Step up to the podium, values, your time has come

Blackpool 2007
Image by johnthurm via Flickr

Claire Thompson, Waves PR

For many years, PR messaging sessions have separated mission, vision, values and operational goals.  They all play together, but they are all very different. And the ‘proof points’ on each are very different.

As a humble communicator, it has often been hard to persuade businesses to take the ‘soft’ side of this, the values, seriously (although I often point to the RWE takeover of Thames Water where the values in action programme contributed to a valuable shareholder premium.)

Businesses have happily reflected their brand values in their logos, and the statement – maybe even the language used – on their websites. But one of the great things happening now is that people are engaging with businesses on all kinds of levels. There is an increasing recognition that businesses are made up of people – that they have a human face, rather than being monolithic entities.

I’m currently developing my thinking around the idea of pervasive PR. At the core is the idea of the PR function used as the teapot spout – a funnel to the outside world of what’s going on inside, suitably coloured with professional wording and branding. Occasionally the lid would come off, but mostly the funnel worked OK.

Sticking with a kitchen analogy, we’ve now moved to a colander society. Information is coming out through every hole. Staff and customers have always been able to go and tell their mates in the pub about the poor service or bad day with the boss. There used to be an old saying that a happy customer would tell one or two people, unhappy customers tell seven. Amplify that, hugely, in a connected society. Happy customers may tell their followers, but unhappy ones have the entire internet at their command.

Everything within your organisation now has a PR implication. Now most companies have an internet/email policy, and this needs to extend to social media. But just like the internet and email policies, it’s no good giving someone a lovely fat manual. Engage them. Talk to them. Ask them for their own examples. Ask them to comment. To raise their concerns. In this way, you should never have to explain to them that they can’t expect their boss’ support if they call her a stupid bitch on Facebook.  (We’ve all heard the stories of Facebook sackings.)

These are a few genuine, career limiting tweets (Twitter) picked up in just a few minutes one afternoon:

i woke up two hours before work today and now apparently my manager has “tennis elbow”. skive.

what time are you there today? Me down by 2.30. Bel won’t skive off work like me so I is all alone ’till she gets there.

Seniors are having meeting. Time to skive?? :p

And haven’t we all heard those inappropriate conversations on trains – the ones where we know someone’s underperforming or sacked before they do.

These don’t just damage the individual. Now I’m certain that some of those tweets were just for effect, but they offer a picture of a disengaged workforce, uncaring about what they’re doing. And if the staff can’t be bothered, why should the customer be? Why should the supplier do anything other than try and stiff such a boring or uncaring company? Why should the journalist/blogger writing about the company think/write positively. And why would an investor put their money into THAT?

If you train people in the organisation’s values, aim for their understanding and buy in, then their behaviour can be expected to match those values. They have a benchmark of what’s expected, a comfortable framework to operate within. It’s a two way street. Values can quickly become a beneficial idea factory.

Expect every department to have some additional values – creativity marketing departments has slightly different connotations to within finance. HR can eliminate people who don’t meet those values from their recruitment process, helping ensure the company’s focus and success, and ensuring that people don’t end trapped within a company culture that that they loathe.

So true corporate social responsibility (CSR) now becomes a reality. PR is now pervasive. Everything you do has a public relations implication. If your staff don’t reflect your values, nothing will – your HR and PR functions need to work together. If your business activities are noxious, expect the world to find out.  If the rhetoric and actions have a gulf between them, expect the world to find out.

Poor operations and poor business practice will out through those colander holes, and any PR ‘sticking plaster’ may hold back the tide for a while, but eventually things will seep through.

Living values doesn’t have to be expensive. Set expectations.  Deliver (or over-deliver) on your promises.why does ‘a slag of a snack’ or love/hate Marmite work? Because it has an element of truth.

There is, however, no need to fear. If you embrace the fact that a business is made up of people, it’s also OK to admit mistakes, and say sorry. To learn. Now the lawyers and PR people may have to battle this one out, but I’m guessing your PR advisers will be cheaper than your lawyers (or I’ve been undercharging for years!)

It’s no good trying to stop it. Embrace it. It’s an opportunity.

I’ve heard a lot of discussion about who should be the official channel for social media engagement. I’ve listened.  Assimilated.  Thought. Got it wrong sometimes. Have the T-shirt, the scars and the ‘learning edges’. So here’s my two penn’orth:

DON’T give your ‘official’ engagement  to an inexperienced ‘intern’ unless your audience is inexperienced interns. Look for the person (or people, depending on your size and what you want to achieve) who most embodies the values of your organisation.

It is almost impossible over a period of sustained engagement to hide someone’s personality. And you shouldn’t want to. They are the human face of your company. They can learn to post, learn to tweet, learn to socialise on the most appropriate platforms for your organisation, but can’t easily change personality.

They can  try to play nice when they’re seething, ambitious know-it-alls. They can try and be screaming, go-getting deal- breakers when they’re gentle, considered souls. But take my word, they’ll be found out.

Remember that having an official social media person/community manager etc will not stop others from using social media. It’s often the unofficial channels that are most revealing of an organisation’s true nature (which is, of course, why journalists will go through back doors to get a good expose story rather than go through the PR team.)

If  your values are stamped through your organisation like a stick of Blackpool rock, your social engagement can be nothing but genuine.

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7 Comments

  • By Scott Gould, November 18, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    Hi Claire,

    Enjoyed this very much and got some good stuff out of it. I’ve been saying some similar things across a few different blog posts, which agree with a lot of what you’ve said. I’ll add my 2 pence on a few points

    1. Your great line “And why would an investor put their money into THAT?” – exactly! Too few have a structured approach to Social Media and instead guess as they go. That’s fine for personal Tweeting – but as you say, investors can’t put money into that, nor can companies invest in that.

    The solution here, for me, is good consultancy that provides good frameworks and works with the company to create good guidelines.

    2. “If you train people in the organisation’s values, aim for their understanding and buy in, then their behaviour can be expected to match those values”

    I’m unsure about this – I agree with the sentiment – but I have too many memories of being in horrible training sessions being ‘taught’ values that I didn’t hold myself, in the most boring and corporately-horrid way.

    I think that part of the hiring process has to be whether these people in the first place are aligned with the organisation’s values, because I don’t believe you can ‘train’ them, I believe they are acquired over time through company culture – and unless someone is the type of person who’ll pick them up, they’ll always kick against the culture because it is in contradiction at some point with their own values.

    3. “So true corporate social responsibility (CSR) now becomes a reality. PR is now pervasive. Everything you do has a public relations implication. If your staff don’t reflect your values, nothing will – your HR and PR functions need to work together.”

    Totally. It’s the same with companies who want to put Social Media under marketing – it doesn’t live just there – it’s coms, HR, customer service, marketing, recruitment, etc.

    4. “Living values doesn’t have to be expensive” – Amen!

    I wrote a post the other week about this, and listed 5 free ways to do this. This is about culture, and as such, is deeper than financial incentive. My 5 were: Cause, Language, Experience, Leadership, Relationship – all of which can be done for free, and just require forethought.

    5. “DON’T give your ‘official’ engagement to an inexperienced ‘intern’ unless your audience is inexperienced interns. Look for the person (or people, depending on your size and what you want to achieve) who most embodies the values of your organisation.”

    Daren Forsyth at Like Minds said to find the company conversationalist. You’ve said the same thing in as many words. I was talking to someone who fits this bill and is carrying out Social Media for a local solicitor, and we were discussing the need for this person to begin building others into Social Media so that the program isn’t tied into a single person.

    It is frustrating how so many organisations think this is a job for the lowest paid worker / intern, and don’t get the giant repercussions that social media has for the organisation as a whole. This is where I believe PR agencies will have better success at getting clients onboard with social media properly than marketing agencies will – because PR goes to communication, and the organisation is more willing to hear about organisational change and reputation management from the PR firm than the marketing firm, IMO.

    That’s my two pence!

  • By admin, November 18, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    You raise some interesting points, and thank you for caring enough to post a response – especially for someone on record as saying PR is dead!

    I think your comments about training are reflective of the poor training you’ve had. You are absolutely right – you can’t just post and tell and expect people to toe the line. It is absolutely about talking to people, finding out what’s inportant, what doesn’t fit, and why; and what can be done to grow that culture. It needs a mediator not a trainer. But that’s just my approach to it. Others will do it their own way.

    I don’t agree about social medai not being under marketing. It can be. Or it can be under HR. Or sales. And it will be in all of those places whether companies like it or not. It is an extension of true marketing not the blam it out type, but the type that generates emotion and conversation – which is what successful marketers have done for years.

    I love Daren for everything he is and says, he’s an incredibly engaging person. But I think you should re-visit what he said. he gave a fixed framework for finding someone to tweet which was a slightly different approach -find someone who’s already ‘doing’ social media, but make sure they aren’t the drunken lady with cocktails posting to her facebook.

    He only had a short while to present in the context of a short presentation at a conference with no chance to debate, so it’s a bit unfair to go into the ifs buts and maybes. I would extend that debate (and hope he’ll join in too).

    If you are selling cocktails to a bingo crowd, the person whose image he used as an example of ‘don’t let her loose on it’ (let’s call her Bingo Betty, for a moment) would be an absolutely perfect advocate for the company: fun, irreverent, leading the party in it’s conga, getting them all up on the dance floor.

    I would start with the person and teach them the tools rather than the other way around.

    Furthermore, Bingo Betty is going to get on in her own social media circles anyway. She has every right to do this. But it’s now an organisations responsibility to help her understand that if she is cruel to colleagues or tells everyone that she’s just seen a deal signed in the C suite and the company’s being sold, there are huge repercussions for her and for the company.

    The information’s not coming through the spout, but the colander can be coloured!

  • By admin, November 18, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Scott – I’d love demonstrate this to you. I’d happily run a values session for LikeMinds/Scott Gould (although I think from conversations you’re personally pretty focussed) – free of course – as a way of demonstrating values in action.

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