BRAND BELONGING: Difficult news requires transparency and honesty

Part three of our blog series dissecting our 2023 Communication that Matters report – Building Brand Belonging. This piece covers why difficult news requires transparency and honesty.  

Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a framework to building brand belonging, we take a deep dive into each structure, deploying each need as a building block to fostering belonging with stakeholders. We pinpoint the unique challenges, insights and opportunities that each need presents to the creation of a responsible business. 

In this article, we delve into the intricacies of safety and security in a dynamic environment, discussing the need for brand transparency and honesty when communicating news that affects stakeholders.  

Safety and security: The challenge 

For nearly four years now, we’ve been living in times marked by crises, where our traditional concept of normality has been turned on its head. Safety, security, and stability – all essential elements of the second category of Maslow’s Hierarchy – have been hard to come by. All of this has affected society’s collective mental state, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifying that instances of anxiety and depression have increased by 25% worldwide due to the pandemic.  

Governments and public sector institutions have been responsible for policy decisions aimed at protecting national health and economies, and they have equally been blamed for the hardships experienced by Australian citizens. As a result, Australians have turned elsewhere for stability and security, including to brands. 

Safety and security: What we’re seeing 

Our research confirmed something most communicators already know. Difficult news affecting stakeholders—whether layoffs, budget cuts, or increased costs—needs to be communicated with transparency and honesty, and ideally must come from the top.  

Corporate communicators flagged that leadership teams are at times standing in the way of transparent communications, with one respondent saying, “Senior management has a fairly conservative approach to communications – all news should be good news.” However, experience shows a lack of transparency and honesty can have a very damaging impact on an organisation and its reputation. 

BHP’s response to underpaying workers 

In early June, BHP reported to the ASX that an internal review unveiled rostered employees in Australia had their leave incorrectly deducted on public holidays since 2010. This means almost 30,000 workers have been underpaid, and the mining giant will need to pay over $400 million to make amends. There’s no doubt that this is a momentous scandal. However, BHP has prioritised transparency in its communications efforts, outlining figures and remediation timelines as well as providing authentic, honest communications to those affected via BHP’s Australian president Geraldine Slatterly.  

In a short and clear video, Slatterly says, “This should not be happening at all. And I’m deeply sorry that you’re being impacted. I appreciate that issues with payroll will be important to every one of us as individuals. Please know, we’re committed to understanding and correcting these issues quickly. And if you haven’t received what you’re entitled to, it will be corrected, and we will make it right.”  

Globally, 71% of people expect brands to cultivate feelings of comfort and stability through openness. And for our consumer respondents, it seems this expectation isn’t currently being met. Qualitative insight found that a lack of transparency from brands has decreased trust. Multiple consumer respondents proactively commented they believed organisations profited from the pandemic by letting staff go and benefiting from government support, and that brands are now taking advantage of rising costs and “…thriving while families struggle”.  

For employees, jobs are an extremely unstable issue. The Great Resignation of 2022, which favoured staff, has been sandwiched between two periods characterised by redundancies and layoffs. Tens of thousands of individuals have been laid off in 2023 so far, many from big tech organisations which historically offered lucrative and stable roles. In this environment, transparency is essential, with human transformation company BetterUp claiming that employees in a transparent workplace have a 12x higher job satisfaction rate.  

Transparency is key to building belonging with prospective talent as well. Talent, especially Gen Z jobseekers, have much higher expectations of their employers about openness, transparency, salaries, employee benefits, and gender pay gaps, and are increasingly reluctant to meet with companies that fail to meet their standards.  

Safety and security: What this means for communicators  

Building a fit-for-purpose product and applying flexible working practices may seem outside the scope of the communications team, however the role of effective communications is essential to achieving both. 

Meaningful communications  

According to Trustpilot’s Brand Integrity Report, consumers want honesty from the companies they support, alongside a demonstration from brands that their actions match their words. Rhetoric must be honest, transparent and meaningful no matter the subject.  

Communication for communication’s sake can also be detrimental to brands. While Woolworths was commended for its early response to the first COVID-19 triggered lockdown, other brands who were seen to have ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ were met with criticism. Unlike Woolworths, which provided critical information at a time of need, other brands weren’t seen to be offering consumers additional value and were slated for stoking fears. 

Transparency and strong leadership results in brand belonging  

For employees, regular communications about a business’ performance and financial results are critical as livelihoods, basic needs, are at stake. As one employee respondent to our research stated: “More transparency minimises the anxiety and fear [at work] which eventually becomes gossip [and] negatively impacts the work environment. [A lack of transparency causes] distrust of management and creates a divide between colleagues.”  

A passionate leader with the ability to clearly and empathetically communicate with employees–to demonstrate that employee needs are being listened to and considered—is a priority for both internal and external communicators. As organisational communications and productivity expert Justin Hale puts has said, “…successful leaders need to be able to both understand why people do what they do and use that knowledge to get people to change for good.” 

Strong leadership cannot exist without effective communication. To establish brand belonging, transparent and honest communication between brands and their stakeholders is vital, especially when stakeholder safety and security is compromised.    

In our next article, we delve into the nuances of belonging, reimagining the concept to align with the post-covid work landscape. We examine personalisation as a pathway enhancing the relationship between brands and their audiences and the potential for AI to help facilitate this process. We go on to discuss the requirement of establishing a culture of connection in a hybrid workplace. 

Interesting in learning more? 

If you’re interested in learning more about our belonging framework or organising a meeting with our team to deep dive into the findings of the report, we’d love to hear from you. Just reach out and we can arrange a free consultation with our communications experts.  


Part three of our Communication that Matters report covering how difficult news requires transparency and honesty.