For more than a decade, I have worked tirelessly to maintain my status as a recognized global expert on employer branding. I have advised numerous firms; developed positioning methodologies now in use by many HR consultancies and recruitment marketing firms; given dozens of employer branding presentations; and have even written a book on the topic.
Despite many successes, it’s time to admit that a major employer branding principle is no longer true: that corporations can own or control their employer brand image.
The premise was that corporations could proactively put together a plan to win awards as excellent places to work, secure mention in news pieces and editorials, participate in case studies, and be talked about at industry events. Because corporations were coordinating nearly all of the information that made them visible, it was possible to heavily influence how they were perceived.
It was a practice that made firms like Google, Starbucks, GE, IBM, Microsoft, and HP famous as great places to work. However, that was then and this is now.
While it is still possible to heavily influence perception with well-managed efforts, significant growth in social media, peer-to-peer content publishing, and online rating services have shifted a majority of the power away from the corporate employer brand manager to the masses. The shift in power renders all but the most strategic and well-executed efforts virtually ineffective.
To those who actively engage and publish their story, their perception is reality, even if the experiences that led them to their perception are not common. Their points of view are often emotionally charged, personal, and therefore, significantly more trusted as fact by those you need to influence than corporate, generic dribble.
Odds are, the people most influencing your employer brand are people you have never met.
Other People Now Own Your Employer Brand Image
Control provides comfort to senior talent management executives, and for years, they have been comfortable. No matter how much the employee experience differed from the overly positive perspective they sold to candidates and organizational stakeholders, they could get away with pushing out their message.
While many product brand marketers learned long ago that if the experience with the product didn’t match the brand positioning, consumers would revolt, few in HR were paying attention. Many HR leaders may ignore or discount the facts, but the truth is that a fundamental shift has occurred, and like it or not, the years of putting forward a brand identity not tied to reality are over. Some organizations have been successful in silencing organizational critics through threat of legal action, but the majority of attempts backfire, ultimately making the criticisms even more visible.
The New Owners of Employer Brands
The new owners are a complicated mix of individuals who use a variety of communication channels to influence your brand without your knowledge, consent, or guidance. The array of contributors grows more complex daily, and the most prominent groups of brand influencers include:
- Bloggers – blogs have been around for quite some time, and while it used to hold true that only 1:100 people active online were contributing original content, a vast array of new online services has significantly reduced that ratio. Today, thousands of independent-minded individuals are posting comments about their day at work, their boss from hell, the idiot that just got hired, the stupidity of HR actions, the lunacy of senior leadership, and all those little liability secrets corporate security would like to keep buried. They communicate without fear and without purpose. Psychological studies have shown that we are nearly three times more likely to consume negative information than positive information (there is a reason the nightly news focuses on the negative), which means that we are significantly more likely to share the bad stories versus the good ones. We are also prone to exaggeration and sensationalizing, but rarely does that fact get considered when folks are reading peer-produced commentary about life at XYZ Corp.
- Social media users – Social media isn’t a regional thing, it isn’t an economic thing, and it isn’t a political thing. It is, however, a technology concept that is enabling a fundamental shift in how people learn and communicate. From sites like Facebook and MySpace in the United States to QZone in China or Hyves in the Netherlands, millions of people are sharing the details of their daily lives with friends, family, coworkers, and virtual strangers. In minutes, users can spread facts, rumors, pictures, or innuendos to thousands and thousands of individuals around the world. Negative videos like “Comcast sucks” that would have in the past been seen by only a handful of close friends are now seen by millions. Social media users can exert phenomenal pressure by using the grapevine to highlight stories many organizations would rather people not hear about.
- People active on Twitter – Twitter deserves special attention among the social media outlets because it is so instantaneous. Just as political events in Iran were instantly Tweeted about, so are the negative experiences of your employees, and even your customers. Individuals being laid off can now provide a “blow-by-blow” account of the badly handled termination process and share their pain instantly with thousands.
- Texters on mobile phones – these individuals utilize this omnipresent 24/7 channel to both receive and send news about your firm, its employees, and your practices.
- Commercial websites – there are numerous “what your employees are saying” sites like Vault, the forums at Indeed, or glassdoor.com, that specialize in sharing messages about what it’s like to work at a firm with individuals considering employment. While most make some attempt to validate that the comment contributors have worked or currently work for the organizations in questions, not all do. Prominent firms like Coca Cola, Best Buy, and Starbucks have been targeted by unfriendly “anti-firm” websites that exist merely to spread a combination of real, half-truths, and untruths about the firms.
- Industry and profession-specific forums – current employees, former employees, investors, and individuals who have merely read about your firm can post questions about what it’s like to work at your firm (or answer them) on numerous and quite active professional association website forums or independent listservers.
- Internet groups – Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn allow individuals with similar interests to form groups that can help to connect individuals who share common interests and likes/dislikes about your firm.
- Internet show hosts – there are numerous Internet voice and video casts (some associated with traditional media outlets and others that are just independent). These shows frequently include interviews with individuals who, without your knowledge or permission, say both good and bad things about what it’s like to work at your firm. Videoblogger and avid social network user Philip DeFranco demonstrated the power of the approach to take on even the most powerful litigation-bound employer, Wal-Mart, in response to fine print in Wal-Mart’s self-funded insurance plan that allows the employer to cease damage awards received by plan participants.
- Social bookmarking service users – individuals who tag a story with a “Digg” or related online bookmark can proactively increase the visibility of any negative story, whether you like it or not.
- Search engine managers – these individuals differ in that they probably don’t have a particular bias toward or against business or any particular firm; however, the design of search algorithms influence what type of messages about your firm that others can readily see.
Individuals who are likely to be the most active in shaping your employer brand on these communications channels include:
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- Current employees – hundreds or even thousands of your employees who sometimes innocently and sometimes purposely post Tweets or wall postings provide insight into what it’s like to work at your firm. Even something as innocuous as a LinkedIn profile might lead some to make assumptions about your firm as an employer.
- Former employees – you may have thought they liked you, but what they say after they leave is more likely the reality. From disgruntled alumni to employees recently laid off, the information collective is alive with former employees recounting their experience.
- Vendors – those current and former vendors who have had both a positive and negative business relationship with your firm can now easily spread their perceptions and experiences over the Internet to anyone that will listen.
- Anti-business types – individuals who are looking for opportunities to blame corporations for a variety of economic and environmental problems are quite active on the Internet. Some are actually quite effective in not just spreading Internet messages but also in creating mass letter-writing campaigns and even actual face-to-face meetings or protests.
Peer-Produced Content Is More Credible
If you were to fact-check most blogs, Tweets, or YouTube videos, most would be considered fallacious. Yet survey after survey shows that most individuals in general (and net-generation individuals in particular) believe peer-produced content over traditional news or print media content.
You can bemoan this fact all you want, but statements on your corporate website, in your employment ads, or in press releases will almost always be viewed as less credible than a comment from a blogger who is passing along an innuendo that might have no basis in fact.
Messages from Others Are Extremely Hard to Counter
As Internet users become more prolific, the ability of corporations to monitor and respond to every channel is significantly diminished. If several hundred people outside the organization are producing content, like it or not, there is little your small team can do to match that scale (short of building a brand army of employees inside the organization to push positive commentary).
Responding to negative commentary online isn’t a good idea, as your response makes the original content both more visible and more charged.
Given the bleak picture and the almost daily erosion of control over your brand image, you might consider just giving up, but I urge you not to make that mistake.
While you no longer control your employer brand, you can become more aware of your actual brand — especially the negative comments being posted about your firm. Learn to use tools like search engine alerts, blog search sites, and Twitter archive searches. Use search engine optimization techniques to ensure the content you want to be most visible becomes most visible, and work to hide negative comments.
Smart brand managers can use employees who are active on the Internet to increase the number of positive brand messengers. Develop plans to influence key opinion leaders by making more authentic and candid (read: less perfect) stories and examples available to them. I’ll cover the approaches you can use to proactively influence your brand in coming articles.
If you have corporate experience operating an employment branding function, I solicit your additions on this loss of brand control topic. Also, if you have questions you would like answered on corporate employer branding, you are encouraged to post them in response to this article.