Reputation Management, Millennials and Corporate Purpose – Part 1

This article, by Tony Langham, CEO of Lansons, for PRWeek, conflates reputation management, millennials and corporate purpose – three hot topics, each deserving commentary of its own. Let’s start with reputation management.

Reputation Management – What Does It Actually Mean?

Reputation management is seen as a synonym for crisis and issues management and risk mitigation. There are at least two obvious reasons for this. The first is that ‘reputation management’ -as descriptor for what we, as communications professionals, do – simply isn’t very clear.

That’s not to say that ‘public relations’, or ‘corporate communication’, are much better, but one cannot help but thinking that the industry came up with ‘reputation management’ to make itself sound more weighty, more serious and more deserving of a seat at the top table.

‘Public relations’ has the merit of doing what it says on the tin, and being easily explained in one or two sentences. Likewise ‘corporate communication’. The downside, stating the obvious, is that ‘public relations’ suffers from a longstanding image problem. That image problem is not going be solved by changing the discipline’s name, however – particularly if the new name is ambiguous.

‘Public relations’ and ‘corporate communication’, as labels, still work well. High quality, effective, measurable work should address the image problem.

Institutionalised Communication

Reputation management does take in crisis management and risk mitigation, of course, but they are not prime directives. The prime directive is, as it always has been, getting out there and making opportunities to tell your story in ways that will connect with your target audiences, so as to build a positive, beneficial and measurable relationship with them.

Another reason, then, why reputation management is becoming aligned with the lawyers and the accountants, is that the prime directive is being suppressed. Communication has been institutionalised. Reactive communication has become the best communication. (Arguably, in some areas, ’twas always thus and it should not be forgotten that the reputation managers of today were often the corporate affairs advisers and capital markets communicators of yesterday.)

I have two examples of this, one first, and one second, hand. In both companies – no names, no pack drill, but both recent – communication (corporate affairs, reputation management – what you will) was almost wholly reactive. In both cases, I took this to be a function of the industry sector (finance, since you ask), naturally conservative and risk-averse. I now think I was wrong – it’s a general malaise.

The core function of the communicator is to champion active communication strategies, that use all the tools available, to communicate the corporate personality and proposition. And that means creativity and persuasion – having the ideas and getting the approvals necessary to make them happen.

Is There Value in Purpose?

Which brings us neatly to this video which dates from January 2018. A good example of corporate creativity, of personality and proposition and Рone can but imagine Рa certain amount of persuasion to get it over the line.

Obviously, it’s fraught with risk – it’s an overt statement of what the company stands for, which it now has to stand by, forever, and, let’s face it, someone’s going to be offended by it. But it appears to be authentic, a real statement of what Sodastream is.

Refreshingly, it’s not a ‘purpose’, requested by the board, designed by committee and handed off to the communicators with a brief to ensure everyone knows what it is. But more of that anon.

Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)