Building a Foundation of Trust

Written by Laura Kane

Have you ever heard the saying, “They don’t have to like me, they just have to respect me?” You’ve probably heard it from someone who is neither liked nor respected. That is because the two concepts are mutually dependent.

People tend to respect individuals and companies that they like and trust; they also tend to like and trust those they respect.  It works that way with consumers and with employees, who are often more productive when they feel that their companies are aligned with their values.

At Aflac, we built a foundation on trust and other traits that make us a well-liked employer and an insurance company that our shareholders and customers like as well. The positive values that our company holds dear are vital to success, especially operating in an often maligned industry. That is why we believe that companies that go to great lengths to communicate their core values both internally and externally have a leg up in the marketplace.

For example, IBM wants to build a better planet, and communicates that regularly in advertising I like and internal communications.  Disney’s consistent message leads people to believe that something magical is at work.  At Aflac, an emphatic commitment to standards – customer service, a great work environment and financial strength – combined with a lovable duck, reminds consumers, shareholders and employees that we are a solid company with a playful side.

But none of these stellar reputations, which are not easily earned, happened in a vacuum. They are the product of consistent and determined communication both internally and externally with stakeholders; the kind of external messaging that confirms that it is never a good idea to compromise standards. In fact, there are times when good companies rely on their ethics and standards as much as they do their products or services.

One situation where communicating standards and values is a non-negotiable is during periods of fast growth. It happens often: Eager entrepreneurs start a company and, after some trial by fire, the business takes off. These are make-it-or-break-it moments. Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack Taylor quickly nurtured a regional leasing business into a multi-billion dollar national leader. Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya put a Greek twist on a dairy staple and, in just six years, redefined the yogurt market in America. When we introduced the Aflac Duck in 2000, our sales and revenues soared. In each instance, the employee population surged.

So why is communicating corporate values so important during times of growth? Well, mainly because sudden growth of a company often transforms executives from hands-on purveyors of the culture into less accessible businessmen and women, in spite of their best intentions.  External corporate communications becomes the means of maintaining that strong reputation with consumers, investors, employees and prospective employees.

There is another side of this coin as well. As a company grows, so does its presence in the American lexicon and journalists’ rolodexes. You become a magnet for attention –  a source for news stories and thought leadership. As such, it makes abundant sense to embrace, and in fact, enhance your external communications programs to communicate with the public with authenticity.

Result: Fewer hiring mismatches, confident consumers and investors, and still faster growth.

Other crucial moments for the communication of values include: transitions of executive leadership; periods of rebranding; corporate restructuring; and crisis. In each instance, all stakeholders of the organization develop heightened sensitivities about the company’s character, tone and culture. Here, the importance of internal communications is obvious. But in all such scenarios, the worth of externally communicating the organization’s values is incalculable in preserving a reputation and in conveying a positive message.

But authentic external communication isn’t cheerleading. As Aflac CEO Dan Amos often says, “Bad news does not improve with age.” Effective external communication is not complete without dives into areas that some might consider risky in order to hold all company staff, including senior management, accountable.  The public will recognize that level of transparency and often reward you for it.

In 2011, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who at the time was the first and only voice the Aflac Duck ever had, tweeted insensitive remarks about the Japanese people following a devastating tsunami. Aflac was quick to share the news, orchestrating a massive external communications plan that began with Gottfried’s dismissal.

Result: Consumers and media applauded Aflac for demonstrating its commitment to its values.

For years, Aflac beat the drum – especially during waves of corporate scandals – for more windows into corporate governance.  Our commitment to transparency and the power of our brand made us an obvious candidate for shareholder activists interested in securing a say-on-pay vote.  The request from shareholders to have a voice in executive compensation was in keeping with our commitment to transparency and our values.

Result: In 2008, Aflac became the first American company to invite a shareholder vote on compensation for senior executives and received significant positive attention from a wide variety of stakeholders while publicly aligning our policies with our promises.

What carries more weight: A story in a company newsletter or a feature in The New York Times? External communication of company values adds credibility internally as well. You expect a company to speak kindly of itself, but the most effective internal communications program is reinforced by external communications that garner third-party validation.

An external expression of corporate values undoubtedly builds the brand among customers too. A recent survey by Cone Communications found that 82 percent of respondents were more likely to purchase products from a company that clearly demonstrates the results of its corporate citizenship initiatives than from one that does not.

In short, values serve a host of productive roles for organizations, so we should communicate them. For setting strategic direction, they provide guidance. For aligning employees’ efforts, they provide clarity.  For attracting empathetic staff and customers, they provide a beacon. It’s not a matter of choosing to like or respect, since one leads to the other. Companies that aspire to be considered leaders, and companies that already are, dedicate the resources they need to ensure that their values are there for all to see.

Aflac herein means American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus and/or American Family Life Assurance Company of New York and/or Continental American Insurance Company and/or Continental American Life Insurance Company.