As news editor and senior writer at The Wall Street Journal, Ron Alsop has used his articles and books to drive home the idea that a good reputation is a company's greatest asset
If you were, for example, a tattoo enthusiast, or a heavy metal artist, or a booker for The Jerry Springer Show, Ron Alsop might be a bit bland for your taste. If you were the CEO of a troubled company, you might say that he is your guru and savior. And if you were the dean of a prominent business school, you might say whatever you think he wants to hear because the fate of your institution rests partly on his methodical analysis of just how good you really are.
Alsop, an earnest guy with an easy smile, has risen through the ranks of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) to the position of senior writer and news editor. He spends much of his time now working on books published under the WSJ brand and is responsible for compiling the paper's hugely influential annual guide to US business schools. His 2004 book, The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation, established him squarely as one of the most respected thinkers in the field of reputation management, in America or anywhere else. Once he worked in Cleveland; now he can work from home. That's progress.
He grew up in Indianapolis and attended Indiana University, earning his degree in journalism. He spent a year and a half after graduation on the city hall beat at Bloomington's local paper, but, "itching for a change," re-enrolled in a newspaper management master's program at his alma mater.
In grad school, he landed a summer internship at WSJ's now-defunct Cleveland bureau. At summer's end, the bureau chief offered him a job, and he quit school to take it. He never got that MBA, but that didn't stunt his progress.
In fact, Alsop did not even have a particular interest in business journalism when he joined the bible of the finance set. "The managing editor at the time said that the philosophy was to hire people who could write well and were bright, and they could learn more about business and economic issues on the job," he recalls. "That seemed to be what attracted them to me."
He started out as a general assignment reporter in Ohio and moved to the Philadelphia office after a couple of years. There, he covered everything from Dow Chemical's quarterly earnings to the organized crime connections of Atlantic City's casino industry.
In the mid-1980s, he moved to New York to start working as WSJ's marketing columnist. After five years, he rose to Marketplace editor. He became enamored with the endless story possibilities that flowed from market research data, leading the WSJ to tap him as author of the first Wall Street Journal Almanac, published in 1997.
"The Almanac's what really got me doing more significant research, as well as book projects," he says.
Alsop found that he liked the challenge of books and took a step back from the day-to-day deadlines of the paper to pursue them. What followed for him were more editions of the Almanac, and then the WSJ's rankings of MBA programs, which parlayed focus groups, surveys, and the opinions of corporate recruiters into an indispensable guide for prospective students. Since 2001, the rankings have been an annual publication.
Soon after, Alsop struck a deal with Simon & Schuster for a book on corporate reputation. Contrary to popular assumption, the book was proposed and approved just before, not after, the Enron scandal broke.
"Certainly, the scandals made reputation much more high profile and timely," he says. "But I decided there was a book here because every time I wrote an article about corporate reputation for the paper, I'd get more calls and e-mails [than any other time]. It was really clear that companies were paying more attention to reputation and there was a desire to understand it better."
The book lays out a detailed plan for companies to "create, protect, and rebuild" their reputations, which Alsop unequivocally terms their "most valuable asset." It includes the obligatory portions on scandal prevention and lessons learned, but focuses even more heavily on companies that "get it," as Alsop puts it. Ethical success stories like Johnson & Johnson and FedEx are even more valuable teaching tools than their beleaguered counterparts, he says.
Although Enron and WorldCom might have helped the book's sales, the tense climate didn't make Alsop's job any easier. "[Some companies] were nervous that I was really just looking to dig up more dirt about them," he says, "and how their reputations weren't so great after all."
The book was embraced by the worlds of business and PR, and earned Alsop thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling to speak at conferences. Corporate PR experts say that the friendly reception was well-deserved. "He has a great deal of respect for communications and corporate image, and doesn't see it as all 'puff,'" says Leslie Gaines-Ross, Burson-Marsteller's chief knowledge and research officer. "In that sense, I have to say it's very refreshing."
Ron Hartwig, the director of Hill & Knowlton's US corporate practice, believes that the involvement of a respected journalist like Alsop in the corporate reputation arena only strengthens the position of those people who make a career of managing companies' images.
"It gives credibility to the advice that we give our corporate clients: that reputation is an intangible asset that is pervasive, or should be pervasive, throughout the corporation," he says.
After more than two decades at the paper, Alsop has become one of the WSJ's most prolific multitaskers. Roe D'Angelo, WSJ's director of books and special projects, who edits Alsop's work on the business school and corporate reputation surveys, calls him "an incredibly knowledgeable reporter" whose expertise is well-earned.
"He really is passionate about this world he covers," she says. "He's very interested in it. He finds it fascinating."
And perhaps some of his insight into maintaining a good reputation has informed his reporting style. Besides being "a sweet man," D'Angelo says, "he's almost always more tactful than I am."
The Wall Street Journal, news editor and senior writer
WSJ Marketplace page, editor
WSJ, marketing columnist
WSJ Philadelphia bureau, reporter
WSJ Cleveland Bureau, reporter