Editors Note: Although I contributed to this article, Michael Green was the primary author of this piece.
When news reports noted that some engineers at Facebook had requested transfers to the company’s less-embattled Instagram and WhatsApp divisions, it was a visible reminder of how a damaged public reputation can affect the stability of employees.
You might say: “This is obvious. Of course a damaged public reputation can lead to the loss of some employees. Tell me something I don’t know.”
If only it were so simple.
The interconnectedness of external reputation and internal strength is powerful, complex and enduring. Beyond the example of Facebook—very public and with ramifications that seem obvious—consider the following scenarios for, say, a mid-size company operating under local (not national) spotlights:
• A prospective employee who was intensely recruited for her technical genius in a new market area decides to decline a job offer because she has doubts about the integrity of the company’s leader. What unknown future market opportunities are lost?
• A small taskforce of employees working on one of those “nearly impossible” new product launches is demoralized by bad press and stops working till midnight every night as, one by one, the team members start voting for sleep or teacher conferences instead of work. What happens if the product doesn’t launch—or more subtly, what emboldening sense of accomplishment will this team miss out on?
• Two employees who got bad performance reviews from uncommunicative managers decide to leak a confidential restructuring—with their own, um, negative spin. How much better if employees AND reporters could have heard first from leaders who could have delivered the tough news honestly, but with added context for the long-term plan to win?
• Two parents who work at two different companies attend a school parents’ meeting for the first time, and during the introductions say where they work. To one, the tonal reaction is, “Cool!” To the other, it’s a quiet form of “Ohhhh.” Which employee is having the better time?
• A CEO is considering a major step—risky but potentially very fruitful—and would need employees’ commitment in the biggest way. But the head of HR reports that the latest survey, done last week, shows diminishing commitment. Does the CEO postpone the business move—or finally launch the postponed employee dialogue initiative immediately and hope they catch up?
You can invent—or remember—many other versions of these examples of the interconnectedness of outside reputation and inside strength.
The power of this connection is why we know that any effort to strengthen brand or reputation, external or internal, needs to take into account the opposite—either as an integrated part of the effort or at least in awareness of the implications.
In our past writings about our work with companies and clients, we’ve outlined the key focus areas for external brand strengthening efforts and internal employee health improvement work:
External: The biggest obstacles to repairing online reputation strength are timelines, transparency and trust. While companies and executives typically start looking for help late in the game (when the pain is intense), the longer their delay, the more difficult it is to mitigate negative search results. It’s crucial that an executive be prepared to be open and honest in communications with stakeholders; many clients would love to buy their way out of a situation and “make it go away,” rather than address the issue directly. And there needs to be enough trust to actually implement the improvement plan—whether being driven by an internal communications pro or an outside agency. Just because the client initially agrees to a scope of work and writes a check or says “go,” it doesn’t mean they will actually implement recommendations. Without trust in the plan and the people driving it, you might as well not begin.
Internal: in big business moves, whether inspired by strength or compelled by vulnerability, every employee needs three things to buy into the change: she wants to believe in the organization’s purpose, belong to a team of people helping one another soar, and trust that she matters to the organization in two ways: she makes a difference and she feels valued. This framework of believe, belong and matter is both a blueprint and a mindset. It helps you prioritize and plan the programs and messages that will most help employees feel connected, supported and trusting. It also gives you a way to measure your progress, by asking yourself—continually—whether your employees really do believe, belong and matter in your house.
The biggest and most successful business transitions will integrate all of these principles into the effort—with clear assessments of weakness or opportunity, a clear execution plan, honest measurements of progress, and tools and processes that will ensure ongoing awareness and commitment to continue the work.
What to actually DO?
Every organization is different in the specific situations and challenges they face in business progress, reputation quality and employee health. But the best principles and practices are proven to work—in many ways simple to understand, just hard to execute with focus, discipline and stamina.
Externally, managing your online brand and reputation requires a combination of helpful content on your own site, targeted distribution of that content, and thoughtful, strategic participation in online discussions. All combined, an online brand and reputation management program ensures those looking for information about you or your company will see two things: favorable content in related search results, and your input within conversations that may be less favorable.
At the very least, you’ll be seen as an engaged participant in an honest dialogue. In the end, you are guaranteeing your voice will be heard, but what you say and how well it’s received is up to you.
Inside your company, the most important action is to begin thinking in terms of believe, belong and matter. When we regularly ask ourselves, “How can I help our employees believe, belong and matter?” our answers give us all kinds of guidance about decisions, actions, messages and tone. This framework can inform not only communications planning but training and development, policy formation and business decisions as well. It can be applied as part of any other discipline, theory, model or mindset.
For example, if the company is about to enter a new market segment to pursue more growth, create a new product line, or purchase another company, the leaders and communicators should ask themselves:
• Will this move be easy or hard for employees to understand in terms of our goals?
• Will this step make employees instinctively more proud of our company, or initially less proud?
• Are leaders and managers prepared to help every single employee understand how her role will help the new approach succeed?
Each answer will affect how your employees—your human colleagues—will believe in the organization’s purpose, feel they belong to a mutually supportive community, sense they matter to the organization’s success and feel valued.
The answers don’t always have to be happy ones—whether for external audiences or employees. Life and work are full of difficult decisions with tough actions that aren’t comforting or comfortable. In fact, bad news and how you handle it can be great opportunities to strengthen trust and confidence with all stakeholders. External trust and confidence and the internal “believe, belong, matter” framework aren’t about cheerful talk or false paradises; they’re about open and honest dialogue, commitment that make sense, and discipline and stamina in seeing them through with integrity.
The good news and the bad news is this: everything matters—from products and services to employee benefits, from website content to blog comments, from on-stage presentations to hallway conversations. That means you always need to be paying attention and can never rest. It also means that everything is an opportunity to increase the external strength of your brand and the internal strength of your employees.
And those two centers of strength—brand and employees—can either fuel one another or diminish one another. The choice is yours.
About the Authors:
Michael Green is Principal at Michael Green Communications, a communications consulting firm.
Kent Lewis is President & Founder of Anvil, a measurable marketing agency specializing in online reputation management (ORM) services.
Caryn Leach is Lead Consultant at Capability Consulting, a marketing communications project support company