Products, services, data and thought leadership—the things that were once thought to be the bread and butter of brand building and public relations—are no longer enough in the communications space. (Is anything? The demise of the press release and the idea of core outlets have been on my radar, too.)
As Cision recently put it, “If you don’t give customers, clients and potential employees a peek at what truly drives your organization, you are losing loyalty, sales and your business’s future thought leaders and valuable role players.” Consider the stakes raised.
That article went on to list five companies that earned great media coverage by showing off the perks that benefit their employees and exemplify their corporate values. Among them: Netflix, which really moved the needle on family-first parental leave policies (detailed here in Fast Company); Airbnb, which landed atop Glassdoor’s best places to work list in part by giving employees a yearly $2,000 travel stipend and the choice to stay at any Airbnb location (instead of a straight-up raise, in recognition of millennnials’ preference for perks over pay); and Adobe, which believes so strongly in the need for time off that it suspends operations for a week twice a year and offers employees a paid sabbatical every five years.
And what savvy consumer hasn’t come across some glowing look at Zappos’ “happiness culture” and considered it on some level while shopping for shoes?
Now that companies realize the earned media—and ultimate sales—that these feel-good stories can create, nearly everyone wants to be written about and to be included on “best companies to work for” lists. The trouble for brands: No company is perfectly perfect. And by inviting journalists in, you’re inviting them to look at everything, knowing full well that you can’t choose which parts they’ll write about. (Although fact checking exists, no reputable journalist lets subjects approve articles ahead of publication.) If the media decides to take a “warts and all” look—or worse, just describe the warts—that sends companies into crisis mode.
Of course, companies take this risk with their corporate culture itself, not just with the decision to pitch it to media. Journalists can investigate whatever they want, whether or not the subject cooperates. Look at the backlash that followed after Marissa Mayer (whose name seems always to appear with the word “embattled”) required all Yahoo employees to work in the office rather than from home.
Or consider the fallout from The New York Times’ extensive, highly critical investigation of the “bruising workplace” culture of Amazon. (“The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters,” but it declined requests to speak to Jeff Bezos and other top leadership, according to the paper.) The article describes an instruction to employees to “climb the wall” if they hit the wall from the relentless pace and late nights, encouragement for employees to “tear apart” their colleagues’ ideas in meetings and backstab them in private messages to their bosses, and a “purposeful Darwinism” model in HR. And that’s just in the first four paragraphs.
No wonder the backlash was swift and strong. And the follow-on press was worse, like Fortune’s piece on the open letter to Amazon that a former employee’s spouse posted on Quartz. (I heard a lot of comments in my own world, including from a member of my extended family who decided during the interview process to pass on the possibility of working for an Amazon outpost in New Jersey. To quote her, “Who needs it?”)
It’s a cautionary tale. People live and validate a corporate culture, so if a company is selling its culture—and the reality is that in this radically transparent, socially minded age, every company is selling its culture, whether it’s pitching business pubs on how great that culture is or not—it must be aware that it can’t simply spin the story.
What it must do to win big in media stories about its culture is to start inside by inventing desire—not only of talented employees to recruit but also of consumers to be associated with brands that have progressive cultures. Today that desire isn’t a day-and-night culture like the one we had at ChiatDay in the 1990s. I’m sure there are still some in Silicon Valley who relish working nonstop to be at the start of the next great thing. But they’re the exception. Endless hummus and M&Ms don’t make up for long hours, aggressive management styles and “purposeful Darwinism” unless you’re someone who thrives in that kind of environment.
This isn’t some millennial trend. It’s the spirit of the times. Companies need to program the culture rather than let it grow organically—and to do so in favor of work-life balance, not an old whoever-works-most-wins mind-set.
Once that culture is in place, next-generation storytelling—which is essentially changing the media landscape—is how it gets told to the masses. The companies that are securing big media wins are those that are using all available assets in an authentic way. A Nielsen study about global trust in advertising shows that companies gain the most confidence with storytelling in social media networks, while brands and messages are remembered more often when combined with interaction. So think of the brands that combine their marketing with behind-the-scenes videos of TV campaigns on their YouTube channel, memes on Facebook and all sorts of apps, plus brand ambassadors who live and breathe the culture. Hands-down winners.