Ben Curson, Hill & Knowlton: Noise vs business impact

The squeaky wheel should not always get the grease when it comes to corporate reputation.

Ben Curson, Hill & Knowlton: Noise vs business impact

What defines corporate reputation? Trust, loyalty, advocacy and values are key areas. Multiple stakeholders shape the reputation of a business. These include consumers, shareholders, governments, suppliers and employees.

Every organisation has a personality - a reputation - that needs to be communicated to its audiences. Any organisation is made up of its corporate identity and its products and services. The two cannot be separated - the old divisions no longer exist.

Communication between an organisation and its audiences is two-way.

And audiences are now communicating between themselves regardless of what the organisation does. There are no longer the same boundaries or delineation. This is a result of the rapid rise of social media, but also the sheer volume of all forms of media and commentary - online, print, broadcast, outdoor, mobile. Everyone and anyone can now have a view, publicise it to others and shape an organisation's reputation. In short, it is easier to give or receive a view on an organisation than it has ever been. With this ability comes both risk and reward for brands.

In this environment, what are the key elements of corporate reputation management? I'm always nervous when the approach veers too much towards the academic or the generic rather than the pragmatic and business focused. Reputations are rarely enhanced or diminished in ways as straightforward as those set out in a PowerPoint presentation.

E.ON's Guy Esnouf makes a good point when he talks about focus on key stakeholders and the need to look at reputation in different ways according to the issue and the business.

In a world as noisy and fragmented as ours, the key is to filter out what is important to a business' reputation. Criticism may be noisy and time consuming but it may not fundamentally damage the business in the longer term, so long as the response is proportionate and genuine, and the tone of voice is right. Distinguishing between long-term, important issues and short-term concerns is vital to reputation, and the bottom line.

The key to managing corporate reputation is to understand what really will affect a business and to focus on where you as a communicator will have the biggest impact. In E.ON's Kingsnorth example, Guy says the Climate Camp was a huge event for the business and news media, but it did not affect how customers felt about the business. Short versus long-term; noise versus business impact.

The management of corporate reputation is becoming ever more sophisticated. It needs to be more evidence-based, so research is crucial. At Hill & Knowlton, research is increasingly being integrated into the management of corporate reputation. Tracking of consumer issues, mapping influential stakeholder groups and measuring these against real business impact ensures organisations make effective and efficient decisions to manage their reputations.

The process is more akin to political campaigning than ever before. Senior comms counsel is advising boards and CEOs, gaining a place at the table alongside the legal, financial and management consultants. This is something we call the 'fifth seat'.

Given this responsibility, and the level of media noise, it is crucial that we as an industry become better at tailoring and targeting our comms at the audiences that really affect any given business. Not all audiences are as important as each other, even though in this new age some are louder than others.


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

Tesco has strongly aligned its strategy and policy work with its internal comms and customer engagement. A good example would be its decision to take a leadership position on minimum pricing on alcohol last year.

What brand has gained most, reputation-wise, in the wake of the riots?

I don't think any business enhanced its reputation, but RBS and Carpetright deserve honourable mentions. If Blackberry was - perhaps unfairly - associated with causing the riots, Twitter became linked with cleaning up afterwards.

Ben Curson is managing director of financial and professional services at Hill & Knowlton.

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