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For shady operators, there’s nowhere left to hide

Twenty years ago, organisations’ communication with the public and potential employees was a one-way stream. They would send out corporate announcements and press releases by post or fax and expect them to be accepted at face value. And, unless a particularly persistent investigative journalist was about to expose criminal wrongdoings, they were accepted thus.

When internet forums gave people a platform for customers and employees to share notes, organisations woke up to the fact that a carefully-worded announcement wasn’t enough to cultivate – or protect – a brand. When the forums went mainstream and were no longer the preserve of the technical expert or the keyboard warrior, marketing teams were diverted to monitoring online comments and performing damage limitation where necessary.

Now, armies of social media managers attempt to ensure the narrative remains that which was carefully developed in the boardroom. This is rather akin to trying to prevent water from escaping from a leaky bucket. Whether an organisation wants to or not, they will be named and shamed by customers and employees alike, their secrets will be leaked by disgruntled board members or competitors, and shoddy production practices will be exposed.

As far as I am concerned, if a whiff of exposure leaves an organisation quaking in its boots, its viability is questionable. This isn’t limited to organisations operating in today’s age of transparency. Now, as in 20, 30 or 50 years ago, if survival relies on hiding shady secrets, there is a fundamental issue that no amount of damage limitation will correct.

The only thing that’s changed is the ability for people to share information. The fundamental practices of business remain the same: be as transparent as possible but acknowledge that some things should be confidential. Communicate effectively, but don’t be brutally honest unnecessarily.

Of course, standards and expectations change, and strategies should be updated accordingly. Forty years ago, sinking several glasses of wine over a business lunch and driving back the office without a seatbelt was considered normal. Now, anyone who tried it would feel the full strength of the law AND public disapproval. It was little more than a decade ago that people were happily puffing away on cigarettes at their desks. We knew smoking was bad, but it took a collective movement to make it unacceptable at work.

Gender imbalance, climate change and unhealthy working practices are this generation’s drink driving and smoking. Employers should already have the ability to incorporate this natural societal change into their EVPs. It shouldn’t be a case of worrying about being exposed for failures or shoddy working practices. If they’re the concerns of an organisation, the issues go much deeper than brand.