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Reputation management in an era of total transparency

May 1, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

This year’s TrustBarometer from Edelman shows that trust in chief executives has plummeted: only four in ten people view CEOs as “credible spokespeople”.  This finding underlines the enormous challenge that businesses face in achieving successful reputation management today.

It is also the background against which I led a workshop for business leaders at a recent Common Purpose event.  Whether representing banks, charities, professional services, educational establishments, the emergency services or arts organisations, all of these leaders are faced with the challenge of building trust in an era of total transparency.

The context in which leaders must communicate and manage reputation is very different to the one they faced five short years ago.  It is characterised by:

  • A lack of trust

Ever since Enron, trust in business has declined: the banking crisis has further eroded the regard with which we view businesses and their bosses.  This means that leaders have to build credibility and trust in order for their communication to be effective.

  • The death of deference

Respect for all establishments has diminished dramatically: it’s hardly surprising when people perceive that a Prime Minister may be economical with the truth in order to take us to war.  This means that leaders should expect to be challenged on what they say, rather than people believing them just because they are an authority figure.

  • Greater scepticism

People simply don’t believe what they’re told these days, and why should they?  After all, News International told us that phone hacking was isolated to a couple of rogue reporters.  This means that leaders cannot simply assert something; they need to prove it with evidence and actions.

  • Increased transparency

In the bad old days, organisations could say one thing and do another.  The transparency provided by social media means that those days are gone forever.  Business leaders should expect that anything they say or do behind supposedly closed doors will become public knowledge.  Communicate and act accordingly.

  • Expectation  of swift and expansive communication

One of the old strategies for crisis communication was to keep your head down, say nothing and hope that the problem would blow over.  It was rarely a good strategy then, and it’s even less likely to be viable today.  The speed and spread of crises, driven by social media, requires leaders and their organisations to respond quickly and broadly if a problem occurs.  Crisis planning is essential if reputation is to be protected.

  • A loss of control

Power used to lie in the hands of big business and that conferred control.  Today, stakeholders – employees, customers, neighbours – have the ability to damage your reputation and business if you don’t engage with them properly (take a look at what happened to LA Fitness when it tried to play hardball with one of its customers).   Leaders must listen and engage with their stakeholders if they are to retain the value of their reputation.

  • Demand for authenticity

In an era when trust and respect is in short supply, genuinely authentic business leaders will prosper.  People will be attracted to them, follow and support them.  The greatest test of authenticity comes when the organisation faces a crisis: a reputation which has been built over many years will rest upon the words and actions of the business and its leader at a time of maximum pressure.  Saying and doing the right thing in accordance with your values is essential to protect your reputation.

The new context for business leadership is extremely challenging, but provides enormous opportunities for executives who understand and embrace it.  Our next blog posting will provide a framework for doing so.

NB. Photos from the workshop are available on Insignia’s Facebook page. Feel free to visit us there.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

1 Comment

Excellent Points Jonathan, you obviously know your “Stuff.” Trust is earned and re-earned and re-earned. If a consultant expects trust from a client, the consultant has to continually prove it and it may even mean that you have to refuse a billable hour project to gain trust and more business. Here’s an example. A few years back I was working on a client crisis with a practitioner from another firm. After weeks of cooperating with a TV investigative team I recommended we stop doing so because it was obvious to me that the story would turn out negative no matter what we did. The other consultant differed and made the case for continuing to cooperate. I pointed out that it would only cost the client a lot more money and executive time for the same negative result. I lost. The client cooperated further and the result was exactly as I predicted. The other consultant got the billable hours. I kept my integrity. Clients, generally, don’t feel a need to be trusted by the consultant. They often think it’s a one way street. Communications professionals, though, must have client trust and must keep working at it if they want to keep the business. If, however, your personal and/or- your firms integrity are on the line because the client isn’t being honest with you, you may have to resign the account. I would rather resign, lose the business, and have a financial setback than be part of something that was less than honest. All we have is our integrity. When I give advice it is well considered and unless circumstances change completely I am very unlikely to change what I recommend. To change my advice for the sake of a buck is contrary to my nature. My integrity is not for sale. Non one’s should be. And Oh..if you have’t figured it out already…word travels real fast in the PR. Community.

Comment by Bob Aronson — May 1, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

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