PAUL HOLMES: The foundation for a company's reputation is oftenbuilt on a strong corporate culture

The word "culture" is derived from the same root as the word "cult"

(the Latin "colere," which means to worship or cultivate), so it's no

surprise some people react badly to the concept of corporate


Some of the strongest cultures - like South-west Airlines - have a

cultish aspect that may disturb both outsiders and insiders who don't

fit in.

Klaus Kochs, Volkswagen corporate comms head, finds the notion of

corporate culture problematic. In a recent speech to the International

Public Relations Association, Kochs worried about imposing a consistent

corporate culture on a diverse group, particularly one with operations

in many countries.

He questioned if corporations "have the right to penetrate the thoughts

and feelings of their staff right down to their sense of values," and

suggested that "culture management" is "tantamount to starting a new

religion or sect."

"The idea of a starting a new religion 'directed' by management would be

pure hubris," said Kochs, perhaps a bit too overwrought, "the dangerous

arrogance of mankind when playing god."

Of course, an organization has a culture whether it is "directed" by

management or not. The only questions are whether that culture is

coherent or chaotic; whether the values are consciously selected or the

result of random, impromptu decisions.

(If Volkswagen's values differ by region, one manager might reward staff

for individual work, while another might promote based on helping the

team. Staffers will likely get confused about what is expected of them

each time a new manager takes over their area.)

This is particularly vital to professional communicators because values

are the building blocks of corporate character, and corporate character

is the foundation on which reputation is built. Simply put: reputation

is driven by behavior; behavior is driven by character; character is

driven by values.

One of the main goals of senior corporate communicators is that both

they and the employees understand the company's values. The strongest

cultures thrive on reinforcement through tales of individuals who lived

the organization's values and were rewarded for it. In such companies,

these tales are familiar to all, and are reinforced in employee

communications both formal and informal.

It's fair to suggest many corporate crises stem from employees' failure

to live up to the values expected of them. Examples range from the

recent woes at Enron, where managers apparently lost sight of the

company's values, to the Denny's crisis a decade ago, triggered by the

actions of minimum-wage employees who interacted with customers.

Any senior communications professional who doesn't understand the

importance of culture, of values, will find himself attempting to build

a reputation without the most basic of raw materials.

Paul Holmes has spent the last 15 years writing about the PR business

for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation

Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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