When the vital sign of your company is strong and vibrant — namely its market value — you better believe stakeholders hold the company in high esteem. And when this is in distress? Chances are your company is taking a hit on its character.
That is a key conclusion of a Brand Health survey conducted by Zignal Labs in partnership with PRWeek. More than half of respondents (52%) report that at least half of a company’s market value can be attributed to reputation, while 91.9% feel that, at a minimum, a quarter of company’s market value is notably linked to this asset.
PRWeek interviewed four senior brand comms leaders who completed the survey. They say it is critical for corporate communicators to understand, measure, and effectively communicate to the C-suite about reputation and the role PR plays in helping to build and protect it.
Crediting it as a key reason Ford has remained a Fortune 500 company for 115 years, the automaker’s CCO Mark Truby says reputation extends well beyond the quality of products and services.
"It also encompasses how you treat your employees, the communities in which you work and live, and the environment, as well the honesty you demonstrate in your business practices," he says.
Some of this falls in the realm of CSR — which more than five out of six survey respondents (84.4%) believe to some degree has a tangible impact on a brand’s value. Nearly half of respondents (48%) said "very much so."
Ford partners with the Harris Poll on gauging reputation across stakeholders, including consumers, dealers, government officials, and journalists, globally. "It gives us a picture of what messages and ideas are breaking through, to whom, and where we’re not connecting," says Truby.
That attention to multiple audiences is important given how interconnected reputation has become across stakeholders, the pros agree.
The PR function at Mondelez International partners with investor relations and corporate departments "because the socially responsible investor is now every investor," says Russell Dyer, VP of global comms for the company, which includes snack brands such as Cadbury, Oreo, and Ritz. "We also partner closely with HR in socializing our reputation story because employees want to work for a company that is admired and cares about more than just profits."
"Our audience has become much bigger for our reputation story," he adds.
When the survey asked respondents to pick a stakeholder group whose sentiments were most important to how an organization should evaluate its brand health, not surprisingly 78% of them put consumers among their top three. But employees were very close behind at 70%.
All four brand leaders spoke to PRWeek about the increasing emphasis their groups are putting on tactics to help employees tell the corporate reputational story.
Dyer says Mondelez is about "to launch a global employee advocacy program to help employees tell their stories with honesty and in a personal way. We think this will not only be a reputation driver externally with consumers and other key stakeholders, but also internally so that our colleagues are familiar with our story and progress."
Many PR people inherently understand turning employees into brand ambassadors is critical to building and protecting reputation, as well as other initiatives they might undertake. Now with new data capabilities available to them, PR functions are backing their investment choices using metrics that resonate with the C-suite.
H&R Block overhauled how it measures PR after its 2017 tax preparation campaign.
"We had generated 2.2 billion impressions," reports director of external communications Susan Waldron. "But the number left us scratching our heads and asking, ‘So what?’, because we couldn’t use this number to explain the value of the campaign in business metrics that matter to executives."
(Nearly three-quarters of respondents [74%] admit they have room to improve in demonstrating measurable outcomes to the C-suite.)
Developing a new approach after consulting with business leaders across the company, H&R Block’s comms team now categorizes every piece of content to overall company objectives and to one of three stages in the marketing/customer sales journey it is supporting. The sales journey starts with "awareness," followed by "likeability," and "seriously consider."
At the end of the funnel, earned and owned content is measured by the number of software downloads and appointments made by consumers 24 hours after having seen it. Likeability metrics, meanwhile, include the number of people who visited the H&R Block website after viewing PR content, while awareness markers include share of voice in earned media versus its competitive set.
"With this past tax season being the first with more meaningful metrics, those in the C-suite were sitting up in their chairs and had a lot more questions," says Waldron. "People know comms is important, but now to see a direct line to the business at every point in the customer sales journey was huge. I feel like listening went up 100%."
By tagging every piece of PR content, the function is building predictive analysis by identifying commonalities of top-performing content, from media outlet to headlines and type of content. While the new metrics model is not a perfect science, she explains, "We can slice and dice it in so many different ways. We can narrow in on what is and isn’t working. We’re finding it validates some things we had expected, but also helping us learn what needs to improve."
The majority of the Brand Health survey respondents (78.6%) lack full confidence in their current data capabilities to offer real-time descriptive analysis. Worse still, 90.8% of them said the same of their capabilities in real-time predictive analysis, meaning their ability to foresee a certain outcome as a result of an action. (Further still, 42.2% reported a particular lack of confidence by answering "not very" or "not at all.")
"We now have data coming in through so many channels," says Joe Cohen, CCO at Axis Capital. "Overall, this is a good problem to have, but we must work harder to identify insights and patterns when we’re combing through what can feel like a sea of information."
To that end, the specialty insurance and reinsurance provider has created a reputation index of the company, which tracks the correlation of corporate reputation with business performance, using tactics such as internal and external brand equity studies and stakeholder engagement surveys. Now the company relentlessly tracks its performance "while constantly looking for patterns and insights," says Cohen.
This includes in the area of crisis response.
"You can measure the impact of your reputation at all points during a crisis — before, during, and after — so that you can more deeply understand the short and long-term effects of the incident," he continues. This also helps collect data for predictive analysis around future crises.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents (72.8%) say they are not as ready as they should be to react to an unexpected crisis at a moment’s notice. As well, 91.3% said the ability to attain, analyze, and act upon real-time data has a direct impact on a brand’s ability to react effectively to an unexpected crisis, with 39.9% answering "very much" to that.
AI: boon or threat?
While companies may be struggling at the moment with the sheer volume of data, could it eventually be funnelled into artificial intelligence systems that automate the PR function?
Truby predicts AI will be a boon that will help improve PR outputs, but not replace PR pros — putting him in agreement with 90.8% of the survey respondents.
"Similar to the way in which [a movie-streaming company] might be using it to determine the image of a show it features on its app, you could have three different videos of a [certain car], and AI could tell us which one will perform best and at what time of day and to which target audience," he says.
Cohen also believes it could help automate administrative tasks, such as social listening, rumor tracking, and media analysis that still requires human involvement in order to truly be done accurately. The result: more time and resources are freed for PR pros to focus on higher-value work.
"These are areas where I believe AI and machine learning cannot and should not replace human involvement, particularly as it relates to the strategic and creative processes," he insists. "At its heart, comms is a relationship business. Managing those should not be delegated to robots."
PRWeek partnered with Zignal Labs on this survey, which was completed by a total of 173 senior-level communications leaders (representing PR agencies and brands). The online survey, programmed by C.A. Walker Research Solutions, was conducted between April 3 and May 4, 2018.