Corporate Reputation Roundtable: Opinion formers

The CEO's role in shaping impressions about a company and the rise of content creation were among topics discussed as industry leaders joined Steve Barrett in New York for this Burson-Marsteller-hosted roundtable.

The CEO's role in shaping impressions about a company and the rise of content creation were among topics discussed as industry leaders joined Steve Barrett in New York for this Burson-Marsteller-hosted roundtable.

Michael Murphy, MD, corporate practice, Burson-Marsteller
Vickee Jordan Adams, VP of external communications, Wells Fargo Home Lending
Paul Argenti, professor of corporate comms, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth
Angela Buonocore, SVP and CCO, Xylem
Nicole Didda, VP of communications, Skanska
Michael Fleming, head of reputation strategy and stakeholder engagement, GlaxoSmithKline
Ashley McCown, president, Solomon McCown
Elliot Sloane, CEO, Sloane & Company
Ken Stern, cofounder and president, Palisades Media Ventures

Where responsibility rests
Steve Barrett (PRWeek):
Where does the responsibility for corporate reputation lie? How can that most effectively be communicated inside and outside the organization?

Vickee Jordan Adams (Wells Fargo): It is the responsibility of everyone within the organization, but those with day-to-day responsibility to respond and advocate externally must look very broadly across the organization so that there is a consistent point of view to all stakeholders.

Angela Buonocore (Xylem): Xylem [which spun off from ITT in late 2011] is a pure-play company focused on water. Prior to launch, we did lot of interviews with customers and employees to hear what they though the personality of this new company should be and what this brand would stand for.

Thinking back to the question about responsibility for reputation, while I agree that everyone in the company has some role in it, the chief reputation officer of a company is the CEO. Frankly, the CEO is also the chief communications officer. It's my title, but it's her job. Moreover, a company's board has a very important role to play in the reputation of a company.

Paul Argenti (Tuck School of Business): Reputation is an outcome – it's not something you can manage. It exists as a result of the things you do. However, people really don't understand what it is, so it's easy for a marketing person to convince a CEO that it's a marketing function. In reality, it's a communications function to figure out how you manage your identity in such a way that you can have a strong reputation at the end.

I don't really understand why you would ever need a chief reputation officer in an organization. You need people who can do communications and people who can do marketing and focus on the brand. Then you hope for a great reputation at the end.

Nicole Didda (Skanska): The consumer now decides how, when, and where to engage with a brand. As such, it is very much everybody's job in a company to think about reputation. Communications, operations, marketing, HR, every one of those functions that deal with touchpoints to our key constituencies plays a role.

The role of chief reputation officer has really evolved. In the 1980s, it was definitely the CCO. In the '90s, everyone was sort of selling the CEO as the chief reputation officer. Now, with world being so transparent and the media so fragmented, it's everybody's job and, in a lot of ways, the consumer is in charge.

Michael Murphy (Burson-Marsteller): We need to be careful as communicators to not solely define a company's reputation by one individual because then you create this cult persona of a CEO. If that person steps aside, you have to start over.

You need to look at the entire C-suite and your stakeholders. We must think more broadly about how we define it and make sure that we're measuring reputation as much as possible. Start with the benchmark analysis. See what your reputation is, then try to measure it over time to see if you're moving the needle at all with the communications you're putting out there.

Ken Stern (Palisades Media Ventures): Everyone is responsible for telling and living the story of the company. Over the coming years, I'd be really surprised if we didn't see marketing and communications merge more and more because the divide between earned and paid is going away. The divide between communications and marketing will fall as well.

Michael Fleming (GlaxoSmithKline): A company's reputation rests on its employees. If you're employees don't believe in you or trust you, no one else will. That has to be a culture that's built and demonstrated from leadership. The executive suite needs to be accountable to the board. The board must take a legitimate and concrete interest in measuring reputation in some way and holding executives accountable for ensuring that the values that ultimately influence external stakeholders' opinion of your company are built into the culture, the processes, and the way you work.

Elliot Sloane (Sloane & Company): In terms of reputation management in the financial community, the CFO has a key role, too. A lot of our clients also seek help in negotiating regulatory and legislative issues. The way stories get told and the way branding is done needs to be filtered through the public affairs dynamic.

We are also seeing general counsel get more involved with communications, which is not always a good thing. There's this natural tension between the PR team and the legal team about what can be said and how. Ultimately, the CEO generally gets to make that call in terms of how far he or she wants to go on an issue.      

Ashley McCown (Solomon McCown): Communications people used to have both hands on the steering wheel, drive the bus, and control it. You can no longer control everything, certainly not reputation.

In terms of employees, communications is the focal point. We are the keeper of the flame, the keeper of reputation in terms of whether or not employees have a clear sense of the organization's values and direction. This is important because employees are the touchstones with a customer, a client, a prospect, a partner, or a regulator. If they believe in what their organization is doing, they are your brand stores.

Stern (Palisades Media): The comments made about CEOs remind me of the famous Warren Buffet quote: "I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them because, sooner or later, one will." The best companies have values that survive leadership changes.

Buonocore (Xylem): We're all on the same page in saying that person doesn't own it alone, but how the CEO's vision is interpreted and then taken forward by employees in the most progressive of companies does help form what the outcome will be of the reputation.

Building a reputation: Simple yet effective

In the ever-expanding media landscape, these three companies have used simple, uncomplicated outreach to boost reputation.

CEO Stephen Cloobeck appeared on CBS' Undercover Boss in early 2012. While “undercover,” he learned his staff does not always live up to Diamond's motto of “Yes,” as in clients should never hear “no.”

Diamond Resorts International

Perhaps not the desired result, but the spot did raise awareness – 12 million-plus viewers watched and visits to the company's website tripled after it aired. Cloobeck also displayed the transparency consumers demand – and it was noticed.

“We know by watching you in Undercover Boss how much time and effort you put into your company,” was one of many comments consumers posted on the company's website.

Bringing scholarship contests into the digital age, the KFC Colonel's Scholars program had high-school seniors tweet an image and include the #KFCScholar hashtag. The prize: a $20,000 scholarship to an accredited public university within the winner's home state.


KFC's efforts toward US education, a subject top of mind now, especially compared to other nations, go far to position it as a good corporate citizen.

In partnership with the US Council on Aging and USA Today, the company this past August released its United States of Aging Survey. More than 2,250 Americans aged 60 and up shared their thoughts on issues such as financial security, housing, transportation, and health.

The annual content partnership will help the company track how the US is embracing the aging influx and making changes to ensure citizens' longevity. This survey takes it beyond the insurer role by positioning UnitedHealthcare as a key dialogue initiator and a leader in helping a growing population segment.

Helping the leader
Barrett (PRWeek):
How do communications pros help the CEO be an effective leader for their company?

Argenti (Tuck School): The CEO is responsible for developing and creating an organization's strategy. The communications person's role is to get people to understand what the strategy is. When that gets articulated, the opportunity to create something takes place. Where that lands is your reputation.

Didda (Skanska): Skanska CEO Mike McNally has great vision, a very strong sense of our corporate values and who we are as a company, and always knows what he wants to communicate. I see my role as being the filter that ensures he's speaking effectively to a particular audience's needs and values, whether they are analysts, reporters, employees, or the public. Mike knows what he wants to communicate. My job is to tailor it.

Adams (Wells Fargo): Government relations, investor relations, and legal can play a key role in corporate reputation and corporate communications not only in terms of what we can say, but to whom we can say it, particularly in the legislative and regulatory environment.

Ultimately, CEOs are the decision makers, perhaps the final decision makers. However, they do not always have as much liberty to make the decision their gut says they should. Because of the variety of business interests – investor relations, government relations, legal implications – there's a great deal more consensus building around decisions that are made.

Fleming (GSK): It is critical to have a charismatic and articulate CEO who is an ambassador for the company externally, but can also be very effective internally. Organizationally, you need leadership that sends a very clear message about the way you do business and your company's values. Those values need to be so clear and apparent to the leadership team that there's no question about what the right decision should be when there are difficult decisions to make. Ultimately, those things have the most impact on your reputation.

Murphy (Burson): Particularly during transitions at the C-suite level, not enough value is placed on legacy leaderships, the people who have been with the company for decades who really represent what has made that organization a great place to work. As communicators, we need to check the pulse of those legacy employees to understand what has kept them there for so many years, where they think this company should go, and what will keep them there and continuing to be a legacy.

Sloane (Sloane): New York Life takes real pride in how it thinks about itself. It's a mutual insurance company, not publicly traded, and is there for the duration. It is solid and stable. The brand has extended well beyond the tenure of individual CEOs and chairmen. When a new CEO comes in, it's very difficult to believe the company will do a 180 and all of a sudden become a fast-talking, transaction-oriented kind of entity.

For the most part, however, the reputation of companies is firmly dependent upon success in the marketplace. If you stumble as a company, miss earnings, or don't deliver product on time it dings reputations. There's nothing any of us can do to solve a problem when the company's not performing. You ponder these things and try to figure out how to put your best foot forward knowing that you're only as good as the content and performance you have to work with.

McCown (Solomon McCown): The respect for communications has been elevated both inside an organization and with agencies working with clients. If a company has a problem, how you communicate it is critical to whether or not both employees and outside audiences accept it. Communicators can assert more control over things that used to be defined as another department because it has to go through the filter of communications before it's executed.

Argenti (Tuck School): Reputation has helped elevate the role of communications. Reputation connects more with strategy and helps you think more clearly about what the organization's vision is. However, there is still a lack of understanding about what a reputation is. Organizations have identities and realities that are true about them, but what you do with that is based on the people in the organization.

Companies change dramatically over time, but the people who don't work in communications or marketing or HR still don't have a good understanding of what can happen to an organization, what the risks are to your reputation, and what that can mean from a financial perspective.

Buonocore (Xylem): Crisis is the true test of who has built equity in the brand and the outcome of the reputation. A corporate brand and the product brands that sit underneath that are a promise. How well you deliver against that promise and how well you can recover when – not if – you have a crisis underscores how well everyone in the company understands its vision.

Adams (Wells Fargo): Wells Fargo is a 160-year-old company that believes in its vision and values, which have to do with helping our customers' financial success. People know our stagecoach, but there are so many cultural icons within the company and there's a real identity.

We made a decision at a critical point in the financial services industry to forego a series of products, giving up market share in the process, because those items did not fit with our values of serving our customers' financial needs. Imagine the pressure on our executives when investors, the board, and people in the field offering products are saying, “Hey, everybody's eating our lunch on this.” We made that choice and it's actually worked out for us. Corporate reputation need not be something focused purely on selling product.

Sloane (Sloane): The soft, squishy vision and values can work well internally. Those are important things to talk about to galvanize workforces. However, it has a big drop-off, at least in the worlds my agency works with, because people are focused on how the company is doing. It's harder to sell just being good people, caring about employees, and having the best 401K plan. Those things are important to certain audiences, but can fall on deaf ears when companies are being measured by their standing in the marketplace.

Didda (Skanska): I respectfully disagree. Investors, media, communities, every single audience out there – especially the younger generation – now really cares about whether a company is making money to benefit the community. Does this company treat employees fairly? Does it care about the environment and sustainability? Ten years ago, we didn't even think about such things. All we thought about is the customer, sales, stock value. Those things are always going to very important, but now the soul of the company and who it is, not just what it does and offers, has become so crucial.

Argenti (Tuck School): I disagree, too, but for a different reason. Even internally, companies are actually still more focused on the things you're saying they're externally interested in. Shareholder value and the notion of making money is still a big part of what drives management teams. Let's face it – the language of senior management is numbers, not values.

Externally, however, there's a reason Walmart's strategic principle is Save Money, Live Better. The “Live Better” part feeds into something that is critical to society today. We know you can make more money by doing things that are ultimately good for society rather than doing things that harm it long term. But management, shareholders, and certainly the Street are still driven by a short-term focus that ends up hurting reputations in the long run.

Sloane (Sloane): Not to backtrack, but there are a number of clients that have stumbled, but who do wonderful things in their communities. They care about the world they live in and their employees. They're just not equivalent issues. When you're talking about corporate reputation, the fact that you donate 10% of your pre-tax profits back to the community does not mitigate performance problems. It doesn't mitigate a strategy that's failing.

A lot of those softer values work really well internally and drive employee engagement, but if you can't deliver on the strategy, if the CEO can't communicate what it is that's special about this company and why they should be standing out as a thought leader and a market leader, you still have these reputational issues that don't get fixed.

McCown (Solomon McCown): There are plenty of studies that show people are willing to pay a higher price for a product from one company because they think it shares their values. So if you're good at communicating your value proposition and what you're doing to make the community better, you'll see that those two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Fleming (GSK): The values your organization is based on must translate to value to your customers and external stakeholders. In a commercial sense, that means the values have to be imbued in the strategy your business is executing. Part of strategic, commercially oriented success revolves around having good relationships with an array of key stakeholders who can influence how successful your business is. It can also open up partnership opportunities, which are incredibly important to commercial success.


The leading brand
Barrett (PRWeek):
There is the overarching corporate brand and there is also the product brand. Which one leads with your companies and clients?

Fleming (GSK): Companies are so much more exposed now. If you are a house of brands, as opposed to being a branded house, it's much easier for groups that identify problems or issues with one specific product to tie that back to the rest of your business. In this day and age, you need a unified vision and corporate brand.

We're a broader healthcare company with over-the-counter brands as well as Rx products. Traditionally in the Rx space there hasn't been a lot of investment or interest in branding the company so much as the individual products. However, it's definitely an area where we're investing. We're beginning to change the culture of the organization because we haven't been used to operating that way.

Reputation: the CEO's role

Prior to the roundtable, PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett spoke with Diane Brady, senior editor and columnist at Bloomberg Businessweek, about various topics that impact corporate reputation, including CEO visibility and the often-underestimated role the board plays.

Steve Barrett: In the piece on Jack Welch you recently wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said he could not do a lot of the things he does now when he was CEO. With that in mind, how high profile should a CEO be?

Diane Brady: When you're at the top of the pyramid in your organization, you have a responsibility to articulate the vision of the company and, when times are tough, to step forward.

I do think a lot of CEOs are nervous about situations where they can't control the message and it's understandable. When they work with someone like me it comes with an understanding that I will talk to a lot of people for a story. I'm not there to simply funnel their message in the exact way they would present it.

That said, I do think CEOs should be out there as much as possible. They articulate the strategy and the vision.

Barrett: One of the big trends in marketing and communications is for brands and corporations to create their own content. For example, Procter & Gamble's communications team is actually called “The Producers.” In Japan, Nissan has its own TV studio on-site and has created its own content on a regular basis. What do you think about that trend?

Brady: There's nothing wrong with creating content, but there is an authenticity and credibility issue that needs to be considered. I don't have enough hubris to think I have a premium on knowledge in these areas, but the cream rises to the top and, increasingly, people will pay good money for less information, but the best information.

It's a cacophony out there with so much information available and posts from so many different people.

I get pitched stories more and more from companies where the CEO has already written a piece on Huffington Post. Well, you just sabotaged your ability to get further news coverage by putting your CEO's face up there on what's essentially a press release.

A lot of the content being produced can be positive, but it is what it is – company-produced material. Often times it's very good. It's also a reality of the world today, but it's not a substitute for what I do.

Barrett: How would you counsel CEOs, as well as the communications teams advising them, on getting press coverage?

Brady: Engage me as a human being. We all know a great story when we see it and we know when we're wasting someone's time. My other advice is not to avoid my calls when it's not a story you want. That hasn't been an issue for me in dealing with most PR firms, but some companies will often only engage on the positive and not on the negative.

Let me give you an example. I had just joined the magazine when I wrote a story about Jeff and Evan Greenberg [sons of former AIG chairman and CEO Hank Greenberg], which was a sensitive subject at the time as Jeff had become head of Marsh & McLennan and Evan was basically in line to replace his dad. But Hank Greenberg was cooperative and gave me interviews during Eliot Spitzer's prosecution of AIG.

There are many reasons, of course, but I like to think that the most compelling one was that they knew I was fair and interested in the facts. My philosophy is that, while they might not always like what I write, they shouldn't be surprised. They know what others are saying. They respond. Their views are accurately portrayed. Trust is established. Because of that cooperation, I was able to tell a story that was nuanced, accurate, and captured what had happened at the company and where it was going.

The key is to engage with the media on multiple levels, not just when it's time to send a press release about something positive.

PR professionals and journalists share a very important instinct – both are always thinking about stories. It's an incredibly creative way of thinking and when we engage on that level, great ideas can come forth.

Something else I'm noticing is an increase in events. People crave face time. You can't really develop a relationship online. Seeing people in person really enables them to view me as more than just a name they see on a page.

Barrett: In addition to the CEO, you have also spoken in the past about the importance of the board. Do you feel its role on a company's reputation is underestimated?

Brady: I do. “Governance” is one of those terms that can make people yawn, but I find it to be one of the best areas to find stories. It could be a story such as how Walmart's board handled the bribery issue in Mexico [this past April] or HP, where the board has been a treasure trove for stories.

Increasingly, these are people who are not employees of the company. They can't be fired or kept under control. They are independent and in that role to represent the interests of stakeholders. But they have incredibly important roles and the decisions they make can play such a key part in the company's reputation.

Think about it. So many different stories come down to what the board did, from the decisions it made to how they interact with management and communicate with those outside the company. There are incredibly leaky boards that have a couple of directors who are always speaking to the media. There are tight boards that don't act in the interest of investors. As boards get more power, they are becoming more prominent as a source and focus for stories, such as what people are being paid, who is getting fired, and how the company is responding to the external environment.

There was a recent story with medical-device company Stryker and its then-CEO Steve MacMillan. He was in the process of a divorce and he fell in love with someone who had been an employee. Long story short, he went to the board and informed them of the situation, giving them as heads up that he planned to have a relationship with this woman. Bit of an odd situation, but he tried to do the right thing. The board essentially kicked him out and was muddled in how it communicated what had happened. It didn't have to be that way. I think the board mishandled it more than he mishandled it.

So what do you do if you handle PR for Stryker? You can't control the board. You only have a line of sight to the CEO. That's an interesting dilemma for a lot of companies. Increasingly, you have more independent boards that aren't in lockstep with management. They are another constituency that has an impact on reputation.

Barrett: Should a CEO or corporation take a view on moral or political issues?

Brady: Look at the Chick-fil-A incident (where president Dan Cathy was very public about his stance against gay marriage). I recently spoke to Bill Marriott, owner of Marriott International. The company happens to be one of the most progressive hotel chains when it comes to everything from packages for gay weddings to how they treat diverse employees. He's a devout Mormon, but he has a clear separation between his own personal beliefs and how he treats employees. He's very up-front about that. At the same time, he's never hidden the fact that, personally, he has deeply held convictions when it comes to something such as same-sex marriage.

He manages that challenge very well. Why? Because he's the leader of a large public company who wants to create a welcoming atmosphere for all his employees and customers. That's his job. When you don't make it clear that there's a distinction between your personal choices and your responsibilities as a leader, problems arise.

Barrett: There's obviously a global element to this discussion. Companies might have to adopt a different strategy in one area of the world than in another. Of course, with social media, it's harder to separate parts of the world.

Brady: A company's core values can't change when it comes to things such as fairness, transparency, and equal opportunity. For example, you can't have a different philosophy toward woman in a Muslim country than you have here because that would undermine you corporate brand.

Look at KFC, which is a fascinating study. Brands rise, brands fall, but you rarely have one that does both at the same time. KFC is a juggernaut in China and a brand that's doing very well globally, but it's been deteriorating in its home market for several years. It's hot in growing markets and its CEO is trying to do the right thing. But the question is: Can you be a global American brand when you're destroying your brand in your own backyard?

It's tricky. How you manage your brand at home – from the consumer experience to how you treat your partners – will ultimately impact it on a global level. Information shoots around the world at incredible speed now. You look at the world globally. Your customers do, too.

Stern (Palisades Media): We're much more of a human-capital economy than we were 25 years ago. Attracting and retaining employees is much more critical for companies.

Internal constituencies, employee constituencies, human capital constituencies are going to be increasingly important. Those are company driven, not brand driven.

Argenti (Tuck School): In looking at corporate brands versus product brands, both can work for organizations, but you must choose one. You can't have both.

Buonocore (Xylem): There is a natural fit for both. So while we lead with the product brands to sell, the corporate brand is what knits everything together. My hope is that we will build it enough that they will want to hitch the wagons to the star. But I'm with Paul in that you've got to pick one or the other, but they can work together. You can market product brands but still have a strong corporate brand that benefits that. That is the goal you're trying to achieve.

Adams (Wells Fargo): When I joined Wells Fargo it was all one company. But when you listen to our CEO John Stumpf, who has been with us for quite some time, he describes the three Wells Fargos. First, there's the bank. Then the merger with Norwest brought in the mortgage company and some of the other consumer lending businesses. That's the second Wells Fargo. Then the Wachovia acquisition, which spread across the country, added again to the consumer lending business. There's the third Wells Fargo.

I love the term “branded house” because we are very much that. We've brought in all these companies – in fact, there are 80 businesses within the company – but there's no question that it is Wells Fargo.

Buonocore (Xylem): Vickee touches on a point that's essential to corporations – storytelling, which is such a big part of how you build a brand and reputation because people can relate to it. And the point Michael made about legacy plays into this, as well, because part of that storytelling can involve people who came before the current leadership.

McCown (Solomon McCown): It's that thread of narrative that continues over time, irrespective of who is CEO or chairman of the board. The ability to have a consistent narrative is always there for one generation to see from another.

Content creation
Barrett (PRWeek):
How can content be used to drive genuine engagement and build corporate reputation?

Stern (Palisades Media): We're in a world in which people don't trust institutions – and I put the media in that category of institutions. They trust relationships, people they know, people they want to know, people who are part of circles. That means information from a lot of different sources can be valuable. That includes information created by companies. Most importantly, information created by companies in partnerships with others.

Coke provides a great example. It has relaunched its entire website. It has nothing to do with Coke. Rather, it has to do with the interests of its customers. That's an entirely new way of thinking. The Intel Innovation Economy Campaign, which was really a partnership between Intel, PBS NewsHour, and The Aspen Institute to talk about the innovation economy in the US, was not about Intel, per se, although Intel obviously sees itself as a leader in innovation economy. Both are examples of content that isn't really product driven.

Buonocore (Xylem): Even though there could be a credibility factor with information you create yourself, who knows more about your company than the people who work there? The content a company creates needs to be the most in-depth and important information for people to read it. And of course, you want to balance that with a journalist point of view.

There is also a role for every piece of the media. I am a big advertising fan. Obviously, PR is important to me, as is social media. But advertising, if done correctly, is a great way to connect and to control your message. Working in conjunction with earned media, paid media can be very effective.

Didda (Skanska): You have to create content in this day and age because of how the consumer decides to connect with brands and how they filter out what they want to read and how they're going to read it.

You have to be everywhere. In some audiences, credibility isn't an issue because they don't know better. They don't know what's written by a journalist or what's written by a mom behind a computer. They have their certain things they read every day or they have certain ways of engaging with a brand and a company. That's why it is crucial to create your own content.

Argenti (Tuck School): There's a danger in creating content, though, for commercial purposes. In other words, with the notion that you're selling something, rather than an authentic creator of content, which is what you should be doing. What often happens is that companies try to present this pristine image of themselves, but that's not who the company really is. The more companies can be authentic, the more the content will achieve.

Fleming (GSK): As important as the content is, it's equally vital to think about how, when, and where you engage. Is it genuine? Transparent? Believable? That's where new media has really forced companies to rethink how they handle themselves.

For GlaxoSmithKline, it's not just about communications or PR per se. We recently posted all of our clinical data online and committed to do that on a regular and timely basis. That is information we're putting out there for people to assess and then contact us if they have questions. That's been very important.

McCown (Solomon McCown): Good content creation starts with listening. You must understand what your advocates, stakeholders, and consumers think about your organization because communications is no longer a one-way relationship.

Sloane (Sloane): I have several clients in the natural gas industry. It's been a huge debate in this country about the resource and how is it taken out of the ground and what it does to the environment. For example, what chemicals are used in hydrofracking wells? There's all this debate about the terrible chemicals that are going in and poisoning the water.

So the industry put together its own site where they basically listed every well that's being drilled and the chemicals that are being used. I'm not sure it mollified the critics, but it was the industry's way of saying, “We have nothing to hide here.”

In good times, when there isn't a crisis, it's important for companies to have their own voice and compete against the somewhat-uninformed community that might not understand what a company is thinking about. It's a really important tool when you're in a crisis situation or when you're being attacked because it gives you the voice. You can't rely on The New York Times to effectively get your side of the story out there anymore.

Fleming (GSK): There are interesting organizational and resourcing implications around some of the things we've talked about. Some big organizations have traditionally been too comfortable sitting in their offices. Getting out there, as we've seen over the last couple of years, takes a lot of time and effort, but the reward is extraordinary because you learn a lot by listening.

Barrett (PRWeek): Content creation and social media go hand in hand. What has been social media's biggest impact on corporate reputation?

Argenti (Tuck School): Social media is not another channel. It's a complete revolution in how people communicate. Once you realize that, you understand the notion of controlling constituencies is a joke. When I first started teaching, you could say one thing to your employees and another externally and they'd never find out.

Today you really want to think about how to get more people into the tent to help you.

Think about energy, specifically from the perspective that we need more of it. By 2050, there isn't going to be enough energy. If we don't do fracking, do you have a better idea? There's nothing better than natural gas. If you want white paper, you've got to take brown trees and cleanse them with chemicals. There's just a reality about the way the world works, but that takes an ability to try and be a part of the conversation rather than marginalize people. That's what social media does.

Adams (Wells Fargo): Cue the banks and pharma. We recently launched a blog. Several of our communicators tweet regularly. Our social media group is sort of a hybrid between marketing and communications. As part of our issues and crisis management, it's critical we respond on Facebook when a customer posts something. When something is being tweeted about us, we're trying to respond within 10 seconds.

I also don't like the term “citizen journalism” because there are a lot of folks out there just picking up stuff from other outlets and posting it without any critical analysis, without touching the company, without any level of credibility. That is the most frustrating thing to me about social media because you honestly can't control it, but it can trigger so much that is wrong.

Murphy (Burson): The companies I work with are in heavily regulated industries. To not be able to respond quickly only feeds the problem, so content creation is great. There's also the play for marketing to come in. If you're creating the content, how are you marketing it? You must make sure it's authentic, but eyeballs also have to see it. The whole concept of search engine marketing and search engine optimization must feed into the content-creation equation. You can create a website, but if nobody can find it you're amiss. It becomes a one-off tactic that's not helpful.

Fleming (GSK): Several years back, we were the first US pharma company to launch a blog, More than Medicine. We have multiple Twitter handles and are active on Facebook.

For some time, companies in our industry were able to maintain Facebook pages that did not allow comments, which is antithetical to the whole point of social media and engagement. Then Facebook removed that ability and we had to decide whether we would continue on that platform because of the special regulatory situation for our industry where we can be held responsible if comments made about our products are promotional or not in line with product labeling. We felt it was important to stay and engage and made the decision to continue on Facebook, which required putting into place new processes for monitoring and responding.

We've actually gotten better from this. We have learned, developed a voice, and have also benefited from a reputation standpoint.

Sloane (Sloane): The companies that seem to manage the best are the ones that engage with consumers as best they can in real time. American Express does this well. It has a team of people that watches every possible Twitter message that might come in or looks at Facebook pages and responds in real time. That content is then shared with the communicators. It helps the company know what issues are percolating out there and whether something needs to be done beyond just handling it on the Web.

Measuring up
Barrett (PRWeek):
Can you measure corporate reputation? If so, what is the best way?

Buonocore (Xylem): It starts with asking and listening. You go to your key constituencies and you want to do some sort of baseline measurement wherever your starting point is. It helps to stratify your constituencies – policymakers versus shareholders versus employees versus analysts – because different messages will resonate with these audiences. You have to look through the lens of the audience you're speaking with.

Nobody has achieved perfection in this regard. We're much more focused on outcomes, but you still measure outputs because you want to see the circulation of the publications you're in. You want to look at the number of tweets you're generating. There is something around the volume, particularly around social media, of what are your conversations engaging. Overall, we're all getting a lot more interested in the outcomes, though those are much more difficult to measure than outputs.

Argenti (Tuck School): You can measure what your reputation is if you're willing to put the time and money into it. But will that convince a senior management team to make an investment in something? A lot of people will remain skeptical about what communications can and will do to affect the bottom line.

Barrett (PRWeek): Is share price a good enough measure?

Buonocore (Xylem): No. So many things contribute to the share price going up or down. You want to look at communications as one important aspect, but by no means the only one.

Sloane (Sloane): You can measure what investors are saying. We do audits. We talk to investors, analysts, media, and third parties. We generally engage in research when we're starting a project, whether it's attitudinal research across the board or very specific research, because you want a starting point. The only way to measure anything is to pinpoint where you start and where you end up after a given period of time.

It is very helpful for us, but it's still the toughest part of any new business conversation we have when we're asked, “How do I know I'm getting my value here?” We have to spend a lot of time and effort on these reputation programs with a measurement that is sort of imprecise. Perhaps there are ways of investing a lot of dollars in tracking this, but that's less attractive to the clients we work with.

Didda (Skanska): You can research anything and perhaps do it in a little more sophisticated way than 20 years ago, but you're still trying to figure out how to tie it back to what we did in our role as communications people. It's a nut we haven't cracked.

Fleming (GSK): I'll focus on employee engagement. You can discretely measure whether or not your employees feel proud about working for your company. If you believe your employees are critical tribunes for the company's reputation, then this is a very concrete way to go about measuring.

Are people willing to work with you? That's the big question for us. Deirdre Connelly, our US president, cited an example of a physician who recently called her saying that he now only sees GSK representatives because he learned of the company's patient-first approach to incentivizing them. That it's not based on prescription volume. That GSK measures the success of its representatives by whether or not they provide value to customers. That's an anecdote, but it's also a measurement. That resonates with senior leadership.

McCown (Solomon McCown): Skanska is an interesting example of building visibility over time. The company has built incredible value around its Five Zeros – Zero Loss; Zero Environmental Incidents; Zero Accidents; Zero Ethical Breaches; Zero Defects. I've seen that play out in media stories and seen it translated into what the CEO talks about on panels – and that has value. Pitfalls come when you're unwilling to do that or are unwilling to look at and listen to what the marketplace tells you.

Stern (Palisades Media): In communications, like any discipline, a lot of things we do don't move the needle, but you can't know that unless you go out and measure once, twice, three times.

The best companies are willing to measure over a long period of time and make judgments about what is important to them. However, the communications side is often vastly underfunded. That drives a lot of people to behave very differently and use substitute standards that we all recognize neither work nor matter. That's actually one of the biggest challenges for the communications field.

Adams (Wells Fargo): Wells Fargo believes in measurement a great deal. We measure customer satisfaction, customer engagement, employee engagement, any number of factors all the time. Of course, we rely on third-party vendors, so those of us who are in the more public pieces of the business are always pushing back on those vendors to question their measurement criteria.

Then there's the notion of measuring impressions. What does that really do? But the practice of measurement is really important. I've always liked the idea of starting with research in one place and then, at the end, seeing if you've moved the needle.

Murphy (Burson): Evidence-based communications is our value proposition. When we talk about impressions, it's the anecdote that is more powerful than the number of readers it draws. If a shareholder sees a story we put out there, that's powerful. As communicators, we need to do a better job focusing on measurement. We need to show that we're tracking success throughout a program, not just at the end.

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