It’s not a useful generalisation that a corporate reputation takes years/volumes to build but can be lost in a day/word (or variations of the same point).
A really good corporate reputation, honestly earned and properly maintained, simply cannot be destroyed so easily unless it was obtained by deception. Unsubstantiated gossip, hate mail or mischievous accusations can make no serious impact on an honest profile in a free market.
In short, baseless rumour cannot ruin a reputation securely planted, but if the reputation is a lie, then of course it will be ruined quickly by the discovery of that lie.
The popularity of social networking websites has made it easy for anyone to assess and comment upon character and reputation. It’s true that social networks and data mining are becoming easier, more accessible, more understandable but quite possibly they are also becoming less rather than more influential.
Certainly, an online reputation management programme is no longer optional. Someone should be scanning the internet efficiently each day for you, and engaging wherever necessary. Whatever the output looks or feels like, such a programme should be as much part of your daily monitoring as the quaintly named press clippings were in the past.
However, with technology exponentially refining and improving the service of media analysis, the practice of online reputation management may very soon become a free app or get bundled into some other package of branded software that helps to create and sustain a branded presence on the web.
What will be left is the real and abiding issue, the one that technology alone cannot influence – the truth that always lies behind a good reputation, demonstrated by the growing presence and significance of the corporate reputation element in markets, corporate processes and operational systems. This is not so easy to besmirch; the mud does not stick.
This is less about dealing with disgruntled employees or responding to the social media equivalent of hate mail, this is about the nature of tomorrow’s company, the work to create the publicly trusted company of the next generation.
So, with the defences shored, and with scanning and selection in place, good managers should know that the really serious work to create and maintain a great corporate reputation has only just begun.
Forty and more years ago, the larger companies offered little or no interaction with customers, nor with those others who would now be called stakeholders. On the other hand, little interaction was ever expected, save that of the AGM and the annual results for investors and pay negotiations for the workers.
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 criticising the company for its policies or its reputation rather than the product for its performance.
And issue management, as a defined term, did not exist at all. It did not have to. Issues, in the sense of potential public problems that could be mitigated through careful preparation, hardly figured.
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 quite progressive, public relations gave support and context to their marketing and helped to create a favourable profile.
Ethics was about beneficence: essentially ad hoc financial assistance to charities, seen as a reasonable measure of doing good. A healthy balance sheet was often a determining element. Charitable giving and sponsorship were uncoordinated, depending more on the whim of indulgent CEOs than upon a corporate sponsorship policy.
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 three separate phases of development.
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 next period can be shown as an interregnum 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
The third phase sees the further development of the relationship between brand and reputation in which corporate integrity became the standard, and demonstration of it became a requirement. At this point the “Corporate Responsibility/Sustainability Report” disappeared and merged with (or replaced) the Annual Report.
An additional fourth phase is incorporating all these elements together, bringing integrity not just to the Board agenda and for chosen stakeholders but into and within the corporate strategy itself to benefit society itself (not just consumers/customers).
It could also generate the ultimate achievement, the holy grail of corporate affairs – the emergence of genuine public trust.
Although this would be an extraordinary development, and no company that I have ever heard of has ever won such trust in such a permanent or genuine sense, it could still happen.
And for it to happen, much has to take place first. But even just the next ten years could contain the first signs of whether such progress is possible or tangible.
There is much for tomorrow’s CEO to ponder…