PR Pros are in the business of perception. We shape ideas, communications, and how our employers are viewed from the outside. And if we do not like what we see, we change the narrative or reframe the perception.
But increasingly, finding out what external customers and media think about the company is becoming harder. First, it is a moving target — one day, you are the darling, and the next day, you are public enemy no. 1. All it takes is one wrong word, or an employee being misinterpreted.
Secret flame wars fought in dark social media (e.g., chatrooms and social media channels that search engines are blind to) can blindside you. And in a world led by photos and videos, someone wearing a company t-shirt and saying your name can drag your company through unintended mud.
So, how do we get a grip on this moving image called perception? We may be overlooking one essential source of information: employees.
Employees as a PR resource
The Voice of the Employee (VoE) offers a litmus test to the success of employee programs and initiatives within a company. Just like the Voice of the Customer (VoC), the VoE allows HR to know how well their employer brand is perceived.
VoE is not new. But today’s employees are.
Even before COVID-19, companies have been putting stock into ensuring that VoE is aligned with their corporate goals. In a talent-scarce market, it helps companies to understand whether their employee investment is getting the right returns.
But employees themselves have been growing closer to their customers. Yesterday’s unwritten rule of keeping mum of what goes on inside a company is now blurred.
We are living in a world of activist employees. Foosball tables and a company barista are no longer enough. Employees want to tell their management what they think because they feel they have valuable information, and they do.
Customers are also engaging brands via multiple touchpoints, not just the sales or call centers. So, most employees are well attuned to changing customer perceptions of their company or products. COVID-19 has even brought the workplace into the heart of our homes along with the customers.
Social media is blurring the lines further between employees and customers. It is not unknown for customers to share their thoughts with familiar employees or their friends working in a company.
This makes employees important for PR Pros as a tremendous informal source of information about public perception. Having the ear of customers also allows PR Pros to quickly understand what external customers are looking for and adapt to changing moods and needs.
Customers are also engaging brands via multiple touchpoints
The difficulty in using the resource
Yet, there is no formal process to get this information. HR has one, but PR pros are left to do traditional surveys with potential customers (along with marketing) or media surveys (which are really difficult in today’s busy climate).
So why not make VoE part of the PR arsenal? All it needs is the addition of new questions. And offering anonymity allows employees to share valuable first-hand insights and suggestions.
The answers can help PR pros fine-tune their messaging and quickly get a customer viewpoint of their messaging efforts. It also allows them to strengthen their message house and understand the critical changes in customer perceptions.
They can also get into the minds of senior management, whose customer contacts are at a different level. These viewpoints are necessary for brand positioning and investor relations.
Employees are also an excellent beacon of information during a crisis. As they field calls from their friends and connected customers, you can gauge the mood and take the appropriate steps to engage the public and media.
Internal perception as a roadblock
So, if VoE is such a valuable tool, why isn’t PR getting any of the information?
Well, unfortunately, this is because of the long-held view that such information is confidential and can be misused.
That may be, but PR pros are trusted to frame discussions and create the right perceptions. It makes all the sense in the world to give the information where it matters most, especially when that information is already available.
It may be high time for PR Pros to change the perception of their HR department first.