The pandemic has turned us all into stars of the small screen and that's particularly true for those who are effectively the faces of their organisations. Instead of walking confidently into sales meetings or attending industry events, business leaders and their employees have spent the last eighteen months plying their trade on Zoom, Teams and Google Meet while possibly also doing a lot more promotion via social media. It's been a profound change and even after the Covid crisis has subsided, the likelihood is that virtual meetings will continue. But what effect will this have on how organisations are perceived and should businesses be paying more attention to the personal brands of their leaders and staff?
By Trevor Clawson
Personal branding is something of a curious concept. In terms of public perception only a very few business leaders - Branson, Musk and Steve Jobs spring to mind - can boast anything close to the kind of personal brand that a celebrity or even an Instagram influencer might take for granted.
But at a slightly less elevated level, personal branding is vitally important. The boss of a startup will only secure funding if he or she instils confidence in investors. A CEO's passion, commitment and sense of purpose can genuinely inspire consumers and drive revenues. Sales professionals are more likely to rack up high commissions if they are perceived as trustworthy and empathetic.
Charlotte Nichols - managing director at Marketing and PR agency, Harvey & Hugo - says human interaction is a vital element in building and maintaining a brand. ,,Brands are fantasies and illusions," she says. ,,The brand comes from the personality of the business."To a great extent that corporate personality is constructed by the people at the top but the importance of personal branding extends well beyond the board. ,,You always need leaders - but not everyone can speak to the leaders. So branding filters down to different levels," she says.
Until the pandemic, personal branding was something that was pretty tightly controlled. For instance, staff would pretty much know what to wear at client meetings or when representing their organisations at industry events. They would also - as Nichols points out - be trained to be the public faces of their companies, even if that meant little more than sitting in on meetings led by more senior colleagues.
But now we have Zoom and its peers. Customer-facing staff attend meetings from the comfort of their kitchens or living rooms. Dress codes have slipped and there may even be a cat, dog, child or partner walking in and out of shot in the background. Factor in low-resolution laptop cameras, poor quality microphones and variable lighting and you have a different kind of experience.
As Gareth Hoyle - managing director of search engine marketing company Marketing Signals points out - this may not be entirely a bad thing,,This form of communication I feel has allowed some barriers between clients and us to be removed, we're able to speak to them on a more personal level," he says. Nichols agrees. "One thing that has come out of the pandemic is compassion," she says. "You spend time at the start of a meeting asking about each other's health and how their children are doing."
But there are limits. Sometimes, turning up for a client-facing meeting in jeans and t-shirt might be appropriate, but there are also occasions when it will alienate a prospective customer. Hoyle says the context and client knowledge is important.When it comes to making client calls, my team knows each client well enough to know how to take them. But it is important to prepare if you're going to be speaking with someone new. How are you dressed? Do you look professional?"
More practically, is the computer working? ,,Have you got the logon? Have you tested the connections, camera and mic? Have you got the slides?" says Nichols. In some cases, companies and individuals are investing more in presentation. ,,My agency has been buying new laptops with better cameras," says Nichols. ,,And some people are building their own home studios, with backdrops and lighting."
The problem is that everyone probably has their own ideas about good and bad presentation.
Liesa Stecher, Chief Growth Officer, at financial services company, Addition says companies can help staff by issuing advice. ,,Businesses should send out guidelines outlining what they expect from employees during video meetings. Camera on, decent light, neutral background etc. Companies should try to support their employees as much as possible with implementing this. For instance, we have bought high-quality webcams for our team, and even upgraded some of our team member's internet connections," she says.
There is, however, a bigger picture. In pre-pandemic times, junior members of staff used to absorb the values and sense of purpose of a company by shadowing and watching their seniors in real-world situations. Equally, they would learn about body language and physical presence. In the Zoom age, even leaders are having to learn about camera and mic techniques - for instance, remembering to look at the camera and rather than constantly looking sideways rather than taking notes.
Hoyle says businesses should be training everyone in new media techniques. ,,Not only should companies encourage staff to work on their personal brands but companies should also actively support this," he says. This extends well, beyond Zoom and Teams meetings. Even before the Covid outbreak, social media was blurring the lines between the brands developed by private individuals and their personae as company representatives. At best, private social media accounts help staff make contacts. At worst they can damage the corporate brand. ,,On social media, anyone can see what you post, and if your channels are linked to your place of work, it's even more important to be careful," says Hoyle.
This is where things get tricky. Nichols says Harvey & Hugo staff are encouraged to have social media accountsBut, she adds, some accounts should be kept private. So maybe Linkedin or Twitter provide great ways for members of staff to create their own brands while also referencing their employers, while a Facebook account could be kept private.
There are genuine tensions here - not least in terms of the rights of employees to live their online lives and the imperative for brands to avoid anything controversial. Even non-controversial online activities can create dilemmas.
For instance, Is it OK for example for an employee to be an Instagram influencer while also working for a company or agency? Is there a conflict of interest?These are things employers should think about and perhaps also set policies and communicate them carefully to staff.
It's not only members of staff who can struggle to stay properly "on brand"in the age of Twitter. Leaders may have their own branding issues. Anyone who runs a company is going to be written about by journalists and/or perhaps more worryingly tweeted about by all and sundry. And while it's perhaps good to be talked about, rumours spread on social media, or inaccuracies that a journalist has allowed to slip through into final copy, can - over time - take on the status of fact.
Andrew Wessel is a former cricketer turned entrepreneur. His company, The Marque, was established to help business leaders shape how they are perceived - essentially by crafting search engine-friendly profiles that are designed to become the first port of call for anyone seeking information. His company has an interesting way of making its point to potential clients. ,,We start out by building a profile based on what is already online. We show it to them and they say it is crap ."
The next stage is to create a proper digital persona based on what the client wants to. The key, he says it to make the profile honest and fact-based but also aligned with individuals own personal brand intentions.
Not everyone has the inclination to hire an agency to manage online reputation but the impact on brands of new media channels looks set to be taken more seriously.