If you think HR and comms are separate functions, think again.
By Gabrielle Lane
The man who made Google Google-y
It was a tale of two headlines. The first, ‘Google HR chief Laszlo Bock is leaving’, announced the departure of the tech giant’s senior vice president of people operations. The second, ‘One of the executives who made Google Google-y is retiring’, showed how much employment culture can shape corporate reputation. In 2016, Laszlo Bock’s resignation was big news.
During Bock’s tenure, Google was named ‘Best Place to Work’ eight times in 11 years by Fortune, thanks, in part, to perks such as its famous ‘20% time’.
When we speak, Bock won’t talk much about Google, out of respect for his successor, but he agrees “there’s now a lot more press attention given to how people experience work”.
Bock thinks the intertwining of culture and reputation is a product of broader social change. Working life is now more flexible and even the definition of ‘employee’ has been challenged by disruptors like Uber.
Tech gets bad press
The technology, entertainment and media industries feel more pressure than others in terms of culture, says Bock: “The people who do the writing are much closer to them. Tech is an industry where there’s been a lot of talk about ‘changing the world’ and therefore values.” Cue “morbid interest in the things that go wrong”.
A relationship between comms and HR needs to be in place before any crisis. “Partnerships work when there’s strong trust and understanding of the expertise that each party brings to the conversation,” Bock says.
Internally, the comms team can help align employees with the organisation’s mission. “It’s important to connect them to the beneficiaries of their work through storytelling,” explains Bock. He cites research that found staff satisfaction and retention are improved when individuals’ roles are understood in terms of whom they help.
And satisfied employees will improve the public perception of a brand. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2017 showed that consumers are more likely to trust the word of individual employees (55%) than that of an organisation (45%). Peers are considered the most credible communicators (60%) and CEOs significantly less so (37%).
The transparency trap
HR and PR strategy may not always align. “I think it’s a mistake for a company to say: ‘We’re going to be completely transparent,’” says Bock. “Superficially, it’s all well and good but [HR] involves a huge amount of context. For example, it may not be motivational for the janitor to know he’s paid at the 40th percentile and to have his wages made public so his friends know it too.”
When your CEO gets political
Sometimes a leader will make a decision with poor PR consequences. “However, it’s the core conviction that’s important,” says Bock. In January, then Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees in response to Donald Trump’s immigration ban. But Starbucks was accused of reneging on its pledge to hire US war veterans, and its public-perception rating fell by two-thirds. Due to volatility, Credit Suisse put a ‘hold’ recommendation on its stocks.
Bock backs Schultz: “When firms take a stand on human-rights issues, they need to be applauded.” Protecting and motivating the people who make an organisation work is a shared responsibility of HR and comms, Bock concludes, but it requires care: “When you share information, there’s huge potential for the same set of facts to do good or bad. When you’re dealing with humans, you need to be thoughtful, empower and uplift them.”
Bad headlines are the least of your worries.
PwC Puts best foot forward
It’s not only your own organisation’s employment policies that can affect your reputation, as PwC learned the hard way. In May 2017, the Evening Standard ran a story stating that a receptionist at its HQ, Nicola Thorp (left), had been sent home for failing to wear shoes with a heel, a requirement she described as discriminatory.
The dress code was enforced by sub-contracted reception services firm Portico and was not PwC’s own. But a matter-of-fact statement from PwC, concluding with a terse “the dress code referenced in the article is not a PwC policy”, failed to quash a story that ran in national newspapers for seven days, buoyed by a petition for a change to the law on dress codes.
PwC admits its initial response was wrong. “We responded quickly with a media statement that set out the facts of the situation. But in this statement we missed the point that we needed to take responsibility for anyone who has contact with PwC,” wrote Gaenor Bagley, head of corporate purpose, on the PwC blog.
A revised comms plan swung into action. PwC asked Portico to review its policy, which was changed within 48 hours. The PwC media relations and social media teams then worked together to share a video of Bagley’s opinion piece, ‘Stepping up – what a pair of heels has taught us’. It highlighted PwC’s drives to champion diversity – such as scrapping UCAS scores as an entry requirement for its graduate scheme. It outlined the challenges of inequality still remaining in the working world. And it also offered an apology to the eloquent young receptionist who had highlighted the issue.
When gender-equality charity The Fawcett Society staged a ‘Fawcett Flats Friday’, PwC employees shared photos on social media of themselves supporting the campaign by wearing flat shoes. It was a simple and public way to “show the reality of life at the organisation”, in Bagley’s words. Behind the scenes? Every supplier contract was promptly reviewed with inclusion and diversity in mind.