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Employer branding: PR for HR. By Matt Henkes


Handling the media

HR often talks about the need to fill a more strategic role, and building a successful employer brand might be the key. But, as Matt Henkes discovers, to sell the dream you must first make your own people believe in it.

In today’s talent desert where good people are increasingly harder to find, a strategy has arisen that not only allows you to attract potential candidates but can also make HR more strategic. Behold, employer branding.

Many firms began trying to understand their consumer brand years ago, however, recognition of the importance of the employer brand has been slower to gain a foothold. Despite being around as a concept for at least two decades, it is only in the last two years that firms’ brand image, the values they portray and how they are perceived among potential candidates has become crucial.

“I can use any number of clichés to explain why,” says Andy Bamford, managing director at Thirtythree PR, an agency specialising in employer branding. “A lot of companies have really grabbed it, realising that it can be critical for not only the attraction but also the retention of talent.”

“One of the most important things about branding is getting that top-level management buy-in. Working across the organisation with marketing and PR is a chance for HR to occupy that strategic role it is always itching to fill.”

Deborah Fernon, CIPD adviser

However, building an effective employer brand is not a quick or easy task. “A successful strategy is a three-year project,” he says. “You’ve got to take it seriously and it’s got to be measurable.”

Working on a client’s brand, Thirtythree will initially produce a report on how its client is currently perceived through internal and external research. These metrics can crucially be taken again at intervals throughout the project in order to measure progress. “There are key deliverables in any branding project,” adds Bamford.

Put it out there

Reaching your target audience is not as difficult as it may seem, but it does require a coherent working relationship between HR, marketing and PR departments or agencies. Where are the people you are trying to attract and where are they likely to pick up the messages you’re sending out?

Belinda Walmsley, PR manager for the financial services recruiting outsourcer Origin HR, often provides advice to firms on how they can attract people to their employer brand, targeting PR towards the financial and recruitment trade press and other places where candidates would naturally gravitate to read about areas they work in.

A good starting point is, for instance, looking at what kind of messages will attract these people, she explains. If you were targeting graduates, you may want to offer a case study of a graduate that joined your firm, detailing what they are up to now. Maybe you could offer a piece in which one of your senior managers advises graduates on the best way to approach their first month in employment. Offer something that will resonate with them, enabling you to build brand recognition with the people you want to target.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a term bandied about by organisations wanting to promote the selfless work they do for the little people, the environment, panda bears and anything else for which they think the public may have some sympathy. But rampant cynicism aside, your company’s CSR activities can be like gold dust in PR strategy when translating company values to potential candidates.

Sounds like work for PR

This is just scratching the surface. In today’s multimedia world, where every employee has a voice, the real damage to your employer brand comes from within.

The nature of online networking sites like Facebook and Bebo mean that it’s not possible to control what your employees write about you – though some companies have tried, with the results painfully well-covered in the press. The world is forever altered in terms of the way we communicate, and everything is searchable.

“If you are a UK company then it’s a pretty safe bet that somewhere, someone will be writing about you on the internet,” warns Paul Harrison, a managing partner at Carve Consulting. “HR needs to listen to this dialogue then work out a way to inform it. Some of our clients have many thousands of people working in the UK. Every single one of these could be a walking talking advertisement for what a great employer they have.”

Ultimately then, this comes down to employee engagement. You can utilise your staff to sell the company, but the reality of the organisation has to live up to the brand image that you want to create. Before you can take the message to the marketplace, your people have to believe it.

For example, says Harrison, a well-known software organisation wanted a reputation as a firm that had a really good work-life balance. Its first step was to go to the staff and ask them, via open forums, what action it could take that would have a positive affect on their lives outside work. The resounding answer was that employees would like to see the firm taking a firmer environmental stance.

A number of initiatives were implemented including a ‘switch-off’ policy on all machines and the replacement of company pool cars, which were all switched to hybrid motors.

“If HR doesn’t grasp the nettle and appoint someone to manage external dialogues and external employer brands through PR, who else will do it for them?”

Paul Harrison, managing partner, Carve Consulting

“I know it sounds a bit woolly but by taking those concrete steps internally, all of its people were now externally saying how their company was really taking their concerns seriously,” says Harrison. “From a PR perspective, instead of writing beautiful press releases about this, we then profiled the staff and let them talk. Getting people to talk is really the end objective.”

So is employer branding part of the strategic shoes that HR is constantly trying to fill? CIPD adviser Deborah Fernon thinks it is. “One of the most important things about branding is getting that top-level management buy-in,” she says. “Working across the organisation with marketing and PR, it is a chance for HR to occupy that strategic role it is always itching to fill.”

There is also the question of where, in the nuts and bolts of it, does PR stop and HR begin? “Obviously HR has a million things to deal with, but someone needs to take control of the agenda,” says Harrison. “If HR doesn’t grasp the nettle and appoint someone to manage external dialogues and external employer brands through PR, who else will do it for them?”

Handling negative publicity positively

You are being interviewed about the company’s non-returner scheme for new mothers and a reporter points out that your sector is seen as a terrible place for women to work. What should you do?

“You can’t totally avoid a pertinent question,” says Belinda Walmsley, PR manager at Origin HR. “Be positive and steer the conversation back onto what you want to talk about.”

For instance, your answer could be: “That may have been the case 20 years ago but now things have changed a great deal. For example in my department, the workforce is 60 per cent female and they are all great performers. That’s why we have initiated this new programme to encourage mothers to return to work.”

Not bad for a McJob

McDonalds mounted a campaign for the removal of ‘McJob’ from the Oxford Dictionary. The definition said it was “an un-stimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector”.

The firm called it “out of date and inaccurate”. But the negative publicity has been turned to its advantage. Recent campaigns have featured slogans like, “McProspects – over half of our executive team started in our restaurants. Not bad for a McJob”; and “McTraining – our training reflects the latest in management thinking. Not bad for a McJob”.

“There is increasing evidence that we are striking a chord,” says Lorraine Homer, media relations manager at McDonlads. “Staff turnover is at an all time low. And this year we have been named as one of the FT’s Best Workplaces in the UK and Best Place to Work in Hospitality by Caterer and Hotelkeeper Magazine.”

Know what is being written about you: Set up a Google alert for your company name. You will automatically be notified of any new searchable web-postings mentioning your firm.

One Response

  1. Style and substance
    Good article with plenty of detail about pros and cons of PR.

    I’d add one point. Before jumping into a PR campaign, HR must get the substance of its offer right with a proper focus on its customers wants, needs and expectations. Without a firm platform of substance to stand on, PR will be seen as simply style without substance and it is likely to be a poor investment in that case.

    Peter Cook

    Author: ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll – Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock’

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