Propaganda’s effect on internal communications

Where does employee engagement become propaganda or indoctrination?

Sometimes the line is blurred: at worst it’s like the difference between a picket fence and a minefield.

In the past, Amazon was in the press for its cheery internal posters with beaming employees proclaiming This is the best job I’ve even had! The campaign w accused, in the Financial Times no less, of masking a grim reality for employees on minimum wage, long-term temporary employment through an agency, unsatisfactory conditions, and a regime without trust.


And does it matter?

Yes. When employees’ experiences are at odds with the promises made to the outside world, they don’t believe the company – and then neither do we.

Thomas J Watson Sr., founder of IBM, wanted to instil pride. But were the signs of his motto Think emblazoned all over the building, apparently even over the gents’ loos, strict regulation short-hair-white-shirt, and a whole book of company songs, too much? To modern ears it sounds like indoctrination.

Then there’s the Orwellian style telling employees – exclusively – what and how to think, cutting out their individual voice. Or worse. Last year, Wells Fargo was found to have opened as many as 2 million accounts without customer knowledge. The culture of getting sales up “at any cost” caused employees to feel pressured, even obligated, to open unwanted accounts just to fit in with the sales culture.

Even positive areas like sustainability and corporate giving can misfire if it’s seen as one-sided or as indoctrination. Propaganda can restrict thinking and innovation, result in disillusion, resistance, reduced productivity and misinformation to customers.

So how can you avoid slipping into propaganda?

  • Don’t stretch the truth, especially with big strategic change. Does it fit with the company’s principles? Is it true? Is it fair?
  • Invite employees more than instructing them, encourage different viewpoints not just the corporate voice.
  • Ensure good employment and management practice is in place, so your engagement is not undermined.
  • Steer clear of phrases like ‘alignment’ that may sound authoritarian, when the implied threat of Gulags.

And don’t make false promises.

Recently someone told me their brand – which stands for great people, teamwork and caring – doesn’t matter for employees. Oh that’s just what we say on the website, they explained. The experience for staff is different.

Hmm, so how’s their performance doing? High turnover of staff, low retention of clients, and little cross-selling between divisions, it seems.

They shouldn’t really be surprised.


[First published in CorpComms magazine.]