ITL #304 - The key to relevance: reputation in the age of activism (and cute kitten videos)

3 years, 4 months ago


Employees are your best brand advocates, particularly in an environment driven so extensively by social media and word-of-mouth communications. By Marci Kaminsky.

As communications practitioners, we spend our days (and often our nights) promoting an organization’s brand and building its reputation. We craft brand promises that we think reflect the quality and usefulness of our products and services. And we defend our organization’s reputation against criticism. The question we too often miss, though, is important: Who cares?


That question goes to the idea of relevance, a key factor that can make or break our brand and reputation work. If “brand” is what a company says about itself, and “reputation” is what others say about them, relevance connects both to your audiences and stakeholders’ priorities.


In a world in which we are competing with cute kitten videos for attention, achieving relevance is difficult – and a non-negotiable need.


Achieving relevance starts with defining it

When we talk about relevance, we are really talking about trust and authenticity. If your stakeholders do not trust you, you are not relevant, and trust can erode quickly. At the same time, your actions as a company need to feel authentic to the people you engage with – customers, employees, investors, suppliers, etc.


So how do you define relevance in the context of your organization? At Grant Thornton, we answered this question by embarking on a benchmarking project to determine how our stakeholders think about us on the issues that matter most. In other words, does Grant Thornton have credibility with respect to our areas of expertise and thought leadership?


To answer this question, we surveyed five core stakeholder groups:


  1. Clients
  2. Prospects
  3. Policy makers
  4. Employees
  5. College recruits


We created a unique survey for each group on topics ranging from our firm’s competency to our culture and our commitment to innovation. Based on the results, we attributed a “reputation score” to each group. The results offered a panoramic view of our brand’s relevance and an empirical scorecard against which we could benchmark Grant Thornton moving forward.


Moreover, the effort yielded actionable insights. For example, we learned that Grant Thornton’s unique culture was our top strength. We also learned that our stakeholders view us as being great at two things: accounting and keeping clients ahead of trends.


We also learned about threats. Most notably, we learned that when stakeholders lacked consistent exposure to Grant Thornton, they did not have a meaningful perception of our company (other than knowing we were an accounting firm).


Further, potential recruits who lacked recent exposure to Grant Thornton were less likely to consider joining our firm compared to our competitors. In our case, to know us truly was to love us – but stakeholders really had to know us, generally having had at least six separate touchpoints with our firm in recent months.


Relevance in the world starts with relevance inside your world

 Of special importance, our benchmarking gave us insights into what might be the most critical stakeholder group of all: Grant Thornton’s employees. Data indicated that our professionals were truly at the core of our brand – a sentiment shared by our clients as much as our own professionals. The lesson is simple: Employees are your best brand advocates, particularly in an environment driven so extensively by social media and word-of-mouth communications.


Engaged employees are tremendous promoters for their firm. But while organizations spend over $100 billion annually to improve employee engagement, only 33 percent of U.S. employees said they’re engaged according to Gallup World Poll’s 2017 Life Evaluation Index, which sought to measure respondents’ perceptions on how they feel about their lives now and in the future. Leaders have a great opportunity to close this gap and cultivate employees into brand ambassadors and reputation defenders. That opportunity starts with an effective plan to analyze and strengthen internal brand, reputation and relevance.


A full benchmarking study is the best way to see where you stand, but a simple first step organizations can take is collecting employee feedback through pulse surveys, exit interviews and digital channels, such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn. This enables leaders to get a more intimate, individualized view of employees’ perceptions, and begin to understand the organization’s challenges and weaknesses.


One way to strengthen employees’ engagement is through the firm’s mission, vision, purpose or values. Research shows employees today care deeply about the character and reputation of the firm they work for – and that they are more likely to make a personal connection with a firm that describes its purpose in simple, easy-to-digest language. For instance, at Grant Thornton, we describe our people as those who “…speak up, get creative and shake up the status quo.”


Employers who deliver on their workplace promises and live their mission daily are positioned for stronger recruitment, engagement, retention and productivity, as reported by Weber Shandwick & KRC Research in a recent study. According to Gary Bragar, the HR outsourcing research director of NelsonHall, firms that align their brand and reputation to job candidates’ priorities – i.e., firms that make themselves relevant – can reduce turnover by up to two-thirds.


One example of a company that draws a clear connection between corporate values and employee engagement is Patagonia, which touts a turnover rate of only six percent among full-time employees. The outdoor retailer strives to “cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to environmental crises.”


Patagonia offers numerous benefits to employees to help them feel personally connected to their mission, including paid environmental internships, reimbursements for alternative ways to commute to work and time off for civil disobedience training. According to a Patagonia employee’s statement submitted to the Harvard Business Review, “Patagonia’s culture and my own ‘culture’ feel inseparable. I often struggle with drawing a line between my personal life and the company’s identity [and] well-being.”


Employees who feel positively connected to their employer’s values are also more likely to share their positive experiences outside the confines of the office with colleagues, friends, family and online. In other words, if we can make our businesses relevant to our employees, we’re off to a good start in making ourselves relevant in the wider world.


Weber Shandwick’s recent Employer Brand Credibility Gap study found that 32 percent of global employees post messages, pictures or videos on social media about their employer “very often,” “somewhat often” or “from time to time.” But in organizations where employees see a strong match between how their employer represents itself and what they experience (in other words, authenticity) employee activism rises to 48 percent.

The age of activism

This sort of employee activism goes beyond employees and includes consumers writ large. Activism has gained traction along with the power of social media. Anyone with an online following can be an activist. Social media is giving new audiences real influence over a company’s brand and reputation – influence that the company and its communications team can no longer control.

For example, Weber Shandwick’s recent Battle of the Wallets study stressed the new phenomenon of BUYcotting brands, a trend of intentionally buying from brands that do the right thing (the exact opposite of boycotting). The study found that Millennials are more likely to BUYcott than boycott. If this generational pattern continues, BUYcotters will surpass boycotters.

And of course, there is CEO activism. There is a relatively new expectation that CEOs have an obligation to speak out on key social issues. We are seeing the intersection of business and politics, which used to rarely come together, but are now mixing in ways that can impact a company’s reputation. For example, after the Parkland shootings, we saw several financial services companies speaking out about gun control, which has traditionally been a hot-button issue that companies simply did not comment on.

Act now!

So, where does this leave you as a communication professional? Start with four actions:

  1. Research deeply
  2. Open channels of communications, particularly internally
  3. Watch the trends and competitors
  4. Make sure your company has a strong and clear sense of purpose

Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” His adage still holds true today, only there are more ways to ruin your reputation – and more ways to do things differently! The trick is knowing the difference, and acting now.

The authors

This essay was co-written by Marci Kaminsky, chief communications officer, Kristin Keith, executive communications manager, Katharine Nichols, external communications senior associate, and Michelle Patrick, strategic communications manager at Grant Thornton LLP.



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The Author

Marci Kaminsky

This essay was co-written by Marci Kaminsky, chief communications officer, Kristin Keith, executive communications manager, Katharine Nichols, external communications senior associate, and Michelle Patrick, strategic communications manager at Grant Thornton LLP.

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