Isn’t it time for communication to become a core company value?

I just crawled out of the corporate values statement rabbit hole.

For a couple hours, I have been reading the values statements of dozens of organizations. I kept at this thankless task in search of one—one—that explicitly listed communication as a value.

A good values statement articulates a company’s approach to its very existence. A vision statement sets a target; the vision is what the organization aspires to. A mission statement explains what the organization actually does. The values statement—the most tactical of the three—outlines how we do it. These are the company’s guiding principles, the approach we take to achieving the mission and, ultimately, realizing the vision.

Values statements include elements of communication. Among Coca-Cola’s seven values, for example, there’s collaboration, which would be challenging without communication. But I didn’t find a single values statement that called out communication as a core value.

That’s a mistake. Communication may once have been a cost-center activity that companies performed reluctantly. Today, though, it’s the price of admission for staying in business. Even a great product or service isn’t enough, given the way purchase decisions are made in the digital, networked world.

A framework for reputation

Let’s follow a simple path before getting more nuanced in this discussion of a framework for modern brand communication:

  1. Great brand engagement leads to favorable third-party reviews by your fans.
  2. Favorable third-party reviews from fans lead to positive impressions by others.
  3. A healthy reputation built on favorable reviews and positive impressions leads to sales.

If this is true, then the way we engage with our audiences must always be balanced with the way our customers and others talk about us. If we can maintain that balance, then the brand’s reputation will grow and sales will follow.

Communication Framework

Communication creates the balance on both ends of the lever.

Third-party endorsement

Getting people to say good things about the company has always been a vital business activity. Usually the responsibility of a PR department, the effort is focused on generating “earned media.” It remains an important concept, but it’s time to stop separating earned media into a silo. Thanks to the web and social media, every kind of communication has the potential to produce the kind of earned media that bolsters the company’s reputation.

Let’s set aside traditional earned media, though—articles from journalists—and focus on what the average person says about a company. A Dutch study concluded that positive consumer reviews of your organization will lead the reviewer’s friends and followers to form equally favorable views. The study also found that people who use social media heavily are more likely to interact with your organization through its social channels. Since social media use is getting to be run of the mill across all population segments, that means more of your customer base will interact with you through your social activities.

As a result, according to University of Nevada assistant professor Stephanie Bor, Ph.D., companies should view social media as an opportunity to improve their reputations. Bor wrote about the study in a Forbes piece, detailing research undertaken by VU University in Amsterdam who surveyed 3,500 people about their social media interactions with KLM Royal Dutch Airline.

There is no understating the importance of consumer reviews, which includes anything someone says about you, from reviews on review sites like Yelp and Amazon.com to blog posts to Facebook updates (and comments left to others’ updates) to YouTube videos.

At the most simplistic level, the impact of reviews is apparent in a recent confounding court ruling awarding damages to a restaurateur in France whose business suffered because a blogger’s bad review ranked high in a Google search for the restaurant. According to the restaurateur, “This article showed in the Google search results and did my business more and more harm.”

Restaurants, bars, hotels, resorts, hair salons and the like are obvious targets of reviews, but even if you’re a B2B organization, your reputation is subject to what your customers and other stakeholders say about you. According to one study, 90% of customer are influenced by positive reviews to make a purchase, and 86% decide not to buy based in part by reading negative reviews.

Some business leaders may believe a great product or service is all that’s needed to get good reviews. This notion is flawed, since people make purchase decisions for reputation-based reasons that go beyond the quality of your product or service. A growing pile of research supports the idea that your behavior as a corporate citizen is also important, as is the way you treat your customers after they have completed a purchase. Your reputation will suffer if you’re not viewed as forthcoming, transparent, and responsive. Content needs to cover a lot of territory. Miss one dimension of communication and it could cause your reputation to come crashing down. (A customer who values the helpful content you provide still may opt to take his business to a competitor who is viewed as more serious about sustainability or viewed more favorably as a transparent organization.)

There is always another company that can match your product or service on quality and price.

Brand engagement

Brand engagement is a catch-all term that refers to any way your organization touches a customer or prospect. Over the last few years, a lot of experts have told us exactly what this engagement needs to be. For example, marketing (we’re told) must all be focused on being helpful. This, however, precludes communication that elevates the brand’s CSR profile which, we know, influences purchase decisions. It also ignores efforts that are purely entertaining. (How, exactly, did the Oreo cookie tweet at the 2013 Super Bowl help anybody?)

A lot of marketers have bought into the idea that content marketing—behaving like a media company—will address your engagement needs. Again, that’s only part of the equation. Further complicating the matter is the tendency in almost every company to create those silos for earned, owned, and paid media.

Communication-driven engagement needs to happen whenever an individual signals an interest or need. And it needs to happen in a digital/social context. In a report calling for a more holistic approach to the earned/owned/paid communication structure, Initiative Media refers to a brand’s “touchpoints,” the exploding number of ways consumers interact with brands.

To accommodate those touchpoints, you can consider all kinds of content. Whether it’s earned, owned, or paid only matters insofar as you need to invoke the right processes to launch the content into the the marketplace so it will reach the right person when he or she needs it. What those touchpoints are for your customer is something you’ll need to figure out. But the more opportunities for engagement you create, the more likely your existing customers will engage with it. The more they engage with it, the more their friends and followers will see it, elevating your brand in their eyes.

Incidentally, not getting hung up on the earned/owned/paid silos enabled Hyundai, the South Korean automobile manufacturer, to create Hyundai Momentum, a site that aggregates consumer and expert reviews that weren’t always easy for car buyers to find. In other words, they created owned media out of earned media.

Blurring the lines between earned and owned media

There are two core content categories you need to consider. The first is the kind of content communications department produces, everything from articles shining a light on your sustainability efforts to Vine videos having a bit of fun with your product, from Pinterest contests to how-to materials. Even sponsored content fits, if it is available when it’s meaningful to the individual. A recent study from Edelman Berland and the Interactive Advertising Bureau find that the vast majority of people like sponsored content when it’s relevant. This is another reason to use touchpoints as a guide to content, worrying about earned/owned/paid later, and to ignore the backlash against sponsored content: If good content is where a consumer will find it when that touchpoint opportunity occurs, it will play a part in producing the resulting boost in your reputation.

The second is person-to-person communication, which covers responses to inquiries and complaints, participation in discussions, and even engaging in comments left to your more formal comment.

When a customer interacts with both kinds of communication at every touchpoint opportunity, the result is a greater reputation with the consumer population at large. There can be no question that social media is the catalyst for much of this engagement, as demonstrated by the French restaurateur and the KLM survey. What’s more, according to an SDL study social networks are the dominant way the ever-important Millennial demographic learns about things online. Even Google falls below Facebook and twitter for content discovery. If you want to build the kinds of relationships with Millennials that result in a sterling reputation with everyone else, a social media focus is critical.

Social media is also driving effective internal communication at companies that have figured out that it must be woven into the actual work employees do. Great internal communication always results in employees who communicate and engage more effectively with external stakeholders.

Communication as a value

Remember that path we followed at the beginning of this post? Great engagement leads to positive reviews by customers that leads to a favorable impression by non-customers. Communication—both content and through person-to-person interaction—is at the heart of engagement; you can’t engage without communicating. That means every employee needs to conduct their business based on a shared belief about the importance of communication.

All of which leads us back to the model for a modern business’s communication: Harmony and balance between the engagement opportunities we provide and the positive third-party endorsements that will result from those efforts and that won’t materialize without them. Lack of communication or bad communication—even a customer service rep misbehaving with a customer—throws the relationship between engagement and third-party endorsements out of balance.

If that doesn’t justify making communication a core company value, nothing does.