Reputation, authenticity and listening

Looking at reputation with the one of the field's experts

In her role as Global Lead of Reputation Management Practice at FleishmanHillard, Marjorie Benzkofer regularly works with C-suite executives to manage brand and reputation.

And as jury member of the North-American Excellence Awards, Marjorie shared with us some of today's reputation threats, the need for 360-degree stakeholder research, and why the US primaries prove that it's important to simply listen.

As a jury member for the North American Excellence Awards, what are some of the qualities you look out for in submitted projects?

Two things. The first is a clever and unique strategy to solve the problem at hand. Those that relied heavily on a single video or big ad buys didn’t impress me as much. I was won over by those that found an interesting insight and used it to reach their audience in an unexpected way. Second, of course, is results. It’s not hard to turn in big engagement numbers when you have big budgets. But those that had a meaningful impact with scrappy budgets always impressed me.

The Center On Reputation is FleishmanHillard’s thought leadership arm. As head of the team, what are the biggest challenges to corporate reputation that are maybe unique or especially relevant to the US market?

Each year FleishmanHillard conducts a study called The Authenticity Gap. We look at the gap between audiences’ expectations and their actual experiences of industries and companies. The focus is to give organisations very actionable insights on how to build more authentic relationships. One of the most disturbing findings this year is that widening gap in our expectations and experiences around how management acts ethically and transparently. Companies have to get beyond talking only about their products and start to shine a brighter spotlight on their leaders and their principles — how they work and make decisions and think about their company’s role in society at large.

"One of the most disturbing findings this year is that widening gap in our expectations and experiences around how management acts ethically and transparently."

We no longer judge a company simply on the quality and innovation of its products. Today our opinions about the people who lead these companies and how they behave are fundamental to our relationship with them.

You began your communications career at ComEd in Chicago in 1993: since that time, what have been some of the biggest developments in the way communicators work?

Well the obvious answer is technology. At ComEd, I used a pager and a cell phone that came in a large shoulder bag. But perhaps more subtle and even more profound is the interconnectiveness of stakeholders. Then we could talk to employees through one channel, regulators through another, each in its own swim lane. But today they talk to each other and we have to be taking a holistic approach managing reputation. Usually when companies do stakeholder research it is with one or two audiences, rarely taking a 360 degree view. When we don’t invest in research to listen to what our multiple stakeholders are saying and thinking, we create blind spots for our organsations that can have lethal effects.

The FBI vs. Apple case is a landmark event: what are the repercussions for North America’s corporate communications community, especially in regards to reputation issues?

This tension between our expectations of transparency and privacy is going to further flare up in many different ways. Management teams need to be reviewing every aspect of their business to do risk assessments and scenario planning around these issues. The court of public opinion moves swiftly when companies are caught in the crosshairs of these two competing forces.

"This tension between our expectations of transparency and privacy is going to further flare up in many different ways."

The middle of a crisis is not the time to begin contemplating your values and belief systems when making decisions on these issues, which can creep into employee privacy, customer information, product quality, workplace violence and myriad others. How will you behave and what guiding principles will guide your decisions  when the public is demanding full transparency on an issue and also protection of their privacy?

The world is transfixed by the US primaries: how are they impacting your work?

It has proved to be one of the most unpredictable election cycles ever, It is an ever-unfolding story that has shocked even the most bombastic of pundits, and the final outcomes likely surpasses our imagination at this point. But one thing is very clear. The swell of support for these so-called “fringe” candidates from the left and the right is clearly driven by a segment of the American society that is deeply disenfranchised and angry. The fact that both parties were caught off guard by the fierce fury says that they weren’t doing a good enough job listening.

"The fact that both parties were caught off guard by the fierce fury says that they weren’t doing a good enough job listening."

It a good reminder to corporations not to ignore those fringe audiences who may not be immediately impacting your balance sheet but have the ability to knock your organisation off its feet if you aren’t paying attention.

And what does the future hold for communications in North America?

We do a great deal of work at FleishmanHillard looking at the alignment between a company’s brand (everything it does and says) and a company’s reputation (the shared perceptions of all stakeholders). Often we find that brand and reputation are not managed holistically within organisations. Stakeholders are managed by different departments (human resources, government affairs, marketing, etc.) and channels of communication are fragmented throughout the organisation. Our departments and roles are still set up in these antiquated, separate silos.

"We must rethink our department structures."

We must rethink our department structures, our planning process and even the talent and types of jobs we have in communications and marketing if we are to help our companies manage brand and reputation effectively throughout the whole company.

Marjorie Benzkofer sits on the jury of the North American Excellence Awards, a celebration of the best in North-American corporate communications and public relations and which is co-hosted by Communication Director and which last week celerated its winners in New York City. For the latest on the global Excellence Awards community, follow @ExAw_Community

Marjorie Benzkofer
Marjorie Benzkofer leads FleishmanHillard's work around The Authenticity Gap – customised solutions that improve organisations’ ability to authentically engage with their stakeholders. She regularly works with C-suite executives to manage both brand and reputation through highly effective change management programmes, branding and marketing campaigns, media programmes, executive engagement efforts, coalition campaigns and community relations. Marjorie leads the firm’s thought leadership efforts at the Center On Reputation, an online and virtual centre that hosts commentary, events and training for seasoned executives throughout the industry. Prior to joining FleishmanHillard in 1997, Marjorie worked in corporate communications for ComEd, the energy delivery company.