Closing the gap: when perception and reality collide

We regularly share posts from our committee members, and this week we hear from Lisa Pantelli about employee engagement. Over to Lisa:

Lisa Pantelli


I’m sure many of you would have seen last week’s fairly spectacular video, in which Sports Direct founder, Mike Astley, was filmed pulling out a wad of £50 notes as he was searched ahead of a factory tour.


I’m sure I’m not the only comms professional to be somewhat baffled by how somebody so senior failed to pre-empt the security search. Not least because it was a tour specifically planned for the nation’s media…had he not been to the factory before?


Despite the current woes of the company, the intense media spotlight and however much planning went into that media tour, the fact is, the gap between perception and reality of an organisation’s reputation is narrowing. This was a perfect opportunity to show employees, media and the rest of the nation, that the company is committed to putting things right. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity missed.


Leaders are under more scrutiny and pressure to practice what they preach. Employees can no longer be perceived as passengers on a leadership agenda or as a commodity to serve those in power.


Let’s not forget though that leaders are at the end of the day people, and oversights happen – but the implications to reputation are now far more significant and employees less forgiving if there is something they fundamentally take issue with. No longer is a there a signifcant gap between how an organisation presents itself and how it behaves.


The importance of employee advocacy


It’s non disputable that an employee speaking out can have a massive impact on a company’s reputation.


Take recent examples, such as the Deliveroo and UberEats drivers, vocal in their views over their contracts, or Amazon employees who were equally critical and defensive of the culture of the business. And of course, the poster boy for the employee engagement #fail HMV.


In short, employees are first and foremost our greatest advocates. They will provide you with the most fantastic success or spectacular woes.


One of the biggest drivers for me to move into specialising in employee engagement, was the fact that I became continually stunned by how little priority organisations gave employees as a driver for building and maintaining their reputation. Many client briefs I’d receive would have employees as a ‘secondary audience’, yet I would be increasingly dealing with issues and crisis in which employees were at the heart – from production line sabotage, to strikes and data breaches.


Earlier this year, People Lab’s ‘Spotlight On’ research found that less than 50% of UK businesses have an employee engagement strategy and only 25% have a definition of engagement. Out of those which do,14% believe their definition is understood and 37% have no idea! Furthermore, we found that those who have responsibility for engagement were too busy to focus on it as they had other responsibilities – and 76% said that they had no formal training or support to help them with this aspect of their role.


So what now? 


It is now time for organisations and leaders to put their money where their mouths are. Lots of lip service is paid to improving communications and engagement with employees, but why are so few practicing what they preach?


I don’t think it’s necessarily because people don’t care, but I think the challenge is more around that people aren’t able to answer three fundamental questions, whether that’s through lack of understanding, training or commitment – and they are:


  • What does engagement mean to us?
  • Why does it matter?
  • and how will we ‘do’ it.


For this to happen successfully internal siloes need to be broken and we need to see HR, marketing, communications and leaders working far more closely together. Leaders and manager’s also need to place more trust in their employees. The more they feel valued and part of the future, the more focused they’ll be in playing their part.




This year’s CIPR Inside conference is focused on discussing and analysing this very issue and I am looking forward to hearing what comes out of it.  There are some fantastic speakers on the panel and to try and get to the root of the issue, we will have speakers with backgrounds in HR, IT and facilities. This conference is one of the highlights of my year and I really hope to see many of you there – you can still buy tickets online.


I will post again after the conference with some of the key takeaways but in the meantime, I ask this – when was the last time you sat in a room with colleagues from other functions to discuss engagement within your organisation. If you can’t remember or never have, perhaps it’s time to make that call and look at how you can help with #ClosingtheGap.



Huge thanks to Lisa for sharing her employee engagement insight with us. As we publish this, there are just eight tickets left for the conference on Tuesday 4 October, so if you fancy joining us and a 150 plus internal comms professionals, book your ticket today.

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