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Article • 06/04/2021

“It’s not about the words but the deeds” – How reputation management is evolving

Reputation management – from building to protecting and maintaining – is the primary charge of any organisation’s PR team. But reacting to events that could impact your business could leave you struggling to maintain your company’s standing.

In our August webinar, we discussed how companies can keep a long-term perspective on reputation when confronted with the challenges posed by Covid-19, systemic racism, sustainability and more.

Our expert panelists shared their insights on the subject and left us with some key messages:

  • The importance of authenticity and strong brand values
  • Routinely taking the temperature of your reputation
  • People first: Ensuring your internal engagement is as strong as your external
  • Speaking the language of leadership to help them understand the value of comms​​​​​​

With so many questions from the webinar to answer, we posed them back to two of our panelists, Lindsay Riddell, Senior Vice President of Corporate and Executive Communication at Hotwire Global, and Stuart Thomson, Head of Corporate Affairs at BDB Pitmans.

Every business’ communications now seems to include a focus on the reputation of the brand. Do we think recent upheaval in society, from COVID-19, racism, etc, has caused this shift to sentiment or has it been bubbling for longer? Are the latest events more of a catalyst?

Lindsay Riddell: Authenticity has always been an essential component of true leadership – what we’re seeing now is public accountability. When crises happen, we naturally seek a leader who will provide the bold point of view and call for change. Whether talking to consumers or employees, leading with authenticity is now expected and necessary for driving change and creating impact both in and beyond a company.

Stuart Thomson: They have been going for some time and many have built their reputations on an ethical approach. But the recent upheavals have placed, I believe, a greater emphasis on the value of ‘proof’. It is not about the words but the deeds.  For those who claim to believe in equality, or to look after their staff or the environment, need to look for more ways to prove that they do. Very little will simply be taken in trust.

Organizations should have a “conscience” personified by a senior comms person, but how much do you think senior leadership really cares about this and believes in its value?

LR: Comms teams should certainly be involved in a company’s personification, but senior leaders are the ones who actually bring that to life beyond a piece of paper or a page on a screen. There is truly no room to doubt the impact this has on trust or purchase decisions – in fact, we know that 67% of adults say that how a CEO reacts and expresses themselves, particularly on important topics like Black Lives Matter, will permanently affect their decision to buy from the company. Consumers and employees now expect to hear from executives on important social issues, which means the senior communications lead has an incredibly important job to do in making sure executives are authentically and consistently communicating their company’s values – and the distinct actions they’re taking to live them – both internally and externally.

ST: The more that a senior leadership sees the value, the more they will believe in it. Some leadership teams will include a champion for such an approach but they may well need to convince others. So we in Communications need to be able to demonstrate the value in a way that resonates with the various needs of a leadership team. That means knowing and understanding what those needs are and putting the values or measures in place which enable us to communicate effectively with them. That will be a challenge but those in communications are best placed to achieve that.

We know that 67% of adults say that how a CEO reacts and expresses themselves, particularly on important topics like Black Lives Matter, will permanently affect their decision to buy from the company – Lindsay Riddell

Is there a difference of measures for reputation management between B2C and B2B firms during this COVID-19 moment? Because B2B needs the long-term prospective in their reputation management more than B2C I think.

LR: It is important for all companies to think about their long-term reputation. Whether a business is B2B or B2C, at the end of the day they are all selling human to human. We know that how a company’s leadership handles a crisis and instils action and value makes a difference to the long-term decisions of both consumers and businesses. We recently found that as much as 86% of business decision makers take values into account when they’re making buying or partner decisions; and on the consumer side, 71% feel that CEOs are responsible for helping during the pandemic. Reputation stems from authentic leadership, regardless of the business being conducted.

ST: There are often differences in measures between B2C and B2B in ‘normal’ circumstances, not just during Covid-19.  There are short term challenges and opportunities that both have to respond to and a long term perspective that needs to be born in mind.  There are though potentially more high profile media and political challenges that have come of the way of B2C organisations during Covid-19 because of the way in which blame for poor behaviour has been apportioned.

Does the relative power of non-comms people at C-suite level mean that a genuine focus on reputation will tend to play second fiddle? How do comms people make their knowledge and opinions heard and taken more seriously at board level?

LR: Come to the table armed with the facts about how reputation and leadership impacts your business and the metrics that matter most to your board. If you are speaking to a board that’s driven by the bottom line, bring the statistics that show buying decisions are being permanently impacted by executive communications. If your board is focused on employee or partner satisfaction, provide the figures on where reputation and values play into retention and referrals, or conduct a survey within your organization. As comms professionals, we have to communicate our value in broader business terms to step out of our silo.

ST: That danger is a very real one as the emphasis is placed on economic growth and profits post Covid-19. Comms people can help those in the C-suite understand who will be holding them to account during this time and on what issues or measures.  So will the pressure come from consumers, politicians, suppliers etc.?  Will they only be worried about cost or will they be looking for moves to achieve equality in the workplace, improved environmental standards, more transparency in decision making etc.?  In other words, these are not mutually exclusive pressures and all have an impact on reputation. To make our voices heard we need champions, we need to fit the requirements and agenda of the C-suite, talk the right language and show where it has worked well for others. There is nothing like a bit of shaming against competitors to focus the mind!

How can PR teams ensure they’re listened to when it comes to long-term issues? How can they ensure they’re in the room when strategic decisions are made?

LR: It can help to provide examples of industry peers and competitors that have handled long-term issues well versus ones that haven’t, and the impact that’s had on each business. As you discuss where you need to get to, it can become clearer to other teams and decision makers that leadership around both short- and long-term issues requires careful thought, organization-wide change, sustainable action and a system of accountability. It also requires consistent and authentic messaging and the right stories that influence a corporation’s overall reputation and brand value. PR teams who are constantly keeping the pulse of the media and the public and making strategic recommendations to best influence corporate reputation are well-suited to deliver on this. 

ST: This is very similar to the issue of being taken seriously by the C-suite. But I would also add the need for an internal profile which often comes with an external profile as well. If external audiences take you seriously then internal colleagues are more likely too as well. That should also mean keeping up on training and continuous professional development.  Other professions do that, communications should be no different.

Comms teams are often busy dealing with day to day tactical activities like monitoring and outreach. How do you ensure your teams have enough of an eye on the long-term while ensuring everything gets done?

LR: Long-term reputation and leadership can only be accomplished when they are part of the day to day. Question where your corporate and executive values may be missing from tactical activities like measurement and media relations and determine if that should change. Authenticity is the catalyst of successful leadership and long-term reputation, and it’s accomplished by ensuring that important big picture issues are embedded in every part of your organization and every task, big or small.

ST: That’s another tough question! Some teams will prefer to assign specific responsibilities for instance along topic areas, others may go with an approach based around seniority. I prefer an approach that tries to gather information and ideas from across the whole team and then takes time to reflect on them periodically so that they don’t lose sight of the long term or relevant opportunities. The focus on the short term has a lot to do with the failure to capture information and adequately manage it.

About the experts

Lindsay Riddell is the SVP of Corporate and Executive Communications for Hotwire Global. She spent 18 years as a journalist reporting on a broad range of topics in finance and technology from Silicon Valley’s venture capital ecosystem to the electric car revolution, most recently at the San Francisco Business Times. Prior to Hotwire, she was the Director of Marketing at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco where she ran all marketing programs for one of the non-profit’s largest worldwide affiliates. She has worked extensively with C-level executives on speaking and media training, executive profiling and high-stakes interview readiness. She was recently rated the top speaker at the 2019 Future Communicators Conference.

Stuart Thomson heads the specialist public affairs and communications consultancy of law firm, BDB Pitmans.  He advises clients on all aspects of their political and corporate communications, including reputation management.  He has also advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes.

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