Making sense of the noise

Posted in Engagement on 10 April 2019 By Henry Ker, Stakeholder Communications Lead

Today, businesses have greater responsibility than ever in their role as employers.

The founder of music magazine Loud & Quiet, Stuart Stubbs, in a discussion around the changing role of music journalism in the face of the digital revolution, said “Someone has to make sense of the noise.”

The context there is the overwhelming and immediate deluge of information available to music fans, meaning ‘trusted navigators’, as The Guardian puts it, “are needed more than ever”. The same can be said for corporate communications.

“Never before have companies communicated with so many different stakeholders, across so many different channels. Every year there’s more to talk about,” Steve Kemp, Emperor’s co-founder and CEO, said at the London Stock Exchange Communications Masterclass the other week.

And yet, “never before have audience expectations been so high, in terms of authenticity, completeness, and timeliness of corporate communications.”

In an era of fake news, described recently by a parliament committee as “the insidious onslaught of disinformation and digital disruption”, the public is becoming increasingly wary of where it gets its information from. Edelman named 2018 as the year of ‘The Battle for Truth'. According to Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer research, this year, while engagement with the news surged by 22 points; 40% not only consume news once a week or more, but they also routinely amplify it. People are also encountering roadblocks in their quest for facts, with 73% worried about fake news being used as a weapon.

There are more voices, more sources of information, yet more scepticism and uncertainty on who we can rely on for the truth. Amidst this cacophony, who will make sense of it all, and how?

There is one information-relationship that remains strong, however. That of people and their employer. While pollsters Ipsos Mori report overall trust in business leaders remains low (34%), Edelman highlights the relationship between employee with their employer has defied the trends: 58% of employees say they look to their employer to be a trustworthy source of information about contentious societal issues.

There is an important caveat, however: trust must be earned through more than ‘business as usual’.

There is an expectation that prospective employers will join them in taking action on societal issues (67%), and 71% of employees believe it’s critically important for their CEO to respond to challenging times. And even beyond that, 76% of the general population want CEOs to lead on change, rather than waiting for the government to impose it.

As Steve puts it, “the pressure [on companies] to be accountable for social, environmental and economic impacts continues apace.” In this context, and alongside imminent regulatory change such as the new UK Corporate Governance Code, employee engagement becomes more important than ever. If employers are people’s most trusted source of information, then there is a duty on companies to live up to that expectation. Employees want their companies to engage honestly with them and, from the other side, employers now rely on their workforce to be their ambassadors to the world outside.

As Edelman explains, employees that trust their employer are far more likely to engage in beneficial actions on their behalf, and to advocate for the organisation (a 39-point trust advantage [over those who do not trust their company]). Alongside that, they will be more engaged at work and be far more loyal and committed.

In the past, it could be argued that companies have often taken their employees for granted in the sense that they had a financial relationship that they could rely on to ensure engagement. What all these stats and changing attitudes of the new generations show is that this is no longer enough. An important part of that is for companies to define their employee value proposition. Employees expect a two-way deal, authentic communications and joined-up work experience and culture.

Communicating about both performance and broader ESG issues in a timely and transparent way is now an expectation rather than a bonus. For example, last week saw the deadline for this year’s gender pay gap reporting, a disclosure which will be of concern to employees as much as any investor. In the same vein, the government and regulators are also looking to push companies to report on areas such as ethnic and disability diversity in the future. There are new requirements for next year’s reporting that are directly relevant to employees, such as the Section 172(1) statement and CEO to employee pay ratio. Get this relationship wrong and you risk alienating not just one of your most important audiences, but one of the few which inherently trusts you.

Trust is vital. If our audiences cannot connect with what we are saying, if companies do not communicate with honesty and humility, openly address important social issues, to equally apologise when things go wrong as shout when things go right, then we will just be another discord in all the noise.

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