Employer Branding: The Critical Audiences

Kevin KeohaneAugust 7, 20199 min

You’d be surprised how many books/blogs/articles about employee communications say a lot about theory, communication channels (media) and content… and very little about employees. You know, human resources. Human beings, with whom you are seeking to engage. Those things we call “our most valuable asset” in every single annual review printed today.

If you forget your audience, and if your audience – their desires, needs and preferences – are not at the heart of everything you communicate, your organization will never reach its full potential. It’s time to ask the hard (easy) questions, like:

  • Do we really know what gets people out of bed in the morning?
  • Do we know who people trust, where and to whom they turn to for the most up-to-date information?

It’s important to have intelligence about your audience – things you know, things you can assume, things you don’t know, things about similar audiences in similar situations. While we can talk a lot more about measurement, it’s important to note that audience intelligence isn’t just about employee surveys and focus groups. It’s OK to follow instincts and experience as well.

Data is necessary, but what makes it useful is what you do with it. Insight and judgement also matter (which can exist without data).

School Leavers, Graduates and Experiences Hires

How do you hire the best people who will deliver great results? There is no one size fits all solution, because these audiences are at different life stages and have different needs, requirements and priorities. There are also cultural factors that can have a tremendous impact; what South Americans seek in their careers is different from Europeans. We also now have three generations (soon to be four) in our workplaces, and while generational theory has its limitations, it’s still something we need to take into account.

With school leavers and graduates, what appeals is likely to be a combination of things: egalitarian culture, prestige, rapid career development, work-life balance, and “meaningful” work. With experienced hires, it’s likely to be seeing the results of their work and providing challenges and opportunities for personal development.

What motivates somebody to join your organization isn’t necessarily what will motivate them to stay. People’s needs and ambitions change over time, so you’ll need to take that into account.

Most research says the same thing. What people seek is:

  • Following their passion,
  • Making an impact,
  • Doing interesting work with autonomy,
  • Working with interesting people,
  • Getting recognition, and
  • Being rewarded.

If you are in a sector that is perceived as less attractive (say, retail) you’ll need to work hard to ensure that what you say brings to life what is, in reality, a challenging, fast-paced career where sharp people move ahead quickly. Many of the people who might thrive in your organization might never consider working in it; find out who and where they are.

Remember too that these people are human beings who consume a variety of media to find out information about you and your organization.

So don’t just rely on your careers site (although it is critically important), or job boards, or recruitment agencies. You’ll need to make sure you’re working PR channels, social media, word of mouth and other ways of enhancing your reputation as a place to work for all these audiences. Hiring head hunters, agencies and recruitment advertising might not be the only solution, either.

Key Audience: Leaders

Leaders are interested in delivering results. Not only improvements in business performance (objective), but also in how they are perceived (subjective/personal). Make sure that they can see how effective communication delivers both.

Clearly, leaders are a critical audience. They are often the public face of the organization externally. Internally, they set the tone in terms of attitude, performance and behavior for the entire organization. It’s a cliché, but a good one – great leaders walk the talk.

While it’s often assumed that good communication skills are a requirement to progress from management to leadership, in reality this is often not the case. (Some very successful leaders are appallingly poor communicators, usually because of this very assumption). Leaders need to be equipped to perform their employee communication roles, just as they need to be equipped to perform their many other roles (including external communication).

Make the case – critical to success with this audience is, of course, making the business case. It’s essential to ensure that leaders see employee communication as a value-creating investment, and not an optional expense. Be sure you are always equipped with the facts and data you need to support your communication efforts.

Employee engagement is about value creation both by and for employees.

Educate And Engage – another key approach is to ensure that leaders are engaged in crafting the communications within the organization. Given most leaders’ limited time, this can be extremely challenging. On the other hand, great leaders in some leading organizations typically dedicate 20 percent of their time (one day per week) to internal and employee communications.

Get Upstream – communication and engagement strategy can help shape and improve business, HR, change, and brand performance. The further downstream communicators are, the less likely they’ll be able to make an impact. This ensures communication creates value for the business, and doesn’t just move information around.

Systems Thinking – conventional wisdom seems to suggest specialization and a competence-driven approach to employee communications is essential. Nothing could be further from the truth. The emergence and gathering momentum of design thinking amply demonstrates that every other strategic and creative profession is moving in exactly the opposite direction.

We have entered an age of multi-specialism that has reduced the traditional technical skills of professional communicators to a hygiene factor. An increasingly complex and fast-moving world poses leadership challenges that deep functional communication expertise alone is ill-equipped to deal with. You need to be able to connect the dots.

In an increasingly complex, ambiguous, diverse, and unstable world, what counts is the ability to connect the dots. It’s not about becoming incrementally better at things you already do. It is about trying new approaches and employing a wider range of problem solving skills with reference to The whole system – not just the microcosm called internal communications.

So, while it has become a truism that leaders must walk the talk and practice what they preach, what is equally important is that they buy into and not only understand, but actively demonstrate and champion, your engagement effort.

If your leaders are saying one thing and doing another, your engagement effort will suffer.

Key Audience: Functional Heads

Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, there will be a lot less mess to clean up if you’ve worked across silos. (Plus, leaders love it when people consult each other without being told to.)

Few books on the topic address the importance of a key management and leadership group – functional leaders. Whether finance, marketing, HR, IT, facilities, corporate communications, while these people are “leaders” and “managers” they also need special consideration regarding their part of the organization.

It’s important to make sure that any communication with employees past, present and future takes into account what the input, effect and likely output might be on different parts of the organization. Since organizations are complex systems, it can be hard to precisely predict outcomes, but doing a bit of homework and engaging with the wider functional network is often the difference between success and embarrassment.

Don’t Assume They Aren’t Affected – it’s possible that what you plan to communicate about brand, HR, change or whatever, might have an impact on what the function is doing. It could be as simple as timing things to avoid information overload, or as complicated as re-thinking your approach based on valuable input from functional leads.

Educate And Engage – it never hurts to involve people in other Kingdoms to share ideas, approaches and information. You might learn something, and they might learn something (or even flatter you and steal your ideas).

Score Points – leadership loves it when people consult each other without being told to.

It seems blindingly obvious, but important programs can fail before launch because someone in a remote part of the organization wasn’t involved or consulted. Just ask.

Key Audience: Line Managers

Who is best placed to connect organizational and individual goals? Line managers. Who is least empowered, equipped and rewarded for communicating well? 

Clearly, line managers are a critical audience, too. They are often (though not always) the most trusted source of information to employees about the organization and what is happening in it. Like leaders, line managers need to be equipped to perform their employee communication and engagement role – from attraction and recruitment, through to career development and managing exits effectively. In high-performing organizations, line managers are typically equipped with regular training and materials to help them fulfill their role as key communicators and culture carriers within the organization.

Make It Easy – time-starved line managers know they need to communicate; often they don’t know what, when, why and how. Make it easy by providing consistent, credible, easy to use materials and content.

Empower Face-To-Face Approaches – line managers have the most face-to-face opportunities with employees, so make the maximum possible use of this approach with this audience.

Join It Up – help line managers understand, and equip them to articulate, how different strands in the organization’s strategy, from brand to vision to change to HR, fit into their day-to-day jobs. If they get it, chances are their people will also get it.

Most current communication research demonstrates that the most important and trusted communicator to employees is the line manager. Engagement efforts should include this group not only as an audience to inform, but a group to equip and empower with the tools to ensure employees can make the engagement effort relevant to their part of the business and their day-to-day jobs.

Equip, empower, recognize and reward good communication by managers.

Key Audience: Employees

Do yourself a favor: forget push vs. pull, top-down vs. bottom-up vs. peer-to-peer models of communication. What should you be doing? All of them.

Getting employee communication right is part art and part science. It’s easy to do it very badly. With painstaking effort, it can be done in a depressingly average way.

It’s also easy to do it really well. But it still takes effort. If you remember what gets people out of bed in the morning, you’re half way there.

Someone once said, “People want to do a good job. They don’t go to work to be disengaged and have a bad attitude. That’s something we do to them, day after day, in the way me manage them and communicate with them.”

A lot of lip service is given to “two-way communication” versus “top-down” communication versus “bottom-up” communication. Guess what? All three are needed.

  • How employees interact with each other and with your stakeholders has a massive impact on the performance of your organization.
  • How you engage and communicate effectively with employees is driven by their needs, not your needs.
  • It’s never been easier to talk with employees and get them talking.

Employees want to do a good job. It’s usually a matter of making sure you are getting the right information to them in the right way at the right time. This means thinking about what’s important to them, not what’s important to you.

Most research in employee engagement indicates that at any given time, only about 1/3 of employees are actively “engaged” in their jobs and their organizations.

The remaining 2/3 are either not actively engaged, or worse, could even be actively pissed off at you and say mean things to their friends about you whenever they can. Not good for your reputation.

Making sure that the engagement effort provides a clear and compelling case is important, but equally important is making sure that employees understand what the effort means to the organization, their part of the organization, their team and their own role on a very real, day to day basis. It’s also about what is provided in return, too.

Engaging people happens within a complex system. A change in one part of the system has effects on other parts. Make sure they are interconnected.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Kevin Keohane, adapted from his book Brand and Talent 

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