ITL #350   Repositioning our industry: time to call ourselves reputation managers

7 months, 4 weeks ago


Reputation management must be established as a core management discipline, not a communications function. And we have to get better at telling our clients and organisations what they need. By Tony Langham.

Warren Buffet once wrote to his managers that "We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can't afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation."


In 2019, reputation accounts for 35% of the market value of the world’s leading stock market listed companies according to Reputation Dividend. A good reputation is crucial to success in business and in life.


Organisations with the best reputations outperform rivals in a host of tangible ways from recruiting higher quality staff, charging more for their services, succeeding with smaller marketing budgets to exerting greater influence over Governments. As a result, reputation has become one of the key discussions in the Board Room and at the top of Government.  


Almost everyone agrees that reputation is invaluable. Ask anyone who has ever advised a CEO and seen their reaction when their reputation or honesty are questioned. Or, more extreme still, seen the reaction of a banker or politician on being questioned about their integrity.


The question for those of us working in the industry loosely known as public relations is whether we are seen as the people to manage reputation. And whether we have the skills to do so. These are good and valid questions.


My favourite definition of reputation comes from John Doorley who co-authored the excellent Reputation Management with Helio Fred Garcia [NB IPRA members are entitled to a 20% discount off Reputation Management and other books published by Routledge]. His formula is wonderfully straightforward, it states that reputation is the sum of the images of others, and it comes from performance plus behaviour plus communication. And that it can only be sustained if an organisation is authentic and true to its purpose or to a set of values.


This says it all, but it emphasises how all-encompassing reputation is. As Stephen Covey so eloquently put it, “you can’t talk your way out of a problem that you behaved yourself into”.


So anyone who defines their role as a public relations or corporate communications professional can only, by definition, be tangentially involved in reputation management – because they are not at the centre of how their organisation behaves or performs, only in how it engages and communicates.


A crucial difference

The situation faced by Boeing in late 2018 after the first 737 MAX crashed in Indonesia illustrates the crucial difference in role. The reputation manager is involved in the decision of whether all 737 MAXs should be grounded until the crash has been fully investigated – and hopefully, with hindsight, argues that the fleet should be grounded. The corporate communications and public relations professionals are primarily involved in engaging with key audiences and communicating the key business decision, once that decision has been taken.


In country branding, the reputation manager paints on a big canvas. My favourite initiative is probably the creation of Louvre Abu Dhabi, instigated in 2007, as part of a 30 year partnership between the City of Abu Dhabi and the French Government.


The result is one of the great museums of the world which gives a reason for international wealthy opinion formers to visit, and admire, Abu Dhabi. Japan’s decisions to host the soccer World Cup of 2002 and the rugby World Cup of 2019 are having a lasting impact on that country’s reputation as a friendly and welcoming place.


Seat at the top table

Of course, the best public relations people may be at the top table when decisions like these are taken, but often they are on the periphery. My belief is that, across the world, we should fight to be fundamental to these strategic business decisions that determine reputation. We can only do this if we re-position ourselves as reputation managers – and re-brand what we do as reputation management.


I’m not the first to suggest re-positioning what we do of course. In 2012 Robert Phillips, author of Trust me, PR is Dead  wrote that it’s time “to put the discredited function of PR out of its misery”. Many leading consultancies have already begun to change. The world’s largest consultancy, Edelman, “partners with clients to promote and protect their brands and reputation”.


The leading financial consultancies concentrate on the big decisions: Brunswick talks of “critical issues”, where Teneo views everything “through the eyes of the CEO”. My own firm Lansons, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, describes itself as a “strategic reputation management consultancy”.


Lessons from management consultancy

I believe that we will only make progress when we take a leaf out of the world’s most successful advisory business, management consultancy, and tell our clients and organisations what they need. The current heightened importance of reputation raises questions about how major organisations are managing reputation. So this is the ideal time for all of us – whether we currently describe ourselves as strategic, corporate or financial communicators; or public affairs or public relations consultants – to stand up and say we are, first and foremost, reputation managers.  


This will involve change and progression within our industry too, of course. We must focus on in-depth understanding of the science of reputation and its value…and own the measurement of reputation.


We need to be clear that reputation can be managed and that the best companies have to be as good at managing reputation as they are at everything else. We need to be clear on how we build and protect reputation. We have to establish reputation management as a core management discipline, not a communications function. And we have to talk about restructuring all marketing services into two core functions: reputation management and marketing.


But above all else we have to see our role differently. To be reputation managers, we have to frequently influence what our organisation and our clients actually do, not just how and what they communicate.











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The Author

Tony Langham

Tony Langham is Co-founder and Chief Executive of Lansons and author of Reputation Management: The Future of Corporate Communications and Public Relations (Emerald Publishing, December 2018).

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