Kevin Brewer, Broglio: Mind the reputation gap

The difference between what a company says and what it does may widen in a recession.

The pages of paperback romances are filled with the malicious mill and mine owners of the industrial revolution. UK business today is squeaky clean by comparison.

Or is it? In recent years, we have seen evidence of child labour, sweatshop conditions and fatally dangerous working practices - a side effect of the corporate process. The difference is that many of today's dubious practices happen at arm's length from the boardroom, in workshops in developing nations, and in back alleys or off the coasts of many developed ones.

CSR and improved environmental practices have arguably been driven by everyman directors who want to look their children in the eye at the supper table and get a good night's sleep feeling they are making a positive contribution to the planet. It is no accident that companies with successful ethical, environmental and community reputations are driven by directors with strong, genuine personal interests in these areas.

But in these recessionary times, we may be seeing a retrenchment to a more self-serving capitalism. The word 'spin' has become so associated with PR that too many directors misjudge the balance between presentation and action. When reputation is applied as skin tone foundation, spots will still burst through, often at the most inopportune of times, and lead to even greater scrutiny of a company's true complexion.

Ryanair is often criticised for its announcements of penny pinching inconveniences to be imposed on long-suffering customers, but most are perfectly aligned to the airline's no-frills, cheap flight reputation. Passengers almost welcome such announcements as proof that the low price is achieved by methods other than skimping on safety.

This corporate position might let Ryanair dodge or delay compensation payments without damage to its reputation, but the same cannot be said for KLM. The Air France-owned Dutch airline is perceived to operate at a greater corporate altitude and its compensation foot dragging has surprised customers and damaged its reputation.

If KLM had taken its stance in alignment with others, reputation would have been protected and potentially enhanced.

'Be your PR' is the mantra every company should adopt, whether it is looking to change, maintain or develop its corporate reputation. There should be no gaps between practice and presentation and where there are, it will be only a matter of time before the company's reputation is pranged.

Many businesses are sharpening their practices to survive recession. Some decisions will be taken at board and senior management levels where there is the chance, but not the certainty, that the comms strategy will be adjusted accordingly.

But in larger corporations most changes in practice will be adopted at much lower levels. The foundations on which even long-standing reputations are built could be undermined.

Often the events that shake major corporate reputations arise not from what those running the company might know - Enrons are few and far between - but from actions taken at the peripheries of the business or in recent acquisitions, distant countries or sub-contractors.

Increasing financial rewards are once again isolating business leaders from the real world their customers live in and this will put PR professionals under pressure to protect reputations. As gaps widen between practice and presentation, always remember you can't defend the indefensible.

Views in brief

- Which organisation has most improved its reputation in the past year?

Newcastle United. Its non-flamboyant manager Chris Hughton has kept his head down and got on with the job. He has maintained this steady style now the team are back in the Premiership spotlight. Along with the improved reputation comes a significantly improved financial value.

- To what extent do dwindling public sector budgets offer an opportunity for corporate CSR programmes to fill the void?

CSR decisions should be driven by the nature, culture and identity of the business, not government policy or headline opportunity.

Kevin Brewer is managing director of Broglio

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