Reputation Management, Millennials and Corporate Purpose – Part 2

This article, by Tony Langham, CEO of Lansons, for PRWeek, conflates reputation management, millennials and corporate purpose – three hot topics, each deserving commentary of its own. I started with reputation management – now let’s look at corporate purpose.

Millennials and their older siblings want to understand why a business exists. They want to know its purpose and what it stands for. They want to see corporate citizens that play their part in the community.

Corporate Purpose – Shiny Object Syndrome?

The evidence that genuine purpose improves corporate performance is compelling. The concern is that having a purpose is seen solely as a means of achieving the performance improvement.

Two things:

  • Spending considerable amounts of time and money on identifying a shortlist of purposes for your company – as many do – seems a flawed approach. Either you have a genuine purpose, or you don’t. And if your purpose is making the most amount of widgets at the best price, then so be it
  • Purpose, for many, seems to be inextricably linked with corporate ethics, whereas, to my mind, a purpose might reference an ethical agenda but it doesn’t have to in order to be valid

Employees are not engaged by engagement, and having a corporate purpose does not make your stakeholders purposeful. Creating engagement and purpose amongst your employees and having external stakeholders build a purposeful relationship (one that will be acted on) with you are both functions of many and varied factors – and buying a tailored statement of purpose isn’t one of them.

Having a corporate purpose should not be confused with having positions on diversity, equality and sustainability and being prepared to share them. Nor should it be confused with CSR programmes. These are simply ethical behaviours. While I am not wholly convinced that ‘people, planet, profit’ is the correct order of things, they are the things that matter, regardless of whether you have a statement of purpose or not.

Purpose, Mission, Vision – What’s The Difference?

Assuming the role of interested layperson, it is easy to search for ‘purpose’ in connection with some of the world’s best known corporates – Google, for example, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tesla, Starbucks and Coca-Cola.

And the interested layperson finds that, amongst the missions and the visions, there are very few mentions of purpose. Facebook has an updated purpose, but this is also reported as being a mission and a goal. IBM ‘translates company purpose through (three) values’. (And uses ‘mission’ and ‘purpose’ in the same sentence to describe the same thing.)

Having a credible vision, mission, and set of values is important. They are three of the many and varied factors that lead to engaged and purposeful employees. To the outside world, not so much. External stakeholders shouldn’t have to be told what your values are – they should be able to deduce what they are through corporate behaviour. That is, of course, if they actually care.

It says something about the concept of purpose, however, that some of the world’s largest companies seem to be simply re-working – or re-labelling – their missions, or their goals, or their values in order to tick the purpose box.

Purposely Distracting

Needless to say, this approach delivers a hotch-potch of styles, approaches and themes – from the sales-driven (Apple, Amazon) through the product-led (Tesla, Starbucks) to the almost hopelessly idealistic (Coca-Cola, Google).

To misquote Alec Guinness, these are not the purposes that stakeholders are looking for. (If indeed they are looking at all.) At best, they have been designed by committee (you can see this in Apple’s 2017 mission statement compared to Mr Jobs’s original and personal ethos) at worst, you might be forgiven for thinking that they’re an attempt to distract from what the company – or its leadership – is really doing.

In terms of facilitating understanding of why a business exists, its purpose and what it stands for, they are not up to the task. They are complex and lack authenticity. Arguably, these companies would be better off without, and letting their corporate behaviour speak for them. Supposing, of course, they trust it to do so.

Reputation Management, Millennials and Corporate Purpose – Part 1

This article, by Tony Langham, CEO of Lansons, for PRWeek, conflates reputation management, millennials and corporate purpose – three hot topics, each deserving commentary of its own. Let’s start with reputation management.

Reputation Management – What Does It Actually Mean?

Reputation management is seen as a synonym for crisis and issues management and risk mitigation. There are at least two obvious reasons for this. The first is that ‘reputation management’ -as descriptor for what we, as communications professionals, do – simply isn’t very clear.

That’s not to say that ‘public relations’, or ‘corporate communication’, are much better, but one cannot help but thinking that the industry came up with ‘reputation management’ to make itself sound more weighty, more serious and more deserving of a seat at the top table.

‘Public relations’ has the merit of doing what it says on the tin, and being easily explained in one or two sentences. Likewise ‘corporate communication’. The downside, stating the obvious, is that ‘public relations’ suffers from a longstanding image problem. That image problem is not going be solved by changing the discipline’s name, however – particularly if the new name is ambiguous.

‘Public relations’ and ‘corporate communication’, as labels, still work well. High quality, effective, measurable work should address the image problem.

Institutionalised Communication

Reputation management does take in crisis management and risk mitigation, of course, but they are not prime directives. The prime directive is, as it always has been, getting out there and making opportunities to tell your story in ways that will connect with your target audiences, so as to build a positive, beneficial and measurable relationship with them.

Another reason, then, why reputation management is becoming aligned with the lawyers and the accountants, is that the prime directive is being suppressed. Communication has been institutionalised. Reactive communication has become the best communication. (Arguably, in some areas, ’twas always thus and it should not be forgotten that the reputation managers of today were often the corporate affairs advisers and capital markets communicators of yesterday.)

I have two examples of this, one first, and one second, hand. In both companies – no names, no pack drill, but both recent – communication (corporate affairs, reputation management – what you will) was almost wholly reactive. In both cases, I took this to be a function of the industry sector (finance, since you ask), naturally conservative and risk-averse. I now think I was wrong – it’s a general malaise.

The core function of the communicator is to champion active communication strategies, that use all the tools available, to communicate the corporate personality and proposition. And that means creativity and persuasion – having the ideas and getting the approvals necessary to make them happen.

Is There Value in Purpose?

Which brings us neatly to this video which dates from January 2018. A good example of corporate creativity, of personality and proposition and – one can but imagine – a certain amount of persuasion to get it over the line.

Obviously, it’s fraught with risk – it’s an overt statement of what the company stands for, which it now has to stand by, forever, and, let’s face it, someone’s going to be offended by it. But it appears to be authentic, a real statement of what Sodastream is.

Refreshingly, it’s not a ‘purpose’, requested by the board, designed by committee and handed off to the communicators with a brief to ensure everyone knows what it is. But more of that anon.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss – corporate purpose and employee engagement

Well, that’s a relief. Appears that engagement, as the raison d’etre for internal communication, is falling out of favour.

Turns out that people are beginning to recognise that the measurement of employee engagement (expensive yearly staff surveys) and actual employee engagement are not the same thing.

This piece from IC Kollectif in Montreal doesn’t quite say that, but it is a good read and makes excellent points. https://www.ickollectif.com/single-post/Breaking-The-Rule-Of-Engagement-New-Opportunities-For-Internal-Communication

Back to basics for Internal Communication

So IC professionals can get back to what they should be doing. Supporting the company’s business efforts by ensuring that all employees are fully informed about the business, its plans, strategies and values, the roles that they play, how they are expected to play them, and how they will be supported in so doing.

In other words, engaging the employee through the promotion of knowledge and understanding.

This, then, makes interesting reading – credit to Rachel Miller at allthingsIC, and The Big Yak, an IC unconference – great name, great concept – held on June 9 in London, www.thebigyak.co.uk. It’s the list of agenda topics.

Lot of old friends on this list – lot of perennial issues. Always good to see them still front and centre and being considered seriously. Personal faves would include CEO communication, getting exec buy-in, making managers communicators, and that old doughnut, communication strategy.

Nota bene, however, nowhere on this agenda is there mention of ‘engagement’. (OK, there is once, but I take it to mean ‘involvement’.)

Is ‘Purpose’ the new ‘Engagement’?

But sadly, as the rot of engagement is cut out, so begins the insidious rising damp of purpose. Even within the excellent Big Yak agenda, there it is – ‘connecting people to purpose’.

And the rise of purpose communication will not be – is not – confined to the internal communication discipline. This will affect – is affecting – communicators across the board.

This piece in the London Business School review makes both fascinating and terrifying reading – https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/lbsr/li-four-principles-translating-purpose-into-practice?platform=hootsuite.

It’s fascinating because the evidence that genuine purpose improves corporate performance is extremely compelling. It’s terrifying, because that’s what they said about employee engagement. As The Who said – meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

I worked with a company, not so long ago, for which the very measurement of employee engagement was the engagement itself. It was all about the scores and how the scores were communicated. It was also a company searching for a purpose – significant amounts of money were being spent with external agencies to identify and refine a shortlist of purposes, one of which would eventually be selected to be the corporate purpose.

Two things strike me as wrong here.

  • Purpose, for many, seems to be inextricably linked with sustainability, whereas, to my mind, a purpose might reference a sustainability agenda but it doesn’t have to in order to be valid
  • Spending considerable amounts of time and money on identifying a shortlist of purposes for your company seems a flawed approach. Either you have a purpose, or you don’t. And if your purpose is making the most amount of widgets at the best price, then so be it

What also strikes me is that purpose is the new shiny object on the block. Everyone claims to want a purpose, when they really want the performance uptick that accrues to companies with a purpose.

So the ExComm decides on a purpose for the company and hands it off to the communicators – the new Director of Communications and Purpose – with a brief to drop everything and ensure all stakeholders know what the purpose is, and why. Then measure awareness of, and adherence to, the tenets of the purpose. Because, obviously, the measurement of the thing is, as we know, the exact same as the thing itself.

But at least this solves the question of what’s happening to the budget that will be freed up when you stop doing the employee engagement survey……

Right Messages + Right Spokesperson = Audience Engagement

So let’s talk a bit about messaging and spokespeople and audience engagement.

A recent commercial radio news bulletin, here in the Emerald City, concerning the renewal of a corporate sponsorship of a leading entertainment venue.

An opportunity, with the right messages and delivery, to enhance the general perception of a company, and get people on board.

Include detail, avoid buzzwords

The spokesperson talked about transforming the sponsored building into a ‘smart venue’. This may well be a thing, and it may well be something that can be delivered – but without any explanation, it’s a lost opportunity to connect with the audience. Then there was ‘improving customer experience’. Without specifics, why should anyone care?

It is too easy to substitute a shorthand term for the real message. ‘Smart venue’, when we mean a building that can tell you where things are, tell you how long the queue for the ladies’ loo is and allow you to pre-order two hot dogs and four pints via an app on your smartphone. ‘Improving customer experience’ when we mean discounted gig tickets, a chance to meet the band and 4G in the mosh pit.

Messages are the detail that gets people interested, draws them in, makes them want to be involved. In this case, however, both key points sounded like buzzwords from an approved list, drawn up because research shows they’re what the customer wants to hear.

Suitable spokespeople, not senior spokespeople

The spokesperson had clearly been briefed, and did a workpersonlike job, but sounded uncomfortable and didn’t have the detail that would make the story live. Agreeing a spokesperson is not easy – often simple seniority carries the day.

An alternative approach is to establish a panel of ‘subject matter experts’ who take the spokesperson role when it’s their area.

Another is to spread the responsibility – get agreement that a handful of senior people should alternate as spokesperson, thus limiting the exposure of any one in particular.

And there’s selection of opportunity – the less able spokesperson gets the less pivotal gigs.

Training to tell stories

In the real world, of course, this doesn’t always work. The media want to speak with the CEO, and no-one else will cut it. Or maybe the news story is about a ground-breaking use of technology and only the CTO will do.

Which is where, of course, the message and the spokesperson should be managed in tandem.

Messages are not buzzwords, and a spokesperson is not someone reading buzzwords off a script. Training and rehearsal – above and beyond a simple ‘briefing’ – help the spokesperson to build their own story around the messages.

Telling a story that they’re comfortable with not only brings the message to life, but allows the spokesperson to be genuine in their delivery.

It’s the combination of interesting detail and genuine delivery, by someone who’s comfortable with the material, that creates audience connection and propensity to engage.

In-House Communication – A Business Essential, Not Priced By The Yard

Recently, I came across – not for the first time – the idea of creating a ‘rate card’ for in-house communications activity. Simply put, this is the concept of putting a cost on the team’s time, and on the activity the team carries out. While (normally) the charge would not be passed on to your internal customers, it shows what the service would cost, if  it were. The slide below lists the potential benefits.

(NB I apologise unreservedly to comms2point0, who created the slide. I encountered it via Twitter, and haven’t seen it presented. I do not believe it’s quite the same as I’ve described above – I think it’s a thought experiment, aimed at demonstrating the value of the in-house communication function, to those working within the function itself and amongst its internal customers and stakeholders. I have to acknowledge that – as I have no experience of how things are done in the public sector – the idea may work very well in that context.)

In the cyclical and budget-constrained world of in-house communication, where, I am afraid, there are turf wars and land grabs, creating an agency in-house is a genuinely risky course of action.

I understand what drives this thinking. Very often, the in-house communication function is (or appears to be) undervalued and thus is under-utilised (or utilised in the wrong way) and inevitably under-funded. No matter how often it tells its story or sets out its stall, at other teams’ meetings, through its own channels and tools, or on a one-to-one, it’s an uphill struggle.

Little or no value is attributed to in-house communication (exceptions may be found at C-Suite and ExComm levels) and no-one wants to engage with it – unless they have a specific story to tell, or the organisation is in crisis. Even then, many senior managers will enrol external communication advisers, apparently based on the premise that if you pay for it, then it’s worth more.

So the temptation is to put a cost on the work that’s being done in-house. Not to actually charge anybody, but to demonstrate the value. The problem is that, once done, it’s open to attack. Marketing will say that their agency can do it cheaper. Procurement will get involved in buying print and video. Continuous improvement will demonstrate how processes can be streamlined to require less manpower. Finance will question the numbers. Finance always question the numbers. And then cut the budget.

It doesn’t work. It’s like trying to assess the value in a painting by pricing up the paint, brushes, canvas and frame. Someone can always get the materials cheaper – but what they can’t buy is the knowledge of how to put them together.

The value in in-house communication lies in its strategic approach, bound to the strategy of the organisation. It’s in the team’s depth of knowledge of the business. It’s in its role as a trusted advisor. It’s in its network of contacts throughout the body corporate, and the intuitive way it helps the body function. It’s in its appreciation of business and organisational imperatives, and its understanding of how best to serve them.

No other function does this. It is invaluable – you can’t put a price on any of it.

Corporate Reputation – No Place for Newspeak

Corporate reputation is not enhanced by the continuing trend for elitist and alternative job titles, and neither are levels of employee engagement (or motivation or trust – whatever you care to call it).  Guru or ninja, black belt or master, ‘innovation sherpa’, ‘fashion evangelist’ or ‘digital prophet’ (yes, really) these titles muddy the waters instead of clarifying them, close doors instead of opening them and make it more difficult for the outside world to relate to the company or organisation in question.

In the same way, internal or external audience opinion of, or reaction to, a company or product cannot be improved by simply changing the way things are described. A recent BBC article, entitled ‘Why d0 some companies ban certain words?’, provided the quite brilliant example of  Davio’s, a chain of steakhouses in the US, where the CEO has banned the word ’employee’ and replaced it with ‘inner guest’.

I learnt that companies like Apple and General Motors have taken action with employees to avoid the use of words that might be perceived as ‘negative’ – like ‘bug’ and ‘crash, ‘defect’ and ‘flawed’ and – terrifyingly enough, ‘death-trap’.

Clearly banning the use of ‘death-trap’ if your employees were actually using it to describe your products is not going to solve the problem, mitigate against reputational damage, or assist in dealing with the crisis that’s bound to ensue.

As an aside, it is exactly in a crisis situation, however, where a possible exception to this can be found.  In a crisis situation, avoiding – and providing alternatives to – emotive and dramatic language can help prevent the escalation of an issue (particularly in media terms), the results of which will help no-one. Still, it is a difficult road to tread, and the approach must be dictated by the nature and scale of the issue.

In the cases cited above, however, a company has attempted to do away with everyday issues faced by customers by changing the names of the issues. And it’s not like the customer isn’t going to spot it – and when they do, they will feel patronised, undervalued and taken for granted. The effect on your employees is going to be similar. Telling people how to communicate (including banning of words), strange new job titles – they’re going to feel talked-down-to, they’re going to feel out-of-touch and they’re going to be disengaged.

The issue is threefold. First off, it’s not authentic. Second, it’s not transparent (in the sense that something is clearly being avoided). Third – and maybe most important – it’s slightly ridiculous.

Like most things in communication, let common sense prevail. If you’ve got a bug, call it a bug and offer a solution. If it’s crashed, repair it. If there’s a defect, then it’s a defect – so fix it or replace it. If you’re building deathtraps, stop it immediately, before you’re in a position where you have explain why you did. And don’t worry about what you call your employees – find ways to involve and reward them, and always keep them informed.

Be honest, be upfront, tell it like it is. Trust and belief enhance corporate reputation and deliver an engaged workforce.

Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)