Why brands should embrace honesty

Groupon co-founder and chief executive Andrew Mason's honest farewell email to staff reflects the need for a broader shift to honesty in business communications, writes Nicola Kemp.

When Groupon co-founder and chief executive Andrew Mason recently sent an email to the company's staff to announce that he was leaving, he didn't mince his words: 'After four-and-a-half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I've decided that I'd like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding - I was fired today.'

Setting aside the inherent flaws in a society in which 'leaving to spend more time with family' has fast become shorthand for being forced out of a role, Mason's approach represents a refreshing and important shift in business communications.

At a time when consumer trust in businesses and institutions is at an all-time low, brands can no longer afford to shroud themselves in secrecy and hide behind generic press releases and oblique statements. Honesty is a clear way to connect with both staff and consumers and claw back integrity in a difficult climate.

The prevalence of social media demands a new level of immediacy and humanity in communications and many chief executives are now not solely the public face of a brand, but also set the tone of voice for their entire company. Business leaders must not just be accessible, but honest, human and potentially vulnerable, too - and this includes publicly acknowledging it when they get things wrong.

Mason may have, as he candidly put it, 'failed at this part of the journey', but the integrity and honesty of his response suggests that his strength of character remains. Compare and contrast his openness and sense of personal responsibility with the abject failure of many senior executives in the UK banking industry to admit fault or acknowledge their brands' obligations with regard to the financial crisis, and the brand benefits are crystal clear.

While the corporate communications industry has effectively built its trade on helping businesses save face, it has a long way to go in adapting to a world in which consumers are demanding that the face in question is a true and honest one.

THE UPSHOT

What brands should know about the age of honesty.

All communication is public

As Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer's recently leaked memo banning working from home demonstrated, all communication should be treated as public. This doesn't mean brands must adhere to impenetrable corporate speak, but rather that people should think before they type.

Executives can no longer hide behind company policy

Consumers not only hold companies accountable for their actions, but also their bosses. At a time when more customers demand personal responses, brands can't hide behind policies or a 'computer says no' attitude.

The ivory tower is no longer an option

As community sites such as Glassdoor, which invites employees of companies to publicly rate the effectiveness of their chief executives, grow, business leaders need to be more accessible than ever. Not all executives want to share the minutiae of their daily lives on Twitter, but failure to engage at all risks appearing out of touch. The best business leaders of the future will embrace these new communication channels, not be threatened by them.

Nicola Kemp is Marketing's head of features. Follow her on Twitter: @nickykc.

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