July 13 2020 06:00 AM

Use these 4 tips to develop your employer brand in a crisis.

Warren Buffet is credited with the quote, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” This has never been more true than in the COVID-19 crisis. The news is full of companies behaving badly, be it the restaurant that called in servers to clean and disinfect their location and then laid them off, the airline that promised plenty of room for physical distancing while travelers found packed planes and tight quarters or the cinema chain that summarily terminated their staff “with immediate effect” but stated it “hoped they would return when the cinema could reopen.” With that little notice and unsympathetic messaging, employees returning seem unlikely!

Whether you realize it or not, your company has an employer brand. It is defined by how potential and existing employees view your organization as a place to work. If you are not actively cultivating your employer brand, it will be defined for you by what is said about your organization in the marketplace, news and on social media.

Your employer brand is important for talent attraction but also key to the employee experience that is encountered day to day in your organization. How current and future employees feel about your organization and your response to this crisis will shape your organization in the future, either positively or negatively.

Aaron McEwan, vice president of advisory at Gartner, a research and advisory company, wrote that in this pandemic, “how [companies] respond could have enormous implications for their employer brand, corporate reputation and even their financial survival. … Even in normal times, workers want to see employers acknowledge their financial concerns and respect their unique family circumstances.”

More than ever, employees are looking to their employers for hope and support. Many companies have stepped up with messages of compassion and care that focus on our shared humanity and need for authentic human connection. Other companies have put out cringeworthy boilerplate marketing messages that make it clear they care more about transactions than relationships.

In addition, our work-life blend has become even more intertwined with pets and family coming into the frame as remote work becomes even more prevalent. Your employer brand needs to be authentic and focus on the people that matter most, your employees and customers. An employer brand that is written in a backroom and doesn’t ring true will be easily identified and disregarded. Tap into your employees, customers and social media feeds to see what people are really saying about your company and then measure it. The Net Promoter Score is a good way to quickly get a pulse on your employer brand. By asking employees the question, “How likely are you to recommend this organization to a friend?” you can gather some good data. That, overlaid with employee retention and applicant quality, paints a pretty clear picture.

An employer brand requires continued focus and attention, particularly in uncertain times. Here are four areas to help you develop and keep an authentic employer brand.

1. Maintain connection and communication

With uncertainty swirling all around us, everyone is craving information and guidance. The cadence and substance of communication should increase. Regular touch points are critical to keeping employees and future employees updated on your policies and processes as well as sharing uplifting and encouraging content during the COVID-19 crisis. Use all your various channels to speak to a range of audiences including current employees, those furloughed or laid off and those evaluating your company as a potential employer. Use email, your company intranet, website and career page to share what is going on, both practical and inspirational. Don’t forget to leverage social media as well. Your social feeds are a great way to emphasize your care and concern for current and future employees, customers and your community at large.

2 Revisit your messaging

Now is not the time to present a superficial company facade. Ditch the marketing spin and keep the communications about your company, approach to COVID-19 and plans for the future real and human. Be transparent and empathetic. Acknowledge the situation, what your organization is doing and monitor the conversation on your social feeds to make sure you are addressing the needs of your employees and customers.

Storytelling is always a compelling way to get your message out. Consider creating videos that focus on employees and customers telling their stories that support or emphasize your brand, approach to the crisis and plans for the future. This will gain more traction and win more hearts and minds than your typical marketing hype. Walmart hit the right note with their “Walmart Neighbors” video featuring employees and a message of hope.

3. Strengthen your culture

As Winston Churchill wrote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” One of the silver linings in this global pandemic is that it provides the opportunity to repurpose some time and focus on strengthening your culture for the future. Organizations have been investing in developing and cross-training employees with great results. A large employer that has a downturn in hiring has shifted recruiters to sales and put them on the front line answering inbound calls. This has met with great success as recruiters are learning the business they support while sales is getting an extra lift.

Companies are being more creative in how they are supporting employees. Benefits are being extended and policies adjusted to meet the needs of this unique time. Fun events like virtual happy hours, lunches or virtual tours of home offices including pets are a great way to build teams and provide a deeper level of understanding between co-workers. Above all, leaders need to ask people how they are doing and mean it! Nothing strengthens culture like shared humanity and concern for co-workers that goes beyond a plaque on a wall.

4. Be optimistic and plan for future

Don’t let this crisis paralyze you. Keep moving forward with confidence that, as with other setbacks, we will get through this. Whether it was the Great Depression or the Great Recession, businesses have always transformed and rebounded. In fact, the darkest days of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 were followed by the Roaring ’20s and some of the most prosperous times in American history.

While things may never return to the way they were, there will be new opportunities. Balance your message about the current state of the coronavirus with a message of encouragement and planning for the future. As your employer brand starts to emphasize future aspirations as well as current realities of our situation, you might just find a few more silver linings amongst the clouds of COVID-19.

Kate Kjeell is president of TalentWell, a recruiting firm that specializes in helping small and midsized businesses thrive by finding and hiring the right people. The firm’s approach can be described in three words: find, fit, flourish. She can be reached at kate@talentwellinc.com.