Are you alive to your reputation? The questions every CEO should ask

There can be no doubting the benefits that a good reputation can have in a range of business areas, and the deep impact that reputation can have when it suffers damage. But what is often lacking by senior executives is a lack of appreciation for where that damage could come from.

Some careful planning from the outset would mean that organisations can take steps to remedy its weak spots and make the most of its strengths. It is not just the responsibility of the communications department to protect an organisations reputation. Yes, they have an important role but to be effective they have to have the power to bring in HR, legal, suppliers, compliance and hold them all to account for the same level of standards expected. If these other parts of the organisation do not answer the questions put to them in an open and honest way, and admit where they could fail in future, then your reputation is at risk. If a crisis occurs then communicators are in the front line to ensure it is handled well but to blame just them for the crisis is simply wrong.

A couple of recent examples show this to be the case, and also demonstrates that you need a broad international outlook as well. The ruling on Nurofen’s adverts in Australia is having ramifications across all its other markets. So was anyone alive to the prospect of adverts in one country hitting reputations in other markets?

In New Zealand, a campaign against cruelty in the dairy sector targeted not domestic consumers but placed an advert in the Guardian newspaper in the UK. The animal welfare group concerned, SAFE, believed that international pressure was the only way to apply pressure on the sector. The New Zealand government and others claimed that they should have gone through the proper domestic channels first. But that misses the point. The campaign knew and understood the value of reputation. They also claim they did try domestic routes first as well.

So what are the key questions that a CEO should ask so that they can have confidence that steps are being taken to enhance and protect reputations?

  1. What is being said and written about you? Be aware of what is happening across the social media, traditional media and political circles as well. Stakeholder engagement will help open up channels of communication which leads to greater insight. All of this is useful to ensure that you are doing and saying the right things. The order of ‘doing’ and ‘saying’ is critically important.
  2. Where have your competitors come unstuck? This may come across a little callous but learn from the mistakes of others and put things right before anyone has the chance to come after you. Journalists will often move around the big players in a sector, picking one off after another, and there is nothing worse than not having learned the previous lessons. The first organisation can try to claim ignorance but further down the line, especially weeks and months afterwards, it starts to look like negligence.
  3. Does everyone understand what is expected of them? Reputation needs to consider all aspects of an organisation’s operations. It is not always the case that the culture of an organisation allows this need to be fully expressed. It cannot be compartmentalised in the same way that other issues can be. One part of the organisation, for instance the communications team, may be the custodians but without the help of others they will be unable to do that job properly. Does this knowledge apply across the whole of the organisation and are you getting the most out of all the members of the team, not just those at a senior level?
  4. Who is in charge when something goes wrong? Invariably something will go wrong but is there a plan in place to help the organisation deal with that situation? Have you, as CEO, been involved in any scenario training and when was the last time you received any media training? This also requires an appreciation that CEOs should not always be in charge. They will have too much to do, and need to be available for media appearance and stakeholder work. That can be difficult for some to accept but it is the right approach. They are part of a team, albeit the important public face.
  5. How are you building your reputation? This should be an ongoing process and can shift and change over time, if needed. But it also needs to consider all aspects of changing demands on an organisation as well, including expectations. What is acceptable practice one year can become unacceptable the next. Regulatory requirements can be considered the minimum level of standards, not the maximum expected, by consumers or a local community. This can influence the supply chain, CSR relationships, the way staff are treated and are expected to behave, coping with new technologies and a whole range of issues.
Of course, all sectors and organisations will have their own particular questions as well, and to consider otherwise would be naïve but these questions will at least put any CEO on the right track.

I often advise organisations on such matters and these are the types of questions that I believe CEOs should be asking. Feel free to ask me any questions on Twitter @redpolitics or by email stuartthomson@bdb-law.co.uk.

Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has worked on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including 'New Activism and the Corporate Response', 'Public Affairs in Practice' (for the CIPR) and 'The Dictionary of Labour Quotations' (published by Britain's leading political publisher, Biteback). 'New Activism and the Corporate Response' was called a book that "every aspiring business leader should read" by MIS Asia. Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. Stuart recently released a book published by Urbane Publications, 'Public Affairs: News, Views and Hullabaloos' based on his blog. He is also a CIPR trainer and was shortlisted for the 2014 Director of the Year award by the IoD and CIPR.

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