Aspirational picture of man on a mountain

  Culture, Communication, Reputation, Leadership Style   

Article by Dr Mike Carter 
Although few believe that Taylor Swift’s very public campaign was the sole reason behind Apple’s recent u-turn in their royalty payment plans, the way in which Apple dealt with and used social media reaction to communicate a policy change around their new Apple Music service was telling. What was a simple reassignment of the burden of risk, from the shoulders of musicians onto the books of the most valuable company was a significant move by an organisation that is notoriously stubborn in the face of criticism. In one fell swoop Apple both swept the rug from under the feet of the critics of the new service, and demonstrated that it responds to its loyal fan base. 
Arguably this represents a shift in the way in which organisations, particularly those in close proximity to the consumer, must now be seen to communicate with the public. I would also argue that the growing importance of the workplace as a space of great value, to both current and prospective employees, highlights the importance of internal communication within an organisation. After all it is widely recognised that companies who value their employees and customers to a greater extent are more productive – something currently of particular concern to many businesses in the UK. Engaging with key stakeholders of the business often pays off, occasionally unexpectedly (see Sainsbury’s twitter exchange below). 
Effectively communicating a transactional occurrence as a transformational corporate story is both critical to key stakeholders and employees alike, helping clarify policy and unite a team around a strategy. An email sent by the CEO of Microsoft was last week criticised in the FT for, at best, lacking in substance and vision and at worst being disingenuous; Satya Nadella claims to want Microsoft to help “every person on the planet”. A vague mission statement or product announcement that is shrouded in corporate speak and obscured by the egos of the executive team increasingly has a disproportionate effect on its reputation; a more forthwright and sensitive policy of internal and external communication is needed by many organisations. As demonstrated by Apple, social media can play a critical role in this. In fact the financial bale out of Greece was announced to the world, by the Greek Prime Minister, via Twitter – a clear demonstration of how central social media is to any important public announcement. 
Strengthening the case for a new model of communication to be deployed by organisations that find themselves in the public eye are the high number of number of corporate crises that have emerged recently. Most notably perhaps was the Thomas Cook saga that played out acrimoniously in the ‘Twittersphere’. 
In the wake of a report into a tragic accident that left two children dead in 2004, the company seemed to display an unyielding, inhuman corporate face to the affected parties. Having taken legal advice, the company refused to apologise for the accident so as not to risk accepting liability. The inadequate response heralded a feeding frenzy with which those who frequent social media are accustomed to. Most significantly, however, it also forced a response from the company which, obviously delayed, seemed insincere despite its generosity. For many, the reputation of Thomas Cook has been tarnished permanently. For others in business it is the speed at which damage is done to a reputation that scares them from deploying it as a tool. 
Most people would concede that the social media ‘mob attitude’ can be unjustified, occasionally offensive and often wrong. Despite that, it does not matter if an attack on an organisation is right or not – the current reality is that brands are judged in the first instance on their reaction to and interaction with the public. Nor does it tend to make any difference whether the persecuted has an account or not. Being social media savvy can help build a reputations and, by opening a channel of communication with customers can help to quickly react, diffusing anger and potentially resolving any issue on an individual basis before it manifests itself as an organisational PR disaster. 
Social media acts to bring the customer and stakeholders closer to the core of the business. Appropriate responses can be an extremely effective way of influencing perceptions. The medium represents more than just instantaneous “dunk in the dark” (during the 34 minute blackout in the Superbowl) Oreo type publicity stunt opportunities that might ‘go viral’, or ‘break the internet’. Instead it should be considered a high priority in the design of most organisational strategies. This is because the medium encourages clear, strong and principled communication that can help organisations to communicate in line with their moral obligations. It was this failure by Thomas Cook, following the advice of their legal team, that was to find them in such a mess.