Sometimes a third-party referee can tell you more about a company than the company itself can.If there is one idea that has undeniably worked its way into the psyche of corporate communications departments in recent years, it's that "corporate reputation" is more than just a buzzword. Unlike many other mantras that have come and gone in recent years, the idea that corporations - like people, products, and other organizations - operate in a world where sentiment toward it as an institution can be as influential over its ultimate success or failure as its long-term business plan, is now part of many corporate communicators' way of thinking. "Many companies and corporate communications departments have rallied around corporate reputation as the sort of road map of their activities," says Bill Margaritis, FedEx's VP of worldwide communications and IR. "We have embraced that here at FedEx because we believe that reputation is an asset that complements the brand and influences decisions and attitudes. Especially if you're a business in the midst of a transition, you can harness that asset in the change environment with employees, investors, and the media to achieve your desired goal." Benchmarking reputation Yet implicit in the embrace of the concept of corporate reputation as a driver of corporate goals and objectives is the idea that a company's reputation can therefore be measured or benchmarked. So where does this happen? Who can definitively say which companies have the strongest reputation? Try reputation scorecards. Although often presented under the guise of a magazine survey or special issue (think Fortune's Most Admired Companies or Working Mother's Best Places to Work), these rankings are among the only places where corporate reputation is consistently measured and presented to the public. While there are now dozens - if not hundreds - of these reputation surveys, some have a very specific focus (Fortune's The Best Companies for Minorities), while others are much broader (Business Ethics' 100 Best Corporate Citizens). Stories abound about the significance corporate America puts on such surveys - including rumors that some top corporate communicators had part of their performance-based compensation tied to Fortune's Most Admired survey. Nevertheless, some reputation experts say that most big companies do and should have their eyes fixed on at least some of these surveys. "Clients really care because these are third-party endorsements that the world sees," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer at Burson-Marsteller, who keeps tabs on the myriad scorecards published annually. "These days, companies are now more aware than ever of the equity in their reputation, and this is a big part of measuring that." Nevertheless, she warns that the mountain of scorecards mean that corporations need to approach these with a proper game plan. "You have to be very strategic about which ones matter, which you consider worthwhile, and which ones your peers and industry watch," says Gaines-Ross. "Obviously, there are just too many of them these days to concern yourself with every survey. Nowadays, companies can hire someone to work on this full time if they really wanted to." Despite the rapid growth in the number of these scorecards, Fortune has been the most successful at defining itself as the leader in this niche, with three scorecards that grab the attention of top reputation experts as soon as each comes out. "It's the business world's triple crown," says Wendy Flanagan, SVP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard. "Right now the top three are probably [Fortune's] Most Admired Companies, [Fortune's] Best Companies to Work For, and [Fortune's] Best Companies for Minorities. Fortune has all those, and to its credit, these are all considered very credible third-party surveys that are data-focused." Most experts feel that the holy grail of the scorecard world is Fortune's Most Admired Companies. This highly regarded survey separates companies by industry, and takes the 10 largest companies as measured by revenues in 66 industries and asks executives, directors, and securities analysts to rate companies in their own industries. The ratings are supposed to be based on eight main criteria: social responsibility, innovation, long-term investment value, use of corporate assets, employee talent, financial soundness, quality of management, and quality of products/services. Some communicators say the depth that scorecards like Most Admired go into makes them valuable for a company's own research purposes. "While we continue to focus more heavily on our proprietary research, which is more brand and customer focused, it's useful free research," says Andy Lark, VP of global communications and marketing at Sun Microsystems. "You'd be foolish not to take note of it and draw some conclusions from it." Others say that in some cases the data is so in-depth that if patterns emerge over time and several scorecards, companies can adapt to shore up weaknesses and even attempt bold initiatives based on unrealized strengths. "For each company, the data is unique, and each company's reputation rests on different strengths - once you get deeper beyond the rankings you come to understand that a FedEx has a different strength from a Microsoft or an IBM," explains FedEx's Margaritis. "Let's say in the area of social responsibility you're doing a lot of good things, but you find out from the data you're not scoring that well in that area. However, if you look deeper into it and find out that you have a very high trust factor, all you have to do is inform people, and they will give you credit for your social responsibility, as opposed to having to change behaviors." Highlighting achievements Experts also say that a residual benefit of doing well on a scorecard is the chance to highlight the achievement with several different audiences and constituencies. "Getting a top ranking or award from a credible organization is something that we advise clients they should try and leverage in whatever way they can," says Fleishman's Flanagan. "Whether it's internally to reinforce or instill pride in what the company is doing or to shareholders externally to magnify certain areas of a company's identity, it's really about leveraging the recognition in a way that it can demonstrate how it's working to benefit its constituencies." Many companies have taken to using these to highlight how they have overcome significant deficiencies. For instance, after suffering from several highly publicized incidents of alleged racial insensitivity toward customers, casual-dining restaurant chain Denny's was able to highlight its progress toward a full rapprochement with the minority community when its parent company Advantica/Denny's topped Fortune's America's 50 Best Companies for Minorities for two consecutive years in 2000 and 2001. "Inclusion and diversity are integral to the way we do business, something we focus on each day throughout our organization. We have come a long way, and are committed to continuing our efforts in being a truly diverse company," said James B. Adamson, president and CEO of Advantica and Denny's at the time the company was first awarded the top spot in 2000. Nevertheless, despite the obvious advantages of doing well on a scorecard, the downside may be - ironically - doing well. "Once you get into it, you can't get out of it. Once you're on the list or you're near the top of the list, it's not something where you can just opt out of it - it's just a matter of concerning yourself about where you'll be next year," says Gaines-Ross. ----- Playing a winning hand On an early January morning this year, the employees of accounting giant Deloitte & Touche arrived at work to find a voice mail from the CEO waiting for them. The message discussed how the firm had been named as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" by Fortune magazine for the sixth consecutive year. "Not only did we think it was important to note it on our website and in a press release, but we also wrote up an internal voice mail for our CEO so that all of our people were aware of the recognition and what it means," says Mai Browne, manager of national marketing and communications for the firm. That voice mail marks just one of several ways that the auditing giant has leveraged its scorecard recognition. Most notably the firm has used a consistently strong ranking in Working Mother magazine's 100 Best Companies For Working Mothers as part of a campaign to recruit more women into its ranks. Deloitte, which operates in an industry that has historically been underrepresented by women professionals, has embarked on a diversity initiative called Vision 2005, which has set a goal of annual female admission/promotion rate of 35% for partners and directors by 2005. The firm says it's now quick to highlight the strong scorecard results in Working Mother and Fortune in all of its recruitment efforts. Experts say that strategic use of such recognition is the best way to take advantage of the accolade. "Obviously, different companies face different challenges," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer at Burson-Marsteller. "For each organization, it's important to highlight the surveys and awards that help them address the challenges, needs, and goals it wants to address."