by Vibeke Thøis Madsen, PhD, MA
Senior Associate Professor in Strategic Communication
DMJX Danmarks Medie- og Journalisthøjskole
Employees are increasingly visible as communicators. They represent, promote and defend their organization on external social media, they scout for information and build relationships externally and internally, they come up with ideas, share knowledge and make sense of organizational cues (Madsen and Verhoeven, 2018; Verhoeven and Madsen, 2022). In this respect, Madsen and Verhoeven have found that they fulfill at least eight communication roles in organizational contexts.
This focus on employees as communicators has been emphasized in public relations for more than a decade. Heide and Simonsson (2011) turned the spotlight on coworkers and their importance as active communicators in relation to their manager, colleagues and employer especially in post bureaucratic organization, and how their communication from a CCO perspective (Ashcraft, Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009; Putnam & Nicotera, 2009) construct the organization. Their argument was that this realization changed the role of communication professionals in organizational contexts turning the focus from producing to facilitating communication.
At the same time, Frandsen and Johansen (2011) emphasized that employees were different from other organizational stakeholders both in everyday life and in crisis situations. They are far from a homogenous group, but they share some common elements that distinguishes them from other stakeholders in terms of their relationship with their employer, their stakes, the identity and the degree of identification with the organization and their role as both receivers and senders of internal (crisis) communication. Again, they draw the attention to employees as active communicators.
Employees have always represented their organizations but with social media their communication has become more visible. Organizations are aware of their importance as communicators, and employees increasingly perceive communication on social media as part of their work roles (Andersson, 2019; Pekkala and van Zoonen, 2023). At the same time employees are also visible as communicators on interne social media where they share knowledge, solve problems and discuss organizational paradoxes (Madsen, 2020; 2022).
This tangible web of communication on internal and external social media helps us understand how communication constructs organizations (CCO) or as Francois Cooren (2004) phrase it the constant shift and interaction between text and conversation. In his terminology texts are the accepted consensus or understandings in an organization, while conversation is the discussion of these texts which might develop into new texts about what the organization is. You can argue that when employees start to communicate on internal and external social media, they increasingly become the authors of the organization. They create or construct the organization as they speak. They might repeat the current perception of the organization (the text), but they are just as likely to alter and change the understanding a bit when they talk about the organization in their own words. In other words, rather than to speak with one voice, organizations increasingly speak with a plurality of voices.
All of this leads me to argue that coworker communication is a valuable glue that constructs organizations, and that we need a better understanding of communicative coworkership, recently defined as “an abstraction of the various communication roles performed by a coworker in interactions with managers, colleagues, and external stakeholders and that has important implications for organizing, and in extension for the performance of the organization as a whole” (Andersson, 2022, p. 463).
At the same time, we also need to be cautious that this knowledge is not just used to harvest the benefits of coworker communication for organizational and commercial purposes, and that communication professionals constantly evaluate the ethical aspects of using employees as communicators. What is part of the job contract and what is not? And it is not better that the employees enter into different communication roles voluntary and because that they wish to rather that to be forced?
Andersson, R. (2019). Employee communication responsibility: its antecedents and implications for strategic communication management. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 13(1), 60-75.
Andersson, R. (2022). Communicative coworkership. In (Eds.) Falkheimer, J. & Heide, M. Research Handbook on Strategic Communication. Edward Elgar Publishing, 460-474.
Ashcraft, K. L., Kuhn, T. R., & Cooren, F. (2009). Constitutional amendments: “Materializing” organizational communication. Academy of Management annals, 3(1), 1-64.
Cooren, F. (2004). Textual agency: How texts do things in organizational settings. Organization, 11(3), 373-393.
Frandsen, F., & Johansen, W. (2011). The study of internal crisis communication: towards an integrative framework. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 16(4), 347-361.
Heide, M., & Simonsson, C. (2011). Putting coworkers in the limelight: New challenges for communication professionals. International journal of strategic communication, 5(4), 201-220.
Madsen, V. T. (2020). Communicative Leadership on Internal Social Media: A Way to Employee Engagement?. In Joy (Vol. 5, pp. 93-114). Emerald Publishing Limited.
Madsen, V.T. (2022). Internal social media: a promise of participatory communication and organizational transparency. In (Eds.) Falkheimer, J. & Heide, M. Research Handbook on Strategic Communication. Edward Elgar Publishing, 431-444
Madsen, V. T., & Verhoeven, J. W. (2019). The big idea of employees as strategic communicators in public relation. In Big ideas in public relations research and practice (pp. 143-162). Emerald Publishing Limited.
Pekkala, K., & van Zoonen, W. (2023). Work‐related social media use and the shaping of communicative role perceptions. European Management Review.
Putnam, L. L., & Nicotera, A. M. (Eds.). (2009). Building theories of organization: The constitutive role of communication. Routledge.
Verhoeven, J. W. M., & Madsen, V. T. (2022). Active employee communication roles in organizations: A framework for understanding and discussing communication role expectations. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 16(1), 91-110.
Photo credit: Christian Falck Wolff