How important for any company are aspects such as reputation, image or corporate identity? All of these are no doubt critical, although there are still those who, driven by radical pragmatism, tend to think that the only thing that really matters if such aspects are to be improved is focusing on activities and doing things as best you can.
There is undeniably a close link between doing things well, and having a good reputation or image. Well into the 21st century as we are now, it is difficult to envisage a company carrying out activities which are devoid of quality or inefficient, or not treating its staff well (to mention but a few of these critical aspects), but still maintaining a good reputation or image. In a world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult – or indeed impossible – to control communication channels as in the past, it becomes ever more complicated to sweep the problems arising from poor performance under the carpet. This is not to say that there are no media channels still prepared to shine a positive light on the news items of a particular company in exchange for a certain sum in advertising, but the number of them is in sharp decline. And the laws of competition and demand will make sure that they will disappear sooner rather than later, to be replaced by more principled media and a more responsible style of journalism, or simply by “loose cannons”, individuals not attached to any media company who take advantage of the dismantling of publishing barriers to write on the issues they feel passionate about, giving a whole new meaning to the word “amateur”. Indeed, everything seems to suggest that in our increasingly transparent and exposed world, good behaviour is becoming more important by the day, as the security afforded by deep pockets for silencing rumours or funding campaigns is becoming a scarce – and unreliable – commodity.
From this perspective, therefore, we have to start accepting that doing things properly is a must for business, the absolute bottom line for being accepted by clients, whatever their inclination. On this basis, reputation and image will depend on a company’s ability to convey what it does in an appropriate manner, on the way it reaches out to society, makes itself known, or reacts to news items, or on its capacity for attracting and retaining talent. In an increasingly transparent society, the very idea of an opaque company which simply goes about its business without providing any information, a company wrapped in a shroud of mystery, generates mistrust. Even Apple, the world’s most commercially valuable company, which used to thrive by generating intrigue and uncertainty in relation to its product strategy and development, and which even went as far as to prosecute those who attempted to publish information about the organisation, has ended up employing Musa Tariq, an expert in social media communications.
As for communications, it would seem that the traditional press release is increasingly being considered a thing of the past. Successful companies are those able to invert the information flow, changing push to pull so that it is the journalists and bloggers covering the sector who consult – or even subscribe to – the company website in order to obtain information. And the corporate website, faced with the need to be dynamic and attractive, is being constantly updated to make it simple and user-friendly, and prioritise content creation.
But beyond simply informing as to what a company does or doesn’t do, communication departments are faced with a new challenge: how to give the company a human face, how to portray it as an interesting gathering of professional people with whom we would want to interact, how to sell it as a good place to work, with a set of values and committed to the good of society. Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, for many years considered as some sort of cloying propaganda relegated to a few pages of the annual report, starts to make sense, and is turning into an important competitive factor.
What companies look for today are committed staff, people who are motivated in their jobs and excited by what they do. The derogatory expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”, traditionally used in business circles to refer to those who parroted a company’s corporate culture without any critical judgement, is being replaced by reality: the ability to attract and retain talent becomes vital in an increasingly competitive market, and being seen as a good and motivating workplace for aspiring professionals gains ever greater importance. Companies of the likes of Google (which has made “Googliness” – defined as “a mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot” – its main selection criterion) have ceased to be perceived as something almost akin to a sect to become some of the highest ranking “Best place to work” companies, perceived as the best in which to develop one’s professional career, the most sought-after companies in the work market.
And, in order to achieve all this, companies are starting to rationalise the concept of work: yes, motivation and productivity are important, but we shouldn’t forget that we are dealing with people, people who may very well have other passions in addition to work; people who want to communicate ideas; who aspire to a relationship with their employers which is far removed from the traditional stereotypes of almost feudal servitude; people who look to their own personal development; people who think “I am here because this is the place I have chosen, this is where I want to be”. Training is increasingly provided by companies based on the thinking of famous Dutch football club AFC Ajax: we want to have the best players, despite the risk that they may want to leave; we cannot compete with everyone on salary, but we will try to offer adequate incentives so that the best players will want to stay with us. From a people point of view – and note that even the term “human resources” is now being questioned, given the negative connotations of treating people as just another resource –, companies are starting to recognise the difference between brilliant, motivated professionals, who could probably go elsewhere but who we try to retain, and those who simply “do their job” or “do what’s required of them” and who end up staying in the company because they have nowhere else to go, as some sort of “sediment”.
Today’s context is defined precisely by these changes in work relations and communications. A key priority for companies, to be trumpeted and published everywhere, from the annual report to the website, is being able to show that they are “more than mere producers of products or services”. People must become visible: managers are no longer managers simply because they do a good job, but because they can exercise leadership both internally and externally. Having the best people is important, but affording them the possibility to prove that they are the best, and the kudos that comes with it, is equally important. For an infrastructure services company specialising in toll roads, airports, construction and services, highlighting the fact that it has professionals who can dedicate salaried working hours to thinking how Star Wars’ Death Star might be built today, how to design and maintain a vertical garden, how to incorporate wearables into everyday life, or what an average day at Heathrow Airport is like, is no longer perceived as a frivolity, but rather as a competitive factor, a showcase for the company’s activities, and, of course, a trigger for internal communications.
And so a modern system of communications becomes vital. A process which implies complex changes in the perception of both the company and company activities, which has implications for many departments and job profiles, and which does not produce immediate results. This process is a long-term investment. But behind it looms a whole new change in context, and adapting to it is critical. Those who are able to recognise the true importance of the task at hand, those who are the first to experiment it, to do it better, will no doubt gain substantial advantage. For there is only one way forward.