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The Future of Reputation is about Building from the Inside Out

The human truth beyond the theory

Jason Frank & Brian Burgess Global Co-leaders, Employee Practice, MSLGROUP

Jason Frank & Brian Burgess
Global Co-leaders, Employee Practice, MSLGROUP

You’ve managed people, and led them – so have we. We don’t need convincing of the impact of ‘employee engagement’ because we experience it firsthand almost every day. Forget the terse business definitions, you can see ‘engagement’ in someone’s eyes, their body language, the things they say; and you can measure it in anything from their attendance record to their sales figures.

These tangible outcomes of ‘employee engagement’ have equally tangible implications for corporate reputations. As shared personal experiences become the dominant currency of reputation, so the shared experiences of employees, and the people they interact with, continue to grow in value.

Brian1Take just one large cross-industry survey from the US (TARP), which suggests that almost 70% of customers who leave a business or brand will do so because of a negative experience with one of their employees – not for a lower price or better product.

In our increasingly knowledge and service-based economies we’re moving quickly from valuing our people’s IQ to their Emotional Quotient (EQ) and now their Social Quotient (SQ).

Success is about ‘how’ we do things, not ‘what’ we do. In that context the things your people say and do define reputations more and more – not least because their words and actions can be amplified across global digital networks of influence in an instant – either by them or someone else.

Unprecedented risk and Opportunity

Brian2From the Goldman Sachs ‘Vampire Squid’ saga on one hand, to the famous smiling service of Pret A Manger fast food staff on the other, it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the growing risk and return that lies in taking employees more and more seriously as builders or destroyers of reputations.

So, what are the implications for all of us? How do we as corporate communicators harness the power of employees to build credible, sustainable reputations, and how do we mitigate against the risks?

Here are five tips to help you ensure that your employees become a force for good in your on-going quest to build and protect reputations in today’s conversation age.

1) Make them part of the plan

Too often we see corporate communications briefs with employees identified as a ‘secondary’ audience, receiving little if any strategic consideration.

Too many opportunities to add greater reach, power and credibility to our communications are being missed by thinking in traditional, largely external broadcast terms.

Whether it’s from a risk mitigation point of view, or a more positive standpoint, we need to move employees up the priority list when devising communications strategies. Dependent on the nature of the challenge any of the following questions can be useful to ask: How would employees react to this? How can they help us by validating this or adding credibility in some way? How can they help us to ensure that the messages reach more people? How could they derail this? It may be that when you ask yourself these questions you draw a blank, but those instances are becoming increasingly rare for our clients.

2) Cross the functional divide

The growing reputational power of the employee is evident in the number of Corporate Communications Directors assuming responsibility for communicating with employees. This makes sense, but it’s incredibly important that Corporate Communicators are in regular conversation with HR and other employee specialists within the organization. The value of working together goes both ways.

HR can provide employee insight and expertise, whilst Corporate Communications can bring their expertise to support the function that has such a profound impact on employee engagement levels.

At the most basic level Corporate and more HR focused employee communications need to be planned in a coherent, joined-up way to avoid contradictions, duplications and wastage. At a more sophisticated level the Corporate Communications Director needs to be fully in tune with the Talent / HR agenda (and vice-versa). It’s essential that Corporate Communications are in tune with the ebbs and flows of employee engagement – whether that’s through formal annual employee surveys or more informal observations and feedback.

The relationship and mutual support between HR and Corporate Communications is more fundamental than ever to the art and science of building and managing reputations. Time spent in making it work is time well invested.

3) Think & embrace networks

As the power of almost every available transmission mechanism for corporate messages wanes, the importance of personal networks and shared experiences continues to grow.

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The reputational mathematics are crude but powerful. Take a global services organization of 160,000 people, typically something like 75,000 people would have left the organization in the last three years. If we take a conservative figure of just twenty relevant people in each of the 235,000 past and present employees’ personal and professional networks, we quickly come to a direct ‘tier’ 1 network figure of 4.7 million.

Moreover, the reality is that many of these people move to the ‘other side of the fence’ and become clients or potential clients.

It’s little wonder that many of the world’s leading services organizations are investing heavily in alumni programs, designed specifically to ‘engage’ former employees, maintain relationships, and build networks.

Above all this is an opportunity. With the right content, education and simple software tools we can massively enhance the reach and credibility of our communications through our employees’ networks.

We’ve seen it first hand through our own experiments with simple social media plans, education and amplification tools – a 140% increase in website traffic in two weeks speaks for itself. We’re now doing it for clients.

4) Unleash the power of content & influence

Almost every single organization we’re working with is grappling with the issue of how they effectively and efficiently source, curate, store and distribute compelling content that will enable them to sustain valuable and meaningful dialogue with their stakeholders.

If organizations can create a culture that empowers people to create content, by making it easy and by rewarding it, the job of corporate communicators will become that much easier. So much time is wasted tracking down great people and their stories.

Imagine having a culture where people were queuing up to share their amazing personal and professional stories with you – adding depth, credibility and emotion to your corporate narrative and messages. If you can go some way towards fostering that sort of culture in a controlled and focused way you’ll become so much more effective and efficient in satisfying the insatiable demand for conversation and content from your audiences.

Every time we work with clients to tap into the vast storytelling power of their employees we’re amazed by what we bring to the surface. If only that could be sustained the practice of corporate reputation building could be transformed.

The second part of this equation is identifying and empowering the real influencers. One of my social media experts sent me a fascinating article just a few days ago. It told the story of a major organization that had recently conducted a social network analysis exercise to identify which employees were most influential – who had the most social ‘Klout’. Unsurprisingly the influencers weren’t at the top of the organization.

The lesson for all of us is that lurking within our organizations are people with huge untapped potential to be really authentic and powerful advocates and influencers. Of course we need to be mindful of not compromising their authenticity, and think very carefully about how we can support their activities, but what an exciting opportunity.

A call to arms

The relationship between employee engagement and corporate reputation is a massive topic and we’ve barely scratched the surface but its importance is clearly on the rise, and the possibilities are largely untapped.

In a world where the corporate voice is falling on deaf ears and where the grip of traditional channels is weakening, the imperative to tap into this massive opportunity is growing every day. Which brings us neatly to step 5:

5) Re-prioritize to reflect the new normal

In virtually every organization expenditure and effort on communicating externally vastly outstrips efforts focused on employees. But all the advertising, glossy films, websites, and corporate spin in the world can’t paper over the cracks of a bad customer experience, or drown out the noise of negativity from employees.

Our learning from experience is simple, and it applies equally to the TV-obsessed Marketing Director as it does to the Corporate Communications Director:

If organizations re-oriented just a small percentage of that external spend and effort to engaging employees with their visions, values, and purpose, then overall reputation building efforts would be more effective and ultimately less costly. And the effects of higher engagement levels will be multiplied if you can really empower your people to share their stories and enthusiasm.

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