Catherine May, Centrica: We need reasons to believe

Messages about a business must feel authentic and be supported by the company's employees.

Catherine May, Centrica: We need reasons to believe

Shakespeare's Othello provides us with a fantastic example of the importance of reputation - and how easy it is for the perceptions of others to be a mismatch with reality. With a few well-targeted whispers delivered over a jug of ale, the villain of the piece, Iago, makes sure his comrades believe Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Within minutes the rumours are an accepted fact in the minds of the players and Cassio is left to cry: 'I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.'

In the 21st century we don't often think of personal or corporate reputation in the rather spiritual terms Cassio uses, but nothing else has changed - our reputations are still dictated by how others see us. Unfortunately for those of us in businesses, what our stakeholders choose to focus on today may not be our greatest strengths. In this era of information overload we can only exert control over our own communication channels. Stakeholders, especially those outside the organisation, will see and hear information from many sources.

As guardians of corporate reputation, our challenge is twofold: first, we have to make our own channels - our briefing programmes, websites, press packs, case studies and B-Roll - as convincing as possible; and second, we have to do what we can to minimise dissenting voices.

Rising to meet these challenges is not simple - the first impulse of many stakeholders when they think of a business is to distrust it. In recent years many businesses have let their customers, investors and employees down, shattering the trust in big companies that had been built up over generations. Not every business was guilty, but all will have to live with the change in attitude it has brought.

Businesses with great comms and corporate affairs teams are working on these challenges today. The best of these teams are creating a strong web of personal relationships with the leading voices in their stakeholder groups. They are making their messages, and their channels, relevant and convincing for these individuals and groups, and they are creating a sense of trust in the information they provide. It is this trust that will help their stakeholders listen to the facts about their business and find it to be an organisation they can trust.

Without a strong reputation, without the trust of stakeholders, our businesses cannot flourish. Their strategy, their engagement, their approach, every step of the processes they use will be doubted and questioned. Any suggestion of bad practice or unethical behaviour will be magnified, tweeted and blogged.

It is also critical not to lose sight of internal stakeholders. Every employee is an ambassador for the organisation, and views from the inside can do enormous harm when those views are considered to be objective and informed by experience. By engaging everyone to at least discuss the issues, and giving them a forum, the negatives at least become what Donald Rumsfeld called 'known knowns'.

No business is perfect. But the extent to which employees will talk externally about positives, rather than negatives, is a good measure of how well reputation management is being handled throughout the enterprise.

Everyone - internally, externally, from the most powerful opinion former to the employee telling a friend what a good company they work for - needs reasons to believe. It's a constant challenge - and there's a lot to manage. But have the stakes ever been higher?

Views in brief

Which historical figure would have been a great reputation manager?

Daniel Defoe would have been a fantastic reputation manager. He was an original thinker who understood both how to manage government and how to engage the general public.

Which organisation has turned around its reputation in the past year?

The London Olympics Organising Committee has proved that we can be successful at delivering major projects in this country, delivering venues of which our capital city will be proud.

Catherine May is group director of corporate affairs at Centrica

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