Opinion: When companies have no walls, strong brands are built inside out

Paul Mottram, Text 100's APAC managing director of integrated strategy, says building strong ties within a brand is just as important as connecting with its consumers

Paul Mottram
Paul Mottram

Conventional internal communications are based on the notion that what happens in the organisation stays in the organisation. But whether high level corporate whistle-blowing or recreational complaining, when every employee has a smartphone, any private detail can become public, instantly and globally, any time.

Organisations rightfully worry about the risks inherent in a business with walls that are permeable at best, but they often overlook the huge potential for positive brand-building and word-of-mouth when employees are freed and empowered to become the ambassadors for the brand.

To harness that potential, the internal communications function needs to be reassessed in the light of some profound changes that have taken place in the way employees feel about their firms, and their willingness to share that with the world at large. In fact, there are six key trends that are re-shaping organisations and the way they communicate with their people that every business should be aware of.

1) Purpose is the new motivator

A sense of purpose has become the new prime motivator for millennial employees. According to one recent report, 94 percent of millennials say it’s very or somewhat important for their company to have a defined purpose.

Similar research reveals that 77 percent of "super-connected" millennials say that their company’s purpose was part of the reason they chose to work there. In this environment, window-dressing CSR programmes are unlikely to cut it.

Brands need to clearly articulate not only what they do but why they do it to motivate and convince. The bonus is that there is growing recognition that focusing on the "why" not the "what" motivates and convinces the outside world too.

2) Align internal & external

It’s long been self-evident that employees believe what’s said about their firm in the media more than what the organisation says about itself in internal communications. The credibility of external media – even when less well-informed than purely internal sources – is hard if not impossible to match.

Today, when social media provides an almost limitless platform for rumours, half-truths and gossip, it’s essential that external and internal communications sync up. Editorial standards of content and creative internally, moreover, must increasingly match those of external media.

3) Respect the power of authenticity 

If customers have never been more sceptical about corporations (and there’s no shortage of research to suggest this is so), the trust gap between employees and their employers is greater still, with as little as half of employees believing their employers are being open and honest with them.

Employees’ hype detectors, then, are finely tuned. In this environment, straightforwardness and authenticity in communications has never been more powerful. Internal communications needs to demonstrate an understanding that employees are people first and staff second.

4) Treat employees as ambassadors 

The most authentic and believable voice of all, of course, is that of the employee him or herself. In every organisation there is a small group of employees with disproportionate influence in terms of both authority and connectedness – for better or for worse. Finding and engaging with them is increasingly essential to communicate effectively around the business.

When every team member has hundreds of personal and professional connections on social media, their direct reach beyond the walls of the organisation is hugely powerful, and the impact of positive culture for the organisation grows almost exponentially.

5) Curate the narrative 

One of the most profound challenges facing the internal communicator is that the corporate narrative can no longer be controlled. Many would argue that it never could, but limited communication channels made it seem that way. But while orchestrated group-think has never been harder to achieve, the power of voluntarily aligned employees to project a strong brand internally and externally is huge.

The company can no longer control the narrative. But it can be curated: engage employees and amplify their voices throughout the organisation. Make sure internal content is aligned with the trends and concerns of the outside world. Include objective voices from outside the business to build credibility. And provide the internal communications platforms that encourage culture to evolve and blossom.

6) Internal communications is multichannel communications 

In the WhatsApp/WeChat world where the workforce is mobile, connected and brings its own devices, traditional intranets built as repositories of information and administrative interfaces are unlikely to get traction. Platforms built for collaboration are a step forward, but even these must meet the highly visual communications styles of the millennial workforce.

Some enterprises have successfully adopted private functions of public social platforms like Facebook or WeChat for effective communications. As long as technology and platforms continue to develop at breakneck pace it’s inherently risky to invest in a single platform. Invest instead in compelling and authentic content that captures and reflects the culture of the business, and recognise that employees will find great ways to share it.

There’s an emerging body of research that is shedding light on the impact of these trends, from the attitudes of millennials to work, to the shifting patterns of trust between people, employers and brands. But what’s intuitively true is that, in the words of authors Chris Bordreaux & Susan Emerick, "people trust employees. In fact, people trust any type of employee more than the CEO".

Organisations that recognise that and are prepared to invest in communicating an authentic sense of purpose will uncover a path to compelling and sustainable brand communications outside the organisation too.

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