Corporate reputation – the perennial challenge

January 13th, 2013 by Jon Clements

Companies feeling comfortable with their present level of corporate reputation may well be tempted to sit back and bask in the sunshine of public adulation. Well, all I can say is enjoy your reputation vacation while it lasts.

Nothing is more predictable than the change in company fortunes when an organisation begins to deviate from the fundamental values that underpin any success it has enjoyed. And even the seemingly unassailable companies and brands can faulter, lose reputation and considerable financial value when things go wrong.

CoreBrand, which measures the “favourability” and “familiarity” of 1,000 corporate brands across the USA, has listed its 10 brands facing serious reputation challenges in 2013. As several of the examples show, even the most powerful firms’ fortunes are cyclical and recovery from a reputation crisis – or a prolonged period of bad management, arrogance or other counter-productive corporate behaviour – needs concerted attention over the ensuing months and years.

Despite 2012 being a vintage year for reputation meltdown in business, it’s certainly nothing new. When deciding on a dissertation topic as part of my CIPR Chartered Practitioner process in the middle of 2010, the topic of corporate reputation challenge was self-selecting.

The company catastrophes – and appalling initial public responses – topical at the time  were exemplified by the first, major Toyota vehicle recall, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the fact that a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine on an A380 Airbus caught fire mid-flight – all sent the issue of corporate reputation management to the top of the in-tray.

The study I produced for the CIPR Chartered process – “The Reputation Challenge” – had the benefit of tapping into the knowledge and expertise of some of the most eminent experts in corporate reputation: among them Leslie Gaines-Ross, Ronald J Alsop and Peter Firestein, whose book “Crisis of Character: building corporate reputation in the age of skepticism” featured the unequivocal comment that “a risk to [a company's] reputation is a threat to the survival of the enterprise”, no less.

Here, below, is a copy of “The Reputation Challenge” which, despite being completed more than two years ago, seems pertinent in 2013 to the perennial challenge of managing corporate reputation.

 


About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

Tempered personal branding pips hyperbole

January 6th, 2013 by Jon Clements

The concept of “personal branding” used to be known as – and was encapsulated by – the humble curriculum vitae, or résumé if Stateside.

But where a CV would be the way to communicate one’s background and abilities to a limited audience –p recruitment firms and potential employers –now,  people’s increased visibility across the internet by virtue of social and professional media has turned us into branded products to be managed; that is, if you care sufficiently about how brand “YOU” is portrayed. If not, then the Facebook photos showing you comatose and semi-clothed at the Christmas party might as well remain.

There is something slightly dystopian in treating ourselves as “brands” whose value can appreciate or depreciate by simply being our, imperfect, selves. And if commercial brands – supported by an infrastructure of management, protection and guardianship – can fail, what hope do we have maintaining our personal brand equity, if such a phrase can be used without inducing involuntary vomiting.

A successful brand is only so because of the promises it makes and keeps, time and again; the promises kept are the reason the customer develops the trust to come back for more. And what the customer trusts is, in fact, the brand’s reputation, which is why the real value is more difficult to build and maintain than creating merely a recognisable image.

Similarly, personal branding can become a personal reputation landmine if the emphasis on image manipulation is greater than the truth behind it.

Stefan Stern, visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School, London, called it “bigging yourself upin his Guardian comment article, of which the worst examples are described as “humblebrag”, aka “falsely modest declarations that betray the self-satisfaction and boastfulness of the speaker.” He accuses our two most senior political leaders – Prime and Deputy Prime Ministers Cameron and Clegg – of such “humblebrag” behaviour; maybe protesting their validity too strongly when the results they have to show are so scant. Then again, the residents of Hell would be acquiring hats, scarves and gloves long before politicians chose to be candid about their shortcomings.

Stern goes on to say:

“It is better if the nice things we say about ourselves have solid foundations…but some people are clearly feeling so vulnerable that they are making grand and exaggerated claims. We can’t all be quite as creative and innovative as that. Self-esteem is one thing and permahype is another.”

What you claim about yourself, in a bid to manage your “personal brand”, needs to stand up to scrutiny, in the same way the claims made by companies about their products need to be true. Attempts to dress something up as something it’s not would be decried as “spin” or worse.

What you say you are matters far less than what you do. And if you’ve done enough to substantiate your CV, there should be no need for hyperbole. After all, you’re only human. And, to paraphrase the famous quote about avoiding exercise, if you suddenly get the feeling that you’re a brand, I suggest you lie down until the feeling goes away.

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

Corporate reputation resolutions for 2013

January 3rd, 2013 by Jon Clements

 

Laurence Oliver and Frank Finlay in Shakespeare’s Othello – a study in the power of reputation.

 

Among the other resolutions that New Year brings, how will business leaders resolve to improve their companies’ corporate reputation in 2013?

And, oh boy, does the business world need to clean up its act.

With the exception of two among Channel 4’s top 10 business stories of 2012, scandal, fraud, bad practice and incompetence appear to reign supreme. In most cases of exposed corporate malfeasance, somebody is made to pay; either in cold, hard cash fines, doing time behind bars, resignation or getting a dressing down in front of politicians.

But, surely, it shouldn’t require a reputation crisis to instigate action that protects the most valuable intangible asset on the balance sheet. Equally, reputation damage should be considered more than just a mere “marketing mishap”.

Among the 2012 examples in Marketing Magazine’s top 10 marketing mishaps round-up, several of them present problems that run far deeper than giving the marketing director sleepless nights. Starbucks’ tax revelations resulted in the company making a larger, one-off payment than the corporation tax it was actually due to pay, such is the shock to the corporate system that attends a major and well-publicised reputation blunder.

The timing of Starbucks’ tax affairs exposure – and that of other companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google – couldn’t have been worse, as the UK deals with on-going economic austerity. As journalist Seamus Milne commented, “Companies that are milking the country at the expense of the majority are especially vulnerable to brand damage. Forcing them to pay up is a matter of both social justice and economic necessity.”

What with HSBC’s money laundering travails, the fiasco and expense of G4S’ Olympic personnel shortfall and the sheer brass neck involved in Barclays Bank’s rigging of the Libor interbank lending rate, what has gone wrong with corporate governance? Is business less about building a long-term reputation and more about  the short term tactic of “what can we get away with”?

Business journalist, Simon Caulkin, blames the Chicago school of economics which, he says, “put at the heart of governance a reductive ‘economic man’ view of human nature needing to be bribed or whipped to do their exclusive job of maximising shareholder returns.” And the net result of this, he claims, has been “downtrodden and outsourced workers, mis-sold-to customers, exploited suppliers and underpowered innovation”.

Caulkin calls upon the eminent Peter Drucker in summing up what he thinks justifies the pursuit of business from his 1954 book, The Practice of Management: “Free enterprise cannot be justified as being good for business. It can be justified only as being good for society”.

In an attempt to reconcile what some companies may see as the unrelated ambitions of philanthropy and making profit, what reputation resolutions should they be making this year?

  • Ask yourself – who or what is the living, breathing conscience of your organisation? The CEO tends to carry the bulk of expectation when it comes to embodying and protecting corporate reputation. But should there be others specified and empowered to monitor your reputation radar, both internally and externally, and given the freedom and licence to call out bad practice or behaviour incompatible with a sound reputation.


  • Keep your friends close and your enemies closer…you don’t have to like your detractors, but it can help to empathise with them and their position about your company. Don’t give them the ability to accuse you of not listening.


  • How well do you know what your staff think and feel about working for your business? When was the last time you asked them? The way they feel – and how that’s transmitted to your customers, suppliers or other stakeholders – puts your company reputation firmly in their hands.


  • What does your market make of you? When did you last take the time to seek out some home truths from your customers and confront the most unpalatable facts about your business?


  • How widely are you listening? Beyond the more obvious places where your company might be mentioned and your reputation affected – such as in the mainstream media – there is a world of online chatter that, though beyond your control, is not beyond your influence.


  • How well-prepared are you for a reputation crisis? Complex planning documents may well end up collecting dust on a shelf, but that doesn’t mean a core group of decision makers and communicators within your organisation, plus an external consultancy if you have one, shouldn’t have a crisis plan in place for when the worst happens. Reputation strategist, Leslie Gaines-Ross emphasises the importance of a CEO in a crisis.


  • How much do you value the power of the apology? After a major mess-up, exhibiting arrogance, disregard or just inaction are reputation Kryptonite whereas eating humble pie early on, along with having a clear, demonstrable plan of action for rectifying your mistakes, are essential.


  • How well are you managing your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts? According to the Reputation InstituteA five point increase in a CSR rating would result in a 9.1% rise in the number of people who would definitely recommend a company. There is real money in improving reputation through CSR, but companies are failing to leverage this. 

 

Leaving the penultimate paragraph to the words of Simon Caulkin:

“The irony is that we know what makes companies prosper in the long term. They manage themselves as whole systems, look after their people, use targets and incentives with extreme caution, keep pay differentials narrow (we really are in this together) and treat profits as the score rather than the game. And it’s a given that in the long term companies can’t thrive unless they have society’s interests at heart along with their own.”

Here’s to a Happy, and reputable, New Year!

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

Suitable skills for PR’s new world

December 11th, 2012 by Sophie Mackintosh

Guest blogger, Sophie Mackintosh, explores how the range of jobs she did post-university provided unexpectedly useful skills for when she finally entered the world of agency public relations

My route into PR wasn’t simple. Like most graduates nowadays, I suffered through unpaid internships supplemented by working in a coffee shop, working freelance at night, and temping as a PA. While this was frustrating at the time, now that I’m in my dream job I’m realising that without these experiences I might not have been prepared for the PR world at all.

From what I’ve heard from wiser (older) colleagues and others in the industry, PR is changing enormously. Gone are the days when the main skill required was being able to blag your way through a press release for a technical product you didn’t fully understand, or write shining copy in fifteen minutes flat. Nowadays, in such a huge and rapidly-growing industry, the most valuable skills you can have are flexibility and confidence. With journalists being bombarded with pitches on all sides, making them believe that your client is the one they should be writing about is a daunting task.

The fairly recent addition of social media to the B2B PR landscape means that the traditional PR role now includes coming up with Facebook page content, blog posts, and maybe even infographics to share on Pinterest. It’s a strange mix of the sophisticated and casual; increasingly scientific theories and formulas about ROI and influence sit side by side with contacting journalists through Twitter because they won’t answer your emails. As a result, the industry is becoming more integrated as agencies realise they have to move with the times and come up with more innovative solutions for clients. For some that means incorporating SEO, for others it’s specialising in social media or offering production services. And that means that those working in the industry have to quickly adapt to follow these developments. A PR professional’s role no longer fits into one pigeonhole.

This is where my patchwork, post-graduation career comes in handy. While my English degree is enormously valuable to me – writing is still crucial to PR, especially given that we now find ourselves writing copy for a widening variety of mediums – the commercial world is very different to university. A degree alone wouldn’t have prepared me for the realities of PR, but dealing with stroppy customers and organising the schedules of high-flying bosses became a crash-course in the essential people skills that I eventually used as my PR launch pad. Doing all the jobs I did taught me tenacity, how to turn my hand to anything and, of course, how to take a deep breath and make very important phone calls without dissolving into jelly.

The PR industry is evolving in step with the media and getting increasingly complicated. As such there is no one specific skill that will carry you through – or one specific trajectory to get you where you want to be. But for me, and for a lot of graduates, this can be a bonus. Suddenly all the jobs I’d been doing made sense. They gave me writing and editing experience, flawless organisational skills, and the capacity to placate customers distressed by the foam on their wet lattes, all without breaking a sweat. Whoever thought those skills would come in just as useful – if not more so – than my first-class degree and array of marketing internships?

Sophie Mackintosh works at B2B PR firm TopLine Communications, and you can find her on Twitter on @sophmackintosh

A Manchester agency “biz dev” makeover

November 28th, 2012 by Jon Clements

Finding and winning business is the ever-present elephant in the room for those working in the creative agency world. And it comes with no small amount of teeth-gnashing, as agency business development people try to get through closed doors and make an impressive first impression while prising open tightly-knotted purse strings.

But help is at hand, as Manchester creative agencies – PR, advertising and digital – were treated to a business development makeover with the help of The Art of New Business initiative last night.

Deftly delivered in two halves, the event split into client-side managers sharing their views on the good, bad and ugly of agency new business approaches, alongside agency-side practitioners showing what had the made the difference in growing their businesses.

On the client-side panel, we had:

And their advice to agencies about how to stand out from the crowd was direct and no-nonsense:

 

  1. Ask more questions!
  2. Tell us what you know about us.
  3. Give examples of  how you can help.
  4. Discover – find out what’s important to us.
  5. Learn about our business – make yourself credible
  6. Come with a relevant opinion about us – we’ll be more likely to listen.
  7. Network and build relationships that can last a lifetime.
  8. Target managers lower down the chain – get in on ground level.
  9. Ask your clients who they can refer you to.
  10. Don’t forget, clients are looking at the market too – what will they find out about you?


And when it came to the topic of agency credentials, Tony Spong grabbed the microphone with the frenzy of a man who would clearly opt for Chinese water torture rather than listen to another mind numbing creds presentation. Dispense with the predictable and focus, is his advice, on “what’s your story?”; be brave, be clear and come quickly to talking about what agency and client can do together.

From the agency side, Adrian Lomas of digital agency, Blueleaf, spoke of having a “clear map and compass” that guides your business and helps inform the right decisions. In Blueleaf’s case, its mantra is “What would the best digital agency in the world do right now?” Chris Marsh of Melbourne Server Hosting showed how building a family culture with staff – and a stimulating working environment – rubbed off onto client relationships, giving them complete peace of mind about the commitment of their supplier. The “creative entrepreneurs” approach taken by Simon Calderbank of Studio North is more about finding the right clients and rejecting the wrong clients than taking on business at any price and finding companies that can relate to the agency’s “DNA, values and aspirations”. Former McCann boss, Brian Child, put it simply: “You will lose every account”; hence the “obsession” anyone running an agency needs to have about new business development.

As Sarah Bradley from event organisers and new business consultancy, Acquire, said:  “With marketing your business, there is no magic bullet – you have to do everything!”

STOP PRESS: Digital Marketing consultant, Mark Kelly, has blogged even more great tips for business development from The Art of New Business event and a Manchester digital event.

 

Jon Clements is an independent Chartered PR consultant based in Manchester

 

 

JonClements

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

Financial services fairness not just a PR stunt

October 16th, 2012 by Jon Clements

Where would you place financial services in your list of “industries I both love and trust”? Let’s be clear: such a glowing reputation has been desperately elusive for the sector in recent years.

Yet the rather unsnappily-titled Retail Distribution Review (RDR) – now entering the lexicon because UK financial advisers will behave differently with their customers in terms of advice and the way they charge from the start of next year – has been designed to protect (and help transform the financial sector’s wretched reputation with) the public.

But studying to comply with the RDR – as FT columnist and former broker, Merryn Somerset Web – is doing, can have the perhaps unintended side-effect of revealing more unsavoury facts about financial services.

In her most recent column she describes her course of study as “a depressing experience…charting the dismal record of greed, fear, corruption, incompetence and ignorance that is much of our financial industry.” Strong words from  someone who continues to make her living in the arena.

And yet among the array of pernicious financial products on the market including derivatives and a tax avoidance product called a single premium life assurance bond, Somerset Webb has seen something which…say it quietly…offers “hope”: a new fund called the Battle Against Cancer Investment Trust (Bacit) doesn’t come with charges, offers an annual  charitable contribution of one per cent plus a fund manager “stumping up for a percentage of the expenses”.

A cynic, or maybe a realist, would – as the writer acknowledges – “dismiss the whole thing as PR”. But she’s not so quick to do so, suggesting this new financial fund has something different at its heart than fleecing investors.

And so, even in places not normally associated with philanthropic behaviour, there may be surprises. But rather than being merely a sop to CSR, such moves can make commercial sense too. Analysts are increasingly looking at investment targets influenced by sound Environment, Social and Governance factors.

Rebuilding the reputation of a company is difficult enough, never mind that of an entire industry sector. Examples such as the Bacit provide a hopeful hint that the will exists in the sector to balance the unbridled making of money with doing the right thing. Demonstrating commitment to a higher purpose than profit alone is what the best corporate reputations are made of.

 

 

 

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

Football’s lost reputation

October 11th, 2012 by Mark Perry

 

It seems every day that football’s reputation is afflicted by one controversy or other – tweeting, accusations of racism, diving and even the England manager discussing team selection to strangers on the tube.

While, on one hand, the clubs seem to be all-controlling in their dealings with the media by limiting access to players and managers or even banning journalists from press conferences because of something they may have written, there are occasions when it seems that issues are not closed down.

As an industry which is under the media spotlight 24 hours a day, seven days a week I cannot help but feel that the sport is in need of some reputation management.

Liverpool belatedly admitted earlier this year that their handling of the ‘Luis Suarez affair’ was not as effective as it could have been and there has been relative silence from Chelsea in response to last week’s infamous Ashley Cole tweet about his thoughts on the FA.

If a football club was a corporation that was in crisis management mode there would be calls for immediate action. It just seems that in football things are left to fester while there is a chipping away of the hard-won club brand.

It may be time for clubs to see themselves just as any other company would and manage their reputation with their different stakeholders and ensure that any indiscretions of their employees – the players – don’t cause long time damage.

About Mark Perry

Mark has more than 25 years’ experience in PR and corporate communications. He is a founding director of B2B consultancy Melville PR.

The Paradox of Facebook’s New Ad Campaign

October 4th, 2012 by Rob Brown

Facebook has launched a multi channel, multi message communications campaign today, presumably in response to the poor share performance since the IPO in May.

In the US users can now pay to show people their holiday snaps with the introduction of ‘promoted posts’ for individual users.

Another part of the campaign features the announcement that Facebook has passed the billion user mark, a good PR hook if ever I saw one. However Facebook’s real PR issue is one of trust. To address that they have turned to advertising with a classic commercial; Facebook’s first-ever, agency created ad. “The Things That Connect Us” is a beautifully shot 90 second emotive film that compares Facebook to doorbells, airplanes, bridges, dancefloors but most of all chairs.

What I find amazing about the film is that it uses the outmoded idea that if you draw parallels with trusted concepts and ideas, then you can imbue a brand with qualities that it might not possess. It is essentially using an advert to ‘spin’. The arrival of social networks like Facebook has heralded an era when we are no longer persuaded by this kind of commercial. Paradoxically Facebook is communicating using a method that it has helped to undermine.

The choice of chairs as an emblem is also open to question since recent reports that show that too much time spent sitting could be deadly.

About Rob Brown

Rob Brown has worked in PR for over 20 years and for over fifteen years held senior PR positions within three major global advertising networks; Euro RSCG, McCann and TBWA. He launched his own business ‘Rule 5’ in MediaCityUK, Manchester in November 2012. Rob is the author of ‘Public Relations and the Social Web’ (2009), blogs for The Huffington Post and is joint editor of 'Share This Too' (2013).

Athlete Twitter Fans and The Olympic Effect

July 30th, 2012 by Rob Brown

The ‘Olympic’ effect on the social media following of high profile athletes is proving to be quite dramatic. Diver Tom Daley had a substantial Twitter following before the games, but the opening days of London 2012 have seen his following double from a quarter of a million to over 500,000.

The effect isn’t really new or even desperately surprising but it is pronounced.  The sheer weight of exposure that certain athletes receive translates immediately into a large online audience.  The athletes are also very keen to be freed from constraints over what they can say on social networks.  Several athletes have been speaking out over Rule 40, part of the brand policing activity that prevents athletes from mentioning brands that aren’t official sponsors.  Athletes who break the rule can be fined or even disqualified.

The online revolt based around the #wedemandchange hashtag has focused on the fact that many Olympic athletes receive very little income from sport often not enough to support their training. 1500m runner Leo Manzano posted “I am very disappointed in Rule 40 as I just had to take down my picture of my shoes and comments about their performance.”

About Rob Brown

Rob Brown has worked in PR for over 20 years and for over fifteen years held senior PR positions within three major global advertising networks; Euro RSCG, McCann and TBWA. He launched his own business ‘Rule 5’ in MediaCityUK, Manchester in November 2012. Rob is the author of ‘Public Relations and the Social Web’ (2009), blogs for The Huffington Post and is joint editor of 'Share This Too' (2013).

Financial services need Reputation redux

July 27th, 2012 by Jon Clements

Trusting your money to the financial services sector can be a hazardous business these days.

There’s neither time nor space here to explore the length and breadth of the banking sector’s misdeameanors, though the state of bank reputations was candidly addressed in a speech this week by Financial Services Authority Chairman, Lord Adair Turner, who said:

“Trust in banks and bankers has eroded. Three factors explain that collapse: people have come to doubt the economic benefits of financial liberalisation and of much banking activity; they doubt banks’ values; and they doubt whether banks have their interests at heart.”

And he explained that one of the factors leading to the Economist’s “Banksters” front cover (pictured top) was “Poor values and malpractice able to operate on an increasing scale.”

By contrast, the general insurance industry – to its credit – has not burdened itself with the same level of ignominy as banking; though one can never speak too soon: this week, the Financial Services Authority imposed one of the largest ever fines – nearly £0.5m – on a former commercial insurance broker for paying more than £300k of customer’s insurance premiums into the firm’s own bank account rather than to the relevant insurance company. The affected customers found themselves either uninsured or paying the premium a second time to ensure they were covered.

Either way, it’s a shocking situation to leave customers in; such “serious failings”, according to the FSA, led directly to the severity of the fine.

Ultimately, the broker in question has destroyed his reputation, while doing the reputation of the insurance broking sector no favours either.

Reputation begins with the actions an organisation or business takes; if those decisions are unethical and lead to the “poor values and malpractice” Lord Turner alluded to, then no amount of brand massaging or media spin will salvage reputation. When an organisation is satisfied that its processes, practices and corporate governance will stand up to scrutiny, then communicating its brand values will be founded on more than the corporate equivalent of quicksand.

So, while other parts of the financial services sector may take some pleasure in seeing bank bosses squirm in the wake of a scandalous few years’ behaviour, they should also pay attention closer to home.

The Chartered Insurance Institute (CII – disclosure, a Staniforth client), the professional body for insurance and financial services, recently developed an online ethics toolkit to help firms in the sector implement consistent ethical standards.

In terms of instilling ethical business practices and protecting reputation, prevention has to be better than cure. So, while general insurance may have remained mostly unscathed by the self-flagellation of the financial services sector, it can’t be sure that its own Bob Diamond isn’t about to enter stage left.

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''