Four thoughts on reputation management for 2017.
Post-truth, being honest and transparent is absolutely vital
Reputation management is about quality stakeholder engagement
Meaningful reputation measurement is about outcomes
Being ‘authentic’ hasn’t gone away.
1. Post-truth, being honest and transparent is absolutely vital
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 2016 it’s the power of the untruth when amplified by social media. There are the obvious examples of widely shared and later debunked untruths that haunted both Clinton and Trump during their presidential campaigns, but the same issue faces corporations every day. WHSmith is haunted by a Twitter campaign about the state of its store carpets. People share and re-Tweet negative images of WHSmith’s stores and berate the retailer for their cleanliness. The issue WHSmith’s has is that even though it has updated most stores, these old images are continually re-Tweeted. Some of them are years old and do not reflect the current reality.
It would take an army of people to respond to every single comment made about a company such as WHSmith, so what power do companies have when operating in this post-truth environment? Honesty and transparency are key. Hillary Clinton’s team quickly put together a ‘fact checker’ on her website to debunk some of the spurious claims made by Trump and others. It was a good start and one that corporations should use to ensure their version of the truth is out there and easily accessible. Similarly, WHSmith’s CEO has been addressing the Twitter campaign directly in recent interviews.
Another area where companies can learn from Clinton is transparency. One thing she didn’t do well was to respond quickly and openly to the accusations related to her use of a private email server. Her delay created a vacuum, which was then filled by speculation and conspiracy theorists. Today, companies really must respond quickly to accusations, in an open, honest and transparent way. This is counter-intuitive to lawyers, but whilst the truth always eventually comes out, any delay is filled with speculation and conspiracy. Once that happens, the reputation damage is done and it’s hard to recover. This obviously has implications for communications functions with a need for effective scenario planning as well as always being ‘on’.
- Reputation management is about quality stakeholder engagement
It you want to know how to build a stronger reputation with your key stakeholders, ask them. Engaging directly in qualitative dialogue, led by experienced, independent and professional researchers or consultants doesn’t just reveal quality insight for stakeholder engagement programmes, it actively builds reputation in the process.
My own experience in running reputation research programmes over many years has shown me that it is qualitative research techniques that pay dividends. A current example is a client we have at Tovera. 18 months ago, our study revealed the company faced reputation risks due to a number of stakeholders holding negative perceptions of the firm on a particular issue. We asked these stakeholders what they needed to see and hear from the company in order to shift their position to one of support. This qualitative dialogue with senior stakeholders yielded rich insight that enabled us to be strategic recommendations to the client.
The company acted on our advice and when we followed up with these same stakeholders recently we found them to be much more favourable and supportive. They praised a number of the initiatives from the company but interestingly, the main reason for the shift in their position was that they felt their concerns were being listened to and acted on by the client. The very act of running the research had improved the reputation of the company.
Reputation management requires quality stakeholder engagement led by professional, experienced people. It provides the critical insight for business and communications strategies and the very act of engaging stakeholders in qualitative research is a reputation building activity in itself.
- Meaningful reputation measurement is about outcomes
What’s the point of measuring corporate reputation if it’s not clearly linked to outcomes? We’ve encountered major companies with complex and expensive reputation measurement systems that bear no relationship to actual outcomes such as stakeholder behaviour on specific topics or financial metrics such as revenue, market share, margin etc etc. Which begs the question, what’s the point?
If reputation management is fundamentally about building a strong base of positive support among key stakeholders – and we believe it is – then reputation measurement should be based on how your corporate communications and stakeholder engagement strategies are affecting actual behaviour. Nothing else should matter more.
If all you’re looking to do is get a sense of your company’s reputation generally, then analysing media sentiment is good enough. It’s meaningless putting another abstract measure on top, unless that measure has been proven to reflect actual real-life outcomes.
Enlightened companies are taking an holistic approach to understanding their reputation – taking brand trackers, media sentiment analysis and stakeholder behaviour measures together to get a rounded picture of reputation risks and opportunities.
- Being ‘authentic’ hasn’t gone away
Some years ago a smart colleague of mine said, “It’s an authentic care for doing the right thing that leads to a great reputation”. The statement stuck with me as he was, and still is, absolutely right. The key word here being ‘authentic’. As a company, it’s important to understand what your stakeholders expect from you and for you to then – as far as possible – respond by ‘doing the right thing’. This generally manifests through a CSR strategy and it’s here things can go wrong.
Often companies make the mistake of developing CSR strategies quite separate from business strategy. To do so can easily be interpreted as green washing and/or lacking authenticity. Separating CSR from the core of the business means it’s seen as an add-on, nice-to-have, but fundamentally inessential activity. If the business doesn’t consider it central then people generally won’t believe in it. And if that’s the case, at best it’s a waste of time and resources, at worst, it’s damaging to your reputation.
To be authentic you have to truly believe in what you are doing, and to be believable, it must come from the core and be closely related to your corporate brand position and proposition.
Spencer Fox is a reputation and corporate brand consultant and has advised companies such as AstraZeneca, ITV, L’Oréal and Tesco. He is a founding partner of Tovera Consulting – a brand and reputation research, measurement and advice company that helps companies build both strong brands and reputations. www.tovera.consulting