Is HR the New PR?

Is HR the New PR?

Most people have seen GE’s “What’s the matter with Owen?” ads, promoting the company as a great place to work. One of the interesting things about this approach is that GE is using their HR strategies as a way to build its reputation and brand (we hire smart, innovative people, therefore we can create smart, innovative products for you). This is a remarkable shift from just five years ago, when most HR functions were, at best, trying to make sure their HR strategies were not in conflict with the broader organizational strategy.

But it isn’t just GE that is using their HR activities and processes to build their corporate reputation. Across the last 18 months companies have become much more aggressive at using their HR strategies to build their company reputation. And even beyond that, not just using HR to build the reputation of the company, but actively promoting HR through their PR channels.

For example:

  • When Accenture made the decision last year to eliminate annual performance reviews, their CEO that revealed it in the Washington Post.
  • When Barclays announced the changes that it was making to its parental leave policy, it was done through their public relations team.
  • When the White House rolled out a pledge to close the gender wage gap, numerous companies were quick to sign it and promote it.
  • Just this week, JPMorgan Chase raised wages for thousands of retail banking employees and publicized that decision in a New York Times op-ed.

To be clear, all of these changes have been made with a clear desire to improve the employee experience, and that is a good thing.

What is interesting, though, is how much of a push employers are making about these changes. When did a company changing from a seven-point performance rating system to a three-point system justify coverage in the Wall Street Journal? In the past, the communication of these types of changes would have been largely (or even exclusively) driven at educating employees about what was happening. The most progressive companies would attempt to use these changes to communicate with potential employees about why their organization was a great place to work.

But now the most important target of this information is no longer the employee or job candidate, but rather the consumer. In publicizing changes to their talent strategies, companies are trying to say to their consumers, “We have great people, therefore we will have great products and services for you.” Companies that advertise new policies around parental leave and gender equality are saying, “You should buy services from us because we care about doing the right thing for our employees.” These companies are, smartly, using HR as PR to drive the performance of their business rather than having HR follow the business.

There are at least two major reasons why this shift is occurring. First, as the workforce and customers care more about the social practices and beliefs that a company has, building awareness about these changes has a direct connection to overall company performance. Second, the best quality talent is likely to be more passive in their job search behavior. By using non-traditional channels and messaging strategies, organizations are better able to reach this segment of the labor market.