The Gatehouse Blog

How social media provided a path to humanitarianism

Sarah Robinson of Shell describes how a platform allowed employees to have open conversations about a new innovation, enabling the organisation to listen in and respond to both employee and customer concerns.

When Shell had introduced an innovative mobile app to be used to pay for petrol without going inside of the station, there was some concern around the safety aspect of using a mobile phone on the forecourt.

Rather than shy away from the few negative comments, we decided not only to face them head on, but to encourage concerns to be voiced and feedback to be heard. We wanted to learn all about people’s hesitations with the innovation so we could address them directly.

Success and the inevitable struggle

John Lloyd is a TV and radio producer as well as a writer.

One of his first shows was ‘The News Quiz’ on Radio 4. He co-wrote a number of radio scripts for ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, produced ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and all four series of ‘Blackadder’, and created ‘Spitting Image’.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also created ‘Have I Got News For You’ and co-produced the quiz show ‘QI’.

WOW. That is a huge body of successful work.

When a presenter once asked him if any of this had been a struggle, he replied that obviously it had. Behind this amazing catalogue of work were fallouts, multiple sackings and missed opportunities. He became depressed, wondering why he was always starting great projects, then getting red from them by the people he worked with and respected.

Until he came to realise that what seemed like disaster each time was actually opportunity in disguise.

Shying away from open discussions

We’ve all heard stories about how there is no success without failure and about how companies have turned failure into successes. Remember the one about 3M whose failed adhesive became the key ingredient in the Post-it note?

So why do most companies shy away from talking about every day mistakes in their internal channels? I am often being asked to write internal articles featuring ‘Best Practice’ but every time I put out a call for examples of where things have gone wrong so we can share what people learnt, I have to dodge the tumbleweed rolling across the o ce. It is often the same when I suggest that we tackle known internal issues head on. Leaders and managers would rather ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. The trouble is, they are rarely sleeping.

This is one of the reasons why I love our internal news channel’s comment feature. At the bottom of every article published on ‘My News’ readers can post a comment. Often they are words of agreement, sometimes they are opinions and occasionally they are direct challenges.

Addressing concerns to provide a platform for discussion

Last year, our Shell Retail Network in the UK piloted a mobile app. called ‘Fill Up & Go’. A number of test stations would allow pilot users to fill up their tanks, then, from inside their vehicles, use the app to pay for their fuel. I wrote an article about it which picked up on research about changing customer demands.

We found that it generated a lot of comments, some voicing their support of the move into mobile channels but others voicing their concerns over the safety aspects of using a mobile phone on the forecourt (you’ve probably all driven up to a petrol pump that has a sign telling you not to use your mobile phone).

I knew that if people were commenting on the article online, it was a sure bet that others were thinking the same thing. I suggested that we should write an article directly addressing the safety concerns. My argument was that this would allow us to get on the front foot in demonstrating to employees how we had taken all the relevant safety considerations into account whilst also being at the forefront of meeting changing customer demands. Plus, doing nothing wouldn’t mean that no one would talk about it. There is no such thing as a vacuum – the grapevine will fill any gap in communication.

Even I was surprised at the discussion it generated, a lot of it very positive. What was interesting was the way that employees moderated the discussion themselves, posting their own answers to comments in direct challenge of the mobile payment system and even quoting external safety research in support of it. They corrected each other, challenged each other and entered into a healthy debate. Just as they would have done if they had been discussing it while waiting for their coffee. Only this way, we could see the conversations that were taking place.

The project team found it incredibly useful and it helped them shape the ongoing roll-out communications.

Conversations will drive success

What I learnt through this was that human nature is human nature. Employees will always find ways to talk about things going on inside their company, whether it is round the coffee machine, over the photocopier or by posting comments online. As internal communicators, I believe it is part of our job to tune into these conversations and even encourage them.

As Dik Veenman and David Cannon said in The Strategic Importance of Conversations, “Businesses, in fact, run on conversations. And really understanding what is going on inside an organisation requires leaders to be able to tap into these conversations.” P.S. For anyone wondering about how safe it is to use your mobile phone to pay at the pump, it is safe to use a mobile phone from inside your car on a forecourt, but not outside the vehicle. Once you’ve activated the pump at a Shell Station, you should leave your phone in the car.

BIOGRAPHY – Sarah Robinson

Sarah Robinson is an Internal Communication Manager at Shell.
With over 20 years’ img_3569experience in communications across various organisations, she has spent the last 10 years in the oil and gas industry.