10/09/2014

Get organised with a single organising idea: Your reputation depends on it

BY Julian Gorham

We live in an age where the power has shifted from brands to stakeholders, where reputation is built by the conversations people are having about corporate brands – and with each other – online and off.

The Internet and social media have transformed the relationship between organisations and their stakeholders – making stakeholder opinion more visible and magnifying it so that it has the power to make or break communications strategies – and even companies themselves – with remarkable speed and effectiveness.

Everywhere, communications departments in organisations are struggling to organise and manage, in an effort to influence the conversation in their favour.

What are communications departments to do? Recent research by Gather, a strategic corporate communications consultancy, amongst UK business of all sizes, suggests 65% of corporations intend to make more use of digital and social media in the next two years, but don’t feel they have all the skills to do so

The Report suggests that many marketers feel that they are no longer in control of their communications – that they are operating ‘under siege’ – and that the conversation is almost beyond their reach to manage, mould and adapt.

The screens everywhere, always-on environment means that organisations and the people in charge of focusing them, need new ways to organise their communications (and their behaviours) so that they project themselves in a clear, consistent manner that is useful to the direction of their business’s travel.

Some are calling this the ’single organising idea’ – an idea at the heart of an organisation that’s based on the truth of its capability, the extent of its ambition – an idea that sums up and summons its spirit. This, together with clearly expressed values, can be used by organisations to drive and inspire not only communications, but actions.

A single organising idea is a single focus point. It can be used by the organisation to gather all its stakeholders around it – employees, customers, investors, partners, communities. It has clear emotional and rational content. It is a call to action for the organisation – a rallying cry that draws together the full power of the brand – both people and messages – and sets a measure against which that power can be played out in the most relevant ways to everyone that matters.

Of course, this is nothing new. Brand communicators have always sought fierce clarity at the centre. The point is, in a digital world where anyone, anywhere can have a positive or negative impact on your reputation, it has never been so useful, or needed.

Many organisations operate with a set of words at the centre – words with labels like vision, mission, values, core thoughts, even the occasional big hairy audacious goal. These words are meant to set edges on communications and actions. For me, you achieve your positioning with three things – a positioning statement (where are we heading and what makes us special or different?), values and a single organising idea (a motivating theme around which stakeholders can gather).

Often there are too many words at the centre – I have seen some corporations, who frankly, should know better, wrestling with 7 or 8 values for example – and those words in themselves are vague or imprecise and lack clarity of meaning. The result? The attempt to organise communications and behaviours will be less effective than it should be.

For example, when it comes to values, you need to use the right words: Is ‘professional’ a value? Is ‘integrity’? Surely ‘professional’ is just too vague and can be interpreted in different ways. And ‘integrity’ is just your brand isn’t it? You have to sort out what should be deduced and what should be declared. How do words like ‘professional’ and ‘integrity’ inform communications and behaviours. How do they help an organisation say what it does and do what it says? How do they help employees understand the organisation they are working for – and what they can do to contribute to it?

The words you use need to be specific enough to suggest the broadest set of actions and communications useful to the organisation – and the three or four (never more, to my mind) in effect describe the character you want to project out into the world – and a territory you can inhabit. Draw it out as a triangle or a square. That’s your space – and it’s what you want people to think and feel about you whenever you’re on their mind.

For ‘professional’ try something like ‘expert’ – for ‘human’ try ‘straightforward’ or ‘genuine’. These words help communicators shape communications meaningfully, in terms of both style and content – and visually as well as verbally. They can be interpreted tightly enough by web designers and content developers (and more broadly, designers and writers) to express a consistent brand voice – and dialed up or down depending on the stakeholders you are talking to.

Clear values and a single organising idea set a visual and verbal style that can be translated across specific digital communications, such as websites – but also across other channels that will inevitably be visible on the web.

So the rule for communicators in corporations and other organisations is:

-Get insights from your stakeholders – and about their preferences and online habits – to discover what makes your brand relevantly different from your competitors and the best way of communicating digitally.

-Clearly articulate your values and single organising idea – which will then set a clear brand voice.

– Identify where you can play to win (virtually and in the real world)

– And finally, but really importantly, communicate your values and single organising idea really clearly through the organisation so that everyone understands them and can share that understanding.

Because while communications departments might develop and manage what an organisation says, what an organisation does plays out powerfully – and especially in the conversations people are having on line.

Reputation is highly intangible, but deeply influential when it comes to a company’s success. Someone once described reputation as ‘What people say about you when you are not in the room.’ The digital world means that room is now the size of the planet and the door is never closed.

The message for communicators and managers in corporations and other organisations? Get organised with a single organising idea. Your reputation depends on it.