Corporate Reputation: Helen Searle, Cohn & Wolfe - Ready to play the long game?

True thought leaders must be brave, committed and prepared to learn from their mistakes.

From the moment it was announced Channel 4 would broadcast the London 2012 Paralympic Games, debate began about the potential quality, appropriateness and the approach the broadcaster would take.

No doubt by the time you read this, the rest of Britain's media, the viewing public and stakeholders will have judged the broadcaster's output. But whatever the final verdict, one thing is for sure - like the Paralympians it has brought to our attention, Channel 4's approach has demonstrated bravery, tenacity and commitment.

Not everything has gone swimmingly for Channel 4, however, for as disability programmes on the channel have increased in frequency and intensity, so too has stakeholder scrutiny. Shows like The Undateables divided opinion - on the one hand, there was the sensationalist marketing campaign, on the other, a moving and sensitive depiction of exceptional real lives - one that forced many of us to review long-held misconceptions.

Channel 4 showed us that to break new ground you may need to break a few eggs along the way.

But what have these recent episodes shown us about corporate reputations more broadly? Channel 4 shines a light on the true qualities of a thought leader - the ability to be brave, build a platform and stick with it. To show tenacity in the face of adversity, experiment and perhaps even make some mistakes. But above all, to demonstrate you are listening and learning.

Thought leadership is not something to be bought off the shelf. It is neither a quick fix, nor a single piece of research and especially it is not a quick and dirty poll. A comms plan to develop 'some thought leadership' should be approached with caution, if not suspicion. The strategic goal of becoming a thought leader, however, is one that can be game-changing.

The current economic environment means longer-term projects with genuinely transformational potential can be harder than ever to justify. There are ways to address these challenges that don't necessarily mean compromising quality.

Would-be thought leaders need to ask themselves how a thought leadership position will serve the business beyond purely reputational advantage. How is your thought leadership strategy informing customer service, product innovation, operational efficiency or new audience insight?

Furthermore, how will social media dialogue be catalysed and then harvested as audience intelligence? Examples of where all these elements have seamlessly combined to deliver for the long term are harder to come by than you might think. It's not an obvious example, but Nike Running has achieved this kind of leadership in every respect - from elite sport to grassroots participation and every aspect of comms in between. Nike is expert, innovator and facilitator. Truly thought-leading organisations must strive to achieve the same status.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, which is why there are still so many opportunities for organisations.

Channel 4's objectives as a broadcaster are to represent disadvantaged groups among society. Undoubtedly it is playing the long game, and the current disability season is just one stage of a longer journey. Long-term commitment is the critical element and this will sometimes mean the gritting of teeth and hanging in there under pressure to find the next shiny new thing.

If, like our Team GB Paralympians, client and agency teams are serious about it, willing to be brave, committed and prepared to hit a few bumps in the road - and to learn from them - then the potential prizes are significant.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- What is the most innovative recent example of a business partnering a third party?

I've admired M&S for its link with Oxfam. The 'shwopping' initiative goes to the heart of its business, delivering on sustainability and consumer engagement.

- The biggest improvements to a corporate reputation come in the wake of a crisis - true or false?

Crises undoubtedly catalyse change, but it shouldn't require a disaster to review whether current comms approaches are working to full potential. War gaming sessions are a great way to interrogate and optimise strategies.

Helen Searle is a director at Cohn & Wolfe

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