Guy Esnouf's account of what led E.ON to take a fresh look at its UK reputation strategy provides a valuable reminder of some important home truths about effective reputation management.
One is that a company's reputation clearly involves a much broader set of issues than those covered by the media, which can tend to focus on specific incidents rather than more systemic issues, and on issues raised by some stakeholders rather than others.
So while a colourful environmental protest may be more likely to make the news compared with, say, a think-tank study, some even more important issues may lack any public visibility. Hence the vital importance of non-media 'radar' systems, including matters that rarely reach the public domain, such as customer and employee satisfaction, and loyalty.
Another consideration is the limitations of measuring reputation according to universal or standardised categories and attributes. For example, as E.ON found, different stakeholder groups often have very different expectations and priorities within the 'environment' category. -What is more, these can often vary between companies in the same sector and geography.
A third consideration is the imperative of understanding what different stakeholder groups think of the issues raised by other stakeholder groups, as well as the ones they raise themselves. As E.ON found, customers and NGOs do not necessarily have similar expectations and priorities. And, in today's low-growth economy, the customer perspective on a firm's strengths and weaknesses is arguably more important to business strategy than ever.
At APCO, we know from our reputation advisory work with many Fortune 100 and FTSE100 companies that E.ON's experiences while navigating the reputation maze are not unusual.
However, we know that every organisation's reputation is unique, arising from stakeholders' specific expectations, experiences and knowledge gaps about the organisation.
That is why APCO's proprietary methodology, Reputation Insight, uses qualitative and quantitative research to not only delineate the discrete expectations and attributes that form the core drivers of a company's reputation, but also to statistically measure the relative impact these drivers have on shaping perceptions of the firm among its different stakeholders.
In turn, this provides an empirically robust basis to address key strategic questions and inform more effective comms. For example, which issues drive positive outcomes that affect the business and its operating environment? Which core reputation assets must be protected? Which channels do our key stakeholders use and trust to gain information about the issues they care about and judge companies on? And what are the most important opportunities to build and strengthen the firm's reputation overall and among specific stakeholder groups?
The final point is the crucial role of a company's leaders in activating a more holistic 'reputation DNA' approach. They need to be ready to let go of any lingering tendency to view media coverage, especially in the media they read themselves, as the most important reputation metric. They must also accept that their own conduct and profile in shaping the firm's reputation will be delineated quite precisely.
Accordingly, the DNA reputation approach is much more likely to work with executive sponsorship and endorsement at both the research and implementation stages, and if the company is geared to embrace change and wants to understand how such change will affect its reputation.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
What is the best example of a firm that has planned its internal comms strategy to fit with its wider corporate reputation?
In 2003, IBM directly engaged with its 319,000 employees through Values-Jam, a three-day intranet-based global discussion to redefine its core values. The company has since pegged its reputation model on those values, shaping the way it communicates, its involvement in the community, its engagement in the great debates of our time and dedication to every client's success.
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