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If corporate reputation is the perception of a business by its stakeholders, both internal and external, then reputation management must, by inference, be the shaping of those perceptions. In the real world, however, it’s not that simple.
Reputation management as a concept sounds straightforward, and it definitely sounds like something every business should be doing. But scratch the surface of the subject and it becomes clear that it’s neither simple, nor even strictly feasible. And in today’s hyper-connected world where stakeholders are more tuned in to corporate behaviours than ever before, attempting to manipulate reputation – and therefore those stakeholders – might even be inadvisable.
A quick Google search will throw up a host of posts outlining the theory of reputation management, and how it can be achieved. The concept is pretty basic – influencing and controlling or concealing of an individual’s or group’s reputation. This is done by directing the perceptions that stakeholders, both internal and external, have about that company and its brand, making sure that shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers and regulators see what the business wants them to see.
A strong corporate reputation is a vital component in the success of any business. When different stakeholder groups perceive that business in a positive light, it opens up markets for its products and services and extends lifetime client value; heightens share performance and invites new investors to back it; helps attract and retain employee talent; reduces regulatory burden and scrutiny; and raises and improves its media profile. With these and many other advantages coming as the result of a good reputation, it’s little wonder that the impulse is to give that reputation a polish.
A reputation management plan will encompass the dissemination of positive messages. A reputation-focused corporate communications team will ensure that positive content is reaching appropriate stakeholders, whether though traditional advertising and media-focused PR, social media posts, or even word of mouth.
There is a problem with this approach, however. It relies on an outdated theory of reputation as a solid construct, something which can be raised – or torn down – and is composed of pre-determined building blocks. This approach breaks reputation down into silos of cause and affect. Headers such as financial performance, products and services, vision and leadership, workplace environment, social responsibility and emotional appeal are assigned bullet points and tick boxes for keeping stakeholders appeased.
With this schematic approach, reputation management companies profess to offer a system for not just managing, but controlling, reputation. Get all of these boxes ticked and shape how people view the company. This ‘command and control’ approach relies on a top-down view of reputation, in which the business acts and the reputation follows.
Worse still is the concealment approach. This works by engaging Online Reputation Management (ORM) companies to root out negative content posted online about a business, whether in news reporting, social media or on review sites. In essence, it attempts to push any bad press off that all-important first page of search engine results. This doesn’t improve reputation per se – it merely serves to cloak any negative reviews, critical blog posts or damaging stories.
This methodology is anachronistic in today’s inter-connected, hyper-transparent world. Stakeholders form their perspective on a business from myriad data points, and share their opinions freely and broadly. No business can hope to censor, command or control that volume of data. And in trying to do so, its reputation is more likely to suffer, as its communication strategy is perceived as inauthentic and manipulative. Reputation management is, in fact, a misnomer. You can’t truly manage reputation.
Rather than seeking to exercise control over reputation, businesses will better succeed when they recognise reputation as a multi-faceted, constantly shifting asset. It can only be influenced, not managed. By engaging with stakeholders, following the conversation, and listening effectively, those charged with protecting the company from reputational risk will have far more success.
Instead of trying to control reputation, companies need to control their actions. No business has the power to prevent a dissatisfied customer from spreading negative reviews about it across their social networks. But they are able to respond positively, engage with that individual to resolve the issue, improve customer service and experience, and recognise any issues they may have. By using media monitoring, companies can listen to what is being said about them, where and by whom, and formulate an appropriate response.
Appropriate means respectful and considered. Attacks on negative commentary, by customers, journalists or employees, will result in more of the same. While it’s not really possible to manage reputation, it’s certainly possibly to mismanage it by being heavy handed in this area. Instead, understand stakeholders’ concerns and priorities, assess which are the primary influences that need to be got onboard, and ensure that any response is also in line with the business’s mission and purpose. PR has not stood for press release for many years now: it’s about engagement with a broad range of stakeholders across every communications channel.
Authenticity necessitates transparency. In a digital world where consumers, investors, campaigners and employees have real-time access to information about how a company behaves, there’s nowhere to hide. Embracing this, being open about mistakes and honest in attempts to fix them, will have a more positive impact on reputation than refusing to communicate about it. Transparency engenders trust.
Rather than trying to drive the news agenda, nurturing organic discussion of the business is more likely to reap long-term rewards. Employees who are valued and encouraged to express their opinions are more likely to spread the good word about the company they work for. Environmental and social responsibility will engender better community feeling. In the time of media anarchy, where anyone can be a citizen journalist, policies put in place for the common good rather than simply to appear altruistic will result in more positive unplanned press.
In the wake of Covid-19 and its seismic impact on the way people work, communicate and socialise, this stakeholder-centric approach to expanding reputational capital is more important than ever. Businesses are being held to account for their actions, both during and after the worst of the crisis. Boycotts of companies making sweeping redundancies or refusing customers compensation have been swiftly organised and implemented. The social contract between business and community is being tested.
Coronavirus has catalysed the way that stakeholders interact with businesses, and held up an unprecedented, and unavoidable, lens through which their actions are now judged. Any company rooted in the traditional, siloed view of reputation management is likely to find itself out-evolved in the post-pandemic landscape, as those embracing a holistic, engaged, authentic approach to influencing reputation strike a chord with their newly empowered stakeholders.