In today’s digital world, a company’s brand, offering, and reputation are constantly on the line and visible to anyone, at any time. When people hear a brand name, they often form a lightning-speed association with the things that organization has done in the recent past. The internet is the catalyst for this high-speed connection of company with reputation, and while it has given companies new ways to communicate, it has also given new venues for criticism and negative feedback. The complex interconnections between people, brands and messages are worth exploring.
Reputation management is a critical skill for high-level executives today, as a company’s ability to win customers over and retain their business for the long haul has become tied up with the image projected by the brand. Before listing out tips for boosting online corporate reputation, however, it pays to remember what’s at stake. This means considering the effects when a business’s reputation gets away from it.
The unquantifiable cost
A recent Fortune report used a clear example of an organization with a fallen image – Wells Fargo. While the company’s stock price and total deposits have risen over the past few years, it has suffered the ill effects of its recent scandal in which employees struggling to hit personal sales goals opened “ghost” accounts without customer knowledge. The saga played out in the news, and there has been what new CEO Tim Sloan called “some impact” to the way individuals think about the bank.
According to Fortune, Wells Fargo has lost its place on the World’s Most Admired Companies list – it was formerly No. 25 on the magazine’s 2016 list. It was previously 70th among the 100 most visible brands in terms of positive public impression. Now, it is 99th, with the only lower-ranking business being Takata, the airbag manufacturer with products linked to multiple fatalities.
The material impact of such a fall from grace comes from the ability to attract and retain business. Fortune reported that some local city governments, conscious of their own reputations, have declared that they won’t do business with Wells Fargo. This opens opportunities for competitors, and though it may always remain unclear how much business is being lost, the sense of lost value is clear.
Tips for reputation management
No organization wants to see individuals or groups publicly refusing to engage with the business in light of its reputation. Getting to a crisis point such as Wells Fargo’s is a rare occurrence, but smaller problems occur fairly often. It’s important that leaders learn techniques and general approaches that will keep them out of these scrapes. The following are a selection of useful concepts to know, optimized for the always-on communications of the internet age.
1. Be available to the public: Leaders’ actions are commonly conflated with those of their companies. Stepping into the spotlight, committing to change and being publicly available and accountable is an important priority in the current, highly transparent era of business. The Financial Times suggested that when leaders make themselves invisible, this is an invitation for continued coverage and questions. An information vacuum gets filled with assumptions, and typically, not good ones.
Openness is a virtue today, even when that means exposing uncomfortable facts. The MIT Sloan School of Management’s Neal Hartman told the Financial Times that when companies perform inspections of their own processes and find problems, they should present their findings clearly. If leaders seem to be covering anything up or suppressing issues, they may find their organizations the subject of more fast-paced and unflattering news cycles.
Empathy and emotion are key, Ogilvy PR U.K. CEO Marshall Manson told the source. When the public encounters an organizational leader who seems too remote or unconcerned, people may have trouble believing companies are going to be responsible in the future. In the modern era of high-tech communications, social media is a great platform for expressing these feelings – as long as leaders use the platforms correctly.
2. Be consistent in projecting an image: A modern organization’s public face is built across a patchwork of channels. Getting all the relevant information to form a harmonious picture – instead of sending complicated mixed messages – is absolutely essential for any business that hopes to capitalize on its reputation. CIO Review contributor Thomas Spencer, the New York Power Authority’s senior director of enterprise risk management and corporate insurance, suggested that the C-suite must sign off on a consistent strategy and take direct part in it.
Spencer called for companies to engage members of different departments, getting buy-in from across the brand and all pulling toward a single, identified goal. Having that single objective – the ideal envisioned reputation for the organization – is an easy step to overlook, but it contains the crux of reputation management.
Leaders may ignore the need to create a target image, assuming that everyone is in agreement concerning the ideal public face of the business. This approach runs the risk of responding to a crisis situation with scattershot public statements, each individual or social media channel carrying a different message. Consumers, able to compare and contrast these clashing communications, may find it hard to trust the business. Once that seed of doubt is sown, it’s tough to reverse course.
3. Watch what works: While every company is unique, building a reputation management strategy based on others’ efforts is a worthwhile exercise. Entrepreneur contributor AyodejiOnibalusi recommended taking components of many different working approaches. This means using reputation tracking software and determining which companies are considered the top trustworthy brands in their respective fields, then using the concepts that work.
Onibalusi pointed to suggestions by YBus CEO Fernando Azevedo, who identified a few of the most common traits shared by well-liked companies today. For instance, they visibly care for their clients, they put their ethics on display and they are concerned with quality. These traits can be expressed through a number of channels, both traditional and modern, but social media is clearly one of the most direct options. Azevedo pointed specifically to the way JetBlue represents itself online, pleasing customers and burnishing a solid reputation.
What kinds of interactions does JetBlue turn to when it wants to impress its customer base? Direct responses to consumer requests, questions and complaints make up a big part of its online communications. This builds the kind of approachable appearance that can be valuable when a company’s reputation is at risk. Individuals have dealt with the organization in the past and found its representatives to be forthcoming and honest. A brand that becomes an online blank slate is prone to be linked with negative perceptions.
4. Commit deeply to positive actions: It’s relatively easy to say the right things – businesses can claim they are committed to their customers’ satisfaction, the betterment of the environment or any number of other goals, but getting today’s informed audiences to believe in those motives requires a deeper and more consistent commitment. Environmental Leader revealed that 40 percent of people surveyed for the Harris Poll Reputation Quadrant believe companies commit to responsible policies because it makes them look good, not because they really mean it.
A culture of suspicion among the shopping public is a gauntlet thrown for companies working on their reputations. Talking about the organization’s good works and intentions is not enough unless there is action backing up that effort. Reputation management is not just a communications issue. Getting the word out is important, of course, but it can’t be an end unto itself. Effective communication reflects something fundamental about the organization.
In the end, every expression of a company’s commitment to its principles is a late step in reputation management. Leading up to that point, it’s important for brands to create internal cultures they can be proud of, and that their customers will approve of when they learn the details. In today’s information-rich online world, it’s safe to assume that the inner workings of a business will become public, especially if they are somehow harmful or contrary to the organization’s public presentation. Taking care of internal processes is the key to setting a reputation.
Existing in Public
Being an effective business leader today means understanding how people will perceive the company and engaging in actions that will maximize the reputation between brand and individual. The opportunity present in mastering communication and reputation management is notable, as is the potential for things to go wrong when leaders ignore this part of their duties. Organizations’ experiences in this setting can be defined by their respective leaders.
Opening the business up to the public in a more direct way than ever before is simply part of existing in the modern, digitally connected corporate world. Leaders who are unfamiliar with the way business is conducted today may find themselves at a disadvantage. Refusing to play the game – making oneself unavailable or trying to keep a low profile on a corporate level – may be met with skepticism or even hostility from a data-rich audience that has come to expect a great level of transparency.
Learning about the way companies today present themselves, with all the public relations, marketing and management practices bound up in that knowledge, is a major reason to secure a Master of Business Administration degree instead of taking on the mantle of leadership without additional education. Individuals who take the time to learn from the examples of company leaders active today can discover the actual conditions animating the market today.
This is where Maryville University’s online Master of Business Administration program comes in. The curriculum is rich in actual examples of contemporary business performance. By building practical abilities instead of theoretical concepts, graduates discover the complexities and opportunities of being leaders in an online-focused world. The practices that define organizational leadership have evolved appreciably in recent years. Formally gaining new, fresh and relevant knowledge is a way to keep learning rather than standing still in an industry on the move.