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Corporate reputation management is about influencing the perceptions of stakeholders rather than exerting top-down control and businesses should invest time and effort into developing a strategy.
In a previous blog, we discussed the concept of reputation management, and outlined how corporate reputation is a multi-faceted business asset which needs to be carefully influenced rather than aggressively managed. Businesses which use online reputation management (ORM) techniques to blanket negative coverage with positive new stories, or are seen to be inauthentic in their behaviour, may suffer greater reputation risk than those which listen to and prioritise their many stakeholders. Building a strong reputation is a long-term, complex, individually tailored process, but following these guidelines will set every business on the road to success.
Proactively improving reputation doesn’t mean having to control it. The first step is to accept that you can’t manage reputation in the strict sense of the word. Those who try to control their image through advertising and public relations campaigns at the expense of honest, authentic behaviour are pursuing an out-dated concept, and are likely to achieve the opposite of the intended affect.
In the interconnected, hyper-transparent virtual world many of their stakeholders interact in, it is impossible to orchestrate – or drown out – the volume of noise generated about a business, whether positive or negative. If a business instead puts it efforts into effectively managing those things that can be controlled – boardroom decisions and corporate actions – a reputation commensurate with the intent behind those actions will follow.
No business can expect to influence its reputation if it doesn’t know what it looks like. Monitoring communication channels for discourse about the company will reveal what is being said and by whom. In the digital age, this amounts to enormous volumes of data, so to ensure an accurate representation of reputation, a multi-channel media monitoring service needs to be employed.
Conversations go both ways, of course, and it’s equally important that communications coming from the company are clear, timely and transparent. Being open and authentic in corporate communications allows businesses to tell their own story in a positive light. When disaster strikes, attempts to cover up – or delay comment on – negative stories will serve to increase reputation risk. Meanwhile, swift and authentic responses, through which a company is seen to be taking responsibility, can have a positive effect on its reputation.
Corporate reputation is grounded in the perceptions of a business’s many stakeholders, including customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers, regulators and NGOs. To understand the viewpoints on which a reputation is built, and how it might be influenced, all of these stakeholders need to be listened to, their priorities recognised, and concerns addressed.
Just as it is multi-stakeholder dependent, so too reputation is omni-factor: there are many, equally important elements that make up the whole. CEO behaviour and leadership; ethics and purpose; employee wellbeing; environmental concern; quality of product and services; and financial performance are just a few. Each individual stakeholder will have an opinion about each of these factors – and weigh them differently. The business needs to recognise what matters most to whom in order to build positive perceptions about the company with each group.
It’s a much-touted fact that it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time. It is also a bad idea to try, as the likely result is pleasing no one. In both corporate communications and when engaging with stakeholders through other channels, it’s important to be authentic. Business practices should reflect corporate culture.
Transparency builds trust, and in a world where everything a business says and then does is discoverable by anyone with a web browser, it quickly becomes apparent when that company isn’t walking the talk. Stay true to purpose and avowed intentions, however, and reputational capital will follow. A business that is seen to do what it says, will, over time, have greater access to the benefit of the doubt should something go wrong.
While reputation is a multi-stakeholder affair for any company, no matter its business or sector, for each there will be primary stakeholders who carry greater weight when it comes to reputation. For those with a high public profile, careful communication with the media is key. If investment is essential to growth, potential shareholders will need to see good financial results. If the sector is prone to controversy, such as environmental campaigning, a good image among relevant regulators and NGOs will help outstrip the competition. Prioritising stakeholders will allow the business to focus on those who can have the greatest impact and make the difficult calls when, inevitably, one group’s needs will be detrimental to another’s.
It’s said that what gets measured gets done, and in the realm of reputation, this is undeniably true. If you can’t measure your reputation, you can’t begin to influence it. The art of corporate reputation management is understanding the potential for impact of everything that the business does, by bringing the reputation lens to bear on internal decision making. In order to do this, executives need to have quantifiable data on the boardroom table to make an assessment of the likely reputational consequences of a corporate action. For this information to be compiled, all of the factors affecting reputation, the stakeholders involved, and their relative primacy need to be accounted for, which can be achieved with a reputation intelligence solution.
In the post-pandemic landscape, it has become more apparent than ever before that businesses are expected to be good corporate citizens, giving back to the community and upholding the social contract. This has been made evident in boycotts of companies seen to have behaved poorly or even unethically towards customers and employees during and after the coronavirus crisis. Similarly, environmental and sustainability policies are coming under the spotlight, as businesses are expected to save the world as well as make a profit, with campaign groups and NGOs pointing fingers at poor performers. With access to social media making everyone a citizen journalist, all of these stakeholders are empowered to hold businesses to account. To avoid reputational damage, businesses need to reflect on their role in society and honour this responsibility in word and deed.
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