Look no further than the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer to see evidence of how crucial strategic employee engagement is today. The study shows a 16 per cent increase in the credibility of "regular employees" and a 22 per cent rise for "people like yourself".
The global workforce is empowered like never before, with the ability to influence inside and outside the company, carrying direct and indirect messages through extensive social media and technology engagement. This dynamic creates opportunity as well as risk for companies, especially in this reputation-sensitive era.
Meanwhile, securing and retaining for talent is a constant preoccupation of the C-suite. A piece in the Wall Street Journal last week reported that companies like GE are even offering some employees Macs and iPhones instead of Blackberries and PCs, in an effort to lure more cool kids to the company.
Since the dawn of time, communicators have been focused on relevance to the CEO, and a key place in the marketing mix. Equal, if not greater, attention must be given to relationships with the Chief Talent Officer, and to human resources policy and practices. This goes beyond employee communications, though that is clearly a good place to start. In some companies (hopefully few) employee communications even runs outside the remit of the communications strategy. But even the best employee comms programs need constant innovation and attention, as leading CCOs will affirm.
But there is a deeper layer to the role of communications in employee engagement. Companies must strike a balance between the risks and rewards of unleashing the workforce, giving it the power to engage directly with customers and other stakeholders.
FedEx is increasingly looking to its employees to tell its story through video and other media that it supports around the world. When a different kind of video emerges through YouTube in December, specifically one showing a FedEx employee dropping a package containing computer monitor over a customer's gate, the company might have reconsidered the wisdom of letting employees speak to their customers.
But in fact, according to Bill Margaritis, SVP of global communications and IR at FedEx, the opposite is true, "It definitely reinforced our "employee as ambassador" strategy. This is the most powerful, authentic and emotive channel we have in the social media space," he told me via email. "And it speaks to the confidence and trust we have with our team members to do and say the right thing. The actions of our people play a huge role in shaping our reputation, and they feel a sense of ownership over this important asset."
Collaboration between HR and communications is essential to unlocking the power of the corporation's most powerful, and influential, stakeholder group.