Like vultures hovering above a rotting corpse, the press pack descended on the BBC pay release and feasted with glee. “Awkward!”, The Sun gloated. “Pay panic at the BBC!” cackled the Daily Mail.

It certainly wasn’t pretty reading from a gender pay gap point of view. Of the 96 names released, only 34 were women, with just 10 from a minority background. Whilst the media schadenfreude will continue for months, more forward-looking media might be looking nervously towards April 2018. This is the deadline for companies with over 250 employees to publish gender pay gap figures, and the mainstream media may have some awkward questions of their own to answer. With this date in mind, those affected would be minded to analyse their own strategies, and learn from the BBC’s chastening experience.

 

Not just an HR or legal problem

When we talk to communications professionals about the challenges posed by gender pay gap revelations, initial reactions are often dismissive. “It is an HR issue”, they tell us. “Our legal team are already on it”, they assure us. We believe that preparing for gender pay gap reporting goes beyond HR and legal. As the BBC coverage demonstrates, it is a serious reputation issue.

The numbers released will be crude, and won’t tell the whole story. Important context will be missed. Industry trends will be ignored. Policies that encourage the recruitment of female graduates for example, giving rise to an influx of young women on low pay, may skew the figures. As a result, creating a narrative around the release, to contextualise the figures, will be vital in protecting your brand’s reputation.

When the numbers are out, the media will concentrate on easy headlines, pitting rival against rival. So, a strong external communications strategy will need to position you positively in comparison to your competitors. It is even possible to make a good story out of bad numbers, as EasyJet proved. Highlighting the fact that the percentage of their pilots who were female had risen from six per cent to twelve per cent shifted attention away from the still sparse number of female pilots they employ, whilst recognising it is historically a male-dominated industry.

 

It's not just external reputation you have to worry about

While your first instinct might be to worry about external reputation, those affected within the company mustn’t be neglected. The destructive force of internal discontent was laid bare when the anger amongst the BBC’s female staff erupted into the open. On air and in the press, the leading BBC women made their disgust abundantly clear. Most notably, a group of prominent employees sent an open letter to The Telegraph to highlight the failings of their employer. The choice of paper, not one known for its sympathy for the BBC, hinted at a desire to inflict the most reputational pain possible.

Mutiny within the ranks will not only affect talent retention and acquisition. If a brand is tainted by its poor treatment of women employees, it could drive away female consumers. Boots suffered a backlash recently over its decision to keep the price of the morning after pill restrictively high.  They also came under fire for their poor choice of words, justifying their decision by claiming they wanted to avoid criticism for “incentivising inappropriate use”.

This story will also be personal to your spokespeople. Women who are directly affected, or men with daughters, sisters and wives. Helping explain the complex web of forces behind a pay gap – and the differences between that and equal pay, which is already illegal, will require clear lines of communication.

 

Planning for the future

Smart brands will plan beyond the first release of the pay gap figures, which from 2018 must be reported annually. Close attention will be paid to how brands are improving year on year - or not, as the case may be. Simply employing more women is not the solution. The challenges run much deeper, and are much more structural. A strongly female graduate cohort, for example, does not necessarily translate to boardroom equality. Inflexible working conditions can dissuade parents who have to care for their children, of whom the majority are women.

Here, collaboration between communications and HR teams becomes essential. Many companies are already pursuing diversity and inclusion agendas to transform policies on flexible working hours, maternity pay, and maternal and paternal leave. Ford are a great example of family friendly policies. The automotive industry is known to be massively slanted towards male, so Ford offered lucrative support packages to mothers. This included 52 weeks maternity leave for all employees, and 100% maternity pay for the entire 52-week period. They found that 98% of mothers would return after their maternity leave.  Not only did this make for a happy workforce, but it ensured that Ford retained their talented female staff, garnered good press, and enhanced their consumer reputation.

 

What should you do?

Communications professionals need to be asking HR and legal colleagues for the figures from the snapshot date of 5th April 2017. With nine months to go before the deadline for publication, you may wish to enlist external support to create a suitable internal and external communications campaign.

As you might expect from those who were there when the regulations were passed, we hope the obligation to release pay gap figures will be treated not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. Only once light has been shed on the problem can it be fixed. And in fixing these problems, and presenting your brand as forward thinking and compassionate, you could reap rewards, from staff and consumers alike.

Comment