ITL #151 The mid-way scenario: an oblique take on reputation management

4 years, 7 months ago


Organisations stand a far better chance of surviving a crisis in good shape if they have already laid the foundations of ‘forgiveability’. By Piers Schreiber.

Reputations, as we know, can take decades to establish and minutes to destroy. In the age of social media and hyper-interconnectivity, think seconds rather than minutes. This lays a fresh set of challenges at the feet of those charged with promoting and protecting reputations, be they corporate, brand or personal.


As ever in the world of reputation management, best practice evangelism is focused on prevention rather than remedy. The reality however is that experts are generally summoned when crisis has already hit and the organisation is in panic mode.


In this brief essay we are going to look at a mid-way scenario: if organisations find it difficult to invest in prevention, then how best can we build potential remedies into existing functions?


Reputational hot potato


Think for a moment about where responsibility for reputation management sits. Ultimately the buck stops with the CEO or Chairperson.


However there are a number of other key functions that play a role: risk management, security, compliance, investor relations and corporate communications, to name the most obvious. But it can equally be argued that the reputation of the company is in the hands of every employee – as each individual has the potential to undermine that reputation through a simple rash act and each individual contributes to the proof points that underpin that reputation in their daily work.


Working in the luxury hospitality sector, I am keenly aware that a coffee spilled on a Gucci original represents not a $100 dry cleaning bill, but a potential $100,000 in lost future business if the ‘recovery’ of the guest experience is not managed well. This principle applies across all sectors.


Prevention vs remedy


Prevention is generally built into the systems and processes that govern the way in which the company operates. These will always be examined and challenged in the post mortem of an incident. Not the Gucci trauma, but something more catastrophic like a fire, a power failure in 50 C heat, a massive data loss or a hostage situation.


But what we know from the majority of crises is that the reputation of the company is not overly impacted by the fact that something bad has happened, but by how it behaves and how it communicates in the immediate aftermath.


The key word here is ‘immediate’, as we are no longer talking about hours and days, but about the first tweet, the first post or the first video upload; and how the company responds, how it establishes authority and how it sets the tone for all follow-up communications.


What is certain is that facts will flow, rumours will circulate and, if the organisation is not on the front foot, the control of the messaging will be taken out of its hands and into the hands of third parties – generally the amorphous mass known as social media.


That mass can be unforgiving. It is certainly undiscerning. And has the potential to be undermining.


Controlling the narrative


So, take a step back and look at what people think about the organisation, about what its brand stands for and what narrative currently determines its reputation. It may be that people love the products but despise the outsourcing practices; they may invest in the stock, but abhor the leadership; or they may recognise the company’s value, but despise its values. In making a purchase they will consider the first; in judging the brand following a crisis, they will latch on to the second.


And here is where the mid-way scenario kicks in. What if the company was already renowned, not for the quality of its products (because that should be a given), but for the way it behaves towards its people, the way it scrutinises its overseas business partners, the way it addresses issues that are relevant to the people who are judging it as a responsible corporation. What if the public persona of the CEO is built around commitment to a cause that actually means something?


This does not mean a grand philanthropic gesture towards a charity, however worthy. They should be supporting good causes anyway. But to be known as a body that supports the families of the people who work for them, wherever they are in the world; to stand up against corruption, however tempting the short-term gains and however ingrained the practices are in the market that requires them to conform to ‘the way business is done here’.


Forgiving arbiters


The arbiters of the organisation’s reputation will be far more forgiving in the event of a crisis if they have a set of reference points that encourage them to believe the company has integrity. So how genuinely do you go about establishing that ‘forgiveability’ among your audiences?


Here are some ideas:

  • Ensure the values articulated by the company are embodied in a series of meaningful actions that are understood and appreciated by the most influential audiences
  • Build messaging and communications around two to three of these actions and reference them in as many CEO communications, social media posts etc as appropriate
  • Educate those responsible for engagement with other influential audiences (e.g. security, investor relations, sales) on the actions taken and why they are important
  • Filter any controversial decisions through these values to ensure they do not undermine or contradict the organisation’s integrity
  • Make these actions as easy to discuss and repeat as possible, so they can be shared among employees, their families and their circle of friends


Why is this a communications issue?


Because what we communicate to our audiences must be based on facts. There is an opportunity to marshal those facts in such a way that they reflect a set of core values that are ideally aligned with the interests of the key stakeholders.


Where that alignment exists and is reinforced by repeated examples of actions taken that reflect those values, there is a well of forgiveness. People believe that you will act with integrity, with the right motives – and this is what gives you the head start in any crisis.


Your forgiveability has set the tone for the public’s attitude to you as you face the challenge of managing the crisis. It frames the narrative fairly. It suspends judgement. It allows you to be listened to. It grants you the chance to preserve your reputation.


For now, at least.

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The Author

Piers Schreiber

Piers Schreiber, Group Vice President Corporate Communications & Public Affairs, Jumeirah Group.

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