Strategic Communication is an elegant combination of art and science. It’s making sure that the ways you communicate are aligned with your overall business objectives. At Step In … Learn More...
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Earlier this year, Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor, a disaster restoration company, donned a disguise and went undercover as part of the CBS reality show, Undercover Boss. The episode ran again this past week and brought to mind the value of employee engagement and input.
Yellen had made some assumptions about what was happening “in the field.” Like many companies reacting to the economic recession, Belfor had put a wage and hiring freeze in place to protect “6,000 Belfor families.”
But when Yellen got into the field, his assumptions were challenged immediately. If you haven’t seen the episode, I won’t spoil the outcome, but you can watch it here.
Yellen was completely inept at the tasks he was asked to complete – and admitted so in the sidebar interviews that are part of every reality show. Toward the end of the episode, as he’s flying off in his private jet back home, he reflects on what he’s learned.
“I lived my life in a bit of a bubble.”
Yellen’s changing point of view seems remarkable but internal communicators everywhere, a leader who is ready to make a change is at a priceless tipping point and is a reminder that the impact of leadership should NEVER be underestimated.
While we don’t know what changes have occurred at Belfor since the episode, and can only judge by the episode itself, Yellen learned a lot about employee engagement and policy impact. The innocently crafted wage and hiring freeze to cope with the recession had broad-reaching implications that leadership didn’t anticipate and in fact, was hurtful to the four employees showcased in the episode.
This highlights another important principle in employee communication – the value of sharing business challenges with internal teams. Especially in the face of uncertainty. Employee engagement goes a long way in helping to develop solutions. And it is the first step in co-creating business solutions. We’re not talking about the old school suggestion box, we’re talking about a more team-oriented approach.
To communicators, Belfor seems completely out of touch with one of its key stakeholders, the employees of the company. They are not alone. Many companies struggle with how to communicate WITH its employees, usually because they are concerned about corporate reputation.
Yet every year, the impact of internal audiences on corporate reputation is well documented in the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey on corporate reputation and trust. In the 2011 report (hyperlink), 63% of respondents believed a corporation which treats its employees well is what matters to corporate reputation.
In another section of the survey which queried the credibility of information sources about a company, three of the sources cited are largely internal. They are: a tech expert within the company (at 64%), a person like yourself (at 43%) and a regular employee (at 34%). While the role of the CEO as a credible source also ranked high, the impact of the internal audience is very clear.
At the end of the show, Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfour, says to one of the four employees he worked with undercover, “I heard you so clearly.” It was the “epiphany” moment for the show, and we hope, for Belfor in creating a new sense of engagement with their internal stakeholders.
While the decline of the publishing industry over the last decade is no secret, there is one emerging trend that new professionals should be watching. – the role of brands as publishers. At last week’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this topic was covered heavily. One panel had a razor-sharp view on the subject.
“Brave New World: Debating Brands Role as Publishers examined the intersection between the decline in traditional journalism and the opportunity for brands to use storytelling to talk directly to consumers using great content.
One member of the panel said all brands should think and act like publishers. Another talked about how different content channels can be used by brands to talk about different things. Yet another believed we should be eliminating the middle men – journalists – altogether. One panelist was concerned about how we would police brands when they lie.
What does this mean for the new public relations professional? It means that public relations pros in organizations of all sizes have more opportunities to tell their story directly to the consumer – through blogs, wikis and other online places. And organizations also have an obligation to tell stories honestly, in a timely manner, and using the most basic tool of all – great writing.
Lately great writing has a lot of new buzz words in the online community – dynamic content, content creation, content strategy. All of these titles are jargon for writing with purpose, or writing with the audience and market in mind.
The labels may be new, but the principal behind them is not. William Zinsser is the quintessential journalist and nonfiction writer whose landmark work On Writing Well has been the reference against which all others are measured.
At the heart of Zinsser’s beliefs about writing is that it’s a transaction between writer and reader. When done well, two qualities will emerge: humanity and warmth.
“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength,” Zinsser says in the first chapter.
This advice rings true for all forms of nonfiction writing – magazine, newspaper, web site, blog and any others you could imagine creating as a public relations professional. As PRSA members telling the stories of a brand, cause or an organization, we are also obligated to tell it honestly and ethically.
New professionals can be confounded by the actual process of writing – it may or may not have been part of a degree program. So where should you look if you want to improve your writing skills?
Here are four ideas to improve your writing immediately:
- Read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser
- Start a daily journal in which you write about something that interests you in a journalistic style.
- Find a writing buddy and exchange and critique each others’ work.
- Set aside time each day for writing, even if it’s only 30 minutes.
There are many more steps you can take to improve your writing, but these are a great way to get started. So when your boss starts to talk about the new content strategy, or creating dynamic content, you’ll know that all he or she is looking for is great writing with a purpose and an audience. And you will be ready to deliver it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally appeared in the PRSA National Newsletter for New Professionals in May, 2011.