ANALYSIS: Who controls corporate reputation? - A new book on how CEOs can actively manage corporate reputations may - paradoxically - do consultancies out of a lucrative tranche of business, says Michele Witthaus

Former Weber Shandwick Worldwide corporate practice CEO, now

strategic planning director, Chris Genasi will next month publish his

thoughts on how CEOs can take responsibility for that most prized of

intangible assets, corporate reputation.

Winning Reputations: How To Be Your Own Spin Doctor urges firms to take

their image into their own hands and actively improve their standing

among stakeholders. Covering a range of themes from basic corporate PR

to the implications of the new economy, the book is based on the premise

that a good reputation never happens by accident, only by design: that

it has to be created and managed by those to whom it matters.

Genasi points to the trend for companies to handle more of their PR

in-house: 'When I started in the industry, the in-house client was not

typically a PR person. Over time, firms have hired more qualified

in-house people and built bigger teams. They tend to move the commodity

end like media relations and the press office in-house because it's far

more cost-effective. Very few corporations don't use any agencies at

all, but they use them more selectively and in specialist areas.'

He admits that by empowering the top tier of management, his DIY

reputation-building advice threatens some PR agencies: 'In the past,

there was plenty of business providing an outsourced service - that is

disappearing. The basic economics speaks for itself. You get much less

time from a consultancy for the same money. That is a threat, so any

consultancy providing that commodity-type service is vulnerable. Our

sector needs constantly to reinvent itself.'

Winning Reputations prescribes intensive self-examination on the part of

organisations seeking to build fresh reputations. They are asked to

audit how people see them, establish how they want to be seen, and be

prepared to face and win over their critics.

A key element in this process is a willingness to turn the CEO into a

micro-celebrity. But there are potential pitfalls in focusing on a

charismatic leader.

Corporate PRO Jonathan Flint, Citigate Dewe Rogerson MD of financial

services, insists companies are bigger than just one individual, however

senior. So any company planning to raise its profile on the basis of a

single figure is at risk because not every CEO stays around forever. 'A

company reputation is based on many things - process, performance,

products - not just people,' Flint says.

PR activities should ensure a company has a broadly based and robust

strategy rather than focusing on one area, he maintains: 'Expertise lies

with the consultancies and particularly with the leading players because

that's where the intellectual capital lies.'

This may be so, but in some cases PR firms can work themselves out of a

job, says corporate agency Fishburn Hedges CEO Neil Hedges: 'As the CEO

learns the art and becomes more self-sufficient, it is a compliment to

the consultancy if the company withdraws and becomes less dependent on

its services.'

What stops companies going it alone completely, Hedges claims, is simply

a lack of time: 'PR is quite time-consuming and if CEOs were left to

read the DIY guide, I suspect it would not be long before it gathered

dust and PR moved down their agenda. Even a powerful figure such as Sir

Richard Branson does not do all his own PR himself.'

Indeed, far from supporting the view that CEOs can be trained in

communications and left to their own inadequate devices, senior business

potentially PROs say it can be a risk to build or maintain a firm's

reputation without external help.

Financial and corporate agency College Hill Associates CEO Alex Sandberg

says. 'We act for 100 companies and have ten years' experience of doing

it. There are ten partners here. If you multiply that, you can see that

an agency has far more experience than any individual might have over

their career. With larger-than-life CEOs who ride roughshod over

advisers, whether PR or financial, ultimately it ends in tears. Why

would one be so arrogant as not to take advice?'

Genasi insists it was not his intention to foster dangerous notions of

self-sufficiency in CEOs: 'I wanted to open their eyes to the importance

of reputation and PR. Once you know more about the issue you realise

there's more to it than you thought.'

The book includes input from 32 external PR advisers, on what makes a

great campaign and how to use external PR to good effect. Genasi says

this survey acted as 'a type of confession box for PR advisers', who

could come in, secure in their anonymity, and talk openly about what

Genasi terms 'the daily waste they see in their work with clients'.

The consultancy market's rapid growth in recent years must indicate that

overall satisfaction levels are strong. Consultancies are providing

fewer commodity services and instead are moving up the chain,

increasingly reporting to CEOs or to S-VP level comms chiefs. That is to

be welcomed, even if a PR savvy CEO is a frightening prospect.

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