employee morale (Trimi & Galanxhi, 2014).
- An unsupportive organizational culture gives rise to disengaged employees and organizational silos (Chin et al., 2015).
- Key challenges of managing ISM may include ISM communication perceived as “not work related”; the informal nature of ISM communication may be misunderstood by employees; “self-censorship”; and “not-in-action” top management’s support to ISM management (see Madsen, 2017, p. 2).
- ISM is overseen by various personnel and departments (Madsen, 2017).
To examine ISM from an IMC perspective and add to the existing body of literature on social media and employee engagement, we conducted in-depth interviews with 28 internal and social media communication executives representing 26 employers in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Key findings of our study indicated that many companies and organizations have been using ISM to communicate with their employees. The ISM function of the 26 studied organizations reported to an integrated organizational function such as marketing and corporate communications. ISM was managed at the same level as other primary communication functions such as internal communication, media relations, and financial communication/investor relations. Having a senior executive from marketing or corporate communication to oversee ISM seems to be one of the best ways to achieve IMC goals and reduce functional silos to the best organizations can. ISM platforms should focus on coordinating all internal communication messages and ensure consistency across platforms. At the same time, ISM should involve cross-functional coordination and collaboration with marketing, internal communication, advertising and other departments.
Despite all the positive/encouraging findings, our participants admitted that functional silos still exist—in many organizations, ISM still reports to marketing communication or corporate communication, and the strategy side of the social very often “lives on the marketing side.” The communication executives pointed out the importance of keeping employees informed about organizational happenings via ISM and motivating them to become their employers’ ambassadors on external social media platforms. This is how the integration between internal and external communication should take place—organizational messaging must be consistent across all internal and external channels. Self-censorship did prevent some employees from actively communicating on both internal and external social media platforms. Cultivating a nurturing and supportive organizational culture may boost employee engagement. Employees’ identification and internalization of the organizations’ values fundamentally guides their communicative action on social media. Social media training definitely should be in place to keep employees knowledgeable about their organizations’ social media policies and regulations. Our participants also identified key barriers to the adoption of ISM—the type of industry, funding, leadership support and more.
Here are some practical takeaways for ISM and employee communication managers to achieve successful social media management and integrate into an organization’s strategic IMC planning and execution:
- Internal social media (ISM) should report to a senior communication executive (i.e., a CCO or CMO, or a VP of communication or marketing) and be managed at the same level as other communication-related organizational functions.
- The key components of ISM that are integral to an organization’s IMC programs are two-fold: (1) consistent messaging across platforms and (2) an organizational function in true collaboration with other functions to coordinate an organization’s communication efforts.
- Employees should become active brand ambassadors on both internal and external social media—integrating internal and external social media and filling any existing information gaps for their employers.
- Social media training is a must. Both orientation and ongoing training programs are essential.
- Leadership support is key to everything, from employee engagement, active social media communicative action, to an organization’s long-term IMC and business success.
Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an associate professor in Department of Public Relations, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Follow her on Twitter @HuaJiangSu.
Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University. Follow her on Twitter @neillpr.
Baptista, J., & Galliers, R. D. (2012). Social media as a driver for new rhetorical practices in organizations. 45th Hawaii International Conference on System Science (HICSS), pp. 3540-3549.
Chin, C. P. Y., Evans, N., Choo, R. K. K., & Tan, F. B. (2015). What influences employees to use enterprise social networks? A socio-technical perspective. Proceedings on PACIS, Singapore, July 6-9, p. 54.
Denyer, D., Parry, E., & Flowers, P. (2011). ‘Social,’ ‘open’ and ‘participative?’ Exploring personal experiences and organisational effects of enterprise 2.0 use. Long Range Planning, 44(5), 375-396.
Gonzalez, E. S., Leidner, D. E., Riemenschneider, C., & Koch, H. (2013). The impact of internal social media usage on organizational socialization and commitment. Paper presented at the 34th International Conference on Information Systems, Milan, Italy.
Jiang, H., & Neill, M. (August, 2017). An examination of social media from an integrated marketing communication (IMC) perspective in global & regional organizations. Paper to be presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Chicago, IL.
Lee, J., Jares, S. M., & Heath, R. L. (1999). Decision-making encroachment and cooperative relationships between public relations and legal counselors in the management of organizational crisis. Journal of Public Relations Research, 11(3), 243-270.
Madsen, V. T. (2017). The challenges of introducing internal social media – the coordinators’ roles and perceptions. Journal of Communication Management, 21(1), 2-16.
Madsen, V. T., & Verhoeven, J. W. M. (2016). Self-censorship on internal social media: A case study of coworker communication behavior in a Danish bank. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 10(5), 387-409.
Neill, M. S., & Lee, N. (Summer/Fall 2016). Roles in social media: How the practice of public relations is evolving. Public Relations Journal, 10(2).
Trimi, S., & Galanxhi, H. (2014). The impact of enterprise 2.0 in organizations. Service Business, 8(3), 405-424.