Know your risks

22 February 2014

Richard Ellis, Communications Director, offers 10 expert pointers for preserving your business’ good name

Reputation management has never been trickier, with the stakes rising, budgets shrinking and social media giving every consumer the stones to slay a Goliath.

1) Involve your communications and PR people…

It’s impossible for your comms and PR people to communicate your message if they don’t know what’s going on. An inability to respond to key issues creates confusion and mistrust amongst stakeholders, and this is often caused by a lack of resources in PR teams. The recession has actually boosted investment in this area, with most companies planning to invest more heavily in communications in the short and medium term.

2) …and involve them from the start

Communication tends to be proactive or reactive. If your comms people know what’s coming, they can take a proactive approach, identifying potential opportunities, hurdles and pitfalls. This kind of communication has a positive impact on your organisation’s reputation. By contrast, reactive communication means that instead of setting the agenda, you’re playing catch-up. It forces you into a negative, defensive position that at best represents a missed opportunity and at worst can do lasting damage.

3) Know your stakeholders

In order to monitor your reputation effectively, you need to know who your stakeholders are. This is not just about communicating with customers, staff and investors, but also knowing your suppliers, pressure groups in your industry and the sections of the media that talks about you. You need to have the comms channels in place both to engage with the whole community and to have targeted conversations with your most influential commentators. Don’t ignore your detractors – if you can get your message across to them, they may well change their message. Such commentators are not to be underestimated, as they can be very influential with investors. Keep the lines of communication open and earn their trust.

4) The press are still important

Social media may have changed the game, but that does not mean the press are any less important than they were previously. Most of the national papers and their serious bloggers will have a huge number of followers, and their opinion will carry a lot of weight. You need to get your message across to them in an honest way to gain their trust. When they put a message out there it will be much more influential than when you say it, as they are perceived to be independent. Make sure you have a direct route to them, give them all the facts and allow them to voice their opinions freely.

Part of being proactive is getting to know your risks

5 Be proactive

When I worked at a consultancy that undertook engineering projects, I used to read their reports from the perspective of a pressure group and note down all the potential issues. Part of being proactive is getting to know your risks – a bit like a reputation audit. Every organisation knows how it wants to be perceived, but what you do and say is often distorted by how people perceive what you do and say. Make sure your actions align with your values. This proactive approach also extends to opening dialogue with stakeholders. We no longer live in a broadcast world where communication goes one way. Putting the mechanisms in place to engage with people’s comments and concerns goes a long way to generating good will and confidence.

6. Social media has changed the game

In the past, companies used to know everyone who had the ability to influence their reputation and had the mechanisms in place to go out and talk to them. Now, anyone can publish and it’s impossible to know everyone individually. We need not just look at press, investors and analysts but also staff, consumers, pressure groups and suppliers, and keep scanning the horizon to see what messages are appearing. Once it’s out there, you have a choice to make: do you ignore any negative discussion or engage with it? On some occasions it’s best to let the fuss die down on its own, and at other times it’s worth tackling the issue head-on. It’s really a judgement call, and this is where a good comms person will earns their money.

7) Know your reputational risks

It’s vital to understand your reputational risks, because the time you have to respond can be very small – things can burn slowly for a while and then suddenly blow up. If you see the risks in advance, you know who to contact for comment and how to address the arguments against you. It saves a huge amount of time if your CEO knows about any potentially critical issues and is prepared to drop everything and speak to the press about it.

8) Reputation management is a judgement call

There can be a conflict between lawyers and PRs. Lawyers will generally look to minimise liability but this is not always the best approach for your share price in the long term. The legal process is notoriously slow yet years of investment in your brand can be wiped out overnight by a slow or inadequate PR response. Opinion shifts rapidly in an age of social media and, if you fail to communicate, then others will fill the void for you. Lawyers are there to protect you financially, PR people are there to protect your reputation. Similarly, we have seen a rise in the use of super-injunctions, but I’d argue that you need to think very carefully about covering something up because when, it does come out, the damage to your

9) Trust is hard to earn, but easy to lose

The jeweller Ratner spent years building up the brand only to see it crash overnight when their CEO described the product as “total crap”. If you’re open and honest with your customers, they’ll forgive you a few mistakes, but never treat them like idiots or lie to them.

10) Look to the thing you most want to hide…

The thing you most want your comms person not to know is probably the thing they most need to know. Don’t waste time hiding something when you could be preparing for potential calamity!