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Last week, the president of PayPal sent an emotional memo to his team in San Jose, urging them to be more passionate or find new jobs. The very next day, that memo was leaked to the media, and so began a rather heated public debate about corporate leadership and the culture of intimidation.
Some defended David Marcus’ message to his team, applauding his fervor. Others were outraged by the aggressive tone of the memo and vowed never to use PayPal again. It may not have been Marcus’ intention to start a public conversation about corporate leadership or the value of PayPal’s mobile product, but it happened anyway.
Late last year, AOL chief Tim Armstrong fired a creative director during a conference call for taking photos during the meeting. That same evening, a recording of the eruption made its way around the web. (If you haven’t heard the call, it’s a doozy.) Armstrong later apologized to staff for the outburst through an internal memo that was, of course, also leaked to the press.
Both situations involved similar elements: unchecked emotions from very visible corporate leaders, communications that should have been internal but did not stay that way, and unintended public conversations about corporate culture, psychopathy in CEOs, and, perhaps most important, the value of each brand’s products.
Would either of these leaders have chosen a different approach if they were delivering the very same messages at a press conference?
Western society is blasted with advertisements at every turn, which means companies have to think more about how to stand out. Values are often an effective differentiator, and when our budgets allow it, we pay for services and buy products because of how they make us feel.
Millennials are even more demanding — as customers, they insist that businesses strive to do the right thing for consumers, the environment, and employees. They care whether the company culture sucks, and their beliefs seem destined to become more of a force in the marketplace, not less of one.
The wrong memo leaked at the wrong time may not kill a company today, but like trust, brand loyalty is hard to win and easy to lose. Corporate leaders should be prepared, and that means thinking a lot more about how and when to communicate with employees, because the days of “internal only” are over.
There Is No More “Internal Communication”
There was never a time when corporations’ juicy internal communiques couldn’t be leaked to the press, but it’s a lot easier today than it was 20 years ago. Smartphones make snapping photos and recording calls virtually effortless; forwarding an email is an even simpler task. When an executive sends an exasperated email to the entire company or says something cringe-worthy on a department-wide conference call, sheer numbers protect the leaker’s anonymity. It’s easier and safer than ever to leak internal messages to the press.
It’s also easier than ever for the public to weigh in when these stories break. The advent of citizen journalists and the social web have created an environment where the public can actively engage in brand shaming — and it often does. Harshly.
Suddenly, the email that was supposed to inspire employees is riling up prospects and customers instead. Executives are tweeting that their words were taken out of context. The public relations department is forced to do damage control. Crisis management consultants are rejoicing.
There is a better way to do internal messaging. Pretend it’s not internal at all. And when it’s time to fire someone or to deliver an aggressive ultimatum, consider doing it the old fashioned way: as a heart to heart.
Christina Trapolino is director of marketing & PR at TravelShark in Austin, Texas. She has been working to build, brand, and nurture digital communities for over 10 years. Cofounding her first startup as a teenager aroused a lifelong passion for entrepreneurial endeavours, and her deep commitment to ethical and efficient digital branding strategies has made Christina an integral member of several startup advisory boards in Austin. You can find her on Google+.