The VW scandal has dealt a blow to the ability of corporate communicators to be heard and believed in this age of trust erosion between companies and publics. Various studies show that traditional corporate communications are losing impact with stakeholders.
As consumers of information, we are much more inclined to trust ‘people like ourselves’ than corporate leaders, company spokespeople or brand campaigns. So what’s the magic tool left in the corporate communication box of tricks to build real reputation value that enables and reinforces sustained financial returns?
Unlocking value for the long run
The answer isn’t to just jump on the trend bandwagon and invest in integrated cross-functional communications, digital platforms, viral PR campaigning, reputation dividend analysis or the like (although these may have value if done in a tailored manner in the right situation). The greater solution lies inwards. Companies that successfully harness and stay true to their inner core character and strengths in everything they do far outperform those that only pay lip service to their history, values and purpose. This is not a simple quick fix to reputation problems but a long-term investment in internal structures, systems, capabilities and solutions that ultimately unlocks previously hidden value for sustained competitive advantage. The New York Times’ report into Amazon’s culture recently brought this vividly to life.
Reputation exists in the eye of the beholder. Although one can ascribe financial value to intangible assets (including brand value and goodwill), corporate reputation is not an asset you actually own. Rather, it is both an outcome and enabler of business initiatives. Your reputation sits in the minds of your stakeholders and is shaped and influenced by their multiple interactions with your organisation and other influencers. The best way to build a sustainable reputation that leads to relational strength and business value is by building it from within.
This requires first understanding what the strengths and flaws are in one’s corporate character. Second, continuously reinforcing internally those values and behaviours that are a true expression of the ideal identity of the firm. Only then amplifying the specific traits that you know from research will drive your stakeholders’ willingness to transact with your company and endorse it towards others.
All of this requires strategic embedding, advanced analytics and a senior level commitment across functions. Firms that truly apply an inside out approach to developing reputation strategy reap real business value from it. Such an approach includes senior accountability for reputation risk, investing in reputation leadership and ensuring all decision makers consider the reputational implications of their decisions.
Bringing out the hidden influencers
As with any corporate initiative or topic, it is imperative that there is senior leadership to ensure that reputation thinking is embedded in culture and processes. However, to really get things moving, both internally and externally, it is important to unlock the value of ‘hidden influencers’. These are the individuals others look to for guidance and inspiration, irrespective of corporate hierarchy or formalised positions. They are active movers and shakers both in their day-to-day interactions with colleagues and through their activities online and off.
Hidden influencers can be found through simple internal research that involves employees nominating colleagues they consider to be the most relevant influencers within the business (referred to as snowball sampling). These individuals can be empowered and skilled up to be powerful ambassadors for the company’s internal and external reputation building. They become the real social face of the business, enriching formal communications with authentic personal stories and experiences.
Hidden influencers, managers and leaders all need to have the right mind-set and skills to capably reinforce corporate culture and bring the values to life. Companies that invest in communication training even during difficult change times reap reputation and business value as a result (see for instance the Communication Director piece on what Mondelēz International is doing in this area).
In sum, the following three tips for successfully bringing out the hidden inner strengths for lasting business success:
1. Build a reputation strategy from corporate DNA
- Understand what is driving reputation internally and externally through advanced analysis
- Invest in structured reputation governance
- Place reputation risk responsibility at the most senior levels with bespoke metrics
- Embed reputation insights and thinking across all strategic decision making
2. Bring out the hidden influencers
- Use snowball sampling to identify internal influencers
- Empower them to be informal spokespeople internally and externally on social media and in open stakeholder dialogue sessions
3. Continuously reinforce values and purpose
- Use storytelling techniques and platforms to share individual stories behind the core values
- Build individuals’ internal communication capability across all layers of management
Image: Flickr/Alan Turkus