Practices of Shame

Shame is an intense and horrifying emotion and paradoxically too much exposure to shame can lead to a lack of feeling. The absence of emotions can transform into social deviance. I recently finished reading Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It was a book that I just couldn’t put down. I was superficially aware that the feeling of shame is not pleasant, but I never stopped to think about this combined with the power of social media.

Being ashamed and being shamed are different aspects. Shame can sometimes be justified, as a way for yourself to understand you made a mistake and improve. On the other hand, being shamed is something that happens from outside inwards and is targeting a particular individual (or an entity). This is, in my opinion, less acceptable, though can be used as a very effective social mechanism of behavioural change. Being part of society means signing a social contract that involves a specific sort of behaviour deemed acceptable by the majority. When someone acts unlawfully or socially unacceptable (from assault to hate speech and anything in between) they are being shamed as a way to be punished for violating that social contract. An idea that Jon Ronson brings forward in his book is that, especially on social media, people shame others not so much out of moral convictions but rather to prove to others that they disapprove of that behaviour. 

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Social media and especially platforms like Twitter, notorious for their public shaming cases, have changed in purpose. From a place where you would meet people or find comfort in others, it has become a place where you build your individual brand, being sure to keep up with trends and hot topics and have the same opinion as the majority. In her Ted Talk, Monica Lewinsky calls herself patient zero of online shaming, losing her status as a private individual and having her intimate life debated worldwide. Women used to be publicly shamed a lot about private aspects, especially when coming out after being assaulted, but in the absence of social media, they could get over it easier. In the global village of today, a sex scandal resonates internationally.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson presents a series of mostly decent people (e.g. Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone and many others) that made mistakes or have been misunderstood and were savagely destroyed online by angry mobs. Careers were destroyed, people were threatened, traumas were caused and all these by social media users, that, I am sure, are really good people in their day to day lives. It just happened that they were caught in their desire to prove they were different and therefore the same as others, in order not to be judged in return. It’s always harder to speak up against the majority when you are alone. 

This practice of bullying through online shaming is increasingly popular, even though frowned upon theoretically. This is not only a practice reserved for individuals. Brands of varying sizes have been dealing with shaming more and more and the gap between consumers and corporations in widening. The reputation of a brand is essential in the current climate and any mistake, rumour or bad review can turn into a complicated crisis management situation and a decrease in brand credibility. It’s true, some brands consistently repeat their mistakes (e.g. Dolce and Gabbana and the chopsticks ads) and deserve being told by people around the world that they are wrong.

Of course, it’s not fair to say that individuals and brands are equal in power nor that they deserve the same treatment. It’s just interesting to notice a pattern, especially if you work as a communication professional. Come to think of it, a brand can be perceived as a team of people. The issue is that sometimes the employees are personally affected because of the association with the brand they work at. Customers tend to sometime blur the distinction between the employee and the private person. Targeting values and ideas can be helpful for society, but targeting people can be more complex. It requires you to know the context of the person. It is so much easier to imagine that any person working for a brand with questionable values is evil and thus deserve to be shamed or even threatened. 

I consider myself more of a private person and don’t normally post articles, write blogs or express my thoughts online. But the fact that I will one day make a comment or a joke that will be misunderstood and I will be caught up in a storm of online anger make me even more reserved. The only conclusion I can draw from this is a fairly obvious one, that sometimes we can forget. It is never acceptable to be a bully. Even less so when you are doing it online, as part of a group and targeting a person you don’t know much about. It’s even more frightening to think that the bully can sometimes be a decent person like you and me, that has chosen the wrong way to avoid standing out.

A blog by Diana Boca, IABC UK&I Board Member 2020-2021

It’s time to see the writing on the wall

A few years ago, I was meeting a prospective client to chat about a potential opportunity to work together. I asked to talk at their offices, as it’s always helpful to meet ‘on their terms’ to get a better understanding of the organisation. They were running late, so I was sitting in reception on the client floor and people watching. I also noticed they had their company values stencilled on the walls. Among them were the usual suspects: integrity; trust; mutual respect; client focused; and so on.

As I waited, I saw a suited man emerge from a large meeting room and storm up to reception, loudly berating the receptionist because he had been provided with Pepsi for his client lunch, not the Coca Cola he had asked for. The way he spoke to the receptionist was appalling, but she seemed to take it in her stride. Not much mutual respect in that interaction…

For too long, organisational values have just been something written on the walls. Every company has them and they’re all more or less the same. But then the Covid-19 global pandemic hit and everything changed. Your values became apparent in your actions – it didn’t matter what it said on the walls. I’m sure we can all think of examples of organisations that stepped up and those that should, frankly, be ashamed.

Of course, most organisations – probably yours included – fall somewhere in the middle. So if you’ve been sitting there thinking that the values your leadership team came up with at an offsite three years ago don’t quite match where you are and how you operate, now is the perfect time to revisit them.

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

It’s behaviours that matter

To be effective, this isn’t something that can be palmed off onto HR teams. Nor should it be something done in isolation. The pandemic should have made it clear which values are important to you. Now’s the time to crystallize your thinking and get it out there. And no, putting it on your walls won’t be enough.

Values are just words. It’s behaviours that matter. And your values will generally indicate the types of behaviours you expect to see.

As communicators we have a huge role to play in making sure our organisations, customers, clients, stakeholders, and the wider public know what our values are, what we stand for and how we do business. So how do you get it right?

  • Test your values with people in your organisation. Do they seem right to them? If something glaring is missing, you can adjust. If not, then you’ve validated what you have. You can also discuss what behaviours they believe support delivering those values.
  • It starts with objectives. How you deliver is as important as what you deliver. Make sure your people are rewarded for demonstrating the right behaviours, as well as what they deliver. Your values should be woven into all relevant processes throughout the employee lifecycle, from job adverts and recruitment practices to the way you manage leavers and everything in between.
  • Incorporate your values into communication. Look for ways to show that you’re already living the values in the way that you work. This helps people to understand and adopt them. Can you categorise intranet articles by value, for example, or run a recognition programme that celebrates people living the values? Can your external communication campaigns incorporate and highlight those values, too? Is your public affairs team engaging with officials on topics related to your values?
  • Have patience, be aware and work together. It will take time to truly bring new values and behaviours to life. Be patient. We also need to be conscious of any bias that may present itself. We often talk of the right ‘fit’, but this can be an excuse for hiring in our own image. Hiring based on behaviours and values rather than some perceived ‘fit’ should help with this.

Organisations that see values as nothing more than wallpaper are missing a trick. The Deloitte Global Millennium Survey 2020 highlights the importance placed on values and purpose by younger generations, with many saying they won’t support businesses whose stated and practised values conflict with their own. 

Ignore them at your peril.

A blog by Simon Monger, IABC UK&I Board Member 2020-2021

Developing a Resilient Organisational Culture During Lockdown

The recent dramatic shift in the office paradigm has had a major impact on organisations’ culture, impacting employee morale and engagement. Working together in office can provide a sense of community and a network of support. For some companies that relied on their offices, remote working has caused a disconnect between employees, and some aspects of their culture may have been lost in the process.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Companies can see these changes as an opportunity to develop and re-address their culture and build an even more resilient team. Below are just some of the ways companies can become stronger while most of their employees are working remotely.

1. Open Communication

A lack of communication can lead to employees feeling lost and with that, a loss of motivation. It’s important to build various communication channels and express how an open flow of communication is always available. In a recent survey, remote workers said that one of the most important actions from companies was regular communication with 55% rating it as ‘Very Important’. There should a centralised place for top-level communication that continues to provide transparency over strategic decisions and a separate instant messaging platform for quick questions that would normally be shouted across a desk. Managers still need to ensure they have dedicated meetings with their team to continue the flow of messaging from top to bottom. Video calls are becoming a popular platform to conduct regular team meetings to continue the coordination between team members on various tasks.

2. Adapt

It would be foolish to ignore all the changes to our society that have taken place recently. Companies can either choose to recreate their office culture in a remote environment or create an entirely new style of culture. These changes can be an opportunity to develop a more effective culture that promotes good morale and trust in employees. Over time, a company may have developed a complacent culture, where productivity may not have been at its highest and in the worst-case scenario misconduct and bad behaviour could have started to seep in. If this is the case, companies can now choose to adapt and improve their culture, using this as an opportunity to eliminate behaviours that don’t reflect their values.

3. Strong Leadership

One of the most important factors driving organisational culture is strong leadership. You need engaged managers who want to drive a positive culture and support their employees through internal comms and by leading by example. Managers should provide employees with clear information on business changes and how these impact the team. Remote working means managers cannot constantly oversee everyone’s work, so they need to trust people to work autonomously. ‘Demonstrating trust in employees’ was cited as being the most important action a company could take, according to a recent study, with 58% stating it as very important. Demonstrating trust can also build employees’ motivation, allowing them to be more productive in their work.

4. Productivity

In order to have a resilient culture, you need a productive workforce. Research shows remote working can boost productivity, in some cases leading to a 44% increase in client calls. However, some employees may be working longer than usual, with a study showing 35% are now working longer hours. Whilst this may mean increased output for a company in the short term, it cannot come at the cost of employee wellbeing in the long term. To continue this level of productivity over time, you need to be sure employees are still taking proper breaks and looking after themselves by promoting wellbeing as a core aspect of your culture. Many companies have taken the initiative to host fun group activities over video calls such as yoga, exercise classes, or quizzes to promote team building and maintain a sense of community and mutual support.

5. Transparency

Recent events have created a lot of uncertainty, whether in business outlooks or employment security which can be very daunting. The need for transparency is greater than ever. It is crucial to update employees regularly and reassure them where possible. With government policies changing daily, many companies have taken to creating a central platform to host all relevant changes, which is updated on a daily basis. Employees can access it at any time and get a full overview of recent policy changes and how it impacts them, helping to give them peace of mind.

Building a resilient and positive culture will not happen overnight. However, we can’t expect large-scale remote working to be leaving any time soon, so we should take the time to implement long-standing solutions. Building a more resilient culture will allow businesses to be flexible and adapt to the constantly changing environment, helping them withstand current economic pressures.

Next month, in association with Halston Marketing, IABC UK&I will be publishing our first Crisis Comms whitepaper, delving a little deeper into this subject with examples from communication leaders across some of the UK’s biggest companies. Keep your eyes peeled!

New research finds that organisations still undervalue listening as a leadership capability and often pay lip service to it.

This is especially important during the current COVID-19 pandemic when the need for organisations to listen to employee concerns is greater than ever.

Carried out by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC UK), PR Academy and Couravel, with the support of the IABC Foundation, the research explored the state of organisational listening through interviews with winners of IABC Gold Quill Awards.

Howard Krais of IABC UK explained the reason for the study: “We wanted to find out the best ways for organisations to listen and how listening needs to become business as usual.”

The report builds on research carried out in 2019: “Our earlier research found that organisations have lost the balance between ‘receive’ and ‘transmit’.  With the growing use of video, social media and an explosion of channels the danger is that organisations forget that good communication starts with the ability to listen,” says Dr Kevin Ruck of PR Academy. “In fact, listening is now more important than ever.  Leaders will be judged by how they listen to and care for their people.”

The report contains case studies and examples of good practice in listening plus a range of tools that leaders and communicators can use to improve the way they listen to employees.

Through the research, five principles for good listening were identified:

  1. Openness: good listening requires an open mind
  2. Planning: thorough planning across the organisation
  3. Distributed leadership: listening needs to be led at multiple levels in the organisation
  4. Empathic and creative: creating impactful and emotive feedback approaches
  5. Human: understanding how people think and feel

“We hope that anyone wanting to devise new and innovative ways to listen to employees will find inspiration here, as well as advice on the tools that can be used,” says Mike Pounsford of Couravel. “Although the case studies were gathered pre-COVID, many can be adapted for an online environment and the principles we identified apply whatever the method being used.”

The report also sets out how organisations can assess their maturity in listening against a spectrum of approaches:

  • Passive: more opportunities for passive listening to check what people are thinking and feeling
  • Active: leaders showing that they are aware and responsive to needs of employees 
  • Sensitive: opportunities for people to talk about how they are feeling
  • Deep: listening exercises that can result in a change in the way that the organisation does things

“Organisations that have processes in place to listen to employees right across the spectrum are going to experience better levels of engagement, advocacy, trust, innovation, resilience, learning and wellbeing,” says Ruck.

Download the report here:

The original report, published in December 2019 can also be downloaded below:

Social Justice: Resources for Communications Professionals

Our members are facing new challenges every week, including addressing the issues of social justice in the world and the workplace. 

There have been some excellent articles written and generously shared, as well as podcasts and events. Here’s a selection worth checking out:




Why not share your own suggestions and recommendations on our social media channels? Find us on Linkedin IABC UK&I and Twitter @IABCUK