Iain Bundred, Ogilvy: Strike up a conversation

Companies should start conversations with their stakeholders to change their perceptions.

Iain Bundred, Ogilvy: Strike up a conversation
Iain Bundred, Ogilvy: Strike up a conversation

When you've been through the eye of a corporate reputation storm, it's often hard to keep sight of the bigger picture. That's why it's particularly impressive that Guy Esnouf is willing to admit his company E.ON owes the Kingsnorth Climate Camp a debt of thanks for making it reassess its reputation.

The question for the numerous companies that have been hit by similar reputational attacks is: why did it take a crisis to make you think about how your customers saw you?

Benjamin Franklin said: 'Glass, china and reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended.' With social media and a global 24/7 news cycle that can chew up and spit out any blue-chip reputation in hours, this is even more pertinent today.

That's why firms - and their PR consultants - must get ahead of the game by listening to what their customers want and expect from a company.

As part of the wider Ogilvy Group, OgilvyPR is surrounded by some of the luminaries of the advertising and brand management world, giving us unique insight into the latest developments in above-the-line marketing and the evolution of reputation management. At its best, the modern marketing approach has a scientific understanding of what consumers are looking for.

In the past, PROs have been frustrated by the discrepancy between the amount companies are willing to put into consumer insight about their products and the amount they will invest in customer perceptions about their corporate brand.

This is finally changing.

Yet simply listening to public opinion is no good. Ultimately, CEOs must show real leadership, choosing what they want their company to be known for and differentiating themselves before any crisis hits.

When I worked in Downing Street, we took every effort to track public opinion and reflect voters' concerns in our key messages. But you can't just tell people what they want to hear - we had to make decisions about where we positioned ourselves, making those difficult judgements in the glare of the 24-hour media spotlight. As social and traditional media scrutiny of big brands increases, every company will face the same dilemmas.

Of course, you must stress test your current capabilities and make sure your comms teams are ready for a crisis. But a company cannot allow itself to be defined reactively.

The fascinating insight from E.ON is that the environmental campaign had far less impact on its customers than its pricing strategy. E.ON used that insight to begin an open conversation with consumers about the 'trilemma' demands on its business.

In fact, every conversation a company has with its stakeholders is important - with a journalist, blogger, customer or supplier. And let's not forget frontline staff - they are the guardians of every company's brand, making internal comms central to corporate reputation. All your interactions affect how you are perceived, so companies will be judged as much on what they do as what they say.

Customers now hold the brand's reputation in their hands, and they can break it as easily as dropping your finest china.

The way to tackle this truth is not to give in to the loudest stakeholder demands but to look again at how you are defined and begin a conversation with your customers that will make them think about you differently.

Because - as Franklin said more than 300 years ago - once your reputation has been damaged, the people will simply stop listening.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

How would you deal with an assault from UK Uncut on your clients?

Defensive responses play into protesters' hands. Use the media scrutiny to explain your side of the story, buy key search words relating to the assault and create content online to ensure social media searches include your position.

What is the best example of a company that has planned its internal comms strategy to fit with its wider corporate reputation?

Innocent - in all my visits to companies around Britain, I've never been to a more fun workplace than their astro-turfed hangar in West London. It fits the company's corporate positioning perfectly.

Iain Bundred is director of strategic media at Ogilvy.

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