A trend hard for bosses to 'like'

Air Canada learned the hard way how social media can disrupt negotiations.

There is a warning to corporate Canada in the recent collective bargaining challenges Air Canada has faced. Social media is fuelling a fundamental shift in labour relations and corporate communications, and is showing it can do more than just complicate negotiations—it can affect control of major business announcements like divestments, layoffs, mergers and acquisitions.

This fall, a Facebook page gave thousands of Air Canada employees a forum to share with each other their dissatisfaction over their union leaders’ negotiations, badly disrupting the collective bargaining process. Though technically “private,” the page was permeable enough to journalists, and likely to other outsiders. Forums like this one disrupt the communication barriers that have traditionally facilitated private corporate negotiation, and make it easier to challenge leadership and organize dissent.

Facebook and Twitter now provide a direct line between staff speculation and the outside world. They’re a window into a company for financial analysts and other interested parties, and a headache for PR pros, investment relations professionals and legal counsel trying to control sensitive information. The internal announcement is the external announcement in the case of most public companies—but that’s increasingly true for private companies as well.

So businesses need to improve the quality and authenticity of their internal communication. Employees will better accept restrictions on sensitive information if they respect the need for it, and transparency and information exchange are key to establishing that respect.

Couple that with a “united we stand, divided we fall” message. Employees want good jobs in healthy companies; explaining—in an inclusive manner—how public social engagement can threaten success will help bring employees onside.

Accepting less control—or, perhaps, altering the perception and meaning of control—is difficult, but necessary. Social media “spillage” exists, and corporate communicators need to anticipate this new reality to set realistic expectations for all involved. The good news? Improved internal communications inevitably make for a healthier business.

Denise Brunsdon is a director of social media, GCI Canada