In a world of 24/7 news and with more than 200 social media platforms, reputation management is harder than ever. It is a fact so often cited as to be almost cliched, but there are countless comms professionals - both agency and in-house - who clearly believe we still live in the 1980s.
Keeping your head down and being unwilling to partake in the debate is no longer an option. If you are not out there talking about and defending your brand, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone else is.
It is important to acknowledge there is only so much that reputation management can do in communicating the positive stories an organisation has to tell. If those stories leave a sour taste in the mouth, it is the job of communicators to ask the tough, probing and often unwelcome questions of senior management.
With so much scrutiny now placed on high-profile organisations, under-lying stories are harder than ever to 'spin' in a way that might have been possible even five or ten years ago.
People often forget that Twitter only came to prominence in 2007, with just 1.6 million tweets posted that year. Five years on, the site has more than 340 million tweets on a daily basis. Never before has the corporate comms environment been changed so much in such a short space of time, and by a single platform.
This is why a long-term conversation is now the only option - one that needs to be based on strong business values that pass the test of public scrutiny.
If an organisation is acting immorally, it should rightly be outed for the world to see, with traditional and social media together making this a far more likely prospect today than before.
As an agency with a number of clients in the financial sector, Cicero has seen its fair share of reputation management issues in recent years. Banking has slowly realised that PR alone cannot restore its reputation and that it must fundamentally change some of its business practices if it is to restore trust.
Alan Oliver of Nationwide's piece highlights one of the biggest comms challenges the financial sector has faced in this regard. The financial crisis, and other high-profile issues since, have been crises solely of banking. There are many other parts to the financial sector. Nationwide, and mutuals more widely, are doing a good job of differentiation, but ultimately the wider sector needs to accept that in the eyes of the public they will all be lumped together. It is a huge challenge for any sub-sector to deliver strong, positive comms under such a negative backdrop.
And it is fair to say we work in an environment where the media are not immediately looking for the positive corporate story. In a recent piece of Cicero research, Changing the Conversation: How can retail banks rebuild their reputation?, one broadsheet journalist told us: 'Banks are supposed to do good things. They are supposed to be lending to people. I don't write when you are lending to them, I write when you aren't. Should I be reporting that my electricity came on? No, I should be reporting when there is a power out. Welcome to the real world.'
This is a reality that applies to all organisations, not solely those in the financial sector. It is a concept that comms professionals need to enshrine when they are involved in internal strategy decisions. Essentially, no amount of positive messages will change a corporate reputation if the underlying business values are out of kilter.
Above all, Oliver's point that Nationwide tries to have a clear and open dialogue with the media is something that needs to be replicated far more widely. This conversation model must be the way forward in order to build positive corporate reputations that endure.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
- Are there any businesses from corporate sectors you would not represent?
We would not work with organisations whose values do not fit with our own: transparency, accountability and a willingness to engage in a conversation.
- What is the most innovative recent example of a business partnering a third party?
Aviva's relationship with UK Athletics has run since 1999. The success of British athletes during the Olympics demonstrates the benefits of such long-term partnerships.