We have all lived through and are still living through significant changes in corporate affairs and communications in the past generation. The past year of confinements, restrictions and lockdowns has been disastrous for many businesses and instructive and insightful for those dealing with reputation management. But how to prepare for the new market conditions after the pandemic has lost its ability to damage markets and economies?
It’s worth taking a historical view before marching ahead. In very general terms the corporate journey of brand value and reputation management traces the progression between important commitments and characteristics.
- From charity to CR to integrity
- From sponsorship to community support to social service
- From the perception of wealth to generosity to social integration
- From the political perception of anti-NGO to partnership to public trust
- From Customer Service to Interaction to Empathy
These describe a wider change, from
- Crisis Management to Issue Management to Reputation Management
- Making a Profit to Doing Good to Being Good
40 years ago, companies did not, as contemporary reports show, feel that they needed to safeguard their corporate reputation as such; there was even some doubt about whether a company’s reputation was a useful concept at all.
The word used at the time was more likely to be ‘profile’, and publicity was thought to be essential – there’s no such thing as bad publicity – remember that phrase? Nobody says that any more.
Public relations shared with advertising a crucial genetic character. It was one-way communication. It was not inclusive, not interactive, nor particularly sensitive. It could not listen. It was a declamation, rarely a debate.
Companies offered little or no interaction with customers, and none, habitually, was expected, save that of increased sales. Customer service teams, even in major fmcg manufacturers, largely dealt with product-related complaints and issues. It was rare to get a letter from the public criticizing the company for its policies and practices rather than the product for its performance.
Only individuals and politicians had reputations. Companies had a balance sheet and a share price, for which investor relations were used, and if companies were progressive, public relations gave support and context to their marketing and helped to create a favourable profile.
Ethics was about beneficence: essentially financial assistance to charities, often those favoured by the Board members – largely direct payments, seen as a reasonable measure of doing good. A healthy balance sheet was often a determining element. Charitable giving and sponsorship were nearly always uncoordinated, depending more on the whim of indulgent CEOs than upon a corporate sponsorship policy. Real ethical issues, it has to be said, were generally denied when hidden and paid off when discovered.
For how else could companies show their human side except through the flourish of a check book?
For brands, the past forty years have seen four separate phases.
The early phase shows that reputation was essentially a functional element in a company. It could be spoken about dispassionately, and could be reinforced or influenced by charitable works and beneficence.
The subsequent period can be shown as an inter-regnum in which the muscular view of corporate social commitments starts to be replaced with a more accommodating recognition that society’s expectations were starting to change.
During this period the key driver of corporate reputation can be seen as social. Reputation was seen as a useful adjunct to the brand, then at its zenith of marketing influence – media advertising was king of the marketing heap.
The third period saw changes in the relationship between brand and reputation in which corporate integrity became the standard, and demonstration of it became a requirement. This was connected of course to the introduction of online communications, relationship marketing, and social media.
A fourth phase has already started in which these newer elements have expanded fast and become accepted often by default, opening new issues of data privacy and marketing deception. But the new elements have also expanded the potential for bringing integrity not just to the Board agenda but into the corporate strategy itself. They have also shortened public patience and tolerance.
It will – for some – also generate the ultimate corporate achievement: public trust, even as those institutions and settlements that used to have this trust are now debilitated and declining, having failed the new digital tests: in the UK this includes Parliament, political parties, Government, the BBC, the royal family, and so on. It is a critical transition for brands ands the companies behind them
The driver of these changes will be reputation management, or actions following the realization that the value of a company in the past will be expressed more by its reputation than by its revenue.
And this driver shows up in some important functional transitions, implemented by many of the larger companies – in a shifting emphasis from investment in crisis management to investment in issue management. More recently issue management, in progressive companies, has become a process and not a series of reactions: integrated corporate reputation management.
Many companies have undergone this change process, in which the social reputation of companies have assumed increasing and unaccustomed importance. Many remain unsure of the next steps as far as the enhancement and maintenance of their reputation is concerned.
Customers will want more than possession when they buy a product in the future; they want purpose, context and meaning. For brands, this insight passes from mere fact to unmitigated priority. Customers and other stakeholders are the primary demandeurs for everything from product standards and sourcing to the ethical stance of the CEO – they require a suite of options on demand—products, services, information, knowledge, and advice. They do not so much buy as approve.
The future will see further development into a range of emotions, and the consumer will move from approval to attraction, then to fascination and emotional commitment. For brands there is a huge prize ahead to be won in understanding and influencing this trend. In particular, customers are demanding not only environmental sustainability but also, to coin a phrase, sustainable integrity.
It is up to companies to incorporate sustainability and integrity into the very heart of their strategy and ensure that they are adequately defined and clarified by their brand.
The new elements will drive corporate strategy, shape practice and change your brand. First, understanding the difference between reputation and brand. Reputation cannot be bought. It has to be earned. Brands can be bought (they cost a lot of money) and they are also high in maintenance costs if financial support is all there is.
Both brand and reputation can be destroyed very quickly and very easily, especially in these days of confinement and reflection. Companies are on a tightrope until their corporate practice is brought right up to meet their stakeholders’ expectations. This is the essential task of reputation management.
Companies need to understand the brand as a public guarantee of reputation, as an advertisement for their reputation, in fact. Every brand must consider itself as a bearer of reputation, an Atlas. This burden may not be put down; Atlas must not shrug..
Post-Covid, a reputation bearer must prove itself in three different dimensions, that of the “true”; that of the “good”; and that of the “emotive”. This is the way to sustainable integrity.
The dimension of the true consists of functional and logical systems, of working processes, of rules that are followed. A functional reputation provides the basis, and will be generated from the perception of competence and its success, especially compared to everything else.
People – even consumers and customers – are there to serve a purpose, to fulfil their part of the process and to encourage the company do the same. Limited and conservative expectations must be fulfilled.
The dimension of the good is about citizenship and responsibility. This is not so much a world of rules but of guidelines and norms and approved methods. There are equivalent expectations. Self-regulation is a popular regulatory device.
For brands neither of these dimensions will do on their own, and least of all without the third dimension of emotion.
It is a dangerous but rewarding place to be. You can be rejected or accepted for reasons unconnected with science or engineering or process. Some excuses may be true but won’t wash.. Some might say that this is no more than a corporate version of life itself
The role of the brand is to live in the environment in which they prosper. They have to achieve an emotional and not just a rational appeal, an expressive reputation from an emotional fascination.
A company with a reputation for integrity created from an emotional appeal can print its own profits, since integrity brings and confirms added value every time it is tested or challenged. Again, reputation management is the means – companies cannot afford to stop working at the creation and maintenance of their reputation. Integrity is the footmark left by reputation.
In practical terms, a useful internal group exercise is to find where your company could add value by creating corporate integrity through a policy or a commitment. This can be done remotely on a sequence of team calls, although group work will always be more effective.
Try it in your company, and be sure to invite company personnel from all levels. This can provide a good introduction to the deliberative development of a reputation program, identifying exactly where and how the value will be added.
A last stage is to run a check with your brand and your brand values. Is your desired reputation consistent with what people think is the type of company that you are? This is an external exercise.
Find out what people think about your company, its reputation and its brand. If the answers are too far apart you may need to go back a step, or take professional advice. Meanwhile a self-check for successful reputation management could start with the following actions.
- Investigate and understand the relationship between your brand and your reputation
- Create supportive and trusting communities in your social media interaction
- Revise, renew and update all corporate messages and policies
- Implement serious and detailed social media monitoring
- Encourage internal participation in message and policy building
- Monitor, review and assess internal training resources
- Develop a stakeholder engagement plan
- Build senior management support and capacity to support issue and reputation management process
- Identify, map and address all stakeholders, their drivers and issues
- Create brand ambassadors
If you are not doing most of these things now, then hurry up because you should be…
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