I confess I used to think very little about reputation. I was too busy communicating - creative PR campaigns, stakeholder meetings, keeping employees on song, working with charity partners, CR reporting ...
Indicators showed good results and I shared these results regularly with the board. Naturally this included pictures, great stories where we beat the competition, plenty of media coverage and return on investment figures. Everyone was happy.
But I was running blind. I had stacks of outputs but I simply could not tell you their impact on the outcomes that mattered most - reputation and trust.
It would be an overstatement to say I was a busy fool. I was more like the old sailor guided by the moon and the currents - tapping into intuition born of experience. I was cautious, lacking an accurate compass or modern techniques to plot a bolder strategy.
I wasn't naive about reputation management. I had a robust risk register and knew what threatened our company's reputation. I assigned values and owners, put sound plans in place and ensured we were prepared for any potential crisis.
But one thing was missing - opportunity. Reputation management approached as 'risk management' missed the obvious - sustained reputational improvement. I now realise this is the single most valuable thing we communicators can do.
It sounds obvious but it requires new data, new insights and new thinking. It means getting off the 'coverage' drug and adding in more slowly evolving reputational metrics built from deeper thinking and consistent core principles.
Imagine two special advisers to the Prime Minister. One reports every week on media scores and how to drive them higher, the other on voter trust and how to build confidence over the medium term. Which are you?
If I have one piece of advice, it's to spend money on good reputation-tracking data. At O2 we use RepTrak, although there are various options and I'm not arguing for a single solution. We get equally important insight from social media tracking and direct interaction with customers. MP surveys, brand tracking, journalist feedback, and our own employees are critical sources too.
We get specific data about what the public thinks of our brand and reputation rather than just our customers' views of service. Marketing teams may be good at the latter but not the former. Having both provides an additional insight.
If your reputation is better with your customers then you have an opportunity to tell the wider public how and why you exceed expectations. If your customers rank you worse than the public, get yourself in front of your board quickly. You have set expectations you're not delivering. Something has to change.
Reputation data gives you information about where your reputation is strong, average and weak - in forensic detail. It includes detail about how each aspect of reputation ranks against the others, in all sectors, across countries, and in people's rational and emotional minds. Over time you see clear trends. That's crucial for planning and seeing if corrective actions are working.
A few years ago we saw sustainability and citizenship growing in importance beyond the CSR and community investment stuff. The relatively few companies that were undertaking ambitious programmes were delivering an accelerating win-win for society and their own brands and reputations. We had a proud track record, but it wasn't having much reputational or brand impact. The same was true for most companies.
Taking new reputational data and analysis to the board opened the door for breakthrough thinking. Our strong values and social commitment were already there, but now we could make a clearer case for going further, faster with greater communications focus.
What followed was more than a few initiatives. It was a multi-year transformation plan with leadership ambition globally. That wasn't risk driving change (there was little risk in fact). It was opportunity.