The communication tips every leader needs

So here I was, “hanging on the telephone” as Blondie once sang, waiting to get some service from my phone provider, Vodafone. I had already spoken to one person, who then transferred me to someone else to deal with my inquiry. I braced myself, feeling that familiar sense of frustration beginning to descend…

Then something unexpected happened. A cheery voice came on the line; a young woman introduced herself and said “I am in Mumbai and the weather here has been very rainy. What’s it like in Sydney at the moment?”

We Aussies are so programmed to react negatively to a voice from an overseas call centre that it’s almost unmentionable during a service call. I remember seeing a program years ago about Indian call centre workers watching Home and Away as part of their training, so they could learn Australianisms and presumably convince the person at the other end that they were in the same city, not different continents.

But here was an Indian call centre worker proudly putting it out there. It was brilliant. Rather than me being distracted and annoyed throughout the call by wondering where in the world I’d been transferred to, it was openly stated in the most engaging manner. I might add that she went on to address my issue with the same friendly efficiency, and I left the conversation a much happier customer.

That encounter packed quite a punch, and as I thought about it later I realised why. It was all about authenticity.

In today’s reputation-driven age, every one of us is a reviewer and critic, able to immediately and publicly pass judgement on any element of a business that doesn’t make the grade. It used to be that we paid ‘mystery shoppers’ to test out how well an organisation served its customers, and give feedback. Now, we’re all mystery shoppers – continually giving feedback through our online networks about the businesses we encounter; the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

That instant feedback loop – and the fact that we can now see further into any organisation than ever before – gives us a heightened bulls**t metre. No amount of spin or marketing hype will make up for one experience that falls short of expectations, either our own or those of someone in our extended network.

In the past, reputation was considered to be the end product of the “actions and signals” of an organisation. Back in the centuries BF (Before Facebook), we had a fair bit of influence over what others knew about our business and therefore what they thought of us. But that old model doesn’t take into account the incredibly powerful signals people now receive from third parties, via social media. These days, they tend to evaluate a company independently of the business’s own actions and signals.

Aula (1) points out that once people have built a picture, they share their opinions and feelings with others online and “the subjective truth turns into a collective truth about what an organization is and what it should be” (Aula, 2010; p.46).  That “collective truth”, made up of many individual opinions, can easily be stronger than the business’s own version of the truth. As Colleoni (2) describes it, “increasingly, people gain knowledge about a company by searching how it is valued and perceived in their social network.” (Colleoni et al., 2011).

How can any business owner, government manager or executive hope to combat such an onslaught? Here are three ways:

1. Be the real deal. Be authentic.

People’s direct experience of you and your business will translate into comments and feedback to others. You can’t hope to control it. Rather than being feverishly reactive and paranoid about stamping out any criticism on social media or various other platforms, you’re better served focusing your energy on getting the inside of your business right. Making sure your organisational behaviour totally lines up with your values – and that the essence of what you stand for is communicated in every word, action and gesture by everyone in your team.

I often refer to this as your “business body language”. Just as your personal words and actions need to be congruent, so too do the communications and deeds of your business. 

This is not something that can be manufactured. The world is littered with stories of businesses that have tried to fabricate an image that doesn’t match reality. I give you Exhibit A, a recent Twitter crash-and-burn on the part of Paramount Pictures

2. Practise “constant weeding”.

By all means have a keen awareness of what’s being said about your business online, but spend more time weeding out any internal issues that might be getting in the way of your authenticity.

These can be the smallest things, that – left unchecked – can balloon into bigger reputational problems. I recently met some friends unexpectedly in a café, as I was nearing the end of my lunch. I invited them to sit down at my table, and we spent a few minutes talking while they ordered food and drinks, before I had to leave for an appointment. When I went to pay, the cashier charged me for my own order and my friends’ meals. I explained the situation, but she would only doggedly repeat: “I’m sorry, we do not split bills”. It was only when the café owner became aware of our discussions and came over, that the situation was resolved and I only had to pay for my own order.

Hopefully the café owner will weed out that tiny issue, and make sure the cashier learns a little flexibility – or a small hiccup might start to take on bigger proportions.

What are the small behaviours in your organisation that might translate to negative perceptions, and multiply in online comments?

3. Be able to communicate really well.

Being an awesome communicator isn’t a rare gift any more, it’s essential for every business owner, government manager or executive in any organisation.

There’s not much point being authentic on the inside if you can’t articulate it clearly. If there are chinks in your communication armour, if members of your team struggle to write well or engage with customers at a superior level, get help. Remember, the world is watching and sharing its opinions daily.

I don’t know whether the approach of my friendly phone operator was the result of a management directive or her own initiative, but it was like a breath of fresh air. It said to me; “I’m not trying to pretend I’m not in a different country or time zone. I am – I’m sharing with you that I’m in Mumbai and I’m even talking about the weather here. At the end of the day, that doesn’t matter a bit. I’m here to help you with your phone issue; now, let’s get things sorted for you.”

How many people do you reckon I’ve told about that encounter? Lots – and here I am sharing it with you. In the same way, news about the actions of your business is spreading right now. You can't control it, but you can keep it real. The future of your business might depend on it.

1 Aula, P. (2010) “Social media, reputation risk and ambient publicity management”, Strategy and Leadership

2 Etter, Coleoni and Ravasi (2013) “Social media as a data source for corporate reputation measurement”

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Neryl East

Neryl East is a reputation, communication and media expert who shows businesses and organisations how to stand out - for the right reasons! EDUCATION: PhD in Journalism, University of Wollongong Master of Arts, University of Wollongong Certificate IV Training and Assessment (TAFE NSW) International Certificate of Public Participation (IAP2) EMPLOYMENT HISTORY: Director - Neryl East Communications Pty Limited Manager Communications and Public Relations - Wollongong City Council Manager Media and Communications - Shellharbour City Council Head of Communications and Marketing - Australian War Memorial Lecturer and tutor - University of Wollongong Lecturer - APM College of Business and Communication Manager External Relations - University of Western Sydney Freelance journalist - The Australian, ABC, Southern Cross Television, Prime Television News Director - WIN Television, Western NSW Journalist/producer/presenter - WIN Television, Wollongong Journalist/producer - Radio 2CH INTERESTS: Netball umpiring, theatre, travel