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Recruiting practices affect reputation

Public relations and the people function (a.k.a human resources) have significant overlap, because both deal with the employee public.

Public relations is broader because employees constitute only one of the several relevant publics it deals with for the organization, whereas they represent the main and likely sole public that the people function deals with.

Recruiters are a primary point of contact with the organization, for prospective employees and the talent pool. Recruiting practices, and the philosophies that power them, can and do influence the way people perceive the organization.

The impact of recruiting practices on people is all the more relevant, considering that fresh recruits are more likely to be millennials and Generation Zers who share opinions liberally, indiscriminately, and compulsively on social media.

From a communication and reputation-building perspective, every employee of an organization is an unofficial (or official) bearer of its standard in their social networks, with the power to affect an employer’s reputation, even after they have left said employer.

This post details some grating practices favoured by certain unenlightened organizations.

The interviewing process

First, we must define the term “interview”.

It may be thought of as a view or an assessment of fit between two people or entities – where they “question, consult, or evaluate each other”. Despite what many recruiters believe, it is not a unilateral affair. The candidates are evaluating the organization (represented in this instance by the recruiter) as well.

It is tempting for the organization to purchase standardized interview questionnaires from an external vendor. HR managers (here we’ll use the term we dislike — “resources” — as it represents the viewpoint of the corporate cultures we are talking about) may feel this offers consistency in the information sought and recorded. It might even make it easier to mathematically rate interviewees using such a standard format (even though the math usually dissuades many “people-oriented” recruiters from doing such rating).

There are many issues with such standardized questionnaires.

For one, they are too rigid. A true interview must be flexible. Sometimes it must delve into certain aspects of a candidacy more deeply; at other times it must pass over paths of inquiry that are seemingly irrelevant. Certain responses may trigger greater interest and may necessitate deviations and ramifications that are not part of the standardized form.

For another, they can be cracked easily. A reasonable cranium with Internet access can access several standardized questionnaires and can prepare spiffy answers for them.

In our opinion, an organization does not need someone who can tell them exactly what they want to hear. They need someone who can do the job, open up new lines of thought and resultant action, and gels with the organizational culture. If the right fit is achieved, then there is a lesser chance of the employee leaving, and of the organization finding the employee unsuitable to its culture.

Most times, form questionnaires are ineffective in properly assessing a candidate.

We would recommend having two sets of questions:

  • Some standard such as the icebreaker and seeking some general background.
  • Others that are written specifically for that particular candidate, after the search committee has reviewed their résumé.

The greenhorn interviewer

One flabbergasting practice in some organizations is asking junior recruiters to shortlist executive level senior candidates. It is bad enough that the shortlisting for senior positions is relegated to newbies – because it risks the organization losing out on worthy candidates and on creating a stronger shortlist.

It is worse that junior recruiters are also asked to interview for senior positions.

Would it not show more respect to candidates, and also project a less-unhinged image of the corporation, if senior recruiters were charged with interviewing senior candidates?

It is humiliating and annoying when veterans of many wars and many achievements have to sit through interviews conducted by inexperienced junior recruiters with insufferable delusions of personal grandeur, reading robotically off standardized questionnaires without any consideration for the seniority and experience (not just in an organization but on the larger canvas of life) of such people. Said interviewers may not even have the ability or knowledge to appreciate the situations these veterans have braved.

There is nothing wrong with the junior-ness of recruiters or employees; most people (save privileged kids who parachute in on their parents’ personal connections into cushy managerial positions on their first visit to the office) start out as entry-level junior employees. It is the fact that they don’t have the experience or knowledge to screen and interview senior candidates. Also objectionable is the stench of arrogance radiated by some junior recruiters when interviewing people far more capable and competent than they are (at that point in time, because there is always the prospect of personal and professional improvement with time and experience).

A better practice would be to have a senior recruiter conduct the interview while the junior recruiter observes.

Outsourced interviewing and reference checking

Another peculiar trend is companies outsourcing the interviewing and reference checking process.

Reference checking involves a certain sixth sense, an intuition, to properly assess whether a candidate can be part of the organization in a manner that is beneficial and satisfactory to both parties.

This is best done by an insider, who knows the intricacies, power structures, cracks in the armour, and office politics as only an insider would. An insider is then best qualified to evaluate whether a candidate would be able to survive, thrive and contribute in the realities of the organizational culture.

We don’t deny that there is cost savings and value in outsourcing certain aspects of business operations. But interviewing and checking references should not be two of them.

Discourtesy post-interview

Past the 2007 stock market crash and the consequent economic crisis, recruiters found themselves in a place of power – because legions of laid-off people were looking for new jobs.

The fires of crises reveal the true nature and character of people, just as fire revealed the truth in Sauron’s One Ring (sorry, we couldn’t resist the Lord of the Rings reference).

Recruiters could not be bothered to acknowledge inquiries, return phone calls, or send courtesy emails. They had a handy reason: they were too busy to be courteous to the large numbers.

Since automation is at an all-time high, it seems unreasonable that emails to candidates could not be programmed to go out at different stages in the recruitment process. Many companies send out notices of regret to unsuccessful candidates – and that is fine.

But the aura of self-importance appears to have persisted to date in many organizational recruiters, who fail to return calls from short-listed candidates for senior positions.

Several former colleagues and friends have been astonished that after having gone through four interviews, lunch and dinner meetings with the team to assess cultural fit, and doing a sample (and free) project for the employer, they wouldn’t hear from the recruiters for as long as three weeks. The candidates had to call repeatedly before an unapologetic recruiter would say nonchalantly that the company had selected another candidate.

The unbelievably good first day

On LinkedIn and other sites, people frequently post photos of the desk of a new employee – complete with a laptop, pens, pencils, branded plastic water bottle, post-its and the like. Comments abound praising the company and its human resources team; and lusting after such a utopian work culture. The current employer is sufficiently buttered up by the new recruit’s enthusiasm and loyalty as demonstrated by said LinkedIn post.

From experience, we can suggest it would be more revealing to look at what comes after this inviting (almost suspiciously sugary) picture of a workstation.

What if the employee is expected to sign over their personal life, privacy and other prospects to this one job? What if the company forces the employee to work 90-hour weeks with no weekends? What if one’s eyesight is assaulted and weakened by long hours in front of computer screens in cramped cubicles? What if health is sacrificed by such unnatural expectations of a human body, mind and spirit?

The old adage holds good: If something looks or sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

E-orientation

Many corporations now have new hire e-orientation and e-training. It is most attractive for the HR department. All they have to do is herd unsuspecting hires into a closed room, plonk them in front of computers with headsets, and leave them there for a few days to complete their e-orientation. The software tests them, reports the scores electronically to the HR team, who get to provide quantitative reports to the executive team. And they don’t even have to be in the same room as the abandoned and dazed fresh recruits.

Moving everything online is not the grand panacea to people management. By very definition, human resources requires interaction with humans.

It is convenient to outsource orientation to an external provider. If anything goes wrong, there is someone to point an accusatory finger at. Legal counsel would probably be satisfied.

Many people seem oblivious to the fact that orientation and new-hire onboarding process can influence an organization’s reputation. What does it say about an organization’s attitude toward its people when its HR representatives refuse to have contact with new hires during orientation?

By the way, some of the animation in these e-orientation modules is so ridiculous that early cartoons from the 1920s would be far better. Stick figures moving awkwardly like puppets with broken strings in simulated lunchroom conversations hardly does any favours for the perception of the HR department.

Here’s a radical thought: why not use human beings to talk to human beings? It seemed to have worked for most of human life on this planet, before the appearance of e-orientation over the last 15 odd years. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that maybe, just maybe, humanness still works?

Even in the world of online education, there is still human contact via video, voice, emails and online real-time discussions with the instructor.

We are not advocating against technology. We are railing against this self-congratulatory and misguided view that technology can completely replace human contact where humans are concerned, as also the complete detachment of the HR department from new-hire orientation.

The Verafluenti aperçu

Let recruiting and new hire orientation practices come from a place of compassion and decency. Huge profits and stashes of untold riches in bank vaults does not give organizations the right to discard kindness, courtesy and grace.

Every interaction with publics contributes to an organization’s reputation and character. In recessions and depressions, people may stomach such corporate callousness, out of a desperate need for a paycheck. But at the first sign of a stronger economy, talented people will leave such companies in droves.

Then again, perhaps some organizations simply do not care, because they feel there are enough needy fish in the workforce sea willing to enter the corporate net and become indentured zombies.

This post is for those organizations that have a conscience and appreciate the impact of every organizational practice on its reputation and more importantly on people, families and society.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

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Careers belong to individuals, jobs to employers

Legend speaks of a time when an apprentice joined an enterprise, learned the trade under various masters, enhanced his or her skills, moved up in responsibility and authority, and in the process spent an entire lifetime with that enterprise. The leaders of the enterprise took good care of their people, rewarding them for their loyalty and fealty; nurturing their talents; helping them on their journey to become better professionals.

It was the time when a concept called “career” was meaningful.

In the land of the rising sun, this concept was particularly in the ascendant till the 1970s and possibly the 1980s. People joined an organization and remained there till they retired. The same could be said of many companies in the United States and India where people worked in mills, assembly lines, manufacturing plants, and industries all their lives.

This is in contrast with today’s norm where people flit from company to company over the course of their work lives. In fact, times have changed so much that it is viewed as a weakness if one has only a single employer shown on their résumé. Modern recruiters would frown upon their “inadequate breadth of experience” and “lack of initiative and ambition” (more about the blasé recruitment techniques of the present day in another post).

 

The hands that sow the seeds

Employees are hardly to blame. They are merely adapting to the signs of the times as best as they can, to do the best they can, for themselves and their families.

It is the nature of employers that is responsible for much of this mindset and trend.

The way they behave and treat their people, employers of this age do not merit the dedication of people’s entire professional careers to them.

There is little genuineness or humanness in a significant number of corporations. When profit is the only thing that matters, when anything done for people is largely eyewash or intended for publicity, when the bare minimum legally-required is the standard for people’s welfare, then why would people stay?

This has begotten acute selfishness – on the part of employers and resultantly on the part of employees.

People offer their skills, but very often, not their passion or deepest drive. They stay only till they find another employer who offers more money and better prospects of climbing the corporate hierarchy.  

How can the average employee be faulted for such actions, when even CEOs keep jumping ship (loaded with ludicrously exorbitant severance packages) only to resurface in another company (for an even higher pay). At that level, there is the added advantage of being immune to poor performance in preceding companies. If that is the behavior of the so-called corporate role models, then why would a junior employee be expected to stay?

 

Movement is not taboo

Now, it is not always a bad thing for an individual to leave a company. There are many instances when it becomes the logical and desired course of action. When the culture, environment and practices of a company are anathema to an individual’s personal values, ethics and work style, it is best for one to move out and find a more compatible company. In fact, it is the hallmark of any intelligent person to resign from toxic quagmires in search of something they enjoy and like.

Sometimes, an individual simply yearns for a change – to sample the variety that a different organization in a different line of work, perhaps in a different city or a different country would offer. There is then the multi-industry and often multi-dimensional experience to be gained by such movement.

No! Movement, change and progression are not bad at all.

But we also recognize that such movement need not be the norm; it can be the exception. Some individuals would rather concentrate on doing the job well than constantly look for another job. Such people like the stability that comes from an assured job and income, based on which they can buy homes, raise families, plan for their children’s university education, their own retirement, and the like.

In the latter scenario, a significant portion of their thoughts, ideas and time go into perpetual job-hunting which means that subsequently fewer thoughts and ideas and less time go to the performance of the job on hand with the current employer.

From an employer perspective, high employee turnover means higher hiring and training costs, not to mention the cost of the time lost while people are navigating the learning curve.

In spite of these home truths that lie in plain sight, companies either don’t realize or won’t acknowledge that their practices sow the seeds that cause this trend.

 

Experience deserves respect

As people get older, there is the risk of them becoming less desirable in the workforce.

Many companies and fresh-out-of-college recruiters forget that experience is an invaluable asset to any organization. There are myriad instances in a corporation where youthful enthusiasm and fire cannot get the job done without the insight and steadying hand of experience.

Does it not then follow logically that senior employees must be treated well and with respect instead of as dinosaurs on their way to sure extinction? There are few things more insulting and hurtful in someone’s professional life than to be treated as a useless vestigial organ.

It is a frightening prospect after, say 20 years with a company — when one is accustomed to a certain office decorated with family photos and certificates of achievement, a certain route to get to the workplace, a familiar group of people to work with, and favourite restaurants for lunch around the office – to suddenly receive a pink slip and be frog-marched like a thief out of what was a second home.

Such a person would find one’s belief in a “career” with that one organization shattered.

Thinking philosophically, beyond the confines of corporate cubbyholes, everything in life has a purpose. Just as the young have a purpose in an organization, so do the older and experienced people. Is it so difficult to understand this and apply it to a corporation?

 

What employers can do

Companies may claim it is the employees who are the problem. They seldom stay, so why should an employer do anything more than the minimum for a revolving employee population?

We have an observation. Aren’t companies far more powerful than the average employee? Don’t companies have way more resources than the average employee? With power must come a sense of responsibility – a desire and willingness to do what is right.

Instead of waiting for employees to wag their tails and stay in a bad kennel, could not the master try and build a better kennel and home first?

If there is something positive to be done, wouldn’t an employer want to be the first mover?

If companies do want people to spend more of their working lives – their professional careers – with them, then they must offer opportunity, clarity, commitment and genuine compassion for people’s wellbeing. Measures could include the following:

  • Better employee relations.
  • Clear path to advancement (to cater to ambitious aspiring employees).
  • Opportunities to learn and improve themselves.
  • Tangible and intangible appreciation and rewards for good work.
  • Actions to make it a place that people look forward to spending the major portion of their day in.

The above suggestions straddle the people function and the PR function (if you want to know why we don’t use the detestable terms “HR” or “human capital”, please read this blog post).

One wonders why the “people” people are not leading such a charge. Why are many of them hiding behind policy statements, links to online orientation courses, payroll software, and PeopleSoft screens?

 

Corporate alumni relations charade

A new development is the institution of alumni relations programs by corporations. They maintain a database of people who have left the company and keep sending them newsletters and email invitations to allegedly exclusive events. Some companies shamelessly restrict such efforts to people above a certain level – only people with director, vice president, board member or other lofty phrases in their new job title shall be worthy of such attention.

Many employers forget that these so-called alumni made a conscious decision to leave, for a variety of reasons, one of which could be (and usually is) an unconducive work environment. It is quite possible that a significant majority of them do not care about the employers they have left behind, or even want to hear from them.

Inexplicably, it is often the worst-offending companies with noxious corporate cultures that have such alumni relations programs.

Yet, this effort is lauded as important to “maintain key relations” with past employees. The ugly truth is that such efforts are done with the purpose of somehow squeezing more revenue out of the new employers of these so-called alumni, or to attempt poaching them when they are doing well elsewhere.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

When we start hiring, we will call the opportunities what they truly are – jobs.

We don’t expect people to stay with us all their lives – it would be unrealistic. We would love it if they did. But we are also pragmatic enough to recognize the rather slim probability of this.

If and when they want to leave, we would bid them a fond farewell with good letters of reference (assuming they have performed ethically) and wish them the best in their “careers”. For us, helping people become better professionals and human beings is far more important than trying to sound pompous.

In this age, individuals will likely have a career made up of several jobs with several companies. It may sound grandiose to position a role with one company as a career instead of a job – another instance of the corporate malaise to use jargon and self-aggrandize.

A career belongs to an individual. Jobs are what companies offer. We would be one such job in what we hope will be illustrious careers. We will do our best to make this one job with us as fulfilling, educative and useful as possible.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee

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‘More with less’: Cute, crazy and cruel

“In these challenging times, we must do more with less and demonstrate the true spirit of our corporation. We will continue to be guided by our core values of integrity, teamwork, leadership, community involvement and our commitment to the well-being of our staff…”

So might ring a familiar message from the top echelons of a corporation when the economy is in the doldrums and pink slips haunt the waking and sleeping hours of employees.

It is clichéd. It can be cut and pasted across corporations. It is self-contradictory.

As this article will attempt to demonstrate, a call to do more with less is inconsistent with the health and wellbeing of people. Simply placing two contradictory statements side by side in one message does not make them congruous.

This incantation serves a dual purpose – as a purported rationale for the people whose jobs have been terminated; and as a tacit warning to people who have escaped the axe (at least this time around) to work to the bone if they hope to remain with the organization in question.

When the economy is in a blue funk, jobs are difficult to come by. With mortgage and bill payments flying incessantly in their faces, people will make sacrifices to keep a source of income. Yet, how many executives actually comprehend the impact of their “do more with less” slogan on the average employee’s life?

Mothers yell at toddlers riddled with high fever because they are unable to concentrate on the work overload they have brought home and are tackling late into the night. Fathers miss maiden recitals and special moments in their children’s lives. Men forget birthdays and anniversaries (more than usual) and land into trouble with their partners. Women are overwrought with balancing personal lives, families and work. 

How can management put a price on such affliction?

 

Only so much

An individual can at any time only take on a load that his or her limits would permit. Forcing one to carry a heavier load will result in breakage of mental health, physical health, wellbeing and ultimately (of immense interest to corporations) productivity. But of course, in an economic recession, companies have a pool of ready and willing individuals to subject to the same dolour till they break. Human beings then truly become the detestable “human capital” – objects that are replaceable when broken.

The rule of breakage beyond maximum load is easy enough to understand in the case of inanimate machines. But for some inexplicable reason, many in corporate management cannot see — or refuse to see – this holds good for human beings as well.

You cannot make someone do the work normally handled by, say three people, without causing mental and physical damage to that person. 

 

Efficiency is laudable, duress is not

We are not against the idea of minimizing the effort to produce the same output. This is of course the definition of efficiency. And the principle may be worthily applied to processes that people have to handle – so that people can produce superior results with lesser effort. In the equation below, the effort is to enhance the process – perhaps by using technology, alleviating wastage, or reducing bureaucracy — toward this end.

Output/input = Efficiency

But in the case of the “do more with less” slogan, the motivation is hardly altruistic. It is trying to reduce the number of people doing the input to produce — not just the same level of output as was earlier done with a larger number of people but – a higher volume of output. Each employee (or producer of talent and effort) has to be squeezed harder to do the work that was handled by more people.

If this argument holds water, then the slogan in question represents gross inefficiency that is purposely engineered.

 

Needs must … sometimes

Of course, there are times in life, when any individual has to reach into one’s reserves and pull off a superhuman effort. Powered by adrenaline, this is possible … sporadically.

This happens in an organizational context as well. Startups and entrepreneurial ventures require much hard work day after day till the point of breakthrough is achieved. But even in startups (at least the intelligent ones), the chaos is organized and there is a recognition of the need to decompress and unwind. Besides they also have the strong motivation of working for themselves and for something they believe in.

But to expect this day after day – with no break in sight – is unhealthy and inhuman.

There is a trend in many corporations under pressure from a leaden economy. If an employee delivers a heavy task that normally would have been done by more than one person (and sometimes three or four), management sends an email of appreciation, and then promptly dumps more of the same on that person. Purportedly, the logic is that if an employee can do it once, clearly they can do it again, and therefore must be given a larger quantity of the same.

This is a path to a nervous breakdown or a meltdown – you might as well suffuse the background with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it black”.

 

Affront to intelligence

Continuing to use (and abuse) the “more with less” concept communicates a blatant disrespect for employees’ intelligence (and the intelligence of any fellow human being because no one is so foolish as to buy into this balderdash).

On the one hand, a company declares that it only recruits the most capable and brilliant people. On the other, it is communicating with its words and actions that they think just the opposite of their employees – they are gullible nitwits who will believe any message put out by management.

One would do well to realize that people are not morons. They know what goes on behind the gloss and veneer. The truth has that uncomfortable quality of being present and of surfacing eventually.

“The truth has that uncomfortable quality of being present and of surfacing eventually.”

Trials reveal character

Tough economic phases are opportunities for an organization to show its true colours and sinew of character.

If a company has a choice, why not communicate a decent considerate image instead of that of a ruthless profit-lusting oppressor? If it honestly wishes the latter, then it might as well fire all its ethical communication and public relations professionals, because the company’s actions alone will be able to build that simulacrum.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

We would like to offer some thoughts on how to get work done in a recession while being kind to employees. Some of these suggestions may require the consideration of pertinent legal implications – such as the minimum wage and corporate law.

Get enough people for the job

Hire or retain enough people at a lower rate. The organization would then have the requisite number of people to get the job done, without being pernicious to life, limb and wellbeing. From the financial angle, the cost outlay remains the same with a lower pay per person. If nothing else, the organization would be spreading a limited income across a greater number of people (and resultantly their dependents). 

Another possible route is to hire interns (paid or unpaid) and volunteers to help discharge some of the more routine and labour-intensive work. In many nations, a pool of highly-qualified and talented immigrants is ready to take on any work to break into the local job market. This may not be an ideal solution but is something that could be considered in the short term while riding out the recession. The organization would also be offering valuable work experience for interns, volunteers and new immigrants, while easing the load on existing employees.

 

Roll up your sleeves

A rough economic patch presents an ideal window for senior managers and executives to remove their fine threads and feathers and step into the frontlines to work shoulder-to-shoulder with junior employees. It would provide another mind and body for the task at hand. It would demonstrate to employees that senior managers are capable of working on the ground. Managers would then learn the real problems and issues people face while discharging their duties. They could also teach and share their experiences with junior employees.

 

Take a cut at the top

This is far more controversial: let the top executives each take a percentage cut to their income. This would allow the retention of a healthy number of people to perform the job at hand.

It would be a rare show of unequivocal commitment to share in the good and bad fortunes of the enterprise with the average employee. From a PR perspective, how much greater would the stature of such an organization be?

 

Settle for less

Settle for less profit in favour of human wellbeing. The company may show less net profit in its income statement, and offer lower dividends for its shareholders; but it will reap untold benefits in the long term by way of reputation, earned loyalty and less damage to homes, families and society.

Not to mention the reputation such a company would acquire when it decides to accept a smaller profit in order to keep more people in jobs.

Most merciless actions are justified by holding up the need to appease shareholders. As any business analyst and most laypersons know, the economy moves cyclically through highs, lows and highs again. If the investors have done their research and placed their money in a business they have long-term confidence in, then they will get their returns eventually – it is just a question of waiting for a bit in the interest of the welfare of their fellow human beings.

 

Help people re-establish

Terminations are sometimes necessary. Unexpected external factors can wreak havoc on a business enterprise to the extent that it is unable to make enough revenue to keep all its original staff. People understand this, particularly in volatile industries.

Once the axe has fallen, many companies outsource career advisory and placement services for terminated employees. This is legal. The companies then have no pending obligation to the terminated employee. But what is legal is not always ethical or human.

So what if…just what if…companies decided to do it (if not in whole at least in part) in-house? Could not senior management use their network of contacts to at least put in a good word to find full-time, part-time or contract work for at least some of their laid off employees. While the human nature of such an action is paramount, the organization may also consider the image that is being communicated to its own employees and its laid off employees, as well as to the community. People would recognize the existence of a company with real character and a true human face instead of a stuck-on smiley-face mask.

 

One must appreciate that where human beings (and by extension nature) are concerned, it is only possible to “do more with more”, or to “do less with less”. The former is palatable enough for management in boom periods. It is the latter which is a bitter pill to swallow and the reaction to which is turning a blind eye and pretending it is untrue. Trying to force the “do more with less” illogic on human beings is a recipe for pain and suffering.

Some of the genuine and human facets of life are being decimated with this campaign of fear and covert intimidation. In a sense, it has indeed done more with less: it has caused more harm while expending comparatively less effort.

So ye managers of the world,

Be compassionate,

Be human,

Be genuine,

Be worthy of the half a chromosome

That separates you (and us)

From being chimpanzees.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.

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‘Tis the season for corporate halos

It is perhaps the only time of the year when proclitic words briefly enter the mainstream. When else can one encounter ‘tis, ‘twas, ‘twill and ‘twere in such abundance, especially in the phrase ‘tis the season for giving?

From a corporate perspective, ‘tis also the season for donning halos.

As soon as December turns the corner, many companies try to publicize their image as good corporate citizens. On the bandwagon of charity, they churn out charming stories on their websites and Intranets, in employee magazines; and (when the corporate coffers are brimming) print and television commercials, touting how they are helping the destitute.

Engulfed by such a sappy seasonal clutter in corporate and mass media, one sometimes wonders if the sound of trumpets cannot be discerned – being blown flamboyantly and perhaps a little vaingloriously?

 

The root motive

The motive for, and the process and manner in which charitable work is done, are worth examining. If either is driven by selfishness and a desire for self-aggrandizement, then the spirit of the act is no longer altruistic but exhibitionistic. The fact that money may flow to a needy cause is but a side-effect not the main effect.

True altruism does not require publicity, nor is publicity a reason for it. An organization works in the community because it is the right thing to do and because it is part of their organizational character.

Now, a PR practitioner would argue that communicating the good actions of the company is required to maintain its image in the community. And that would be true. It is indeed important for a business to nurture goodwill in the communities where it operates. It is one of the primary thrusts of public relations – communicating to develop and sustain good relations with an organization’s various publics, of which the community is one.

But building good relations need not always entail a bullhorn.

We are not carping at the community work that companies perform; rather we are curious about the swaggering affectation with which some of them try to extract mileage from it — the patting themselves on the back and labeling themselves good corporate citizens.

And so, in this post, we examine common organizational practices during December and raise some questions for discussion.

 

Humility endears

Most marketing and PR departments consider it the correct and accepted practice to call up radio stations, television crews, bloggers, and social media boosters, to raise a hue and cry about any charitable work they do.

The idea of doing something with no publicity may be revolting and illogical to them. Conditioned by many a bottom-line-fixated corporate culture, they cogitate incredulously: Why do something when there is no return on investment?

Our answer: Because it is the right thing to do. Because you are first and foremost a human being and a member of an interconnected society, before you are a cog in a corporation or a dropdown tertiary line item in the overhead cost statement.

The funny thing about a good deed done with noble intentions without strutting and clamouring for attention, is that it is talked about anyway. It ends up getting publicity which is led by third-parties who appreciate good work for the community.

Even viewed from a staid marketing perspective, earned publicity is far more credible for reputation than paid or owned publicity.

We just learned in the course of a casual conversation that three generations of a family, that owns a major telecommunications provider, volunteer together at a charity every year. Without pomp or ceremony, they serve food to the homeless and those whose fortunes have withered lately. It is not listed on the business’ website. We were told (not by the business, but by someone in the community) that they do this every year and shirk publicity for it. The experience reportedly grounds them and gives them a spiritual contentment that materialism cannot.

Yet here we are, talking about it appreciatively. And maybe one of our readers will share it in their networks.

This is the power of a good deed done with a true heart in a humble unpretentious manner.

 

The benevolent ‘forum’ provider

Many a company organizes drives – donations for food banks, charities, shelters and other social causes – in its offices. They believe they are being gracious enough to provide a forum for their employees to open their wallets. Some match employee donations, others don’t. But the company takes the credit for the aggregate donation. After all, isn’t it usually the senior executives who appear in photos holding the unnaturally-oversized facsimile of the corporate-branded cheque?

Does this not sound a tad unethical – to appropriate credit for the donations of individuals — especially when many companies boast the (cut-and-pasted) value of “integrity”?

Contrary to the doctrine that upholds this corporate Christmas practice, do individuals really require an organization’s umbrella under which alone they can be charitable?

Could they not just as easily go directly to the food bank; or even better offer a food hamper to a homeless person they meet on the streets?

People have lives outside their workplaces. They are perfectly capable of volunteering with and donating to causes close to their heart, without being part of a company. There are nonprofits whose aim is to enable such charitable donations. Why cannot employees go straight to them instead of dealing with the middleman?

Dropping items in a donation bin or money in a fundraising jar is convenient. Some can rest satisfied that they have done their bit for the season.

Performing kindnesses firsthand is not as convenient; but it is far more enriching. Serving soup and food at the local kitchen and seeing the guests savour every last bit of warm victuals on a cold wintry night, or gently winning the trust of a trembling rescue dog enough for him or her (they are beings with gender) to creep closer to you, are far more meaningful on a human level – both to the recipient and the giver.

Companies could find a more meaningful way of being of service to the community than providing donation bins and jars for employees and arranging transportation for such donations to charities under the corporate banner.

 

Divert the ‘bragging’ resources

If a corporation wants to do something good, let that alone be the guiding motivation. Much money, effort and resources are invested in corporate social responsibility (CSR) advertising. Why not divert them to the actual cause? Instead of bragging about what they did, they would actually be doing more for the cause.

Pray forgive the amplified figures, but honestly, where is the logic in spending half a million in advertising a company’s CSR image when it has donated a hundred thousand (of which a significant portion may have come from employees’ personal funds)? Why not donate the 600,000 directly to the cause?

 

The seasonal guilt trip

When examining corporate practices related to Yuletide philanthropy, one cannot help but observe certain habitudes on the other side of the equation – on the part of nonprofits seeking to raise funds.

Few television-watching eyeballs would have missed those advertisements with wretched images – usually of third-world nations. Are we the only ones who find it exploitative on two fronts – first, making a spectacle of someone’s grief and heartache; second, using that to make people feel guilty about their own better fortune and to compensate by donating money?

We are not advocating ignoring the real anguish and need in many parts of the world. It is the melodramatic crafty parading of such portraits that we find distasteful. Could they not use words to convey the dire circumstances? Or if they subscribe to the mildewed phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, could they not use drawings, illustrations or images that preserve the self-respect and privacy of people in distress?

(By the way, we don’t always agree with the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”. For those without sight, words are priceless, and a million pictures are worthless).

Instead of negative images and emotional blackmail, could they not talk of the positive impact that people’s donations would have – as many nonprofits do in their fundraising advertisements? Why not have messages of positivity instead of abject negativity?

Why always portray people as forlorn victims instead of individuals capable of determining their future if given a leg up?

We are not the only ones who hold this viewpoint. Several nonprofit leaders, advertisers, communicators and just decent citizens have voiced the same concern.

Linda Raftree, co-founder of Regarding Humanity observes that advertisements depicting “hopeless people in poverty” are ineffective in solving the actual issues that charities are seeking to address.

In her own astute words: “They don’t empower or create sustainable change”.

Empowerment of beneficiaries is the vital element for creating meaningful and impactful charity advertisements.

Tom Gibson’s well-crafted article on the subject remarks that people have had enough of guilt-trip advertising. He also notes a turnaround  in that “charity advertising is starting to focus on ideas of pride, of love, of growth – all the positive aspects that charitable work can bring.”

Perhaps something for communication professionals in such organizations to consider.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

Obsession with metrics

Many business scholars have propagated the viewpoint that if something cannot be measured, it does not merit inclusion as a performance indicator of any sort. This opinion has been applied to corporate citizenship as well.

So some companies count the number of hours that their employees have spent in CSR activities. The aggregate figure is announced in the CSR report, annual report, and other collateral.

Our stance is that the quality of service is far more relevant. Counting the number of hours feverishly may serve as a metric of some sort, but it is meaningless in capturing or getting a sense of the spirit and quality of service rendered. Someone may have loitered around at a charity, playing games on the smartphone and chatting on FaceTime. What meaning would the hours spent by such a character have in the context of service?

This is what is termed a measure of implementation  not impact. It tells only what was put out, not whether it had an impact for the cause. And in the aforementioned scenario, the very quality of the implementation is unacceptable.

Why the corporate obsession to convert everything and anything into numbers?

And how do you quantify the unquantifiable?

There are qualities in nature – and hopefully in some humans – that cannot and must not be quantified. Kindness, compassion, love for instance. Would managers tally the number of times the word “love” is said, regardless of whether it is said sarcastically, ironically, deridingly, disinterestedly, or menacingly by vicious sociopaths with silky tongues (for details, one could always pick up a copy of “Snakes in Suits”)?

 

A foundation of social service

So what can an organization do in terms of charity? We have some thoughts.

  • First, let corporate citizenship be a guiding value instead of a nice-to-have. This will have the domino effect of generating a positive effect on society in almost everything that is done. Many companies do this. It would be good for society if more organizations were encompassed by this principle.
  • The greatest value that a profit-making establishment can offer charities is the green life blood that flows through its corporate veins – money. Companies have the option of donating independently without egging on their employees to part with their funds. What individuals do with their money – whether they donate it or not – is their personal matter, not the company management’s. And who is to say that the corporate choice of charity to support is aligned with an individual’s preference?
  • Companies also can invite applications from employees to support charities or causes close to their hearts. After transparent evaluation based on published criteria, management would decide to donate money to some (or all or as many as reasonably possible) of them.

 

Why is it seasonal?

It has perpetually confounded us why December alone is considered the season for giving (the media and pop culture are largely responsible for cementing this in the public psyche). The inference is that the other months are not seasons for giving. Come January, and there is no talk of giving. That must be the season of resolutions (most of which are broken by the succeeding month, by when it is the season for Valentines).

Why does there have to be a season for being kind and compassionate? Human goodness must be for all seasons. Imagine the state of society and the world if this were indeed the norm.

Let compassion and helping not be confined to the Christmas spirit; let it be part of the human spirit; and, in the case of this post, the corporate spirit.

Happy Christmas, Hanukkah Sameach and a good new year to our readers, clients, friends and fellow human beings across the world.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.

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A case for decentralizing global communication

What starts small as an adventure between a handful of like-minded professionals can, with the propellant of success, grow quickly into a large entity sprawling first the region, then a country, and finally the globe. And with growth come more revenue, more operating costs and more communication quandaries.

Founders often reminisce nostalgically of a time when communication was as simple as turning around and talking to the small group of people in their modest digs. With expansion, such simple and direct forms of communication are no longer practical or often physically possible – how do you find a space large enough to fit a thousand employees from different countries at the same time on a regular basis?

As an organization becomes global, communication assumes greater complexity and greater importance. No communication, poor communication, or miscommunication can create grave issues for an organization.

Local offices begin to feel increasingly disconnected from the topmost executives at the global level, their envisioned direction for the company and corresponding reasons. By “local”, we mean offices that reside in cities and towns in countries often different from the one housing the global headquarters. 

 

The straight transplant

The knee-jerk reaction is to transplant marketing material, advertisements, communication and PR campaigns in their original form from the head office (often in North America or Europe) to other regional or global offices. This might be the easiest thing to do, and companies may even get by, especially if they are pushing a largely technical product with few cultural complexities.

For services and more intricate products, this approach usually does not work.

Sensibilities of other regions are not always the same as those where the head office is located. It is important to consider the sociocultural and political landscape of the destination. Even a quintessentially American company that enjoys worldwide popularity will have to adapt to respect local mores, when operating in a different country.

Even a lingua franca (that prevails to a reasonable degree) is not an indication of homogeneity.

Consider a country like India. To the uninitiated, it is a homogenous entity where Bollywood, Hindi (the “Indian” language), computer programmers, tech support, and business process outsourcing firms, apply equally across the length and breadth of the varied land and its diverse population.

In reality, it has several hundred languages, thousands of dialects, different cultures, customs and traditions – traveling a few hundred kilometers (depending on where one’s starting point is, of course) will lead one to a completely different people speaking a different language and observing different cultural norms. (Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power is an excellent dissertation on the diversity of India and the unity found in spite of it and because of it.)

Or Europe with its 44 odd countries — each with its distinct history, society, politics and sensitivities. Communication that ignored the historical aspect would risk offending certain nations. What works in Germany may not be transplantable literatim to, say, Poland.

One size or type of communication will not fit all. This is perhaps the most important case in point for localizing communication. 

 

Control of local communication

Many companies are structured such that the management and control of communication rest either at the national or global level. This means someone working at the national or global level decides and controls the messages that are issued to people in local offices.

For instance, digital signage is becoming increasingly popular as a paper-free and instantly-editable means of communicating with internal and external audiences. It works exceedingly well when local offices are given control of the content that shows up on their screens. There is a sense of excitement among audiences who recognize faces and names that appear on the signage. The events, concerns, opportunities are local, which appeal to the local audience.

However, when such a vehicle is controlled at the national or global levels, then the messages become more abstract and less arresting. It is also possible that people mentally switch off and become blind to this expensive vehicle.

A news value that journalists use to evaluate the newsworthiness of a story is “proximity” – does the story hit close to where the audience is? The same can be applied to communication.

Another aspect to consider is the process to manage and make content live.

If there is a circuitous and bureaucratic procedure to get a message designed, approved and then pushed to the signage, then communication practitioners at the local level are disillusioned. When something meant for Victoria, Canada, must be routed through a team in Toronto or New York, with no guarantee of whether it will be treated as important enough for immediate processing, then it poses a problem for local practitioners.

Such a process also affects the speed with which a request from a client (internal or external) can be implemented.

Local communication professionals lose credibility (and face) with their local clients, if every local request is delayed because it has to be routed through the national or global level. There is a window of relevance for any communique. If it is lost, then the message becomes obsolete. 

Even worse is the inability of the local professional to promise that the message would even go live, given that national or global management might find it not important enough to merit placement.

And who is to say that the once-too-often slighted local client would not use their personal connections and clout at headquarters to bypass the local communication professional altogether.

In extreme cases, defeated and dejected, the local communication professional may even exclude this vehicle from their communication plans, simply to avoid the beadledom.

 

Global takeover of local vehicles

Some managers attempt to move a popular local communication vehicle to the national or global level, in hopes of latching on to and replicating its success at a wider level.

Concepts can of course move freely across tiers. However, communication vehicles or products are another story. What works well at the local level does so because it appeals to that particular demographic, because it was conceived, based at, and intended for the local audience.

Simply taking it over and declaring it a national or global communication vehicle does not guarantee its success across different audiences.

Communication vehicles meant for the national or global levels should be conceived at that level, with the larger and more diverse audience in mind. It merits a different mindset, a different set of goals and objectives.

 

Source credibility and rote forwarding

The issuer of a message has a bearing on how it is received and perceived by an audience, and subsequently on its impact. In communication theory, it is known as source credibility.

In certain large companies, it is not unusual to find people in local offices who are unaware of who their global executives are, simply because it makes no difference to their daily work. But they will certainly know their local management.

So it follows that a message from a senior global executive will make much less headway with a local audience than one from local management.

Practitioners, particularly the ones in local offices, will have observed that global communication often loses impact and audience penetration. The farther away from their milieu the message comes from, the less it resonates with people on the ground. Such messages are seen as wishy-washy airy-fairy stuff that doesn’t matter to people at the local level; or even as corporate “propaganda” (we’ve personally heard it referred to as that). It is not unusual to find local office directors advising their people to simply focus on the job at hand and to safely ignore such messages from “up there”.

Some managers have tried to remedy this problem by asking national executives to relay the same message to their national audiences. In turn, the national managers ask regional and local executives to send it out to their audiences.

In effect, a global message is sent multiple times – often verbatim – to the same audience. Sometimes, the message is simply forwarded, without a cover note or customization, by regional and local managers (who find it an avoidable waste of time and focus). And it is no secret what people think of and do with emails whose subject line features “FW:” and worse “FW:FW:FW:”

 

The need for an emotional hook

Communication, to be effective, must have some level of emotional appeal. Content coming from the global and national levels usually does not hold such allure for a local audience.

This is why a local communication professional is necessary – to help the local opinion leader or influencer interpret the global message to engage the local populace.

If budgets do not allow the retention of a communication professional in each local office, then the regional or national communication professional would do well to learn (on a continuous basis) the issues, needs and spirit of each local office under their purview. Such intimate knowledge will help immensely in crafting a message that is meaningful and relevant for people in local offices.  

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

The suggestion is not to cut off all ties between the local, regional, national and global levels; or to allow absolute anarchy in local offices. Assuredly there must be a strong link and reasonable oversight. Local communication must doubtless be aligned with regional, national and global business priorities.

The global management team would decide on the organizational goals and the related messages to be communicated to audiences.

How such messages are communicated to audiences at different levels is best left to those who intimately understand these levels.

For example, if a global priority were a commitment to a strong health and safety culture, a local office may decide to communicate this in different ways, some of which might be:

  • Holding pre-field-work huddles to evaluate hazards and figure out ways to mitigate risks; and conducting post-field-work debriefs to share lessons which can help plan safer work.
  • Distributing safety equipment that goes above the legally stipulated minimum, thereby demonstrating (by action) the company’s desire to set higher standards for their people’s safety.
  • Organizing mock drills.
  • Offering company-paid training in safety techniques to people.

Such ground-level actions drive the message home far better than flowery catch-phrases and gilt-framed commitment statements.

 

Leeway for local content

There are things, events, people, news and content that are undeniably local in nature. They would be completely irrelevant to national or global audiences: Now on the strength of this thesis, to find that such content is not aligned with national or global priorities, and to decree them unacceptable, is counterproductive.

Understandably, local needs and wants will be different from the national or global counterparts. That does not make them null and void. In fact, content that speaks to such needs and wants will win the favour and attention of their audiences. 

Again, this calls for tailoring global and national content to make sense at the local level.

 

Decentralization for efficiency

Decentralizing the approval process will expedite the journey from inception to execution, and help local communication professionals to earn the respect of their clients.

It will also remove unnecessary workload from national and global management, whose time would be better spent catering to the needs of their corresponding tiers, instead of handling approval of local office content.

If the right people have been hired at all levels, then management would feel comfortable leaving decisions in the safe and capable hands of professionals functioning at those levels.

 

Let bright minds localize global messages

It is irrational (and bad for business and morale) for communication directors in New York, London, Paris, Sydney and Toronto (among others) to believe they know what would work best for local audiences in faraway cities in different countries.

It is difficult for executives at the global level to be fully aware of what happens on the ground at the local level. It is unreasonable to expect or require them to do so. Their charge is to helm the corporate ship at more aggregate levels. 

Fortunately, bright minds burn anywhere – in the towns and countryside just as much as in metropolises.

The solution is simply to use the intelligence and sway at each level appropriately. Let the people who understand the lay of the land determine how best to localize communication so it is penetrating and effective.

 

A federalist analogy

In some respects, a global organization is not unlike a federation: It has a central government and a reporting structure stretching down into countries, regions, cities and towns to ensure good management and attainment of the union’s overall aspirations.

The centre guides the union, while the states manage their own affairs independently as they see fit to align with the larger goals of the federation.

Global organizations can draw on this concept.

Managed properly and intelligently, global messages can be localized effectively to ensure people at the all levels are informed, engaged and spirited.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.


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White space: An essential in communication and life

White-space-purple-dot-600px

Not an inch of space is to be left unused. Text and images should cover: the page, billboard, print canvas, web space, and all too often, a PowerPoint slide. Voices and sounds should constantly blare the corporate message during every second of radio messages. Graphics, animation and visual effects must occupy every second of TV and web communication.

This is the directive communication practitioners oftentimes receive. Of course, one cannot really blame the folk upstairs. Much like everyone else, they are making decisions using what they know.

Looking at it purely from a financial angle, it might appear logical to conclude that empty space has no return. After all, empty bank and investment accounts usually do not lead to better returns.

Fortunately and aesthetically, the rules of finance do not hold much sway in design.

Any studied practitioner will know – what experience will have corroborated – that PR and communication campaigns need white space and silence to be effective.

Some draw a distinction between “active” and “passive” white space — active being the white space created intentionally for balance, organization and emphasis; and passive the white space that occurs naturally such as the space left out at the borders or in between content. We acknowledge and embrace both.

May we also remark that white space is not always “white”. The term merely signifies absence of content in a space that may be infused with a single colour, or a concoction of colours.

 

Increasingly intrusive barrage

Many executives and managers may believe the way to get messages across is to inundate audiences or publics with them.

Eager to please them, the PR managers (who in such instances function more as technicians than as strategists) try to create new distribution vehicles.

Such a spiral has resulted in several unique (and admittedly creative) formats.

At one point, pre-recorded voicemail messages from senior executives would greet unsuspecting employees when they picked up the phone intending to reach a business client or quite simply do what they were hired to do.

The new-message-indicating red light would refuse to die till one had sat through the 60-120 seconds of artificial-sounding spiel. Few people (save the ones in their probationary period) listened to or even heard (there is a difference) these messages, making them a waste of effort and time for the executives, the PR practitioners and the intended audience.

When the notice board is covered in years’ worth of unmanaged layers of stapled-over posters, the practitioners invest in digital signage, applauding the corporation and themselves for adopting a more “sustainable” medium (more on this in another Verafluenti post, coming shortly).

Novelty can pique audience interest for a while. But soon attention wanes and the “new” medium also lands on par with other media that have come before.

Unless good content with good design is issued, addition of new formats will not go very far.

When executives complain that “people aren’t getting our message”, the distraught PR practitioners put up digital screens in the elevators, the pantries, the lunchrooms, the coffee machine (yes, even the dispenser of your hallowed daily Joe is not immune), and the washrooms.

The day may not be far when messages are beamed in virtual reality into the hitherto sacrosanct peace of one’s bathroom stall. Picture yourself being educated in the corporate core values while easing your bowels. Quite the unholy congress, n’est-ce pas?

The guiding idea is seemingly to not allow the poor audience a moment’s peace.

Unfortunately for management, this may elicit an undesirable response – of disgust and irritation – causing audiences to tune out, or worse, reject messages. This is similar to the “recall and reject” of annoyingly memorable commercials. Please read the Verafluenti aperçu in our post on “The 100 Ideas That Changed Advertising” for more.

People need their personal space, personal time and white space – which, in communication terms, would translate into relief from the relentless message blitz.

To manage the intensity of message dissemination, campaigns use techniques like pulsing and flighting. While this is significant and helpful in creating a white space relative to an organization’s presence in the larger message dissemination scape, it still does not constitute white space or silence within an individual communiqué.

 

Jarring overload within a frame

White space is required in communication and PR campaigns. It must also be present within each communication piece.

But as above, so below.

The mindset espoused by senior executives influences all aspects of organizational culture, including the design of each printed piece, electronic poster or digital screen.

A single digital screen can simultaneously contain scrolling news bars, weather information, popup sports scores, Flash animations, corporate news and more.

A critical look at the TV screen during a newscast will bear this out. In addition to the above-mentioned elements, most news programs also have a background in constant motion and animation, creating more visual confusion.

Communication and media appear to be propelled by a fear of stillness, white space and silence. It is almost as though they would lose their audiences (and, by the extension of financial motive, their grip on their wallets and purses) if they stopped clanking their pots and pans for even a second.

Attention is constantly diluted, and the eye persistently tired out by so much activity. It is conceivable that, in addition to the dismal quality of TV content and its disproportionately extortionist cost, the lack of a sane space may be pushing more people to cut the cable TV cord.

 

It’s the corporate template

Even seasoned graphic designers have been known to stomach poor design in the name of corporate templates (even though they may be ill-designed by people with no inkling of the discipline).

Well-intentioned practitioners who point out the violation of design principles are met with defeated smiles and an acceptance of “the way things are done here”.

Suggesting the implementation of good design and communication principles is sometimes seen as not toeing the company line and as not being a team player.

There is also no dearth of inexperienced, unqualified, yet supremely cocky, self-appointed brand police who will parrot “on brand” and “off brand” without stopping to examine whether the brand itself is founded on valid fundamentals. Such characters do more harm to the organization – knowingly or unknowingly.

Sadly, the specters of bill payment and mortgages can have a depressing effect on the advocacy of proven tenets.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

White space and silence offer contrast for the eye and for the ear. They provide a point of reference, which allows the audience to concentrate on the message. In the absence of white space and silence, it becomes difficult to discern where one ends and another begins, in the endless tirade of corporate and commercial messaging.

This example of complete clutter demonstrates how the lack of white space can be jarring and straining to the eye, while also ensuring that no message is retained.

This website for car leasing in the United Kingdom, not content with visual clutter (and web design whose existence is unbelievable in this day and age), also adds syrupy songs on autoplay. Audio clutter on top of visual chaos for a supposedly authentic business!

As salve for your eyes, compare those to the clean layout of this retro VW ad or this Southwest Airlines ad. There is also a reason for Google’s minimalist design.

It works.

It is also a reason we keep our Verafluenti design clean and simple. It is why we don’t have auto-rotating picture galleries, Flash intros, fancily animated menus, or sticky scrollbars on our website.

White space helps to make visual messages clearer, more inviting and more accessible – which means more people will absorb and understand the message. There will then be real impact, not just dissemination and exposure.

Senior executives are the most powerful cultural influencers in an organization. As such, they can play a role in championing more effective communication practices – such as the use of white space for better design and for better campaigns.

For this, a degree of exposure to the relevant discipline would be helpful. This can be gained through personal study of leading publications in the field, by enrolling in an executive education course, retaining a consultant (such as Verafluenti) to conduct a seminar, or simply (and very cost-effectively) by asking their inhouse PR practitioners to run a session on design principles for senior managers.

 

The value of emptiness

White space is essential not just for effective and aesthetic graphic design, but also for other facets of life. The most beautiful musical compositions are the ones that contain silence within them.

Emptiness is not a vice to be weeded out.

More than the walls and the roof of a house, it is the empty space within that makes it livable.

It is the emptiness inside a vessel that makes it a useful container.

It is the emptiness that was mathematically captured as “zero” – by Aryabhatta circa the fifth century CE and formally by Brahmagupta in the seventh century CE — that adds value to a number.

Emptiness is openness — to springs of creativity, knowledge from unknown fountains, and virgin world-changing thoughts.   

It is also conjectured that the universe was conceived in silence.

The silence of the mind – or the state of no mind – is of course called meditation.

Medical studies and brain imaging sessions have shown that a quiet meditative state is more focused, clear, creative and taps into the brain’s massive unused potential.

If it can do so much for an individual human being, why can it not find its (very logical) way into design, the views of senior management, design of communiqués, and the practices of PR managers?

Too much to ask … or simply too commonsensical?

***

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.


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Resource, capital, acquisition or human?

To the best of our observation, few people like being called names.

This article represents some questions and our bafflement at certain naming conventions in the corporate world. It also fulfills a pledge we made in our first post to touch on our distaste for a certain designation.

Employees are among the most important publics for an organization. They are its brand ambassadors.

How they talk about the organization in their personal and professional circles determines to a significant extent its reputation. This may be seen as the “informal” reputation which can be starkly different from what the organization portrays in its promotional material and on its websites which are often liberally littered with praise from all quarters; placement in the top 25, 50 or 100 employer of the year awards; and slick videos of deliriously happy employees.

Often, the informal reputation is what prospective employees would take heed of; because these are the stories that paint a truer picture of the corporate culture and working conditions.

Few are the people who would not run a prospective employer through glassdoor.com, ratemyemployer.ca, JobAdviser.com.au (in Australia), Kununu.com (for the German-speaking audience), or jobcrowd.com (in the U.K.)

If an organization wishes to attract and retain the right people who believe in what the organization is doing and who will stay with the organization for the long haul, would it not be in its best interest to keep employees happy and motivated?

It is surprising how – unintentionally and perhaps ignorantly – many organizations refer to their employees.

 

Just a ‘resource’

The expression most popularly used to describe the field of dealing with an organization’s employees is “human resources”.

Reportedly, economist John Commons used the term “human resource” in The Distribution of Wealth published in 1893. We wonder if it might perhaps have been a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, when arguably human beings, the environment and the planet suffered the most.

It seems to have gained popularity in the early 20th century when workers came to be seen as a capital asset. It implies that human beings are commodities or inputs into a production process.

The usage has become so embedded in corporate culture that people have forgotten to question it and have acquiesced into edifying it as the standard, with professional associations, degrees and certificates sprouting around it.

Even the general system theory views an organization as a system, accepting and processing inputs into output, and fitted with a feedback loop for improvement. However it must not be forgotten that one of the four attributes of the system is the internal relationship among its objects. Another is the existence of the system in an interdependent environment where the elements of the system affect each other.

 

Even less than a resource

If a concept from the world of Hogwarts were to cross over into our Muggle world, then an unforgivable curse might be calling employees “capital”.

But for the benevolent concession of qualifying it with the prefix “human”, for which some gratitude is due, people would have been on the same standing as office space, copiers, machines and company vehicles.

Extending this naming convention to the wider world, one could refer to spouses as “capital resources” or “revenue generators” or “cash flow production engines”; and children as “long-term investments” or “old age security” or (depending on the outlook) as “bad debt”!

People are also sometimes called “acquisition” but redeemed somewhat by the addition of the word “talent”, which at least recognizes an individual’s special aptitude or natural ability. Still, if we were faced with a choice between “people recruiter” and “talent acquisition specialist”, we would fall in with the former in a quarter of a heartbeat. “Acquisition” reeks of inanimation and possession. We feel it is better suited to the purchase or procurement of companies, stocks, real estate and the like than it is to the hiring of an individual.  

Even the International Labour Organization has adopted the “labour is not a commodity” principle.

Some corporations may argue that such phraseology is the done thing. They believe that corporations are about making a profit, and in this process, employees are indeed a resource or a form of capital.

Granted it may be what many are doing. But does that necessarily make it the right thing to do – not legally (because as has been demonstrated time and again, there are more loopholes in law than oases of clarity) but using a sense of propriety that is inherent to all human beings?

 

Ignoring a gender

Another moniker that falls on ears as nails on a chalkboard is “manpower”.

We don’t mean to be overly picky or politically correct — as when George Carlin humorously wondered whether a he-man should be called an “it-person”, the man in the moon the “person in the moon”, and David Letterman “David Letterperson” (while wholeheartedly advocating the correctness of “spokesperson” in place of spokesman, “chairperson” in place of chairman, and “humankind” in place of mankind).

But from a realistic common-sense viewpoint, does this not willfully ignore the existence of an entire gender? Is it not then utterly obsolete since the Dark Ages?

Women have always performed critical functions for humanity. They may have been neither acknowledged nor recognized, but that speaks more to the powers-that-were than to the undeniable contributions of women to business and to life in general.

From our humble perspective, running a family itself is like managing a diverse multi-generational organization. Mothers, wives and partners are no less than CEOs of one of society’s most important basal units – the family. How then does “manpower” still rear its head? And how do companies flaunt this in their rubric to this day in so-called developed nations?

 

Among the wise

There are enlightened organizations that treat their employees as “creative and social beings in a productive enterprise” – something many traditionalist executives may derisively baulk at.

Such organizations call the function looking after its employees “human development” or simply and accurately “people”. And they have not done too shabbily by way of profits.

A certain company called Google comes to mind. It revolutionized Internet search as also organizational culture when it rebranded its HR department as “people operations”. They consider their people the champions of its colorful culture.

This lays out flat the argument that concerns about nomenclature are pointless group-hugging exercises with no effect on financial performance.

When common-sense trumps pretentious nonsense, the people of the “people” function would hire other people (who also happen to be skilled professionals); manage their needs ethically and humanly; and help them play their part in achieving organizational goals.

Fewer people would leave (reducing hiring and training costs). More people would be happy to stay and work for the organization. And on the way out (if they decide to leave for reasons that life throws up), they would feel obliged and impelled to interview, train and install a worthy successor so that work could continue in as uninterrupted a manner as possible.

They would leave on good terms, and they would continue to spread goodwill about their former employer in their circles.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

This is not a commentary on the stellar and invaluable work that many friends and professionals perform in this people management function (whatever it may be called in different organizations). Professionals with integrity will try to perform according to their high personal standards wherever they go.

It is a question about the choice of terminology and the domino effect of subsequences: It influences the policies and approach to employees, which affects relations with them, which determines employee satisfaction and turnover, which impacts an organization’s reputation and thereby its ability to draw and keep good people, which in turn bears upon its efficiency, effectiveness and capacity to remain in business.

The way in which an organization addresses its employees makes a difference to internal relations.

Would individuals prefer to be called “resources”, “capital” or “people”?

From an organizational welfare point of view, how can management reasonably expect “resources” or “capital” – deemed as non-sentient objects — to serve as its champions?

Words, labels and titles are not insignificant. They serve as building blocks for good relations and for action. Why else would love poems incite passion and a fiery speech a revolution?

Could it be (and has it not been for decades) time to weed out “resources” and “capital” when referring to living, breathing, thinking individuals?

This post is certainly for the people, by the people, and of the people.

***

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

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The dance of PR: Helping organizations lead and be led

It was 1994 and a group of us had gathered nervously in the Ohio Student Union for our introduction to the stately world of ballroom dancing.

Our instructor, an accomplished Latin artiste, prefaced the course with a memorable address.

Dance is not unlike life, he said.

Communication is a vital part of dancing.

Partners communicate through touch, pressure, look and other nonverbal cues. One has to be receptive and responsive to one’s partner. When one moves forward, the other must move backward; when one moves left, the other must move right. Be like the yin and the yang – separate yet interconnected and creating a whole.

Through it all, the dancers must be able to build trust in each other – particularly for a movement like the dip where (traditionally) the female dancer must trust that her partner will not let her fall on her head!

Over two quarters, as we made it through the waltz, fox-trot, swing and cha cha, I learned much that I came to appreciate more in later life.

I gathered that dance was art, technique, communication and trust rolled into one. When they all come together, it makes for a flawless, beautiful, flowing poesy.

With the benefit of hindsight, I find this surprisingly similar to the world of public relations (a.k.a. communication management).

PR too requires knowledge of the techniques and the correct way to execute them.

It is decidedly an art — as any practitioner trying to convince a group of technocrats about the necessity of a PR campaign for cultural change will have learned. Outside the workplace, it remains an art practiced admirably by adorable little tykes who charm their way into maternal hearts and resultantly to another episode of SpongeBob Squarepants (the animated series that parodies many themes from the world of grownups, including work life, employee morale and management – such as this corporate training video).

It requires clear unequivocal communication between all parties involved. When messages are shrouded in intentional ambiguity, the quality of the relationship suffers.

And it intends to build relationships based on trust. Ethical and considerate actions done consistently will instill confidence in the organization. Eventually this becomes the foundation for a reputation.

In many ways then, PR is a dance.

 

The lopsided dance

What is missing from this analogy in many organizations is the desire or willingness to adjust to their publics’ needs and aspirations. Many organizations want publics to change their views and behavior to suit the organizations’ stances; and they expect PR to bring this about.

Adjustment is expected only of the publics and is not seen as a responsibility or rational step for the organization.

The exceptions are when negative public opinion threatens profits, share prices, shareholder dividends or their very existence; or when the law requires compliance by way of changes to organizational policies or practices.

William Vanderbilt is infamous for his utterance “the public be damned” when they don’t agree with the organization’s views and actions or dare question them.

If senior managers are inclined to this sentiment, then as opined in Manager’s Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, they are “managing in the wrong century”.

This makes the organization an inadequate dance partner and a poor dancer as a whole.

 

Dancing with blinkers

Many traditionalists view public relations as an afterthought, as a support function that only comes into play after all the decisions have been made in a boardroom that was never accessible to the PR practitioners.

Such management calls PR in to “get our story out there”.

PR’s sole reason for existence then is to get the senior executives’ photographs in media; write speeches; churn out news releases by the hundreds (most of which are not newsworthy and end up in the trash can); produce annual reports, sustainability reports, brochures, and employee newsletters.

The rational person wonders if it would not have been more beneficial for the senior executives, and for the organization as a whole, if the senior PR practitioners were involved in making those decisions.

Why not invite senior PR practitioners to participate in decision-making, instead of relegating them to be the grunt people only called in to hawk the story that someone else wrote?

They would then benefit from a deeper understanding of the business rationale for decisions and be able to better communicate and advocate them to the relevant publics.

Why not allow PR practitioners to “co-create the story”  instead of just having them “get the story out there”?

Dancing with blinkers on cannot be intelligent. It limits and embarrasses both the dancer and the partner. For an audience, watching such a dance would be agonizing.

PR can help management dance better.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

Given the right support from an enlightened management, communication practitioners have the ability to be the eyes and ears of the organization – to keep a pulse on the organization’s publics, and to identify the need and opportunity for adaptation and change.

Such change cannot be expected just of the publics. The excellent organization must be willing to change its own position, policies and even the business it is in, in response to its publics’ goals and concerns.

As an organization, why not lead and allow to be led?

After all, it is a dance where both partners must be able to influence the other. No one wants to be the stiff bloke mired in the clumsy finger-clicking routine, forcing his partner to dance around him, and eventually to choose to dance with a more sensitive and responsive partner.

PR is a dance where positions are constantly changing. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. The excellent organization would enfold this view, and well … enjoy a fine dance!

*** 

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.


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